Please adjust the frame on the left to read the following story to avoid using the stroll bars at the bottom.
The Extraordinary Underworld of Hackers,
Phreakers, Virus Writers,
And Keyboard Criminals
This book was originally released in hardcover by Random House in 1992.
I feel that I should do the community a service and release the book in the
medium it should have been first released in... I hope you enjoy the book as
much as I did..It provides a fairly complete account of just about
everything.....From motherfuckers, to Gail 'The Bitch' Thackeray.....
Greets to all,
Golden Hacker / 1993
Death Incarnate / 1993
Fry Guy watched the computer screen as the cursor blinked. Beside him a small
electronic box chattered through a call routine, the numbers clicking audibly
as each of the eleven digits of the phone number was dialed. Then the box made
a shrill, electronic whistle, which meant that the call had gone through; Fry
Guy's computer had been connected to another system hundreds of miles away.
The cursor blinked again, and the screen suddenly changed. WELCOME TO CREDIT
SYSTEMS OF AMERICA, it read, and below that, the cursor pulsed beside the
prompt: ENTER ACCOUNT NUMBER.
Fry Guy smiled. He had just broken into one of the most secure computer systems
in the United States, one which held the credit histories of millions of
American citizens. And it had really been relatively simple. Two hours ago he
had called an electronics store in Elmwood, Indiana, which--like thousands of
other shops across the country--relied on Credit Systems of America to check
its customers' credit cards.
"Hi, this is Joe Boyle from CSA . . . Credit Systems of America," he had said,
dropping his voice two octaves to sound older--a lot older, he hoped--than his
fifteen years. He also modulated his natural midwestern drawl, giving his voice
an eastern twang: more big-city, more urgent.
"I need to speak to your credit manager . . . uh, what's the name? Yeah, Tom.
Can you put me through?"
"Tom, this is Joe Boyle from CSA. You've been having some trouble with your
Tom hadn't heard of any trouble.
"No? That's really odd.... Look, I've got this report that says you've been
having problems. Maybe there's a mistake somewhere down the line. Better give
me your account number again."
And Tom did, obligingly reeling off the eight-character code that allowed his
company to access the CSA files and confirm customer credit references. As Fry
Guy continued his charade, running through a phony checklist, Tom, ever
helpful, also supplied his store's confidential CSA password. Then Fry Guy
keyed in the information on his home computer. "I don't know what's going on,"
he finally told Tom. "I'll check around and call you back."
But of course he never would. Fry Guy had all the information he needed: the
account number and the password. They were the keys that would unlock the CSA
computer for him. And if Tom ever phoned CSA and asked for Joe Boyle, he would
find that no one at the credit bureau had ever heard of him. Joe Boyle was
simply a name that Fry Guy had made up.
Fry Guy had discovered that by sounding authoritative and demonstrating his
knowledge of computer systems, most of the time people believed he was who he
said he was. And they gave him the information he asked for, everything from
account codes and passwords to unlisted phone numbers. That was how he got the
number for CSA; he just called the local telephone company's operations
"Hi, this is Bob Johnson, Indiana Bell tech support," he had said. "Listen, I
need you to pull a file for me. Can you bring it up on your screen?"
The woman on the other end of the phone sounded uncertain. Fry Guy forged
ahead, coaxing her through the routine: "Right, on your keyboard, type in K--P
pulse.... Got that? Okay, now do one-two-one start, no M--A.... Okay?
"Yeah? Can you read me the file? I need the number there...."
It was simply a matter of confidence--and knowing the jargon. The directions he
had given her controlled access to unlisted numbers, and because he knew the
routine, she had read him the CSA number, a number that is confidential, or at
least not generally available to fifteen-year-old kids like himself.
But on the phone Fry Guy found that he could be anyone he wanted to be: a CSA
employee or a telephone engineer--merely by pretending to be an expert. He had
also taught himself to exploit the psychology of the person on the other end of
the line. If they seemed confident, he would appeal to their magnanimity: "I
wonder if you can help me . . ." If they appeared passive, or unsure, he would
be demanding: "Look, I haven't got all day to wait around. I need that number
now." And if they didn't give him what he wanted, he could always hang up and
Of course, you had to know a lot about the phone system to convince an Indiana
Bell employee that you were an engineer. But exploring the telecommunications
networks was Fry Guy's hobby: he knew a lot about the phone system.
Now he would put this knowledge to good use. From his little home computer he
had dialed up CSA, the call going from his computer to the electronic box
beside it, snaking through a cable to his telephone, and then passing through
the phone lines to the unlisted number, which happened to be in Delaware.
The electronic box converted Fry Guy's own computer commands to signals that
could be transmitted over the phone, while in Delaware, the CSA's computer
converted those pulses back into computer commands. In essence, Fry Guy's home
computer was talking to its big brother across the continent, and Fry Guy would
be able to make it do whatever he wanted.
