From: Dark Sorcerer Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 17:35:57 -0000
Subject: Confessions of a C0dez Kid
What seems like a long time period at age thirteen seems significantly shorter when you're over double that age. With that in mind, the entire "hacker phenomenon" should be viewed as an extreme bit of ephemera, the result of a naive convergence between technology and what can be stereotyped as 1980's teenage angst and rebellion. The "hacker kid" made famous in every 1980's movie became (in a matter that Jean Baudrillard would be proud of) not only a reflection of ourselves, but an ideal we aspired to as well… and was really only a viable archetype for less than ten years. This should be kept in mind by any third-party who's attempting to put this scene in some sort of historical perspective. While there might be "hackers" in some sense even in the new millennium, this file specifically relates experiences of those of us who saw John Hughes movies at an actual movie theater back in the 80's. ("Hackers" generally meaning self- described phone phreaks and those who obtained unauthorized access to corporate computer networks, not just people good with computers).
These ramblings were inspired by my recent discovery of some old BBS buffers and text files I had booted up on my old Apple IIe while recently visiting my parents' house. Luckily (or unluckily) for you, I have a near-photographic memory of all of these events. (Too bad my post-high school years are rather hazy…) ;)
This surely has thousands of corollaries from around the country. My question is: where are you all now?
My father had been transferred to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO at the beginning of the summer in 1986, right during some extreme hormonal changes on my behalf. I was twelve years old at the time, and had absolutely nothing to do, with no kids in my neighborhood. In lieu of this, my mother signed me up for a BASIC programming class for "gifted" (or perhaps just geeky) kids at one of the local high schools. Of course, the class was really more about playing video games and networking with other fledgling geeks than it was about programming. But the last day of class was devoted to something I'd always been interested in: the modem.
I'd been fascinated by modems for years and finally my father had purchased a "NetWorker" modem during late 1984 for our Apple IIe, but due to only having one local BBS to our old house in Iowa and my father's unwillingness to pay for CompuServe I had quickly lost interest in it. To call this modem primitive by today's standards would be an understatement; while it lacked the classic acoustic coupler design (made famous by "WarGames", therefore becoming engrained in the public mind as what a modem looked like) it did not have any sort of auto-connection feature. This meant that when you dialed in and heard a carrier tone, you had to press a switch exterior to the computer to connect to the desired baud rate (110 or 300). This 300-baud monstrosity was about the cheapest modem on the market, but at $200 (in 1984 dollars) was still relegated to at least middle-class youth and their associated parents.
We briefly touched on the subject of bulletin-board systems (BBSes) and our instructor provided the numbers for a couple of local systems, which I proceeded to call when I got home. They were fairly typical and boring for the time: systems frequented by off-duty COBOL programmers run on a variety of home-grown systems, perhaps TRS-80's or something running CP/M, exchanging messages on the dry subjects of sports and politics. However, I did manage to stumble on a list of other local bulletin boards, and of course the ones that intrigued me were ones with the following names:
Valhalla (?) Elite Connection 548-9519 Underground Star 390-0783 Adventurer's Cove 598-6669
At the time, there was not nearly the stigma associated with "hacking" or piracy in the general computer community that there is now, and there was very little concern about what the "proper" uses of computers were in the general BBS community. Many people were not even aware they were breaking the law by having pirated software around the house, and software was freely copied at computer users' groups and the like. Many older BBSers were 60's types with some sort of anti-establishment bent, and even in 1986, you were still considered more than just a little weird if you had anything to do with computers. Even sysops of "respectable" boards (the ones where old guys talked about politics) might know a bit about making a Blue Box or have a copy of the latest game you wanted. I would imagine that thousands of other people were therefore exposed to what is now called "computer crime" in such a benign, clueless way.
Calling the aforementioned boards would end up causing a dramatic change in my life, but I had no idea at the time. The first system I ended up calling was "Valhalla", a "part-time" BBS (the type that was NEVER up during its purported hours of operation, usually run by a junior-high school kid who didn't have the money for his own phone line.) But on this particular occasion, the board happened to be up. I dialed in and proceeded to log in as normal; the Sysop (one "Loki Odinsson") ended up breaking into chat mode immediately and offered to verify my access on the spot and call me back voice. He was running a part-time BBS off of a Commodore 64 with one floppy disk drive, and apparently I was his only user thus far along with his best friend, who had chosen the handle "Thor Odinsson". The details of the conversation are hazy, but I do remember him making allusions to "hacking MCI" and him somehow providing me with a list of long-distance Commodore 64 pirate BBSes, with exotic names like "The Gates Of Hell" and "Underground Empire".
I proceeded to call "The Gates of Hell" next. (Even the name sounded frightening to a white suburban 12 year old), logged in, and remember navigating through the message boards, where people cursed at each other on "The War Board", engaged in the then-raging Apple II vs. Commodore 64 debate, and wrote stories on the "Sex Board" (I'm sure in retrospect, a bunch of sex stories by what surely were a bunch of 15 year old virgins would be highly comical.)
Scared of the phone bill, I logged off after ten minutes, and proceeded to call the other numbers local to me. The Elite Connection was next, and its new user log in page had tons of scary information about "entrapment" and how each user must provide their actual voice number for verification. I did as I was told, curious to see if anyone would actually call me. (No one ever did.) The message boards on the Elite Connection were filled with vague references about hacking and phreaking, and the system did not seem terribly active. However, there did seem to be a raging local war between the "Warlock" (the sysop of the Underground Star) and "The Master Kracker", a local Apple pirate, each of which saying they were going to kick each others' asses and the like. "The Warlock" also seemed to misspell every other word in his posts, for some sort of dramatic effect. This also seemed to be an extension of the Apple vs. Commodore 64 thing, with the Elite Connection's C64 using sysop "Night Runner" backing The Warlock with Apple II pirate "The Assassin" backing The Master Kracker. The Apple users were part of some local group called "PPPG" (Pikes' Peak Pirates' Guild.) The C64 vs. Apple thing was very predominant during this time period, and was (IMO) steeped in class conflict. In retrospect, the C64 was not a bad computer, and had much better graphics/sound and (important for every teenage geek) consequently, video games. But the Apple was more predominant in upper-middle class America, with all of the logical consequences not worth going into here.
