Mitch Kapor & John Barlow Interview by David Gans with Ken Goffman August 5, 1990
On the Electronic Frontier
Space may be the final frontier, but there's at least one more earthbound arena for the social-political-economic-technological struggle to take place before we need to worry about Martian mineral rights and the exploitation of Betelgeusian guest workers.
The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights were created in the era of hand-set type, before the telegraph or the telephone or the broadcast media. Each new wave of technology has pushed at the boundaries of liberty and tugged at the coattails of authority by enabling more rapid and comprehensive dissemination of information and thereby throwing more light on the workings of government, business, etc.
I suspect "freedom" has always been for the elites of America, since (for example) the Emancipation Proclamation left enough work undone that a generation of well-heeled and well-educated white people found it necessary to head into the American South a century later to face the axe-handles and fire hoses of sheriffs and governors in an effort to make real what America's laws had only made "official."
It is only now, three dozen years into an unbelievably misery-free existence on Earth, that I have acquired even a glimmer of understanding of the struggles faced by southern blacks, my ancestors in Europe, and countless others throughout history. I have a hard time with the idea that the particular species of vegetable in my pocket could, if found by the wrong person, land me in jail and lose me my property. That's been technically true for quite some time, but only in the last few years has that particular river of darkness come close enough to my door to cause me concern.
Now it's my disk drive.
The advent of personal computers and modems, coupled with the immense penetration of the telephone network, threatens the hegemony of the government/corporate paradigm by empowering millions of individuals. Desktop communication in the '90s makes it virtually unnecessary to "publish" "revolutionary" documents in the old sense of the word, because information can be propagated across thousands of miles in all directions in a matter of moments and there is no way to stop it from happening short of dismantling the entire telephone system. This genie can never be put back in the bottle -- but that has not discouraged the Enforcement Community from doing its saurian best to try.
I have yet to encounter any seditious documents in my admittedly limited travels through the electronic frontier, but we're living in a world that attempts to suppress the use of certain words, herbs, images, ideas, and so on, and I'm pretty certain that my understanding of "dangerous" is pretty different from that of Authority in its many guises. Just one ridiculous f'rinstance: I host a weekly radio program in Berkeley; if the word "fuck" comes up -- even as a line of dialog in a song -- I am required by station management to bleep it lest they face reprimand or even the possibility of shutdown by the federal government.
But that's nothing compared to some of the other shit that's gone down lately. Case in point: Presentation of a set of negatives at a lab in San Francisco earlier this year led to storm troopers raiding the homes of photographer Jock Sturges and his lab assistant and the total destruction of Sturges' stash of a discontinued printing paper, the seizure of his entire archive, harassment of his customers, etc. -- without the filing of any charges whatsoever -- on "suspicion" of child pornography; this is the legacy of Edwin Meese. This material was not published, nor was it intended to be published; nor, according to the American Society of Magazine Photographers and others who have spoken out in the media, is the material that triggered the raid anywhere close to the edge of acceptability (whatever the fuck that means in a country that advertises freedom of expression).
Acting on requests from certain corporations, government agencies such as the FBI and the Secret Service have raided businesses and the homes of private citizens -- including suburban teenagers -- and seized tremendous numbers of computers and related items, armed with warrants whose language is vague because even when the government knows what it's looking for, it often has no idea what it's looking at. It's analogous to removing an entire room full of file cabinets because of one suspicious folder. The enemy is ignorance, and the ignorant are making us their enemy.
This is why I found myself at sunset on a beautiful July day on the deck of a home overlooking Silicon Valley, participating in a good-natured but urgent gathering around the two founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The genesis of their alliance began with an arguably pointless act: some person or persons, probably an employee of Apple computer, "liberated" a piece of Macintosh operating code and sent it -- over the signature of "NuPrometheus League" -- to a number of industry figures, including Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitch Kapor. Kapor was unimpressed by the "gift," whose arrival on a floppy disk seemed unlikely to amount to anything more political or otherwise significant than an attempt to infect his computer with a virus.
John Barlow, a journalist specializing in technology who is working on a book tentatively titled Everything We Know Is Wrong, did not receive a floppy disk from NuPrometheus, but because he attended the fifth Hackers conference in October 1989 he received a visit from an agent of the FBI with regard to NuPrometheus -- only Agent Baxter referred to it as "New Prosthesis" and evinced a woefully inadequate grasp of the matter he was investigating.
"He referred to them as the New Prosthesis League," Barlow told the assembly, to general laughter. "He was looking for something called 'the ROM Code.' He didn't know what a ROM chip was, he didn't know what code was, he didn't know whether it had been stolen or what exactly had happened or whatever it was.
"And I realized that what we were looking at there was a microcosm of a whole set of things that could now begin to happen with the government and with society and computers. And it was just a little pinpoint of future shock that was going to blow up into something big and ugly if we weren't very careful about how it got managed.
"A few days later I found out that this process was well under way in the Secret Service," Barlow continued. "They had come up with something called Operation Sun Devil and they were breaking into the homes of teenage kids, rousting them up in the middle of the night, coming along with guns, sledgehammers -- and, I assumed, no more knowledge of the situation than Agent Baxter had when he showed up in Pinedale."
"It's simply beyond the reach or grasp of 99.9% of the people today" Kapor added, "given the relative immaturity of the technology and the fact that there hasn't been a concerted effort made from within the industry and the academic research community to make the stuff usable. And if it's not made usable, there's going to be an increasing gulf between the information haves and the have-nots.
"That's what led us to the whole metaphor of the 'electronic frontier.' All of the good stuff that we know about is sufficiently difficult that only a few pioneers, some outlaws, maybe a few vigilantes, and early settlers, are comfortable.
"Out on the frontier, there aren't established laws or practices," Kapor continued. "We're making it up as we go along. But ultimately we've got to civilize the frontier. We have to allow ordinary folks to come and settle. We need to build the equivalent of railroads, because if we don't take the lead in doing it and it kind of happens by itself, it's probably not going to come out in a way that any of us really like it."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation began when Kapor, after reading (in the Well) an article Barlow had written about his visit from Agent Baxter, visited Barlow in Wyoming one afternoon. "We realized that there was a not so much planned and concerted effort to subvert the Constitution," said Barlow, "but the natural process that takes place whenever there are people who are afraid and ignorant and issues that are ambiguous regarding Constitutional rights.
"Whenever there's a new medium, there's always a struggle to find out whether the Constitution is going to apply to that medium, whether or not the first amendment will apply. There's now a struggle under way to find out whether free speech can be expressed in bytes and bits. And that's basically what the Electronic Frontier Foundation is about.
"We're looking at a whole range of things dealing with future shock, the anxiety of society at large toward computers, the particular anxiety of society at large toward [hackers], and what I like to call the learning curve of Sisyphus -- which is what happens when you've got a technology that develops faster than anybody's ability to learn it."
