Skip to main content
Podcast Episode: Antitrust/Pro-Internet

EFFector - Volume 13, Issue 2 - 10th Anniversary of USSS Raid on Steve Jackson Games & Illuminati BBS


EFFector - Volume 13, Issue 2 - 10th Anniversary of USSS Raid on Steve Jackson Games & Illuminati BBS

   EFFector       Vol. 13, No. 2       Mar. 1, 2000
   A Publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation     ISSN 1062-9424
  IN THE 150th ISSUE OF EFFECTOR (now with over 23,000 subscribers!):
     * 10th Anniversary of USSS Raid on Steve Jackson Games & Illuminati
          + Intro
          + Background
          + Links to More Information
     * Call for Nominations: The Ninth Annual International EFF Pioneer
          + Intro
          + The Year 2000 Awards
          + How to Nominate Someone
          + Past Pioneers of the Electronic Frontier
          + About EFF
     * Administrivia
   For more information on EFF activities & alerts:
10th Anniversary of USSS Raid on Steve Jackson Games & Illuminati BBS

  Landmark case established limits to police power in Cyberspace
   On March 1, 1990, the United States Secret Service (USSS) nearly
   destroyed Steve Jackson Games (SJG), an award-winning publisher of
   roleplaying games in Austin, Texas.
   Today marks ten years to the day since that fateful search and seizure
   operation, which led to one of the most important precedent-setting
   lawsuits in online history, the Electronic Frontier Foundation-backed
   case of Steve Jackson Games, et al. v. US Secret Service.
   "I'm very glad to see that the EFF is still here with us and and
   fighting the good fight. Back in 1990, [EFF co-founders] Mitch Kapor
   and John Perry Barlow said that this new organization would be in it
   for the long haul. After ten years, I think we can see that this's
   true," remarked Steve Jackson on the anniversary of the infamous raid.
   "The EFF is a permanent part of the civil liberties landscape.
   Technology is changing faster than ever, bringing new opportunities,
   but new hazards to freedom and fairness as well. It's good to know the
   EFF will always be here when it's needed."
   In an early morning raid with an unlawful and unconstitutional
   warrant, agents of the USSS conducted a search of the SJG office. They
   seized and removed, all in all, 3 computers, 5 hard disks and more
   than 300 floppies of software and data, and a book manuscript being
   prepared for publication. Among this equipment was the hardware and
   software of the SJG-operated Illuminati BBS (bulletin board system).
   The BBS served as a small-scale online service for gamers to
   participate in online discussions and to supply customer feedback to
   SJG. The BBS (today, the Internet service provide Illuminati Online)
   was also the repository of private electronic mail belonging to
   several of its users. This private e-mail was seized in the raid.
   Yet Jackson, his business, and his BBS's users were not only innocent
   of any crime, but never suspects in the first place. The raid had been
   staged on the unfounded (and later proven false) suspicion that
   somewhere in Jackson's office there "might be" a document allegedly
   compromising the security of the 911 telephone system.
   The Secret Service did not return the equipment, though legally
   required to do so and requested to do so many times, until sometime in
   the end of June of that year. When the equipment was returned more
   than three months after the raid, it became clear that someone at the
   USSS inspecting the disks had read and DELETED all of the 162
   electronic mail messages contained on the BBS at the time of the raid.
   Not one of the users of the BBS was even under investigation by the
   Secret Service, and many of the messages had never even been read by
   their intended recipients.
   In the months that followed the raid, Jackson saw the business he had
   built up over many years dragged to the edge of bankruptcy. SJG was a
   successful and prestigious publisher of books and other materials used
   in adventure role-playing games. Jackson had to layoff nearly half of
   his work force. Publication of at least one of his gaming books was
   delayed, resulting in loss of revenues to the company. He was written
   up in Business Week magazine as being a computer criminal. Jackson
   decided to fight back.
   On May 1, 1991, Steve Jackson, the Steve Jackson Games company, and
   three users of the Illuminati BBS, with the help of the Electronic