But first he needed to get inside. He typed in the account number Tom had given
him earlier, pressed Return, and typed in the password. There was a momentary
pause, then the screen filled with the CSA logo, followed by the directory of
Fry Guy was completely on his own now, although he had a
good idea of what he was doing. He was going to delve deeply into the accounts
section of the system, to the sector where CSA stored confidential information
on individuals: their names, addresses, credit histories, bank loans, credit
card numbers, and so on. But it was the credit card numbers that he really
wanted. Fry Guy was short of cash, and like hundreds of other computer wizards,
he had discovered how to pull off a high-tech robbery.
When Fry Guy was thirteen, in 1987, his parents had presented him with his
first computer--a Commodore 64, one of the new, smaller machines designed for
personal use. Fry Guy linked up the keyboard-sized system to an old television,
which served as his video monitor.
On its own the Commodore didn't do much: it could play games or run short
programs, but not a lot more. Even so, the machine fascinated him so much that
he began to spend more and more time with it. Every day after school, he would
hurry home to spend the rest of the evening and most of the night learning as
much as possible about his new electronic plaything.
He didn't feel that he was missing out on anything. School bored him, and
whenever he could get away with it, he skipped classes to spend more time
working on the computer. He was a loner by nature; he had a lot of
acquaintances at school, but no real friends, and while his peers were mostly
into sports, he wasn't. He was tall and gawky and, at 140 pounds, not in the
right shape to be much of an athlete. Instead he stayed at home.
About a year after he got the Commodore, he realized that he could link his
computer to a larger world. With the aid of an electronic box, called a modem,
and his own phone line, he could travel far beyond his home, school, and
He soon upgraded his system by selling off his unwanted possessions and bought
a better computer, a color monitor, and various other external devices such as
a printer and the electronic box that would give his computer access to the
wider world. He installed three telephone lines: one linked to the computer for
data transmission, one for voice, and one that could be used for either.
Eventually he stumbled across the access number to an electronic message center
called Atlantic Alliance, which was run by computer hackers. It provided him
with the basic information on hacking; the rest he learned from
Often he would work on the computer for hours on end, sometimes sitting up all
night hunched over the keyboard. His room was a sixties time warp filled with
psychedelic posters, strobes, black lights, lava lamps, those gift-shop relics
with blobs of wax floating in oil, and a collection of science fiction books.
But his computer terminal transported him to a completely different world that
encompassed the whole nation and girdled the globe. With the electronic box and
a phone line he could cover enormous distances, jumping through an endless
array of communications links and telephone exchanges, dropping down into other
computer systems almost anywhere on earth. Occasionally he accessed Altos, a
business computer in Munich, Germany owned by a company that was tolerant of
hackers. Inevitably, it became an international message center for computer
Hackers often use large systems like these to exchange information and have
electronic chats with one another, but it is against hacker code to use one's
real name. Instead, they use "handles," nicknames like The Tweaker, Doc Cypher
and Knightmare. Fry Guy's handle came from a commercial for McDonald's that
said "We are the fry guys."
Most of the other computer hackers he met were loners like he was, but some of
them worked in gangs, such as the Legion of Doom, a U.S. group, or Chaos in
Germany. Fry Guy didn't join a gang, because he preferred working in solitude.
Besides, if he started blabbing to other hackers, he could get busted.
Fry Guy liked to explore the phone system. Phones were more than just a means
to make a call: Indiana Bell led to an immense network of exchanges and
connections, to phones, to other computers, and to an international array of
systems and data transmission links. It was an electronic highway network that
was unbelievably vast.
He learned how to dial into the nearest telephone exchange on his little
Commodore and hack into the switch, the computer that controls all the phones
in the area. He discovered that each phone is represented by a long code, the
LEN (Line Equipment Number), which assigns functions and services to the phone,
such as the chosen long-distance carrier, call forwarding, and so on. He knew
how to manipulate the code to reroute calls, reassign numbers, and do dozens of
other tricks, but best of all, he could manipulate the code so that all his
calls would be free.
After a while Indiana Bell began to seem tame. It was a convenient launching
pad, but technologically speaking it was a wasteland. So he moved on to
BellSouth in Atlanta, which had all of the latest communications technology.
There he became so familiar with the system that the other hackers recognized
it as his SoI--sphere of influence--just as a New York hacker called Phiber
Optik became the king of NYNEX (the New York-New England telephone system), and
another hacker called Control C claimed the Michigan network. It didn't mean
that BellSouth was his alone, only that the other members of the computer
underworld identified him as its best hacker.
At the age of fifteen he started using chemicals as a way of staying awake.
Working at his computer terminal up to twenty hours a day, sleeping only two or
three hours a night, and sometimes not at all, the chemicals--uppers, speed--
kept him alert, punching away at his keyboard, exploring his new world.
But outside this private world, life was getting more confusing. Problems with
school and family were beginning to accumulate, and out of pure frustration, he
thought of a plan to make some money.