Shortly after the EFF reception in Silicon Valley, R. U. Sirius and I met with Barlow and Kapor for an extensive interview to learn more about their backgrounds and their plans.
- David Gans
Barlow: What happened is very straightforward, up to a point. On Mayday I got a visit from the FBI. I got this phone call from Agent Baxter down in Rock Springs. I was mystified, and there was something about the way he sounded over the phone that made me think he was mystified. I said, "What do you want to talk to me about?" and he said, "I'll tell you when I get there. I've got a stack of papers." And he did have a stack of papers.... that related to something called the NuPrometheus League, which was purportedly a group -- more likely not a group -- of people who had taken a little snippet of Apple's ROM code for the Macintosh and had sent it to, among other people, Mitch -- and MacWeek and ... I think they put a copy of it on the bulletin board at MIT....
Apple, which basically sells ROM code -- I mean, it's commonly thought l machinery, but what it sells is the software that's on the ROM chip inside that machinery, and that's the holy mojo that makes a Macintosh a Macintosh -- Apple freaked when that happened, and they invoked the awesome forces of the FBI -- which, for reasons having to do with corporate culture and their private security company, could act almost as though it were an extension of their security company because there is a revolving-door policy between the FBI and ... Apple's security contractor. [ ... ] Gans: The person or persons who call themselves the NuPrometheus League sent this piece of code out to a bunch of people, including yourself. Why did they do that and what was it?
Kapor: I don't have the faintest idea why they sent it to me [laughter]. I just stuck the thing in the drawer, because it was an unlabeled diskette and I figured it was something funny and I didn't know what to think about it. I was afraid of viruses and getting infected.
Barlow: [laughing] A disk says "Apple Source Code" on it, you know it's kind of like, "put me on your computer."
Kapor: Several days later I said, well, let me go check this out. I took a machine that had nothing of value on it and I took it off the network, in case it was infected, and I stuck the disk in, because just sticking a disk into a machine on a Mac is sufficient for a clever virus to infect your machine.
When you put the disk in you get a little icon on the screen, it's an ie that looks something like a disk and it has a label, and it does say "Macintosh ROM Source Code." I figured to myself, "Ah, it must be a virus. [laughter] This is a come-on to get me to open it up." So took it out of the machine and I put it away. I've been around too long to fall for that one.
But then the story hit the papers that somebody, through some means, had actually taken a small and not terribly important piece of the source code for what is called 8-bit color QuickDraw and sent it out. And I looked at it again, this time long enough -- about five minutes -- to determine that it certainly looked like Apple source code. At that point I didn't know what to do, so I called up my attorney and said, "What am I supposed to do with this thing?" He said, "Send it back to Apple if that's what they want." So I sent it back to Apple, and I thought that was the end of it. Then several months later I got a call from the FBI. It was actually before John's visit.
Gans: Did you guys already know each other?
Barlow: Yeah. We'd met through the good offices of Mary Eisenhart, who had me interview Mitch for MicroTimes back in February. We became friends in the the first 30 seconds or so; it was a sort of one of those cosmic recognition experiences where you realize there is somebody else that is thinking some of the peculiar thoughts that you had previously thought that were yours alone -- coming at it from a completely different vector, but arriving at something like the same set of unusual conclusions.
Kapor: We're both interested in dislocations of consciousness, because we think that's a central element to understanding how weird the world is: to understand how everybody's mind has gotten genuinely bent, especially by technology, especially by digital media. John is in the process of writing a book about this, and it's something that I'm absolutely fascinated with. We also had a common set of experiences in the '60s -- involving what In I speak to straight business audiences, charitably refer to as recreational chemicals -- that really I think contributed to a fundamental outlook --
Gans: The olde acid heads' league...
Barlow: Right! You got it, buster.
We're talking about that dislocation that occurs when an entire societys up and finds that it doesn't know where it is and it doesn't know how anything works anymore and doesn't understand things like place and embodiment and community and a whole number of fairly standard, nurturing concepts that have managed to provide for us since the Neolithic that are suddenly basically gone.
Kapor: John's one-sentence definition of cyberspace is "the place you are when you are on the telephone" -- which brings it home to people.
Barlow: It's kind of like what happens when you leave the landscape and move onto the map -- which is what much of society is doing, without paying that much attention to the process or the destination. And Mitch and I had had the same perception of the direction of things.
Gans: Mitch, you have gone from [being an acid head] in the '60s to being one of the new heroes of digital capitalism these days. What's the view like from there? You're playing with those guys on a certain level and keeping this consciousness from another level; it's gotta be somewhat jarring to you from time to time.
Kapor: It's important to understand that before I was a digital capitalist I used to teach meditation, and then I was a counselor in the psych unit of a local community hospital, which was a formative experience. I have a Master's degree in counseling psychology. So I've been pretty much all over the map. I just kind of fell into computers; I didn't set out to be Bill Gates -- Bill Gates set out to be Bill Gates -- my perspective was really never totally shaped by needing to succeed in building a big company and making a lot of money. In a nutshell, I started this little company called Lotus and made this software product that several million people wound up buying, and this little company turned into this enormous thing with thousands of employees making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And it was awful. It felt awful to me, personally. So I left. I just walked away one day.
Gans: In what way did it feel awful?
Kapor: The things that were important to the business as an organism were things that I could demonstrate less and less enthusiasm for. And I'm interested in figuring out, among other things, how to design software and how to design digital media to do interesting, innovative, creative new things -- products that people can use. And what Lotus had to be interested in in order to serve the interests of its three million spreadsheet customers were things that had nothing to do with that.
Gans: Did it occur to you when you walked away from that that you were essentially turning that large capitalist organism loose to do its will and thereby...
Barlow: It was already a lot bigger than he was.
Gans: But I'm wondering, if your values were somewhat offended by it, if there wasn't a way to sort of turn it?
Barlow: You're still stuck in the notion that people run these things and that they don't have some method of running themselves.
Gans: Well don't you think they ought to?
Barlow: I don't think they can.
Kapor: John has pointed out that it's the height of grandiosity to assume that any one person -- even the CEO of a company -- has more of an ability to steer the company than its three million customers.
Barlow: What companies become is their market and not their maker. And Lotus is a beautiful case in point. So to say that Mitch could have somehow directed Lotus in some benign condition is like assuming a coral polyp can run a reef.... It's a collective organism.
Gans: How is it being driven?
Kapor: It's not. That's the first thing that John and I keyed in on: that we have this assumption that because something exists and it moves it has some central controller, some little homunculus inside it that makes the thing go. But physics is dead as a model for organizations, and biology is in the ascendant. And if you study biology, things are very decentralized, distributed. You get emergent behaviors coming out of the workings of a whole bunch of little pieces, each one of which is pretty dumb, and organizations are like that. Still and all, I agonized over my responsibilities toward Lotus before .