At this point, I was getting tired, so I proceeded to log off and call the Underground Star, which was filled with more of the same sort of thing. A couple of days later, I called the Elite Connection back, and made a solicitation for anyone who wanted to trade "APPLE GAMES". I had made posts on BBSes before, but still had no idea how to transfer files over the modem. When I called back the next day, I had an e-mail from :"The Assassin", whose real name was John, to give him a call at 574-2872. I gave him a call, and as it turned out he was a sophomore at the same high school I had gotten my introduction to BBSes at. He was also lacking a 1200 baud modem, which at the time meant being restricted access to all forms of pirate BBSes due to its slow speed. Being a 300-baud only user in 1986 was the equivalent of being an untouchable in India; you generally only associated with other untouchables and no one wanted much to do with you.
John was friendly and patient with me, and he had many new games that I wanted. He sent me a copy of "Dalton's Disk Disintegrator" which allowed for the compression of an entire Apple II floppy into one file, and then we did a 300-baud transfer of the Activision game "Hacker", which took about two hours. If you've never seen text slow by at 300 baud, suffice to say that most college graduates can probably read text faster than 300 baud can scroll by.) He also sent me a copy of a couple of other programs he seemed very impressed with himself for owning - "Time Bomb" and "Microhacker". He also made references to "hacking MCI" and I asked him for further clarification. The clarification went something like this:
"Dial 630-TIME, and start entering codes starting with 10000, followed by a number. If the number goes through, you have a good code. If not, redial and start with 10001, etc." In retrospect, dialing codes incrementally, starting with the same value every time, was incredibly bad advice, although no one ever seemed to get busted by MCI locally.
After we had finally transferred "Hacker" after a couple of abortions and said conversation, "The Assassin" had started to grow a bit impatient with me, probably annoyed by this 12 year old kid who kept asking him what other games he had. (He proved a bit short with me on subsequent phone calls to his house.) However, now I was armed with the knowledge on how to make free phone calls, plus I had a couple of weird-sounding "hacker" programs in the form of Microhacker and Time Bomb. Microhacker was a tool written by a Denver local to hack "MetroPhone" (I had no idea what that was) which didn't work due to its requiring a modem with autoconnect capabilities, and "Time Bomb" allowed you to format someone's disk after a specified number of boots and display what was invariably a smart-ass message, something that would allow for much jocularity with the kids at school who always wanted to come over and copy games from me. The Assassin also gave me a copy of Ascii Express, which allowed exchange of files with the Xmodem protocal in addition to being one of the most obscure, hard-to-learn, and powerful terminal programs ever developed.
I decided to call 630-TIME. I dialed the number, and after several second a weird droney sounding tone greeted me. I dialed 10000, followed by a random long-distance number in Denver. The number immediately rang, and a stock corporate-announcer female voice stated that "The access code you have entered is not valid." This voice was a bit unnerving, so I did not try to "hack" any more codes that night.
Since I had nothing to do, I started calling the Elite Connection, Underground Star, and several other local boards on an almost daily basis, although I didn't make that many other voice connections due to my owning an Apple II, and most of the bulletin boards local to me were Commodore 64 in nature. This quickly proved to be boring, as most of the boards didn't get more than a few posts in a day. As the summer dragged on, I became more impertinent and started to lose fear of "hacking MCI." Finally, one day the sysop of the Elite Connection, Night Runner, broke in after I had tried (C)hatting with him. He also proved to be mostly friendly and offered a "PHREAK CODE" (I was mostly using an old Apple II+ computer, and did not have a lower-case modification key) as well as telling me to call a better board in the Dallas, TX area that was more active and dedicated to hacking, the "Thieve's Underground" (sic.) In hindsight, he was probably just sick of me calling every single day and tying up his line. He also offered me access to the "Elite!" (sic) section of his BBS, where people would post information on hacking and phreaking, piracy, and other things.
Somewhat nervous, I called 630-TIME and entered the code Night Runner had offered, followed by the number for the Thieve's Underground. Unlike previous attempts, the number did not immediately ring, but hung there for some time until a remote ring could be heard (we were not even on ESS1A in Colorado Springs at that time, and it sometimes took 20 or more seconds to dial a LOCAL number - we were in Crossbar, with a couple of areas even in Step by Step. If I had even known about a Blue Box at the time, I could have actually used that instead of these MCI codes). - I then got carrier and proceeded to connect to the Thieve's Underground. It was definitely the most hardcore BBS I had ever seen at the time, again requiring a "real phone number" for verification and certification that "you are not a member of any law enforcement agency". Additionally, it required you to define some "hacker terms" which I failed at miserably: what was COSMOS? What was TELENET?
Needless to say, I was rejected from the Thieve's Underground. But from that point forward, I was determined to find out what exactly the terms were that I didn't understand. But of course, I was still concerned with getting all of the new games I didn't have access to and that would only be possible with the fabled 1200 baud modem.
In the meantime I'd also been granted access on a board called "Skeleton Island" in Richmond, VA, (I believe at 303-747-8920) a board that was a complete throwback to what looked like it must have been about 1982. The sysop, "The Skeleton", was running custom- built software on an Apple II computer with a ten megabyte hard disk, completely devoted to text files! It was here that I first started reading about the history of hacking, as amongst all of the files there were all-caps transcriptions of old TAP Magazine articles, some of the first things I had read about hacking. (The board wasn't exactly updated regularly, so what were considered "newer" hack/phreak periodicals such as PHRACK were left out.) In TAP Magazine's mind, evil was personified in the form of the pre- antitrust Bell Corporation, and I read about how Bell harassed its employees as well as phreaks, even driving one to suicide. I read about how to construct a Blue Box and a Black Box, Cheshire Catalyst's "Hacker's Anthem", and some file called "A Man Called Boris" about a Russian expatriate who was ripping off the Soviet government by thousands of dollars by insuring mail to dissidents, who would be refused delivery, forcing the government to pay up. There was some article on how to coat stamps with Elmer's Glue and reuse them, as well as a huge BBS list from about 1983, and information on removing copywrite protection from games.