   Frontier Foundation, filed a civil suit against the United States
   Secret Service and some indivdually named agents thereof, alleging
   that the search warrant used during the raid was insufficient, since
   Steve Jackson Games was a publisher (publishers enjoy special
   protection under the Privacy Protection Act [PPA] of 1980), and that
   the protections against improper surveillance in the Electronic
   Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) had been violated with regard to the
   electronic mail on the system.
   ECPA consists of a series of amendments to the federal Wiretap Act. It
   prohibits law enforcement officers from intentionally intercepting,
   using and/or disclosing the contents of private electronic
   communications without a warrant. The statute offers similar privacy
   protection for communications that are stored "incidental to the
   electronic transmission thereof" (e.g. on the hard drive of a BBS).
   The users of the Illuminati board claimed that their unread e-mail
   required a warrant specifically describing the messages to be
   searched. The Secret Service claimed that no special warrant was
   required under ECPA - in essence asking the court for license to go on
   uncontrolled "fishing expeditions" through citizens' private
   communications, in violation of Fourth Amendment principles. The court
   sided with Jackson and the other plaintiffs, berating USSS Agent Tim
   Foley - on the witness stand - for 15 minutes straight.
   According to Mike Godwin, EFF Senior Policy Fellow, "the Steve Jackson
   Games case was the first case to underscore the intersection between
   civil liberties and the Internet. Our victory in that case sent a
   signal to the law-enforcement community that the days of unregulated
   searches and seizures of computers, and shut-downs of online
   publishers, were over."
   The judge's official decision was announced on March 12, 1993.
   District Judge Sam Sparks awarded more than $50,000 in damages to
   Steve Jackson Games, citing lost profits and violations of the PPA. In
   addition, the judge awarded each BBS-user plaintiff $1,000 under the
   Electronic Communications Privacy Act for the USSS seizure of their
   stored electronic mail. The judge also ruled that plaintiffs would be
   reimbursed for their attorneys' fees. Plaintiffs filed an appeal,
   seeking to hold the USSS liable for "interception" in addition to
   "seizure" of the e-mail, on the grounds that e-mail still "in transit"
   if it has not yet been received by its recipients. This clarifying
   appeal was not successful, as the appellate court held, on a
   technicality, that "in transit" essentially means only "in transit,
   momentarily, across communication wires", not "in transit, by whatever
   medium, between sender and recipient". But the case remains a victory,
   establishing that at the very least, "stored" e-mail cannot be seized,
   examined or destroyed with impunity by law enforcement officers, and
   affirming, by clarifying the meaning of "in transit", that e-mail
   cannot be eavesdropped upon by police as it is being transmitted from
   system to system without a proper warrant.
   "It's hard to imagine, but the raid on Steve Jackson Games took place
   years before the World Wide Web even existed. Ten years may not seem
   like much, but it's an eternity in 'Internet time' The SJG case is
   still cited as the seminal precedent explaining the Electronic
   Communications Privacy Act. It was exciting being a part of it,"
   commented Shari Steele, then Director of Legal Services at EFF when
   the SJG case came to its conclusion. (Steele is presently Co-Director
   of the allied nonproft organization Digital Bridges).
   Godwin added: "The most important factors in our success in the case
   were Steve Jackson's courage and determination, the resolve of Mitch
   Kapor and other EFF backers to go the distance, and a excellent and
   committed legal team."
   Representing the plaintiffs in this suit were Harvey A. Silverglate
   and Sharon L. Beckman of Silverglate & Good (Boston, MA); Eric
   Lieberman and Nick Poser of Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky &
   Lieberman (New York, NY); and James George, Jr. of Graves, Dougherty,
   Hearon & Moody (Austin, TX).
    Links to More Information
   Steve Jackson Games:
   Illuminati Online:
   The Electronic Frontier Foundation:
   EFF's SJG Case Archive:
   US Secret Service:
Seeking Pioneers of the Electronic Frontier