And I had gotten to be extremely unhappy there as I saw the company's destiny and my destiny diverging and I had to ask myself, well maybe it was appropriate to be miserable and unhappy because I had some obligation to steer the thing to some better future.
Barlow: It's like a co-dependent relationship with a company.
Kapor: I ultimately decided that it was my belief that the company was going to become what it was going to become, shaped by market and technology forces that I really couldn't control, and that I could make myself miserable and be unsuccessful at the same time. And that didn't really seem even for someone with my predilections to be a good set of tradeoffs. So at that point I said "Well, I just have to do what I have to do and be prepared to live with the consequences," and I quit.
Barlow: By the way, to back up for a second, there is this lingering assumption that there is some disjuncture between being a digital pioneer and being an acid head. And it's my perception on the basis of having interviewed a lot of the first wave that this is not an uncommon phenomenon at all. I think most of them have been beat up a little bit by the circumstances that they had to ride through and you know a lot of them -- I can think of one guy in particular at the moment who just basically wants to take care of his family.
Gans: What about the reaction of old corporate America against new corporate America?
Barlow: Well, the reaction of old corporate America to new corporate America is to meet it, to infect it with itself, and to create -- through the use of itself as a market -- a perfect replica of what was preexisting. So the difference between Lotus today and any other standardized American corporate entity is pretty slender, I think.
Gans: Well, isn't Apple sort of becoming like GM in a way?
Barlow: Oh, I think Apple's a lot worse than GM, because Apple is still clinging to a lot of mythology about what it is that just gets in the way. I mean if Apple could just kind of settle in and be GM or be Lotus or be one of these things, everybody there would be a lot happier.
Kapor: It lacks the comfort and self-assurance of a mature organization which no matter how much you might disagree with its values has a certain degree of predictability. Therefore if you're on the outside of it you can adapt to it. Younger organizations that are still in the throes of violent organizational psychoses become very unpredictable.
Barlow: It's as though the Cultural Revolution were being conducted by people in three-piece suits. Furthermore, any corporation, because of the intensity of the reality distortion field of the collective organism that is a large corporate entity, has a totalitarian quality. You have to put up with that if you want to work in there, and there are reasons to do it. But one of the reasons to do it is because it's supposed to be safe in there, right? You give up your mind but you get the benefit of the collective immune system, which will protect you against the slings and arrows of individual fortune, anyway. The thing with IBM, for example, which is a pretty good case, they rarely fire anybody and their retirement plan is beautiful. They take care of their employees, they don't let them say everything they might think or even think everything they might say. But they take care of them. Apple exercises much the same kind of totalitarian control over its employees and offers them none of the benefits. They have no retirement plan, period.
Kapor: What they do is offer the vision of really trying to do something to make a difference in the world, which used to be much more true than it is today. There are enormous pressures in large organizations to get people to buy into the party line that are so pernicious that in a very big company you may have an atmosphere which is largely crazy and have individual islands of sanity. But when you leave your island of sanity -- when you walk across the street from your building out into the courtyard -- you start feeling crazy, if you're sane, because everybody else is crazy. And you go, "There must be something wrong with me. Everybody else is acting differently". So the pressures to adapt and to get crazy like everybody else are absolutely intense and you have to be sympathetic to individuals caught up in this who may have mortgage payments and they're not really prepared to give up the house, and... It's tragic.
Gans: So who benefits?
Kapor: Well the tragedy is nobody really benefits.
Barlow: This is more like an ecological thing. That's kind of like saying, "What good are mosquitoes?" Well, mosquitoes arise because there was room for them in the ecology; corporations arose because there was an ecological niche in the economy that was provided by a lot of things including modern telecommunications, Taylor's scientific management techniques, organizational models that came as a result of having fought two fascist powers 40 years ago and come to resemble them in many respects [laughs] as a country.
Kapor: So again, an assumption that if bad things are happening somebody is making it happen and benefiting from it is a model that is not always useful.
Gans: I'm not asking who's doing it, I'm asking who's benefiting from it.
Kapor: Fair question. There are incrementalized benefits all along the way. If you are a senior manager in one of these big firms you get a lot of perks. You've got a lot of a certain kind of power, especially the power to make other people miserable. There's a security benefit for people in those organizations in the mature form. There's a benefit for outside critics that these things exist, 'cause it gives them something to point at and say, "Gee, this shit is really awful!"
Barlow: Not to mention inside critics who can spend all of their lives complaining about the bureaucracy of their organization and not having to think about the real stuff like man's place in the universe or whatever.
Gans: We still end up with powerful incentives not to rock the boat.
Goffman: Didn't George Bush say uncertainty is the enemy?
Barlow: Oh, well that's a perfect corporate statement, because in my perception dealing with corporations -- and this is especially true if you come at em as an environmentalist, because what they see in environmentalism almost invariably is a great potential for uncertainty. And a corporation hatesuncertainty more than any other thing.
Kapor: There's a natural conservatism to its collective organisms.
Barlow: They don't like ambiguity.
Gans: How do you end up here, still thinking for yourself?
Kapor: I can't help it...
Barlow: This brings us back to EFF, really, because when the FBI came to visit me, Agent Baxter shows up and when he arrives he doesn't know what a ROM chip is and he doesn't know what ROM code is and he doesn't know how one would steal it or if "steal" is even the word that one would use for whatever it was happened to whatever it was. And he thinks, among other things, that the old original phone phreak, John Draper, is president of Autodesk and that Autodesk is involved in top secret Star Wars defense contracts because of their Cyberspace -- which he calls Hyperspace -- system. This has all been sent to him by the San Francisco office; it's right there in black and white. He thinks that the NuPrometheus League is in league with another mysterious and shadowy group called the Hackers Conference (which was actually founded by Stewart Brand). He called it the "New Prosthesis League," and I could never get him straight on that. [laughter] Furthermore, it was the considered opinion of Apple Computer Company that this Hackers conference would be the place in which you would probably find one of the New Prosthesis League -- but there was no particular point in asking those members of the Hackers Conference in the Silicon Valley, because they'd hardened their hearts against Apple. Some festering resentment of profit had turned them against Apple as an institution, so the only people they could expect to get any help from were the ones out in the hinterlands like Wyoming. Like me.
So here you've got a guy that is completely at sea -- I mean, he is in dreamland. I'm a potential perpetrator and I have to sit him down and spend three hours explaining to him very carefully the possible nature of my possible crime. This experience made me realize that the whole system has kind of jumped the groove and that we are now in a whole new world.... So I wrote something about this on The Well, just basically, "You know, a weird thing happened to me the other day..."
Kapor: It reverberated with me deeply because it enabled me to begin to come to terms with a very disturbing experience that I had had that I'd been unable to process so I have just sort of repressed it: my visit from the FBI, which had happened earlier. It had sort of been lying in an undigested state in some empty chamber of my brain.