It's undoubtedly true that no small amount of kids were influenced by the anti-establishment, libertarian philosophies that permeated these types of boards. The range of anti-authoritarianism ran the gamut from left-wing socialism to good 'ol boy giving the middle finger to the US government, but libertarianism was the dominant theme. In addition, it still wasn't *that* risky to engage in hacking and phreaking, so it had the allure of a restricted activity without the risk. The demographic was pure 1980's - almost strictly white adolescents, with no small amount of passive (or even overt) racism. Certainly, no effort was made to incorporate this raw teenage angst into a more far-reaching critique of power or authority of any sort, but it did make it "OK" to feel pissed off at the world around you. Hackers were basically punks and misfits with computers, and were usually smarter than the rest of their peers. Being exposed to what seemed like such powerful information did not help many of us adjust to life in the "real world", where you had to learn some sort of bounds of acceptable behavior. But in the beginning, it was merely benign curiosity about the world that got almost every kid who has a story like this involved with "computer crime", not some sort of malicious intent - that was what always confused the authorities.
I had continued down the boring path of being a 300 baud, mostly local user, calling the same boards too many times, although I did learn how to scan our local Telenet ports for remote systems, although I had little idea how to hack into them (I did obtain access with a couple of typical username/password combinations like JOHN/JOHN and TEST/TEST), completely clueless as to what I was doing, especially with what to do once in the system.
I continued my path in 300-baud loserdom until Christmas of 1986, at which point I received a 1200 baud "Prometheus ProModem" as my Christmas present. It wasn't the Apple-Cat that I wanted, but to have 1200 baud was incredibly exciting nonetheless. Now I could actually call "real" BBSes, (most of which would either hang up immediately or echo an insulting message like "Call back when you get a real modem" if attempting to connect at 300 baud). After some consternation (Ascii Express stopped giving me my "→" prompt I was used to with the new modem, expecting the Hayes "AT" command set instead) with configuration, I proceeded to call "The Roadhouse BBS" in Anaheim, California, which had always refused to let me "Run AE" at 300 baud, but let me in with no problem at 1200 baud. Now I could get all of the latest games - the first one I downloaded was "Shard of Spring" - and the MCI code I used to call insured that it was all free, free, free.
This also was my earliest memory of a paranoid way of thinking that I still get tinges of to this day - the feeling that every "kodez kid" had when your phone would ring IMMEDIATELY after you would hang up after calling for free; that sinking feeling that they were "tracing" you that whole time, calling you right back to let you know your number was up! Even worse, you'd sometimes start thinking that they "traced" you, but you wouldn't know until the police came knocking at your house two weeks later. There was always an inclination to say that the next time you'd use those damn codes would be the last, at least until you realized how expensive long distance was back then (even night-time rates were often more than $.20 a minute, quite a bit for a 13 year old kid with no job.) There was really no way to stop once you started.
I wasn't too worried about the codes though - no one else had been busted for using them, although I did receive a scare when someone who said they were from the (FBI? Mountain Bell? I can't remember) called my house, saying they were logging all calls to the Elite Connection since so many bootleg phone calls had their destination there, and I was calling it a lot, even though it was local. I still don't know if this was complete bullshit or not, although that's my inclination with the benefit of hindsight. At the time though, the person calling did seem "official", and if it was a joke on the part of the Sysop, they didn't make an effort to make it very humorous - surely any good teenager would have punctuated a hoax like that with a bit of humor. But sadly, even the "FBI" calling my house didn't seem to deter much of the behavior I was going to get involved with over subsequent years.
I was now determined to get involved in the pirate scene, with its promise of unlimited "wares"; games would be available to me right after being released on the market! One of the first boards I called was the "Trade Center" in New Jersey (201-256-4202), the headquarters of the Apple pirate group "Digital Gang". Digital Gang, as I remember, was composed of about half absolutely brilliant programmers (one in particular was named Tom E. Hawk, who did extensive modifications to the Dalton's Disk Disintegrator utility) and a couple of locals in 201 named "The Triton" (Eddie) and "High Voltage" (Tony). The former was rumored to be a high school dropout, who was some fat rich kid who had a lot of money to buy software and run the Trade Center, and "High Voltage" was another 14 year old rich kid who lived nearby. I knew that I had to get a reference from a "real" pirate board in order to get accepted on other pirate boards - you needed references of other boards you called as well as other "reputable" pirates to get accepted. I had no idea how to start doing this, but you could send a donation to the Trade Center, which I assumed would get you access. I sent in a paltry $5 donation and The Triton granted me access to the Trade Center, which gave me a slight bit of clout in the pirate world. I'd also gotten a lower- case modification for my Apple II+, so I could use that computer without that sure sign of rodenthood - having to post in all caps.
With 1200 baud, I immediately started to trade all of the software I could get my hands on. I quickly left the realm of some of these 714 pirate boards I was calling (because they accepted 300 baud users) and started calling some of the "top tier" pirate boards in the country. Despite an early rejection from Remote Hideout (818-999- 3680) I was accepted on every other board I called. There was an awesome board in 213 called the Norse Wanderer that had custom BBS software, and you had to be voted on by other users on the board (the sysop actually let me on without being voted on, one of the early "breaks" I got in the scene.) There was "The Citadel" at 213- 493-2011, which was ALWAYS busy but always had the latest wares with no credit system - you could call and leech for hours if you wanted. There was Club Zero in 213 as well, run by Pac-Rat. The Abyss at 818- 993-7422 , which I had to call at 300 baud due to its being a "202" only board (202 was the Apple-Cat's proprietary half-duplex 1200 baud standard), but which had some great discussions on religion, politics, and music, which was sysoped by Dark Cavalier (I'd chosen "Dark Sorcerer" as my alias at the time, as it seemed like there were a lot of other "Dark whatever" type aliases, i.e., Dark Prophet, Dark Dante, etc.) There was Red-Sector-A at 313-591-1024 run by the Necromancer (whom a friend of mine and I prank called one time in 1989… sorry Ralph!) and best of all, the Curse at 612-544- 3980. The Curse was run by 'The Incognito' and was a message-only board that was very popular. "The Incognito" had lots of really cool modifications to his board, as he had taken to programming after being busted for credit card fraud (sometime in 1984, I believe - he wrote a text file about it called "The Day The Secret Service Raided My House" or something along those lines, in addition to authoring "How To Spot A Loser On A BBS"). There was an area where you could simulate logging in to vintage-era Apple II pirate boards like the South Pole, the Arabian Dezert, and Sherwood Forest, as well as hack/phreak boards like Plovernet, World of Cryton, and Blottoland. These boards seemed ancient at the time, but in fact it had really only been 3 years since they had gone down (again, the time-perspective of a 14 year old is very different. 3 years seems like nothing to a post-college grad.)