In 1989 Fry Guy gathered all of the elements for his first hack of CSA. He had
spent two years exploring computer systems and the phone company, and each new
trick he learned added one more
layer to his knowledge. He had become familiar with important computer
operating systems, and he knew how the phone company worked. Since his plan
involved hacking into CSA and then the phone system, it was essential to be
expert in both.
The hack of CSA took longer than he thought it would. The account number and
password he extracted from Tom only got him through the credit bureau's front
door. But the codes gave him legitimacy; to CSA he looked like any one of
thousands of subscribers. Still, he needed to get into the sector that listed
individuals and their accounts--he couldn't just type in a person's name, like
a real CSA subscriber; he would have to go into the sector through the back
door, as CSA itself would do when it needed to update its own files.
Fry Guy had spent countless hours doing just this sort of thing: every time he
accessed a new computer, wherever it was, he had to learn his way around, to
make the machine yield privileges ordinarily reserved for the company that
owned it. He was proficient at following the menus to new sectors and breaking
through the security barriers that were placed in his way. This system would
yield like all the others.
It took most of the afternoon, but by the end of the day he, chanced on an area
restricted to CSA staff that led the way to the account sector. He scrolled
through name after name, reading personal credit histories, looking for an
Indiana resident with a valid credit card.
He settled on a Visa card belonging to a Michael B. from Indianapolis; he took
down his full name, account and telephone number. Exiting from the account
sector, he accessed the main menu again. Now he had a name: he typed in Michael
B. for a standard credit check.
Michael B., Fry Guy was pleased to see, was a financially responsible
individual with a solid credit line.
Next came the easy part. Disengaging from CSA, Fry Guy directed his attention
to the phone company. Hacking into a local switch in Indianapolis, he located
the line equipment number for
Michael B. and rerouted his incoming calls to a phone booth in Paducah,
Kentucky, about 250 miles from Elmwood. Then he manipulated the phone booth's
setup to make it look like a residential number, and finally rerouted the calls
to the phone box to one of the three numbers on his desk. That was a bit of
extra security: if anything was ever traced, he wanted the authorities to think
that the whole operation had been run from Paducah.
And that itself was a private joke. Fry Guy had picked Paducah precisely
because it was not the sort of town that would be home to many hackers:
technology in Paducah, he snickered, was still in the Stone Age.
Now he had to move quickly. He had rerouted all of Michael B.'s incoming calls
to his own phone, but didn't want to have to deal with his personal messages.
He called Western Union and instructed the company to wire $687 to its office
in Paducah, to be picked up by--and here he gave the alias of a friend who
happened to live there. The transfer would be charged to a certain Visa card
belonging to Michael B.
Then he waited. A minute or so later Western Union called Michael B.'s number
to confirm the transaction. But the call had been intercepted by the
reprogrammed switch, rerouted to Paducah, and from there to a phone on Fry
Fry Guy answered, his voice deeper and, he hoped, the sort that would belong to
a man with a decent credit line. Yes, he was Michael B., and yes, he could
confirm the transaction. But seconds later, he went back into the switches and
quickly reprogrammed them. The pay phone in Paducah became a pay phone again,
and Michael B., though he was unaware that anything had ever been amiss, could
once again receive incoming calls. The whole transaction had taken less than
The next day, after his friend in Kentucky had picked up the $687, Fry Guy
carried out a second successful transaction, this time worth $432. He would
perform the trick again and again that summer, as often as he needed to buy
more computer equipment and chemicals. He didn't steal huge amounts of money--
the sums he took were almost insignificant, just enough for his own needs. But
Fry Guy is only one of many, just one of a legion of adolescent computer
wizards worldwide, whose ability to crash through high-tech security systems,
to circumvent access controls, and to penetrate files holding sensitive
information, is endangering our computer-dependent societies. These
technology-obsessed electronic renegades form a distinct subculture. Some
steal--though most don't; some look for information; some just like to play
with computer systems. Together they probably represent the future of our
computer-dependent society. Welcome to the computer underworld--a metaphysical
place that exists only in the web of international data communications
networks, peopled by electronics wizards who have made it their recreation
center, meeting ground, and home. The members of the underworld are mostly
adolescents like Fry Guy who prowl through computer systems looking for
information, data, links to other webs, and credit card numbers. They are often
extraordinarily clever, with an intuitive feel for electronics and
telecommunications, and a shared antipathy for ordinary rules and regulations.
The electronics networks were designed to speed communications around the
world, to link companies and research centers, and to transfer data from
computer to computer. Because they must be accessible to a large number of
users, they have been targeted by computer addicts like Fry Guy--sometimes for
exploration, sometimes for theft.
Almost every computer system of note has been hacked: the Pentagon, NATO, NASA,
universities, military and industrial research laboratories. The cost of the
depradations attributed to computer fraud has been estimated at $4 billion each
year in the United States alone. And an estimated 85 percent of computer crime
is not even reported.