My experience was remarkably similar to John's. They were asking a lot f questions, and I found myself working increasingly hard to explain to them what had actually happened just to create an intelligible account of mutual understanding between the two of them and me as to the sequence of activities which I'd described earlier: I had this diskette, and I looked at it and I sent it back, and so on. And that took a couple of hours to get to the point where we all felt reasonably comfortable that... And I was exhausted, and we hadn't even gotten to their list of questions yet. And I felt bad, because it was pretty clear to me that they weren't in a position to do what they were supposed to be doing. And that meant they couldn't be doing anybody any good, because they'd be acting not intentionally but more or less randomly. And that just deeply offended my sense of order about things.
I sensed danger. I didn't know what the danger was going to be, but wheu have a powerful force with a charter and a history and fundamental misimpressions going around, it's sort of a recipe for disaster. And I didn't spend too much time thinking about what kind of disaster. In fact, since this is all new to me I didn't do much of anything with it. And so it just became like this little nagging piece of unhappiness every time I'd start thinking about this visit, and so I stopped thinking about it -- until I read John's piece. John was able to articulate some things about the way I was feeling so they finally made sense to me and we're able to talk about it. It was a big release.
Barlow: Meanwhile, some other things had been happening that were not connected directly to this case but were certainly connected to the underlying cause. I had been part of a Harper's forum on computer hackers;Harper's periodically gets experts together and discuss issues of one sort or another, and they had convened kind of a grab-bag of digital types on the Well to talk about computers and security and privacy and crackers and hackers and all that sort of stuff. In the course of this I'd met these cyberpunk cracker kids from New York and elsewhere who were young and sort of brash, and there had been a kind of a nasty symmetry that set itself up over the course of the conference between the old techno-hippies and these new sort of digital skateboarders which had culminated in one of them downloading my TRW file with my credit history -- with the implication that he could change it if he wanted to --
Kapor: Which was not true.
Barlow: -- but I didn't know that, and I was thinking that I was looking at a lifetime of crumpled bills. Life without credit. Pretty scary.
So I e-mailed this kid and I said, "You know we've just exceeded the bah of this medium. Why don't you give me a call -- and I won't insult your intelligence by giving you my phone number." -- which is listed anyway, but I wanted him to have something to do so he hacked it out of the system and called me up about 20 minutes later.
The kid that I encountered on the phone was not at all the kid who'd ben strutting about in full digital regalia on the Well. He was a kid, you know: smart, brash, New York kind of street-style kid, but nevertheless, not so dissimilar from what I had been at his age. And I got to know his colleagues, and they seemed to be pretty consistent with that image. They were unquestionably inclined to trespass, but I tend to think that that's sort of a testosterone-based endeavor that has been with us for some time. You know young adolescent males like to go places they don't belong. That's just what they do. And they just found a new place to go. I mean this was better than an equipment yard or a quarry or some of the old favorites.
I met them in New York, and I didn't find them to be any particular thrn spite of their willingness to go where uninvited. But at a certain point I found out that the government had moved in on one of my young colleagues and had smashed down his door one afternoon while he was out and held his 12-year-old sister at gunpoint for an hour until he showed up. And by the time he showed up they had loaded every piece of electronic gear that he owned, including boom boxes and telephone answering machines and things of that sort. One of the Secret Service agents held up his answering machine and said, "What's this?" And he said "It's an answering machine." And he says "What's it for?" And he says "It answers the phone." And the guy nods and says, "Yeah, sure."
I heard about his before I had my visit from the FBI. And I though wellI don't know what they did. I mean they're probably much worse than I thought. That's probably what it is. I mean I just, I didn't understand what they were up to and they probably deserved this or something. But I didn't do anything about it until I had the visit from the FBI. So I'm still thinking about this stuff, and I'm collecting information on it to write a piece for Whole Earth Review about the Harper's conference. I'm collecting information about the Legion of Doom, as they call themselves, and then Mitch gets in contact with me.having read the FBI piece and tells me he's going to California one afternoon and would like to drop in to Pinedale and visit. We sat down on a snowy afternoon for a couple of hours and I told him what I knew about the Secret Service operations. And I think that added to his sense of concern, to say the least...
Kapor: Yeah, I just thought that these kids needed to have a good lawyer because it didn't seem that they had a good attorney and I didn't know what they had really done or what they hadn't done. But my sense was that there were great and powerful forces moving against them and that my sense of fairness at a minimum dictated that they have adequate legal representation to protect their rights and to make sure that bad things didn't happen to them. That's where it started.
Gans: What does this software multimillionaire feel in common with these "digital skateboarders?"
Kapor: You know, to the first order of approximation, I'm the same digital skateboarder that they are only I'm a little bit older and have more life experience. I was sort of a smart, nerdy, somewhat undersocialized kid. And believe me, had I had the opportunity to do what they'd done probably I would have done it. It just didn't happen to be available to me. But for instance Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, he used to sell blue boxes. I mean these things you phreaked the phone system. I can say that because it's pretty much a matter of public record. And so I identified with them, just in terms of background and style and stage of life, and I had a real concern that if they got screwed over in some way, not only would they be losers -- which was bad enough -- but we all would be losers in some fashion, because one of them might be the next Steve Wozniak.
Barlow: Look, a very important point that we have to make over and over and over again is that this is not a crackers' defense fund. Trespass is and should be against the law for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that you could get in there and inadvertently create mayhem.
Robert Morris is an excellent case in point. Robert Morris wanted to do something that was really kind of cool and I wish he'd succeeded. He wanted to map the net. The Morris worm was like an explorer, it was going to go around to every node on the net and report back in and tell you just how big this sucker is. Which is something that nobody knows, right? It's a cool thing to do. Somebody ought to do it. The trouble is that he screwed up: his worm was not well-written, so every time it got to a node it started reporting back, reporting back, and reporting back until all that processor was doing was reporting back. And the effect was viral rather than exploratory.
That's the point that I want to make about why it probably ought to be l to trespass. These people are entering into sensitive places; it's not quite like breaking into a quarry or an equipment yard, it's breaking into a place where everything is kind of fragile. The important thing to do, given that fact, is to make sure that there is an awareness of the level of both intent and threat so that you don't go around busting joyriders for grand theft auto -- which is what's going on now.
When I was a kid I actually did physically break into NORAD. I walked ie door after a wild night in the Colorado Springs woods nearby, to see how far I could get -- along with another guy. Well, the guards, who had seen my kind before and had been my kind not long before, just basically ushered us out. It was no big deal. If I'd done it with a computer, it would have been a big deal.
I think that's the kind of distinction you've got to make. Trying to ima million-dollar fine and thirty years in jail on them just because they've trespassed digitally rather than physically is completely out of scale and has to be dealt with -- and will be dealt with, because of what we're trying to do on a metaphorical level. We're trying to educate people about what this stuff really is and the level of threat it represents.