There was also a blank "graffiti wall" area, which I remember as being the current home of a war between "The Martyr", a pirate from Braintree, MA who ran a board called "Brave New World", and assorted other pirates like Touch Tone and Sorcerer's Apprentice. I remember anonymous comments like the following: evidently The Martyr said he had some sort of "connections" and was going to fuck up the other members, which solicited comments about The Martyr evidently being in a wheelchair, in addition to being incredibly ugly (Sorcerer's Apprentice said that "I can't wait until your ugly face is in a 34 sector BFILE for all us ][ folks out there and a full-blown GIF for the IIGS people"). In what could have been an unrelated incident, Touch Tone made claims to being in the Mafia which elicitied similar sorts of disdain. It was all highly entertaining.
There were also quite a few "AE" systems still floating around (as well as Cat-Fur systems, which didn't apply to me). This was simply ASCII Express in remote mode, where you could call a remote system and transfer files back and forth after entering a password. The most famous of these was probably the Metal AE at 201-879-6668, (pw: KILL) which to my knowledge was the absolute last surviving such system in the country (the sysop even kept it running on two floppies after his 10 meg drive crashed!) These systems could be highly entertaining due to their graffiti-wall, free flowing nature. A typical 10 or 20 meg AE system would probably be 20% software (usually older, but good for picking up some older stuff that you missed earlier on), 20-30% textfiles, and a bunch of blank two-sector text files people would upload with "file names" ragging on other users or sometimes with a really mean or racist content to them (remember, things were much less sensitive 10-15 years ago, and these are pissed off white suburban kids we're talking about.) The sysop of the Metal AE, Lustfer Death, was also infamous for busting into chat mode unexpectedly and asking questions like "Got any codes" or "Why do you smoke pot"), the latter evidently just for entertainment value.
The whole pirate scene was entertaining, but lost its lustre pretty fast, even for a video-game crazy 13 year old. For one, I started realizing that most of these games weren't really that entertaining. Most pirates with talent usually got more into programming, which was somewhat alluring but I didn't have much exposure to it, much less the patience. Plus, by mid-1987 the number of Apple II games was starting to get slower and slower, and the quality of games was getting less and less, as it became obvious less original development was going on on the Apple, with most of the games being ports from the Commodore 64. It started to be pretty clear that the Apple II platform (with the exception of the IIGS, which was incredibly expensive and was not Apple Corporation's top priority) was becoming less viable. In addition, it seemed to start getting more difficult to obtain codes for our local MCI ports, as the whole need for extenders was lessening as "Plus One" service became available. I started to get interested in the Amiga family of computers, but had to resign myself for having only two Apple II series computers in the meantime.
Then, something happened that changed my point of view to the "computer underground" forever. Some user had posted regarding a system on the Trade Center called "WizNet" that wasn't just another BBS with a regular dial-up line - it was an entire bootleg BBS that had been set up on a Prime system out on Telenet, and had a chat room in it. What's more, most of "WizNet"'s users weren't just software pirates who programmed or possibly used phone codes, they were hackers in the true sense, and they seemed to be so much more interesting and mysterious than most of the pirates in the waning Apple II scene. WizNet (programmed by "The Wizard") would invariably go down a couple of days after it was put up as it would be discovered by an unlucky sysadmin, but it was about the coolest thing I'd witnessed in the computer scenes yet.
At the time, Telenet had just closed a major security flaw which hackers called "pad-to-padding" which allowed you to basically dial in to a Telenet port and connect recursively to another Telenet port, allowing you to"listen in" as a silent guest to whatever the remote user might be doing. I unfortunately missed the tail-end of this, but it had resulted in a virtual goldmine of network accounts and passwords on Telenet. There were tons of "NUI's" (Network User ID's) floating around, a few of which were shared with all of the known world, which allowed connecting to any port on Telenet. And a few of these ports were called "Altos" and "Altgers", two chat systems in Hamburg, Germany, which were frequented by hackers all over the world and were linked to by WizNet. These quickly became overrun with morons, but until about the summer of 1988 or so were frequented by all manners of hackers, and at the time, the thought that you were conversing with people via a system on another continent from all around the world seemed like something out of a futuristic cyberpunk novel. Again, this broke down the conceptions that you'd typically have as a suburban teenager, only confined to the options present at your high school. Suddenly you were talking to hackers like Shatter from the UK, or Logex from Mexico, and you might find out that the Mexican phone switching system is more advanced than the one you're on.
Hackers tended to be a little more of a snooty, elitist group than the pirates did, and they were more heteregenous in nature. It was a sport accessible to anyone with a modem and a terminal; you didn't need a high-speed modem or a gazillion meg hard drive to compete, which was natural given my hardware, which was less impressive by the day. But generally, you had to know your shit, and the learning curve was pretty steep. It wasn't enough to know how to get _into_ systems, you had to know VAX, Primos, or Unix inside and out to garner any respect. And no one was really telling you how to get _in_ to these systems to begin with, despite the rash of accounts unearthed by the pad-to-pad phenomenon. If you wanted to start hacking, you generally had to do three things:
(1) Find systems to hack. This was accomplished by scanning Telenet or Tymnet, or by scanning every night for local systems with a "wardialing" utility. Any major metro area would usually yield a ton of potentially hack-able systems if you wardialed every night. (2) Know what system you were in. Generally, there were Unix, VAX/VMS, Primos, HP3000, and maybe a few older systems like TOPS-20 (which was remarkably hacker-friendly in that it would allow you to view a list of valid usernames without being logged in, necessitating only the guessing of passwords); (3) Know how to get in. Generally, this was pure trial and error, or you could try "social engineering" (i.e., bullshitting the users). Mostly, you started with default accounts that you knew would be likely to exist on the system, and tried a bunch of passwords until you'd get in. Maybe if you were lucky, you'd get an unprotected root password - (yeah, right!). (4) Network with other hackers. To be fair, there were a lot of hackers that never called BBSes, solitary weirdos of the Kevin Mitnick variety. (I remember hearing of one legendary hacker named "Sir Qix" during this time as well who supposedly never saw the light of day). But having friends to talk to and teleconference with every day made things a lot more fun, and at the end of the day, it was mainly a social scene - albeit a strange one.