The computer underworld can also be vindictive. In the past five years the
number of malicious programs--popularly known as viruses--has increased
exponentially. Viruses usually serve no useful purpose: they simply cripple
computer systems and destroy data. And yet the underworld that produces them
continues to flourish. In a very short time it has become a major threat to the
technology-dependent societies of the Western industrial world.
Computer viruses began to spread in 1987, though most of the early bugs were
jokes with playful messages, or relatively harmless programs that caused
computers to play tunes. They were essentially schoolboyish tricks. But
eventually some of the jokes became malicious: later viruses could delete or
modify information held on computers, simulate hardware faults, or even wipe
data off machines completely.
The most publicized virus of all appeared in 1992. Its arrival was heralded by
the FBI, by Britain's New Scotland Yard and by Japan's International Trade
Ministry, all of which issued warnings about the bug's potential for damage. It
had been programmed to wipe out all data on infected computers on March 6th--
the anniversary of Michelangelo's birth. The virus became known, naturally, as
It was thought that the bug may have infected as many as 5 million computers
worldwide, and that data worth billions of dollars was at risk. This may have
been true, but the warnings from police and government agencies, and the
subsequent press coverage, caused most companies to take precautions. Computer
systems were cleaned out; back-up copies of data were made; the cleverer (or
perhaps lazier) users simply reprogrammed their machines so that their internal
calendars jumped from March 5th to March 7th, missing the dreaded 6th
completely. (It was a perfectly reasonable precaution: Michelangelo will
normally only strike when the computer's own calendar registers March 6.)
Still, Michelangelo hasn't been eradicated. There are certainly copies of the
virus still at large, probably being passed on innocently from computer user to
computer user. And of course March 6th still comes once a year.
The rise of the computer underworld to the point at which a single malicious
program like Michelangelo can cause law enforcement agencies, government
ministries, and corporations to take special precautions, when credit bureau
information can be stolen and individuals' credit card accounts can be easily
plundered, began thirty years ago. Its impetus, curiously enough, was a simple
decision by Bell Telephone to replace its human operators with computers.
Chapter 1 PHREAKING FOR
The culture of the technological underworld was - formed in the early
sixties, at a time when computers were vast pieces of complex machinery used
only by big corporations and big government. It grew out of the social revolu-
tion that the term the sixties has come to represent, and it remains an
antiestablishment, anarchic, and sometimes "New Age" technological movement
organized against a background of music, drugs, and the remains of the
The goal of the underground was to liberate technology from the controls of
state and industry, a feat that was accomplished more by accident than by
design. The process began not with computers but with a fad that later became
known as phreaking--a play on the wordsfreak, phone, andfree. In the beginning
phreaking was a simple pastime: its purpose was nothing more than the
manipulation of the Bell Telephone system in the United States, where most
phreakers lived, for free long-distance phone calls.
Most of the earliest phreakers happened to be blind children, in part because
it was a natural hobby for unsighted lonely youngsters. Phreaking was something
they could excel at: you didn't need sight to phreak, just hearing and a talent
Phreaking exploited the holes in Bell's long-distance, directdial system. "Ma
Bell" was the company the counterculture both
4 APPROACHING ZERO
loved and loathed: it allowed communication, but at a price. Thus, ripping off
the phone company was liberating technology, and not really criminal.
Phreakers had been carrying on their activities for almost a decade, forming an
underground community of electronic pirates long before the American public had
heard about them. In October 1971 Esquire magazine heralded the phreaker craze
in an article by Ron Rosenbaum entitled "The Secrets of the Little Blue Box,"
the first account of phreaking in a mass-circulation publication, and still the
only article to trace its beginnings. It was also undoubtedly the principal
popularizer of the movement. But of course Rosenbaum was only the messenger;
the subculture existed before he wrote about it and would have continued to
grow even if the article had never been published. Nonetheless, his piece had
an extraordinary impact: until then most Americans had thought of the phone, if
they thought of it at all, as an unattractive lump of metal and plastic that
sat on a desk and could be used to make and receive calls. That it was also the
gateway to an Alice-inWonderland world where the user controlled the phone
company and not vice versa was a revelation. Rosenbaum himself acknowledges
that the revelations contained in his story had far more impact than he had
expected at the time.
The inspiration for the first generation of phreakers was said to be a man
known as Mark Bernay (though that wasn't his real name). Bernay was identified
in Rosenbaum's article as a sort of electronic Pied Piper who traveled up and
down the West Coast of the United States, pasting stickers in phone booths,
inviting everyone to share his discovery of the mysteries of "loop-around-
pairs," a mechanism that allowed users to make toll-free calls.