  Call for Nominations:
  The Ninth Annual International EFF Pioneer Awards
   Please redistribute this notice in appropriate fora.
   In every field of human endeavor, there are those dedicated to
   expanding knowledge, freedom, efficiency, and utility. Many of today's
   brightest innovators are working along the electronic frontier. To
   recognize these leaders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
   established the Pioneer Awards for deserving individuals and
   The Pioneer Awards are international and nominations are open to all.
   The deadline for nominations this year is March 15, 2000 (see
   nomination criteria and instructions below).
    The Year 2000 Awards
   The Ninth Annual EFF Pioneer Awards will be presented in Toronto,
   Canada, at the 10th Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (see The ceremony will be held on the evening of
   April 6, 2000. All nominations will be reviewed by a panel of judges
   chaired by Dave Farber, FCC Chief Technologist and long time EFF
   Boardmember, and chosen for their knowledge of the technical, legal,
   and social issues associated with information technology.
   This year's EFF Pioneer Awards judges are:
     * Herb Brody (Senior Editor, Technology Review)
     * Dave Farber (Chief Technologist, FCC; Boardmember, EFF)
     * Moira Gunn (Host, "Tech Nation", NPR)
     * Larry Irving (CEO,
     * Tara Lemmey (Executive Director, EFF)
     * Peter G. Neumann (Principal Scientist, SRI Intl. Computer Science
       Lab; Moderator, ACM Risks Forum)
     * Susan H. Nycum (Partner, Baker & McKenzie)
     * Drazen Pantic (NYU Center for War, Peace, & the News Media)
     * Barbara Simons (President, ACM)
    How to Nominate Someone
   There are no specific categories for the EFF Pioneer Awards, but the
   following guidelines apply:
    1. The nominees must have made a substantial contribution to the
       health, growth, accessibility, or freedom of computer-based
    2. The contribution may be technical, social, economic, or cultural.
    3. Nominations may be of individuals, systems, or organizations in
       the private or public sectors.
    4. Nominations are open to all, and you may nominate more than one
       recipient. You may nominate yourself or your organization.
    5. All nominations, to be valid, must contain your reasons, however
       brief, for nominating the individual or organization, along with a
       means of contacting the nominee, and your own contact number.
       Anonymous nominations will be allowed, but we prefer to be able to
       contact the nominating parties in the event that we need further
    6. Every person or organization, with the exception of EFF staff and
       board members, is eligible for an EFF Pioneer Award.
    7. Persons or representatives of organizations receiving an EFF
       Pioneer Award will be invited to attend the ceremony at the
       Foundation's expense.
   You may send as many nominations as you wish, but please use one
   e-mail per nomination. Submit all entries to:
   Just tell us:
    1. The name of the nominee;
    2. The phone number or e-mail address at which the nominee can be
       reached; and, most importantly,
    3. Why you feel the nominee deserves the award;
   You may attach supporting documentation in Microsoft Word or other
   standard binary formats.
    Past Pioneers of the Electronic Frontier
   1992: Douglas C. Engelbart, Robert Kahn, Jim Warren, Tom Jennings, and
   Andrzej Smereczynski; 1993: Paul Baran, Vinton Cerf, Ward Christensen,
   Dave Hughes and the USENET software developers, represented by the
   software's originators Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis; 1994: Ivan
   Sutherland, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, Murray Turoff and
   Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Lee Felsenstein, Bill Atkinson, and the WELL;
   1995: Philip Zimmermann, Anita Borg, and Willis Ware; 1996: Robert
   Metcalfe, Peter Neumann, Shabbir Safdar and Matthew Blaze; 1997: Marc
   Rotenberg, Johan "Julf" Helsingius, and (special honorees) Hedy Lamarr
   and George Antheil; 1998: Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and
   Barbara Simons; 1999: Jon Postel, Drazen Pantic, and Simon Davies.
   See for further information.
    About EFF
   The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( is a global
   nonprofit organization linking technical architectures with legal
   frameworks to support the rights of individuals in an open society.
   Founded in 1990, EFF actively encourages and challenges industry and
   government to support free expression, privacy, and openness in the
   information society. EFF is a member-supported organization and
   maintains one of the most-linked-to Web sites in the world.
   EFFector is published by:
   The Electronic Frontier Foundation
   1550 Bryant St., Suite 725
   San Francisco CA 94103-4832 USA
   +1 415 436 9333 (voice)
   +1 415 436 9993 (fax)
   Editor: Stanton McCandlish, Communications Coordinator/Webmaster
   Membership & donations:
   General EFF, legal, policy or online resources queries:
   Reproduction of this publication in electronic media is encouraged.
   Signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of EFF. To
   reproduce signed articles individually, please contact the authors for
   their express permission. Press releases and EFF announcements may be
   reproduced individually at will.
   To subscribe to EFFector via email, send message BODY of:
   subscribe effector-online
   to, which will add you to a subscription list for
   EFFector. To unsubscribe, send a similar message body, like so:
   unsubscribe effector-online
   to the same address.
   Please ask to manually add you to or remove you
   from the list if this does not work for some reason.
   Back issues are available at:
   To get the latest issue, send any message to (or, and it will be mailed to
   you automagically. You can also get:

Back to top

JavaScript license information