And the teleconference… this was always one of the highlights of the hack/phreak experience. If you were diligent, you could find a PBX that would allow calls to Alliance Teleconferencing (0-700-456- 1000, I believe) which would allow you to talk to over fifty people at once. Alliance conferences could go on for days and days, usually dwindling to two or three participants in the early morning Pacific time, at which point the usual suspects were waking up during Eastern time, building the conference until it reached a dozen people or so the next evening. There were always rumors of Alliance bills coming to customers in shoe box sized containers and the like. Alliance did have one defense mechanism, though; those whose numbers showed up too frequently on fraudulent bills would get "blacklisted", which would result in the entire conference going down. There were also bridges, which were the equivalent of unofficial "party lines" in the 80's sense of the word. You'd dial in to a bridge, and talk to whoever had dialed in as well. I had a couple of decent conversations on these bridges, but usually they'd get taken over by "bridge trolls", usually 13 year olds who would get on and play touch-tone music or something equally as annoying.
But as stated before, it wasn't necessarily easy to get accepted among hackers. I did have one thing going for me though, and that was that I could write at what seemed to be a much higher level than my actual age. No one ever seemed to understand how this scene encouraged creativity and intellectual development like none other. Knowledge was a prerequisite for admittance to higher echelons of the hacking circle, as you were generally expected to behave and learn as if you were in the very top of the Bell Curve in terms of IQ. And the topics of conversation would often extend far beyond computers, reaching into the realms of history, politics, or music (I was first exposed to all matter of punk, new wave, and dance music through people in this scene, many of whom might have lived somewhere cool like New York City or Los Angeles and weren't relegated to the Whitesnake-style crap I had to deal with on the local radio.) I don't think this drive to increase knowledge was engenederd by any other youth subculture scene before or since - and it is certainly not a byproduct of the American public school system. You were exposed to youths who were actually reading Nietzsche and understanding it - and solely due to intellectual curiosity, not out of some coffeehouse intellectual pretention.
But of course, being only fourteen years old at the time, my first exposure to this scene was one of dismal failure in terms of acceptance. I met the sysop of the "Dallas Hack Shack" on WizNet, who let me call his board and granted me access. Unfortunately, I must have been ferreted out as a newbie, because my subsequent phone calls revealed that my access had been revoked after a single call. However, I'd been rejected from BBSes before and this left me undeterred. Later on, I remember I was going to be offered an extension into some new group called "xTension", run by a rodent- turned-elite named ParMaster. When asked what my skills were on Altos, I jokingly replied "being elite" which was evidently taken seriously by a humorless "Necrovore", which resulted in me being denied access in to the group. How the irony of that one escaped him, I never understood. There was obviously a whole new realm to explore out there, and I was committed to be a part of it. Armed with my NUI's that everyone else in the world had, I started scanning Telenet intensely, as well as wardialing every night for local systems. I gained access to numerous Unix, VAX, and Primos systems through binges of all-night scanning and attacking common username/password combinations, which I then shared with others or posted to boards. I took a keen liking to Primos systems due to their possession of a unique utility - "NETLINK". NETLINK typically allowed any Prime system on an x25 network to access any other NUA (Network User Address) on the network, so these systems could serve as a launch pad to other systems. I remember PRIMOS being very difficult to learn, although in retrospect, UNIX is still a lot harder. "Necrovore" actually wrote an exhaustive compendium of PRIMOS CPL commands, a text file that can be found on www.textfiles.com to this day under the "hack" section.
There was another problem brewing, though. It seemed as though my local MCI ports, which had been fairly regular sources of free phone calls, were almost completely dry. No one seemed to be able to get much out of them, and any codes obtained were generally dead within 24 hours. And I had growing reservations about doing the typical "autoscanning" with a modem from my home, due to heightened security in our then-new digital switching system that allowed for easier identification of callers. Luckily, I'd found a new service (On my own, although there were many others who were already using it) in the form of MidAmerica Communications, or 950-1001, a popular service with Rocky Mountain region phreaks. The first code I ever tried on this system, 548951, ended up lasting me over three (!) months, and the connections were crystal clear. But I did take to hacking these codes by hand from my local 7-11's payphone, as all 950 calls were free. And I did find out a couple of years later, when the Secret Service raided my house, that I actually had a DNR (Dialed Number Recorder) on my phone line for a brief period of time before I took to hand-scanning, but I had conveniently stopped scanning at the same time, so my usage was disregarded for some reason. At the time, it seemed as though many people were starting to see the handwriting on the wall - that Automatic Number Identification and enhanced security features found in the new digital switching systems were eventually going to render hacking and phreaking unviable. But I knew that was at least a couple of years off, and I hoped that I would be able to have fun at least until my 18th birthday…
I'd managed to hack into at least twenty systems that first summer of 1988, and was feeling quite pleased with myself. I seemed to have a lot of newer on-line friends, although I hadn't met two of the hackers I would end up talking to for hours on end every single day yet. (If you ever read this, you know who you are). I was particularly proud of several Unix systems I broke into in Finland, which I accessed with the NUI's I had and just reeked of exotcisim. There also seemed to be a sort of "hacker's revival" movement, as more people were getting involved again after a series of busts that occurred in 1987, the most notable being a 17 year old named "Shadow Hawk", aka Herbert Zinn. The spearhead of this movement was on a board called the "Phoenix Project" in Austin, TX, run by an extremely knowledgable hacker named The Mentor. The Mentor, whose real name was Loyd Blankenship, has been forever immortalized as the one who penned the angry "Conscience of a Hacker" (which somehow has made it into academic texts on computer security and hacking) as well as the "Beginner's Guide To Hacking", which no doubt influenced hundreds of ne'er-do-wells to undertake hacking as a hobby. (He also famously penned the Steve Jackson Cyberpunk game, which resulted in Steve Jackson Games being comically raided by the Feds in early 1990). The Phoenix Project was about the only place where anyone could get access, and questions could be answered by the cream of the crop members of the hacker community, the Legion of Doom. I remember one file written by The Prophet which was an introductory text on Unix hacking that was particularly excellent. There were some new technologies, such as 9600 baud modems, that had allowed users to run bigger, better boards and transfer more data. This also marked the summer that many people I knew started experimenting with one of the darker sides of the hacking scene, "carding", or credit card fraud.