For example, when I first got involved with it, I didn't know but what y could change my credit record. If they could download it, they could change it. Well there's a big difference between read capacity and write capacity, it turns out. They were not in a position to do anything to my credit, but as long as the general mass of people think that there are folks out there who have these capacities and furthermore are culturally of a will to use them, then you got a recipe for repression and trouble.So we have to go out and sort people out on this stuff.
Gans: How do you propose to do that?
Barlow: Education, which is a long, slow, painful process. It's much more fun to say, "Well, we're going to go to court and kick ass and take names," and we just did a little of that and that's fun and it has some educational qualities. But really what we've got to do is a long, slow process of getting people to understand what the appropriate metaphors are, so that everybody understands that a computer is a printing press and a bulletin board is a town square or Hyde Park Corner, that e-mail is the same thing as mail. And that a bunch of e-mail in a bulletin board has the same protections as a bunch of real mail in a post office. Stuff like that.
Gans: But at the same time this effort is going on there is an immense tide of repression going on in all of the old traditional realms and modes of communication.
Barlow: No, I don't think so. I think if you check this out very carefully what you're going to see is that print is still pretty safe and speech is still pretty safe. Where you're running into trouble is every other medium. You're running into trouble with records, CDs, photographs, art, broadcast media, digital media. I mean if it's not print, where the metaphor is completely intact --
Goffman: -- except for pornography--
Barlow: Well, let's say words on a page. I haven't heard of any written pornography being busted either. It's photographic. If it's not speech, in the sense of words on a page, then it's up for grabs. Society at large does not have the McLuhanesque insight into this stuff at all; it really just thinks that speech is free expression is the press, and it hasn't caught up with the other ways in which you can express yourself.
.... We lost radio and television in the 20s and 30s, not a big civil libertarian time. They said, "Well, all right, there's a limited amount of bandwidth and we've got to regulate it, and in regulating it we've got to make certain that it meets the requirements of a wide audience."
Goffman: Could the Electronic Frontier Foundation possibly step back a couple of decades and try to deal with that situation?
Barlow: No you can't, because of the way in which the legal system works. There is a lot of what is thought to be constitutionally ordained that is not constitutionally ordained. It's ordained by precedent. You build up a body of case law over a period of time and pretty soon it had the same authority as it would have if it were part of the Constitution. Especially if it's you know in an area the seems to be inexplicit in the Constitution like broadcast media. I don't think there's a damn thing you can do about it, and what scared Mitch and me is we were going to have cases come down the line on digital media that would have the same kind of precedent-setting effect overnight and would fundamentally limit the application of the Constitution to bits and bytes since that's pretty much where it's all taking place already: no newspaper or book even sees hot lead any more -- I mean it's electronic at some fundamental part of its development, and if you can restrict free speech just because it happens to occur in a magnetic medium, then it's all up for grabs.
Gans: We need to continue to define these things as speech and preserve the Constitutional protections that we know belong, because as the technology develops the old media are going to be left behind and if we don't preserve the protections into the new media then we're going to end up with not only an information underclass, we're going to end up --
Barlow: Oh yeah, the knows and the know-nots. And I think that's a real serious risk. Absolutely.
Gans: And we're already in the information haves and have-nots, but we're also faced with the possibility of ending up in a place where the Bill of Rights is left behind with hot lead.
Barlow: Well and I think that's a real concern because if you examine the situation you find that much of the rest of the Bill of Rights is already gone.
Gans: What was it somebody said the other day? "The Bill of Rights isn't much but it's better than that we have"?
Barlow: "The Constitution isn't much but it's better than what we have."I was shocked to find out that much of the Fourth Amendment had disappeared since the last time I had looked. When I called up these lawyers and said, "As I read the Fourth Amendment this is unreasonable search and seizure to a tee," they said, "Well, you've got to understand what's happened in terms of precedents on Fourth Amendment issues. We've basically lost it."
There's the general social pressure to get rid of that amendment and ite or less succeeded. It's the death of a thousand torts, you know. We're still pursuing that, because most of these Operation Sun Devil search warrants were first of all unsigned, and sealed, and furthermore were completely broad. They just said, "Get everything that has electronics in it and get everything that has magnetism on it."
The Fourth Amendment prevents you from having taken from you anything bt direct instrumentality of the crime and obvious evidence. And that's another case in point. I mean here you've got this stuff -- I mean, nobody knows. You can't see it -- I mean, you know what a gun is, right? You don't know what a computer virus is or where it might reside in 25,000 disks, so you take them all. It's kinda like if you're busting witches you don't know which of the brooms is transportation and which is for cleaning the house.
Goffman: You're really in the area of conceptual crime.
Barlow: Yeah, you're in an area where nobody understands what the paradigm is anymore. So there's bound to be a lot of trouble. These guys that came into Steve Jackson Games, not only did they take computers and hard disks, they took laser printers and all the floppies that they could find. And it's a little like saying, "All right, we've got white collar crime over here. This is an office of a corporation and we believe that there's a white collar crime that might be taking place in it, so I want you to go in, boys, and take every piece of paper you can find in every file because that's the instrumentality of crime." Well, people know what paper is, and they would know that that was an absurd request and it was overly broad and it was unconstitutional -- but they don't know that with ... in one day they confiscated 23,000 floppy disks. I mean that's billions of pages ... They didn't know what was on 'em. They still don't, I'm sure. The point I'm getting at is even though the Fourth Amendment has been pretty grotesquely eroded it's still there and has some potency, so...
Gans: You're faced with a pretty serious uphill climb here.
Barlow: There isn't anybody else out there doing it and Mitch and I felt that we didn't have anybody else to turn to, so we said we'd do it ourselves. And you know it's been an interesting thing in the sense that in spite of the fact that it was quite an open field a month and a half ago, the second that we raised our hat over the trench a lot of other hats came up: Our two biggest contributors came to us right off the bat -- without any solicitation or even a very clear awareness of what we were doing with 6-figure sums -- just like that. Steve Wozniak and John Gilmore registered right in.
Gans: What about the reaction of some of the mainstream of the industry?
Barlow: This is another one of those cases where what it really devolves down into is institutions versus individuals. Institutions want to own information, they think they already do, they think everything is proprietary that is not explicitly not so. They're very uncomfortable with the way in which they do own information because it doesn't seem quite tangible enough to them. It involves a great level of uncertainly, which institutions hate. And so thereTs a natural institutional response to try to be overprotective of the interests of the future at the expense of individuals, about whom institutions by their nature could care less. A corporation doesn't care about individual rights, that's just not something that it cares about.
Gans: Why don't the individuals who work there --
Barlow: Because the individuals who work there are no longer individuals. I mean there's a big difference between a solitary wasp and a wasp's nest. It's a big difference. It's all the difference in the world. It's like slime mold: it's basically like a paramecium-style, one-celled organism most of the time. When it decides that it wants to cover some country because conditions are changing for whatever reason, it's getting too dry or something, all the local slime molds get together and create an organism which grows stalks with eyes on the ends of the stalks and grows cilia to move the whole thing with and suddenly it's a critter.