Bernay himself found out about loop-around-pairs from a friendly telephone
company engineer, who explained that within the millions of connections and
interlinked local exchanges of what in those days made up the Bell network
there were test numbers used by engineers to check connections between the
exchan~es. These numbers often occurred in consecutive pairs, say (213)-9001
and (213)- 9002, and were wired together so that a caller to one number was
automatically looped around to the other. Hence the name, loop-around-pairs.
Bernay publicized the fact that if two people anywhere in the country dialed
any set of consecutive test numbers, they could talk together for free. He
introduced a whole generation of people to the idea that the phone company
wasn't an impregnable fortress: Ma Bell had a very exploitable gap in its
derenses that anyone could use, just by knowing the secret. Bernay, steeped in
the ethos of the sixties, was a visionary motivated by altruism--as well as by
the commonly held belief that the phone system had been magically created to be
used by anyone who needed it. The seeds he planted grew, over the next years,
into a full-blown social phenomenon.
Legend has it that one of the early users of Bernay's system was a young man in
Seattle, who told a blind friend about it, who in turn brought the idea to a
winter camp for blind kids in Los Angeles. They dispersed back to their own
hometowns and told their friends, who spread the secret so rapidly that within
a year blind children throughout the country were linked together by the
electronic strands of the Bell system. They had created a sort of community, an
electronic clubhouse, and the web they spun across the country had a single
purpose: communication. The early phreakers simply wanted to talk to each other
without running up huge long-distance bills.
It wasn't long, though, before the means displaced the end, and some of the
early phreakers found that the technology of the phone system could provide a
lot more fun than could be had by merely calling someone. In a few years
phreakers would learn other skills and begin to look deeper. They found a
labyrinth of electronic passages and hidden sections within the Bell network
and began charting it. Then they realized they were really looking at the
inside of a computer, that the Bell system was simply a giant network of
terminals--known as telephones--with a vast series of switches, wires, and
loops stretching all across the country. It was actual place, though it only
existed at the end of a phone
6 APPROACHING ZERO
receiver, a nearly limitless electronic universe accessible by dialing numbers
on a phone. And what made this space open to phreakers was the spread of
electronic gadgets that would completely overwhelm the Bell system.
According to Bell Telephone, the first known instance of theft of long-distance
telephone service by an electronic device was discovered in 1961, after a local
office manager in the company's Pacific Northwest division noticed some
inordinately lengthy calls to an out-of-area directory-information number. The
calls were from a studio at Washington State College, and when Bell's engineers
went to investigate, they found what they described as "a strange-looking
device on a blue metal chassis" attached to the phone, which they immediately
nicknamed a "blue box."
The color of the device was incidental, but the name stuck. Its purpose was to
enable users to make free long-distance calls, and it was a huge advancement on
simple loop-around-pairs: not only could the blue box set up calls to any
number anywhere, it would also allow the user to roam through areas of the Bell
system that were off-limits to ordinary subscribers.
The blue box was a direct result of Bell's decision in the mid 1950'S to build
its new direct-dial system around multifrequency tones--musical notes generated
by dialing that instruct the local exchange to route the call to a specific
number. The tones weren't the same as the notes heard when pressing the numbers
on a push-button phone: they were based on twelve electronically generated
combinations of six master tones. These tones controlled the whole system:
hence they were secret.
Or almost. In 1954 an article entitled "In-band Signal Frequency Signaling,"
appeared in the Bell System Technical System Journal, which described the
electronic signals used for routing long-distance calls around the country, for
"call completion" (hanging up), and for billing. The phone company then
released the rest of its secrets when the November 1960 issue of the same
journal described the frequencies of the tones used to dial the numbers.
The journal was intended only for Bell's own technical staff, but the company
had apparently forgotten that most engineering colleges subscribed to it as
well. The articles proved to be the combination to Bell's safe. Belatedly
realizing its error, Bell tried to recall the two issues. But they had already
become collectors' items, endlessly photocopied and passed around among
engineering students all over the country.
Once Bell's tone system was known, it was relatively simple for engineering
students to reproduce the tones, and then--by knowing the signaling methods--to
employ them to get around the billing system. The early blue boxes used vacuum
tubes (the forerunners of transistors) and were just slightly larger than the
telephones they were connected to. They were really nothing more than a device
that reproduced Bell's multifrequency tones, and for that reason hard-core
phreakers called them MF-ers--for multifrequency transmitters. (The acronym was
also understood to stand for "motherfuckers," because they were used to fuck
around with Ma Bell.)
Engineering students have always been notorious for attempting to rip off the
phone company. In the late 1950S Bell was making strenuous efforts to stamp out
a device that much later was nicknamed the red box--presumably to distinguish
it from the blue box. The red box was a primitive gizmo, often no more than an
army-surplus field telephone or a modified standard phone linked to an
operating Bell set. Legend has it that engineering students would wire up a red
box for Mom and Dad before they left for college so that they could call home
for free. Technically very simple, red boxes employed a switch that would send
a signal to the local telephone office to indicate that the phone had been
picked up. But the signal was momentary, just long enough to alert the local
office and cause the ringing to stop, but not long enough to send the signal to
the telephone office in the city where the call was originated. That was the
trick: the billing was set up in the originating office, and to the originating
office it would seem as though the phone was still ringing. When Pop took his
8 APPROCHING ZERO
finger off the switch on the box, he and Junior could talk free of charge.