"Marijuana is the flame; heroin is the fuse; LSD is the bomb." -Joe Friday on an LSD scare episode of _Dragnet_
Generally, the hacker's entrance into fraud can be compared to the classic propaganda of marijuana eventually leading to hard drugs and culminating with shooting heroin. What starts off as benign curiosity, causing a lot of consternation and paranoia, eventually becomes banal, especially in the sped-up, attention-deficit deprived world of the teenage hacker. If the hacker has no desire to learn about the systems or networks in question, hacking quickly becomes not an end but rather a means to bigger and better thrills. Most pirates were content to learn about their own computers, dabbling in phone fraud as a means to stay in touch with their cohorts. Some hackers did draw the line at credit card fraud, merely content to explore the systems they break into. But many… and they were not statistically insignificant numbers in terms of the whole community… ended up getting bored with breaking into remote computer systems and turned to outright theft for bigger thrills.
Theft had always been a part of the hacking experience, at least in part. "Dumpster diving" was considered a great way to garner discarded passwords and technical manuals, and there were many of us who broke into our local Bell office in hopes of finding manuals and technical equipment. "Tapping cans" was also popular - you could find those big round "cans" on telephone poles and monitor phone calls with a phone and a $5 visit to Radio Shack. But the temptation to engage in outright fraud was definitely engaged in to no small degree, spurred on by the ridiculously easy availabilty of credit card numbers. Most Americans seemed unaware that during this time period, anyone who needed to check your credit rating (say, the used car dealership where you placed a benign inquiry about a purchase last week) could do so through an account with TRW or CBI. TRW seemed to be the de facto standard for hackers in the early to mid 1980's, but it seemed to have been supplanted by CBI in the later 1980's. Some enterprising hacker had actually figured out the number seed for the generation of CBI accounts, which effectively had opened up every CBI account in the country for potential abuse. (This also happened with ITT calling cards on the infamous 950-0488 extension and American Express credit cards during the late 1980's. It makes you wonder if companies have taken to more sophisticated number generation schema in the new millennium.)
But at any rate, credit card numbers ran like water, and if you had a modicum of clout in the scene (hacking CBI was only marginally harder than hacking "codez") you could feasibly pull the credit card history of anyone you didn't like, especially your high school English teacher that was pissing you off and giving you a hard time. And it seemed like for a while, EVERYONE was carding everything under the sun. There was some kid named Lord Zeus who had at least a dozen US Robotics HST modems, valued at $500 a pop. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the hackers in New York City I knew, including one "The Guardian" who ran an Amiga pirate board called FBI BBS, were carding entire computer systems. There were reports of kids getting busted and having tens of thousands of dollars in stolen hardware in the closet of their houses, with their parents blissfully unaware of what was going on.
Because carding did seem so easy, most people did take at least one crack at it. Generally, the myth on the street was that if you don't get too greedy, and don't use the same drop address more than once, you could get away with it forever. But even in my increasingly warped mind, it still seemed a bit hard to justify, so I just stopped trying to justify it. I succeeded in carding a $600 1.5 megabyte RAM upgrade for the Commodore Amiga (I was the proud new owner of an Amiga 500 computer, and RAM was ridiculously high during this period due to a fire at a semiconductor plant in Japan) from some company in California, which had eventually brought down some heat on my neighborhood, in addition to some clothes from Eddie Bauer and some jewelry. In retrospect, I believe this was the start of my incurring some seriously bad karma, which eventually culminated in my arrest which was to occur only about a year and a half later. However, the feeling of getting away with something like that - a true high-tech crime - was incredibly thrilling for a young teenager still in Junior High school. Mostly, credit card numbers were just fun to have lying around, and could be a source of endless amusement.
Case in point: party lines and phone sex lines. Phone sex lines, in this age of virginity, were not taken seriously at all, but what better fun than to call an 800 sex line with someone else's credit card and harass the poor woman on the other end? And how about putting the local Pizza Hut on a three-way call with some woman you've just requested to simulate giving a blow job? At a friend's request, I left the number of a mutual acquaintance who had been pissing us off lately on a gay phone sex line, which resulted in him getting dozens of solicitations for gay phone sex over a several day period. And everyone I knew in the scene was doing all of these things as a matter of course. That wasn't even the start of the possible revenge that could be extracted by a knowledgable hacker: some of the elite had access to local LMOS systems, and were able to forward phone calls from whatever source they wanted to your line if you pissed them off bad enough. Hackers with LMOS access were able to turn on the call waiting on the phone line of some sysop they didn't like, making his board disrupted every time someone else tried calling in. One hacker we knew, "Fry Guy", made a bet that he could make a payphone local to my friend's house into a regular phone (i.e., not needing a quarter to dial out) and succeeded in doing it within several days. I'm sure there were no small number of public high school teachers that ended up getting a dozen toilet seats in the mail from Sears after failing a certain apathetic computer enthusiast in one of their classes.
There were kids who were engaged in outright ripoffs and serious fraud - kids that inspired serious investigation from the likes of the FBI and Secret Service. The most intense example I remember is a Florida hacker named "Maximum Overdrive" who had succeeded in his local Western Union to the tune of at least fifty thousand dollars. Not only could he get the credit card numbers of the people whom he was wiring "from", when Western Union decided to verify by calling their home address he could forward the victim's number to one he specified and pretend to be the person wiring the money. It was during this stage in my hacking career when I believe my head started to get a little concerned again. I was starting to have ethical issues with the wholesale rip-off of corporations. Even though I already had an inkling of the American corporate power structure and how the "insurance companies just pay for it all", I was still not comfortable associating with individuals who seemed to have little desire other than to scam as much free money and computer hardware as they could possibly get. This sets the stage for what Lord Digital was talking about in his sequel to "Fall Of The Modem World" - the stage when the power you have starts to get out of hand. When you're engaging in high-tech grand larceny as a fifteen or sixteen year old, you don't learn the boundaries that other kids your age have to learn. You just blow through every barrier that's presented to you and when that's coupled with fragile adolescent egos, some serious emotional and mental maladjustment can be the result.