Goffman: They call it grexing, I think.
Barlow: Yeah! It's an animal then; it's not a one-celled animal any more, it's a multicellular organism, and it goes someplace and then it devos. It goes back down to its original constituents. This is really the perfect metaphor for what a corporation is. And to say that the individuals inside that corporation are individuals when they are acting in their corporate form is like saying that slime mold is still a whole bunch of slime mold cells. It's kinda true, but it's not true enough.
We still have this notion that organizations are machines -- this sort f Newtonian, causal, deterministic model of an organization which has got the CEO up in the wheel house and there's a direct connection between the chairman's desk and the rudder.
Gans: CEOs tend to think that, too...
Barlow: Well, of course they tend to think that. They'd like to think that. I think the best of them know better and are even willing to admit it, but it's their job to think that. That's what the organism wants them to think. The point is that the organism exerts enormous reality distortion on everything within it.
The Secret Service wants to expand into a new market. The old market --h was not protecting presidents, as many think, but the busting of counterfeiters -- moved offshore. All the forgers are overseas now to the extent that there are any. So in order to have a reason to allocate a budget and to go on existing as an organization and to feed itself as a critter, the Secret Service has to find some new food. So the Secret Service gets into computer crime, and does a rather bad job of it. They're getting terrible advice from the telcos, and the telcos are trying to use the Secret Service, rather as the FBI is being used by Apple. You call the telcos and ask them a question about computer crime and you know you're talkin' to somebody from the Secret Service just like that. You know, there's a really direct connection and the Secret Service agents were showing up at all these busts with telco security people, you couldn't tell them apart. And my theory about that by the way is that government as an institution is now grinding to a complete halt, in fact may have already done so, and so what is actually running stuff to the extent that things are getting run is corporations. They're mediating the economy, they're passing the goods and services around, they're doing all the control stuff, they're keeping things in line, they're managing the consciousness, they're doing all the economics. And now they're moving into law enforcement.
Goffman: Very much the cyberpunk vision...
Barlow: Yeah, exactly.
Kapor: We decided to help these two kids. We got the attorneys involved, and then we asked them to look into what was going on with a variety of government investigations and prosecutions. We identified a couple of particular legal situations, like Craig Neidorf in Chicago and Steve Jackson Games, where there seemed to us to have been a substantial overstepping of bounds by the government and an infringement on rights of free speech and freedom of the press. We were in the process of deciding how to intervene when we also realized very clearly that we didn't want to be a legal defense fund as that was too narrow. What was really needed was to somehow improve the discourse about how technology is going to be used by society; we need to do things in the area of public education and policy development.
It was at that point that we started talking seriously to Marc Rotenberf Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an organization of which he heads the Washington office and runs the Computing and Civil Liberties Project. They have for many years been actively involved in tracking all legislation current and pending that is wending its way through the Congress that affects people's rights to privacy and so on with respect to information technology. We concluded that we could best channel financial support not into creating a duplicative organization to do the same thing, but by funding CPSR to expand the activities of its own program.
Barlow: Which would do something important, and that is to treat the disease rather than the symptoms. As long as we were just going to fight brushfires in court every time there was some legal confusion about technology, we would have an awful lot of brushfires to fight because this is going to come up a lot now. The question of intellectual property is going to become ... the point over which the arguments take place that will either maintain freedom of or limit digital communications. So we had to start talking to people that could make a difference, and we're fortunate to have CPSR out there already to do something valuable.
Gans: So at this point it was just basically happening between the two of you deciding you wanted to do something?
Barlow: It still is. This is a very lean little organization: It's still just us -- and Mitch's wife, who is the third member of the board.
Kapor: And financial support from Steve Wozniak and John Gilmore and a lot of discourse and input from friends and supporters and others, almost all of which is electronically mediated through the Well and the Internet.
Barlow: It's a very collegial scene in the sense that where there might be a limited number of votes there are certainly a large number of voices that can be heard and processed. We're open to suggestions.
Kapor: We're really a node in the network. We've identified ourselves as a node and we've linked to other nodes and we've discovered other nodes, which are people and groups which are pursuing similar ends. And periodically we have the occasion to do something face to face, to get a bunch of people together to have good, old fashioned face-to-face contact.
Gans: So in addition to funding CPSR and these two legal efforts, what other sorts of things do you have in mind? And what specific things do you think might be coming up soon?
Kapor: Well one area that we're looking at, and we think it's terribly important to do something, is in improving people's access to the public network. Today there are some marvelous things you can do in communication by electronic mail and conferencing, with many hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, that substantially expand the scope and reach of your contacts and your community. There's one catch: you kind of have to be a 'nix weenie, or know one, to be able to use those particular tools that have that capability. One thing we think is terribly important is to lower the barriers to entry, to let more ordinary folks participate in discussions in the worldwide network.
Barlow: One of the things we've left out here, oddly enough since it's our overriding metaphor for what it is that we're doing, is "civilizing the digital frontier." What we mean by that is that cyberspace or whatever you want to call it, that region that is defined by electronic communications and information and the place you go when you make a telephone call, is presently inhabited almost exclusively by mountain men and desperadoes and vigilantes and kind of a rough bunch -- and 'nix weenies. [laughter] And as long as that's the case it's just gonna be kind of the law of the wild in there. And it's going to continue to have this extremely uneasy relationship with the rest of society, which is going to depend on it more and more in a very material way -- and already does. You can't believe the number of things that you do every day that involve activity in cyberspace.
Kapor: When you use an automatic teller machine, for instance.
Barlow: When you make a financial transaction, really. You don't that often use money, you use electronic data representing money ... So we feel very strongly that the most important thing we can do to minimize anxiety and to make certain that the things we love about the so-called real world stay intact in the virtual world, the most important thing we can do is to make it inhabitable by ordinary settlers. You know, move the homesteaders in.
Kapor: And that's such an enormous proposition to do that that you have to find a place of high leverage. And where we think the leverage is is in demonstrating that it is possible to have relatively straightforward worldwide interconnectivity -- mail, conferencing and messaging. The infrastructure already exists -- the parts and pieces, the Internet and so on -- but the problem is that the access tools are real hard to use. What we'd like to do is something more in the way of a demonstration or pilot project that shows how, simply by adding a bit of software here and a bit of software there, you can lower the access barriers to the worldwide network to let more ordinary folks in. The whole point of doing that is to show to other people -- software companies and other developers -- that's it's worthwhile investing in this area. Because the history of it is that the companies in the newspaper industry and the broadcast industry have lost, collectively, billions of dollars in failed videotext experiments in this country. And it enjoys a terrible reputation. Because they went about it in the wrong way, based on the wrong set of premises, with the wrong technology, it is impossible to get anybody to invest in building --
Barlow: They didn't go about it as an effort to design an open system, basically. They wanted to provide everything.