The red boxes had one serious drawback: the phone company could become
suspicious if it found that Junior had ostensibly spent a half an hour
listening to the phone ring back at the family homestead. A more obvious
problem was that Mom and Pop--if one believes the legend that red boxes were
used by college kids to call home--would quickly tire of their role in ripping
off the phone company only to make it easier for Junior to call and ask for
Inevitably there were other boxes, too, all exploiting other holes in the Bell
system. A later variation of the red box, sometimes called a black box, was
popular with bookies. It caused the ringing to cease prior to the phone being
picked up, thereby preventing the originating offlce from billing the call.
There was also another sort of red box that imitated the sound of coins being
dropped into the slot on pay phones. It was used to convince operators that a
call was being paid for.'
The blue box, however, was the most sophisticated of all. It put users directly
in control of long-distance switching equipment. To avoid toll-call charges,
users of blue boxes would dial free numbers--out-of-area directory enquiries or
commercial 1-800 numbers--then reroute the call by using the tones in the
This is how it worked: long-distance calls are first routed through a
subscriber's own local telephone office. The first digits tell the office that
the call is long-distance, and it is switched to an idle long-distance line. An
idle line emits a constant 2600-cycle whistling tone, the signal that it is
ready to receive a call. As the caller finishes dialing the desired
number--called the address digits--the call is completed--all of which takes
place in the time it takes to punch in the number.
At the local office, billing begins when the long-distance call is answered and
ends when the caller puts his receiver down. The act of hanging up is the
signal to the local office that the call is completed. The local office then
tells the line that it can process any other call by sending it the same
2600-cycle tone, and the line begins emitting the tone again.
A phreaker made his free call by first accessing, say, the 1-800 number for
Holiday Inn. His local office noted that it was processing a long-distance
call, found an idly whistling line, and marked the call down as routed to a
free number. At that point, before Holiday Inn answered, the phreaker pressed a
button on his MF-er, which reproduced Bell's 2600-cycle whistle. This signified
that the Holiday Inn call had been completed--or that the caller had hung up
prior to getting an answer--and it stood by to accept another call.
But at the local office no hanging-up signal had been received; hence the local
office presumed the Holiday Inn call was still going through. The phreaker,
still connected to a patiently whistling long-distance line, then punched in
the address digits of any number he wanted to be connected to, while his local
office assumed that he was really making a free call.
Blue boxes could also link into forbidden areas in the Bell system. Users of
MF-ers soon discovered that having a merrily whistling trunk line at their
disposal could open many more possibilities than just free phone calls: they
could dial into phonecompany test switches, to long-distance route operators,
and into conference lines--which meant they could set up their own phreaker
conference calls. Quite simply, possession of a blue box gave the user the same
control and access as a Bell operator. When operator-controlled dialing to
Europe was introduced in 1963, phreakers with MF-ers found they could
direct-dial across the Atlantic, something ordinary subscribers couldn't do
The only real flaw with blue boxes was that Bell Telephone's accounts
department might become suspicious of subscribers who seemed to spend a lot of
time connected to the 1-800 numbers of, say, Holiday Inn or the army recruiting
office and might begin monitoring the line. Phreaking, after all, was
technically theft of
10 APPROACHINC ZERO
service, and phreakers could be prosecuted under various state and federal
To get around this, canny phreakers began to use public phone booths,
preferably isolated ones. The phone company could hardly monitor every public
telephone in the United States, and even when the accounts department realized
that a particular pay phone had been used suspiciously, the phreaker would have
long since disappeared.
By the late 1960s blue boxes had become smaller and more portable. The bulky
vacuum tubes mounted on a metal chassis had been replaced by transistors in
slim boxes only as large as their keypads. Some were built to look like
cigarette packs or transistor radios. Cleverer ones--probably used by drug
dealers or bookies--were actually working transistor radios that concealed the
components of an operational blue box within their wiring.
What made Bell's technology particularly vulnerable was that almost anything
musical could be used to reproduce the tone frequencies. Musical instruments
such as flutes, horns, or organs could be made to re-create Bell's notes, which
could then be taped, and a simple cassette player could serve as a primitive MF
device. One of the easiest ways to make a free call was to record the tones for
a desired number in the correct sequence onto a cassette tape, go to a phone,
and play the tape back into the mouthpiece. To Bell's exasperation, some people
could even make free phone calls just by whistling.