There was another hacker called the "Video Vindicator" that I also talked with a few times (we'd struck up a mutual interest in electronic music - I remember him playing the old techno track "Spice" by Eon to me over the telephone.) The Video Vindicator was an admitted techno-vandal, who liked to crash every system that he broke into. He ran a pretty good board in Northern California called the "Shadows Of Iga" and was by all accounts, an extremely intelligent kid. But the last I heard of him, he got out of California Youth Authority at age 19, stole a car, managed to evade jail at least once, and was living "on the run", writing text files about how to fence stole jewelry, break into houses, and the like. I had the typical angst-ridden teenage experiences shoplifting and engaging in burglarly and generally did not like them - I didn't seem to have the stomach or nerve to engage in serious crime, but in the adrenaline and testosterone-riddled time, it was easy to see how people were getting pressured into doing more extreme acts by the day. These were kids who knew how to encrypt stolen credit cards - straight up Cyberpunk Mafia type of shit. These were kids writing programs that would decipher the mathematical algorithms that corporations would use to generate credit card and calling card numbers, just for fun.
It seemed like the scene was starting to get a bit sketchier all around. In addition to knowing aforementioned fledgling Mafia members, it seemed like all sorts of people were getting busted for carding and phone fraud. A local user to me had gotten busted by 950- 1001, a fate that only escaped me because of my temporary moratorium I'd placed on scanning for phone codes from my house. I'd ended up taking all of my notes and disks with sensitive information on them over to a friend's house, afraid that I was the next one. But of course it never came, and another vow to stop what I was doing was left unfulfilled. At the end of the day, I was at a point where the scene had consumed my life and none of us could do _anything_ else. Fledgling interests in sports and academics had long been discarded in favor of complete devotion to the hacker subculture, and I had little desire to go back. I was branded as the classic "bright but an underachiever" role in school, something I knew that all of my peers had also experienced. Everything in my life now embraced this one-dimensional anti-authoritarian view, but despite my best intentions, everything always seemed to confirm the worst of what I had suspected. Kids at my school were generally mean, and I had already witnessed all of the typical detritus of the suburban wasteland I lived in; parties where there were gang-bangs, 15 year old kids smoking weed, drinking Old Milwaukee, and sniffing cocaine. It didn't offer much appeal. But it didn't matter, because in this scene, you truly had a purpose and you truly were someone important. And it wasn't related to ANYTHING that was going on in the real world. You just couldn't expect anyone to go back to the "real world" after being a member of the hacker subculture. It seemed like you were a member of this secret fraternity, with all of the power (at least in your own mind) and crazy aliases and code words out of what seemed like a comic book adventure.
"I'm not crazy, you're the one that's crazy…" -Suicidal Tendencies in "Institutionalized"
As one could imagine, most hackers didn't exactly have the most fulfilling home and personal lives, and I was no exception. I was threatened at home with being sent to a Christian school if I didn't clean up my act, which never materialized into anything but empty threats, but I felt constantly at odds with my parents, who felt like I was slipping into some sort of weird drugged Satanic cult or something, perhaps due to the long hair and obscure musical taste I'd cultivated. Nothing could have been further from the truth; I was actually ridiculously drug-free, having only been drunk one time in my life. I had no desire to smoke weed or get drunk like a lot of the other kids I knew at school were doing. I was mostly angry, and most of my non-computer time consisted of listening to the likes of Black Flag or Minor Threat.
Adults might have wanted you to just get your head out of your ass, but everything in your life reinforced the following associations: "Real World" = boring, angry, stupid, and pointless. "Hacker World" = happy, fun, exciting, where your friends were. School was something to be slept through if you actually had no choice but to go, which would then be followed by another night of all-night teleconferences and the latest scene gossip. Most importantly, it was FUN. You knew you were doing things that no one else knew how to do. And you were learning more every day. I spent endless hours on the phone every day. (What's up Data Wizard, Blue Adept, and PhaZeTech Crew, if you ever read this…) ;)
However, the handwriting on the wall seemed to be getting more and more pronounced. It had started to become pretty obvious to those in the know that it wasn't really safe to scan or use stolen calling card numbers from your house at all anymore, as people seemed to be going down for that left and right. (Getting busted for phone codes is a notoriously lame thing to get caught for anyway.) Like it or not, even the "elite" hackers who disdained the "kodez kidz" needed to make free phone calls. New technologies like ANI and Caller ID threatened to make the activities of wardialing and scanning, long staples of the hacking scene, obsolete overnight. (A hacker named Lorax and his brother in Michigan had gotten nailed simply for scanning the 800 prefix for carrier, along with them stupidly leaving a message for the owner of a hacked HP3000 to "please give us a call if you want help with your security. He called them, all right) ;)
It was clear that the whole scene had been based on this ephemeral convergence of (1) naive computer security; (2) the availability of telecommunications equipment on the mass market and (3) a very libertarian culture of computer users who disliked governments and regulations of any sort. It was no longer acceptable to talk about pirated software on most BBSes like it had been during the nascent scene in the early 1980's period. But I was still having a good time, and was starting to get to the point where I was a pretty good hacker. I had probably only cracked into fifty systems in my life, but had learned quite a bit doing it. And the vague group I knew, PhaZeTech, had a system called "Colonial" that was essentially taken over by the group, which served as a fertile Unix learning ground. (Perhaps the system administrators viewed us as sort of a helpful ant colony and never kicked us off, as we ended up doing a bit to maintain the system.) There was no reason to think it would stop anytime in the near future, as I'd stopped scanning for codes from my house some time in the past.