Kapor: They were replicating the television networks.
Barlow: They were going to shove this stuff at you in whatever form they wanted it to be in. They didn't realize that what you really wanted was a much better kind of a telephone, in a sense.
Gans: Minitel [France] being the obvious example of a successful system...
Kapor: That's right. What happened there was that the government subsidized the initial development by giving away terminals and by putting the national 411 service on this thing. The government does not provide those kind of subsidies to its citizens in this country; you couldn't even get 5 minutes of a congressman's time for that. So we think it's really going to have to be private sector kind of stuff.
Kapor: One of the interesting things we found out is that the EFF was welcomed with open arms in Washington, because there are not very many organizations that are knowledgeable technically that aren't industry trade associations. IBM and Digital have representatives there, and there are the trade organizations. But outside of that, there isn't anybody with any kind of credibility in Washington that can talk about information technology issues and policy issues. And so they want more input, they want more participants in the process. There are going to be some very central issues that will probably come before the Congress. For instance, whether and how to let the telephone companies into the information services business fully. Right now they live with a very very tight set of restrictions imposed on them by Judge Greene. But it's becoming more and more apparent that there's a kind of a standoff between the phone companies on one hand and AT&T and information providers on the other hand. And so it may just go into a complete rewrite of the communications act of '34 in which the pie gets redivided up about who can do what, and who can lay fiber optic cable, and what's a common carrier for digital pathway to everybody's home, and what's universal service... We think it's important that the EFF play a role in that, certainly to the extent of understanding the issues and helping sort out where the public interest might be -- and possibly beyond that, once there is some sorting done to take an advocacy position on how we think the national public network ought to be constructed so that it's of maximum benefit for everyone and not just particular corporate interests. So we're expecting to get up to speed on that issue and find our way through the maze that lies inside the beltway.
Gans: Have there been any surprising instances of corners from which you have not gotten support? Or from which you have gotten opposition?
Kapor: Well I have to say there's a lot of skepticism from my colleagues in the computer industry, some of whom initially felt that the EFF was in the business of defending people's right to break into computer systems, and the EFF was attempting to destabilize the intellectual property system by observing that technology had raced ahead of the law's ability to keep up with it.
I think the intellectual property system of patent and copyright is alry pretty destabilized it, it doesn't need us to push it around any. It's tearing itself apart, unfortunately, pretty much on its own. What I found is that there is a certain complexity to these issues. There's a certain amount of nuance and flavor; it's not simple black or white. We do much better when we sit down one on one, or at least when we get a chance to speak directly with people. Getting the message across through newspaper headlines, I think, has actually not helped us. Perhaps the most troublesome part of this, and why this is so enjoyable, is that in the effort to squeeze everything down to a sound bite -- which this is not -- somehow the real meaning gets sucked out of what we're doing and gets reduced to cliches and stereotypes, some of which are threatening. We're still spending a lot of time thinking about how, short of sitting down with everybody in this country face to face, do we craft the messages? How do we choose the metaphors? How do we talk about the urgent need to have a studied and open discourse about how we civilize the electronic frontier? How do we get beyond paranoia and hysteria and overreaction and oversimplification and sound bites, and deal with the sort of state of data shock that half of us exist in all the time anyway?
It's surprising how hard it is, how much noise there is in the channel t hackers, how many preconceived notions, how many people just assume that there is a nefarious criminal conspiracy to disrupt our nation's basic emergency services on the flimsiest -- actually, on the total absence of evidence. So it's just proved that we've got a lot of work to do, and we're not sure exactly how we're going to do all of it.
Goffman: I was just reading a report in one of the computer magazines that had a quote from somebody from the prosecution of Neidorf -- and I think they even used your name: "When Mitch Kapor finds out what's really going on in this case, he'll feel differently about it." And then, of course, when the case came out it was they who found out ...
Kapor: That was Business Week, and that issue hit the stands within hours of the government dropping the case. So there was a bit of irony to that ... But it just goes to show that things are pretty weird out there in terms of a lack of straight communications. So it's part of the reason we exist to help reduce that.
Gans: And so much of it seems to be informed by that sort of unenlightened corporate self-interest that characterizes corporate behavior, and so much of human behavior in general.
Kapor: It's not only the pursuit of self-interest, it's the myopic pursuit of self-interest that focuses on very short term issues that -- it's just a serious national problem that goes far beyond technology and far beyond these issues. We've been busy enjoying ourselves in this country and creating a national right to own not one home but two homes and an RV, and indulging in all the wonderful benefits of materialism 'cause it feels good. I can't think of anything that's much more short-term than that, and meanwhile some other countries that didn't do so well in the last global conflict have employed a set of attitudes of a much more puritan nature in some sense -- a lot of delayed gratification among the Japanese -- and they've sort of zoomed past us in a number of respects. And I don't have a clue what to do about that problem.
Gans: I don't know that we want a regimented society like that.
Kapor: Well I don't think that we want a regimented society, but we might be able to have a society in which people...
Goffman: Japan in a sense is like one big corporation in terms of John's model of being like a singular biological unit...
Kapor: It is a very different kind of society and I think it is totally useless to try to adopt attributes of that organism here, because our immune system would just reject them. At the same time I wonder what it would take in this country to get people to act a bit more cooperatively, i.e., for people to understand that it is sometimes in their self-interest to minimize what they get tomorrow in order to maximize something that might come a bit later. And typically that happens by doing something with other people in order to achieve a result greater than what people can achieve by working individually.
Gans: But where America conducts its business -- on television and in the marketplace -- it is all day-to-day bullshit. The lies of everyday existence -- "Buy this and you'll be happy" -- which we all sort of understand to be bullshit, has become the main focus of all of our communications with each other.
Kapor: I think people have to turn off the TV. Now there's one of two ways to do that: you could turn off the literal TV, the one that's out there in your living room, and stop watching it, or you could turn off the metaphorical TV, the one that's in your head.
Gans: But that requires that people pay attention and think for themselves. In "Just say no" America, "Think for yourself" is a subversive statement and an incitement to revolution.
Kapor: I think it's not a popular sentiment, but I don't see at the moment any other course that makes any sense.
I try very hard to avoid polarizing things in addition to the great degf polarization that already exists. But yeah, it's important that people think for themselves.
I think more than anything else we have to develop a real sense of patie and a long-term view, and not to measure any success or lack of success by what happens today, tomorrow, this week, next week or even next year. And to understand that as long as we're doing the sorts of things that we think are right then we've fulfilled our moral obligations and we just have to live with the result.
Goffman: There's always the fear that we'll wake up tomorrow morning and discover that we're in an irreversible police state. Well, more or less a police state.