Joe Engressia, the original whistling phreaker, was blind, and was said to have
been born with perfect pitch. As a child he became fascinated by phones: he
liked to dial nonworking numbers around the country just to listen to the
recording say, "This number is not in service." When he was eight, he was
accidentally introduced to the theory of multifrequency tones, though he didn't
realize it at the time. While listening to an out-of-service tape in Los
Angeles, he began whistling and the phone went dead. He tried it again, and the
same thing happened. Then he phoned his local office and reportedly said, "I'm
Joe. I'm eight years old and I want to know why when I whistle this tune, the
line clicks off."
The engineer told Joe about what was sometimes known as talk-off, a phenomenon
that happened occasionally when one party to a conversation began whistling and
accidentally hit a 2600-cycle tone. That could make the line think that the
caller had hung up, and cause it to go dead. Joe didn't understand the
explanation then, but within a few years he would probably know more about it
than the engineer.
Joe became famous in 1971 when Ron Rosenbaum catalogued his phreaking skills in
the Esquire article. But he had first come to public attention two years
earlier, when he was discovered whistling into a pay phone at the University of
South Florida. Joe, by this time a twenty-year-old university student, had
mastered the science of multifrequency tones and, with perfect pitch, could
simply whistle the 2600-cycle note down the line, and then whistle up any phone
number he wanted to call. The local telephone company, determined to stamp out
phreaking, had publicized the case, and Joe's college had disciplined him.
Later, realizing that he was too well known to the authorities to continue
phreaking in Florida, he moved on to Memphis, which was where Rosenbaum found
In 1970 Joe was living in a small room surrounded by the paraphernalia of
phreaking. Even more than phreaking, however, Joe's real obsession was the
phone system itself. His ambition, he told Rosenbaum, was to work for Ma Bell.
He was in love with the phone system, and his hobby, he claimed, was something
he called phone tripping: he liked to visit telephone switching stations and
quiz the company engineers about the workings of the system. Often he knew more
than they did. Being blind, he couldn't see anything, but he would run his
hands down the masses of wiring coiled around the banks of circuitry. He could
learn how the links were made just by feeling his way through the
12 APPROACHING ZERO
connections in the wiring, and in this way, probably gained more knowledge than
most sighted visitors.
Joe had moved to Tennessee because that state had some interesting independent
phone districts. Like many phreakers, Joe was fascinated by the independents--
small, private phone companies not controlled by Bell--because of their
idiosyncrasies. Though all of the independents were linked to Bell as part of
the larger North American phone network, they often used different equipment
(some of it older), or had oddities within the system that phreakers liked to
By that time the really topflight phreakers were more interested in exploring
than making free calls. They had discovered that the system, with all of its
links, connections, and switches, was like a giant electronic playground, with
tunnels from one section to another, pathways that could take calls from North
America to Europe and back again, and links that could reach satellites capable
of beaming calls anywhere in the world.
One of the early celebrated figures was a New York-based phreaker who used his
blue box to call his girlfriend in Boston on weekends--but never directly.
First he would call a 1-800 number somewhere in the country, skip out of it
onto the international operator's circuit, and surface in Rome, where he would
redirect the call to an operator in Hamburg. The Hamburg operator would assume
the call originated in Rome and accept the instructions to patch it to Boston.
Then the phreaker would speak to his girlfriend, his voice bouncing across the
Atlantic to a switch in Rome, up to Hamburg, and then back to Boston via
satellite. The delay would have made conversation difficult, but, of course,
conversation was never the point.
Few phreakers ever reached that level of expertise. The community was never
huge--there were probably never more than a few hundred real, diehard phone
phreaks--but it suddenly began to grow in the late 1960s as the techniques
became more widely known. Part of the impetus for this growth was the increased
access to conference lines, which allowed skills and lore to be more widelv
Conference lines--or conference bridges--are simply special switches that allow
several callers to participate in a conversation at the same time. The service,
in those days, was generally promoted to businesses, but bridges were also used
by the telephone company for testing and training. For instance, the 1121
conference lines were used to train Bell operators: they could dial the number
to hear a recording of calls being made from a pay phone, including the pings
of the coins as they dropped, so that they could become familiar with the
system. If two phreakers rang any one of the 1121 training numbers, they could
converse, though the constant pinging as the coins dropped on the recording was
Far better were lines like 2111, the internal company code for Telex testing.
For six months in the late 1960s phreakers congregated on a disused 2111 test
line located somewhere in a telephone office in Vancouver. It became an
enormous clubhouse, attracting both neophyte and experienced MF-ers in a
continuing conference call. To participate, phreakers needed only to MF their
way through a 1-800 number onto the Vancouver exchange and then punch out 2111.
The clubhouse may have existed only in the electronic ether around a test
number in a switching office somewhere in Canada, but it was a meeting place
Joe Engressia's life in Memphis revolved around phreaker conference lines, but
when Rosenbaum talked to him, he was getting worried about being discovered.
"I want to work for Ma Bell. I don't hate Ma Bell the way some phone phreaks
do. I don't want to screw Ma Bell. With me it's the pleasure of pure knowledge.