But then another "convergence" came back to kick my ass. I'd recently been sent an Apple Cat modem by a user named "Zippo Pinhead" on the good-faith notion I'd pay him $30 for it, which I never did. (I really _did_ mean to, Bob, but I was a broke-ass 16 year old and just never got around to it, and you didn't really seem to care anyway.) I'd always wanted the legendary Apple-Cat, due to its ability to mimic any tone, as well as scan for codes at least twice as fast as any Hayes modem. The temptation to let it scan for codes was just too much, and in addition, the bad karma from not paying for it was also a factor. Despite my better judgment, I was starting to get REALLY sloppy.
My sloppiness ended up being epitomized by another really stupid-ass mistake; leaving my real name and phone number on a board in Arizona called "The Dark Side" run by a user named "The Dictator" who as it turned out was running a sting operation for the Secret Service in exchange for some computer hardware. (To this date, I hope "The Dictator" is burning in hell, and I hope your life is a complete piece of shit, you traitorous loser. How "cool" is that Amiga hardware you got now, seeing as how you exchanged your soul for it, motherfucker?) But anyway… I'd seen "The Dictator" around, as he was calling virtually every board in existence and advertising his system, so I blindly left my number on his system. Naturally, I was immediately corroborated with the "Dark Sorcerer" who'd been seen around, probably posting some hacked VAX (incidentally, John Lee, aka "Corrupt", ruined a hacked VAX I posted at 215 379, pw BACKUP/BACKUP, that I had gotten into by trying to run some BBS on it, and this guy ended up on the cover of Wired Magazine. Weird when people you knew threw the scene started becoming minor cause celebres in the nascent wannabe-Cyberpunk type scene.) This resulted in a DNR (Dialed Number Recorder) placed on my line around December of 1989, and of course I was using my new Apple-Cat to scan for codes during that time. I could kick myself for days just thinking about how stupid all of this was.
The climax came on January 11, 1990, when two of the following showed up at my house: Secret Service agents, local cops, and US West phone security guys. And right before my parents were going to church for their bell choir practice. Ugh. Not exactly my finest hour. And yes kids, they do play "good cop, bad cop" just like in the movies. It was somewhat comical, but I felt proud that at least I didn't start bawling or narcing out everyone I had ever known, as a lot of others were prone to do (guess my nerves had been toughened up somewhat.) The charges against me ended up being somewhat impressive, as I'd been using multiple 950 services (ooops) all of which were small companies anxious to prosecute me, in addition to having some floppies on them with about seven hundred credit cards in the form of CBI buffers (double ooops) as well as suspicion I'd been involved in a couple of local credit-card shenanigans (which never materialized into real charges.) To make matters worse, they wanted to confiscate the Apple computer, which I had actually done all of the scanning on, which my little sister was currently writing a huge paper on. We had to convince them to take my Amiga instead. I ended up having to go down to the police station, taking a mug shot just like any other criminal, and spending a couple of nights in the Zebulon Pike Youth Detention Facility, shooting hoops and wondering what was going to happen to me.
The end result: Most of the charges got dropped, and I had to do fifty hours' community service, as well as pay about $3500 in restituion. Luckily, I ended up doing my "community service" for my youth minister, an ex-rock and roller who took pride in the fact that he just let me read all of the books in his office (my first exposure to Hunter S. Thompson, by the way.) It was a small compensation, but at least I didn't have to load furniture at Goodwill every weekend for two months like a lot of other people I knew who got in trouble. And my probation officer thought I was the greatest novelty - here he was dealing with kids who were stealing cars and selling weed, and he gets this gangly "hacker" out of nowhere.
I was pretty much out of the scene immediately, sans a few friends. But it didn't much matter, as the scene was quickly coming to an end anyway. The "Operation Sun Devil" busts in early-mid 1990 effectively killed off the vestiges of the 1980's hacker scene, as most of the "elite" members of the Legion of Doom and MOD had been snared in this raid. Probably almost half of the people I had known had gotten busted, had retired, or were simply getting older, getting cars and going to college. There I was, sixteen years old, yet the disappointment was something to this day I feel like only extremely old people feel; like how it must feel when half of your friends are dead. I did manage to pull off a few shenanigans after getting my computer back (my ever-unaware parents let me continue to use the computer periodically, for "school work" of course). I hacked into our local Water Supply Department VAX and gave away the account some time later, which strangely resulted in an article in the local paper a month later about how the Water Supply Department needed a new computer, with my account that had been active forever strangely cancelled… ;) (to this date, I have no idea if someone I gave it out to on the "Magnetic Page" BBS crashed this or something.) I got the occasional Alliance call from some old people I knew, and I quickly found I had little in common with most of them. It seemed like most were either drifting off into computer-science major irrelevance, or were still able to pull off some capers due to non- busted status. But no one seemed to be quite as crazy as they were even a year ago, as security was getting better and better and "hacking" was starting to just mean hacking voice mail systems. (Although the Tymnet heyday was still to come. Does anyone else remember that cheezy chat system "QSD"?) ;)
Computers seemed to lose their lustre. All of a sudden I had to be normal, go to parties and try to fit in somwhat. The disappointment at not being a part of the scene any more was quite a bit to bear. I still had some calling cards, CBI accounts, and a few token relics of the hacker era in order to amuse my "real world" friends, mostly. But by and large, everything was gone. Before I knew it, a lot of the people I had known were in college, and some of them had dropped out to become professional programmers at age 19 or so, already knowing way more than most of their professors. After a year or so of re-adjustment, I attained some sort of normalcy. I used LSD extensively, and later Ecstasy and ketamine. Drugs were sort of an effort to get that "peak feeling" that I used to get, and were incredibly entertaining and insightful, although they lacked the long- term intellectual stimulation that computers were able to provide, eventually becoming somewhat banal in their own right. But that, as they say, is a different story. :)
This brings me to the end of this file: if you made it this far, how come? And where are the rest of the people I used to know in that scene now? All grown up, I'd imagine. The ones who didn't get busted probably got their PhD's and didn't stray too far from the Republican Party. But the ones who were a little more worldly, what happened? Was it a period of intense self-scrutiny, reading thousands of books, spending endless hours of self-reflection… and was intellectual curiosity what that scene was all about?