Barlow: I actually don't share the opinion that we're terribly close to a police state. I think periodically there are eruptions that move us in that direction and that it is terribly important to do early detection and prevention of those sort of problems and that is one basis for the EFF intervening. And it would be a whole separate subject which we could talk about some time to talk about the evidence or lack of evidence that suggests that a police state is near at hand. But at least as of the moment that's not the EFF position.
Gans: I think that one of the things that's happening now is just that we hear about them more readily and more frequently. The same amount of cop-think may have been going on throughout the century, but word of the busts... I mean right now we're hearing about all of the computer ones because of the immense speed and efficiency of the communications network, but all of the Ed Meese mechanisms that have been put into place are starting to really work now. But you and Barlow share this optimism and this general belief that things aren't as bad as...
Kapor: Well I'm kind of an agnostic. Things could either be real good or real bad, but what we have right now is this moment.... It is possible to be consumed by despair and there is sort of an unfortunate tendency, on one end of the spectrum, to adopt the lifestyle of despair and to sort of elevate and honor despair and blackness and lack of hope as the new idol. I see it, but I have a hard time relating to it because I think it's sort of this self imposed, self-contained negativism that just has a lot of rage and frustration trapped in it. It's really kind of tragic.
Goffman: What you guys are doing... must have been entirely unexpected on the part of sort of the people who busted these kids and so forth, that somebody would come out of the woodwork and [defend them] ... They must be a little shocked. Have you felt any of the reverberations of that?
Kapor: Gail Thackeray, who was the assistant attorney general in the State of Arizona who was one of the principal spokespersons for Operation Sun Devil and other government activities, called me on the phone the day after the first national news story broke on this in the Washington Post and she said that she was shocked and surprised that I would take this kind of position. But she was operating out of a very different set of premises and assumptions that I had, and if you accepted her premises and assumptions then her view of the world made a lot more sense. Her premises and assumptions were that in fact there was a criminally conspiratorial band of hackers engaged in blatantly illegal activities, which was the purpose and function of their behavior. And I did not and do not share these premises, that was sort of why this conversation had such a bizarre, noncommunicative aspect to it, and I think it's terribly important that we expose to public scrutiny as many of the actual facts at all levels so that people can make up their own minds which myth they want to believe. You've got to shine some light on the thing.
Goffman: It's interesting that a lot of the cracks that sound really dangerous at first, when they're examined up close wind up not being. And even in the case of that guy who was associated with the CHAOS Computer Club, who supposedly sold secrets to the Soviet 'nion, it turned out the secrets were completely worthless and they didn't really want to pay him for them.
Gans: But that's not gonna stop the "security experts" who get mileage out of this stuff...
Goffman: These things keep on getting punctured. But related to that, I'm curious about what you think of the idea that crackers actually could do damage to the social system.
Kapor: Well, I asked the best ones that I know about this. I wanted to find out from the people themselves what the extent of their capabilities were. And it turns out the answer is pretty simple. It's what I call the "LSD in the water supply phenomenon": could somebody put LSD in the water supply and effectively incapacitate unsuspecting individuals? I don't actually happen to know the answer to that, 'cause that's sort of a function of chemical properties and a whole bunch of physical facts. I do know that it apparently hasn't happened, or we would have heard about it. My surmise is that the reason it hasn't happened is not that it's impossible, it's that it's kind of difficult and there isn't anybody with the technical skill and the twisted personality and will to do that who's done it.
It's like that for all sorts of things, because when you get that combin -- like with hijackers and terrorists -- it gets a lot of attention and everybody knows about it. So the fact that that hasn't happened suggests that under the current circumstances it's not going to happen. Well, it's the same deal with these computer systems. The issue is not whether it is technically completely impossible, 'cause almost nothing is technically completely impossible. But it has to do with how likely is it to happen? And if the likelihood is as remote as somebody poisoning the water system, then I think we're OK.
That's the way the threat has to be assessed, not purely in terms of tel capability. It's always human beings who do that, and people don't act for arbitrary reasons, so what's the likelihood of this? And one important fact that is almost entirely missed in talking about the people who go into computer systems is that their motivation is exploratory for exploration's sake and they're terribly uninterested in the actual content of what's there. They could really care less about it. And not only that, they're only interested in exploring that which is reasonably explorable. Military computers -- computers that hold classified military information -- are not available by hooking up your computer to a modem and dialing up a phone number. They are physically separate. They don't have any interest in those kind of systems. They're sort of just not inside their purview. And I think that's not well understood. So they're fundamentally lacking some very important motivation and interest to even take a concern about that.
Second, for the really important stuff like the military computers and r traffic control system and other computer systems, they're not on the public network; you cannot dial into them. And I probably should have said that first, 'cause people don't know this. But you can't get at 'em and they don't care about them, and therefore I don't think we have to worry about vital national services being brought down.
"So what about the Internet worm and Robert Morris and this guy that temporarily paralyzed the Internet?". The question is asked. Well, he was engaged in exploratory behavior and his program had a bug in it and he accidentally paralyzed the thing but he did have quite an effect. It didn't really damage anything; it just cost a bunch of time to go and fix it up. No data got lost. There were no patients on operating tables... But the fact of the matter is that computer network, the Internet, is one where people don't and have never taken security seriously, in my humble opinion. It's all these research institutions and universities and they believe in open and free stuff, and the operating system that runs that has the world's more jury-rigged security that people don't honor and take seriously. And that's the problem, not Morris. Anybody who ran a commercial network with security like the Internet should probably be taken off the job. And in fact, that was the problem with the Bell South System that the kids in Atlanta went into: they didn't have any security. If you knew the phone number you were into the system. This is what I've heard, and I find that credible. So there was a target of opportunity. I'm not justifying the action of the kids who went in there at all, but I am saying that if this is true then Bell South failed to exercise a standard of due care and if I were a shareholder or an officer of that corporation I would be very concerned about that. And so when an intrusion happens, trying to pin the blame on the hackers is not only unjust but extremely counterproductive. The real issue has to be, How do network system operators and users of networks, how ought we to act and what types of security are appropriate to ensure that people can go about doing what they are doing and feel secure and that there's privacy, i.e., there's no unwarranted intrusion, either from the government or private parties. But not sort of onerous, burdensome, and restrictive security. Those questions are not being asked. What we get is "Fry the hackers, these people are trying to bring down the air traffic control system." And that is the essence of the problem because if you misframe and misstate what the problem is, you're never gonna solve it. Never, never, never, never, never! You're just gonna keep makin' it worse and worse.
Gans: So I hope that EFF would put some energy into educating the establishment side since...the security side.
Kapor: You bet. We've already started. We've already started outreach and discussion with people from the computer security community and others and we're finding binding sites into those entities to talk about the stuff. We don't expect people to agree with us all the time, and while we do try to be as careful as possible, we understand that we may misunderstand or misstate things. But the nature of a good public discourse is that it allows for that and nobody tries to nuke anybody else. (end of tape)