There's something beautiful about the system when you know it intimately the
way I do. But I don't know how much they know about me here. I have a very
intuitive feel for the condition of the line I'm on, and I think they're
monitoring me off and on lately, but I haven't been doing much illegal.... Once
I took an acid trip and was havin these auditory hallucinations . . . and all
14 APPROACHING ZERO
sudden I had to phone phreak out of there. For some reason I had to call Kansas
City, but that's all."
Joe's intuition was correct: he was indeed being monitored. Shortly after that
interview, agents from the phone company's security department, accompanied by
local police, broke into his room and confiscated every bit of
telecommunications equipment. Joe was arrested and spent the night in jail.
The charges against him were eventually reduced from possession of a blue box
and theft of service to malicious mischief. His jail sentence was suspended.
But in return he had to promise never to phreak again--and to make sure he kept
his promise, the local phone company refused to restore his telephone line.2
One of Joe's friends at that time was a man called John Draper, better known as
Captain Crunch. Like Joe, Draper was interested in the system: he liked to play
on it, to chart out the links and connections between phone switching offices,
overseas lines, and satellites. His alias came from the Quaker Oats breakfast
cereal Cap'n Crunch, which once, in the late 1960s, had included a tiny plastic
whistle in each box as a children's toy. Unknown to the company, it could be
used to phreak calls.
The potential of the little whistle was said to have been discovered by
accident. The toy was tuned to a high-A note that closely reproduced the
2600-cycle tone used by Bell in its long-distance lines. Kids demonstrating
their new toy over the phone to Granny in another city would sometimes find
that the phone went dead, which caused Bell to spend a perplexing few weeks
looking for the source of the problem.
Draper first became involved with phreaking in 1969, when he was twenty-six and
living in San Jose. One day he received what he later described as a "very
strange call" from a man who introduced himself as Denny and said he wanted to
show him something to do with musical notes and phones. Intrigued, Draper
visited Denny, who demonstrated how tones played on a Hammond organ could be
recorded and sent down the line to produce free long-distance calls. The
problem was that a recording had to be made for each number required, unless
Draper, who was an electronics engineer, could build a device that could com-
bine the abilities of the organ and the recorder. The man explained that such a
device would be very useful to a certain group of blind kids, and he wanted to
know if Draper could help.
After the meeting Draper went home and immediately wired up a primitive
multifrequency transmitter--a blue box. The device was about the size of a
telephone. Ironically it wouldn't work in San Jose (where long-distance calls
were still routed through an operator), so Draper had to drive back to San
Francisco to demonstrate it. To his surprise it worked perfectly. "Stay low,"
he told the youngsters. "This thing's illegal."
But the blind kids were already into phreaking in a big way. They had already
discovered the potential of the Cap'n Crunch plastic whistle, and had even
found that to make it hit the 2600cycle tone every time, all it needed was a
drop of glue on the outlet hole.
Draper began to supply blue boxes to clients--generally unsighted youngsters--
in the Bay Area and beyond. He was also fascinated by the little whistle, and
early the next year, when he took a month's vacation in England, he took one
with him. When a friend rang him from the States, Draper blew the little toy
into the phone, sending the 2600-cycle "on-hook" (hanging-up) signal to the
caller's local office in America. The "on-hook" tone signified that the call
had been terminated, and the U.S. office--where billing was originated--stopped
racking up toll charges. But because the British phone system didn't respond to
the 2600-cycle whistle, the connection was maintained, and Draper could con-
tinue the conversation for free. He only used the whistle once in England, but
the incident became part of phreaker legend and gave Draper his alias.
While in Britain, Draper received a stream of transatlantic calls from his
blind friends. One of them, who lived in New York, had
16 APPROACHING ZERO
discovered that Bell engineers had a special code to dial England to check the
new international direct-dial system, which was just coming on-line. The access
code was 182, followed by a number in Britain. All of the calls placed in this
way were free. The discovery spread rapidly among the phreaker community;
everyone wanted to try direct-dialing to England, but since no one knew anyone
there, Draper was the recipient of most of the calls.
This was, of course, long before the days when people would routinely make
international calls. Even in America, where the phone culture was at its most
developed, no one would casually pick up a telephone and call a friend halfway
across the world. An international call, particularly a transatlantic call, was
an event, and if families had relatives abroad, they would probably phone them
only once a year, usually at Christmas. The call could easily take half a day
to get through, the whole family would take turns talking, and everyone would
shout--in those days, perhaps in awe of the great distance their voices were
being carried, international callers always shouted. It would take another two
decades before transatlantic calls became as commonplace as ringing across the
Naturally the British GPO (General Post Office), who ran the U.K. telephone
system in those days, became somewhat suspicious of a vacationer who routinely
received five or six calls a day from the United States. They began monitoring
Draper's line; then investigators were sent to interview him. They wanted to
know why he had been receiving so many calls from across the Atlantic. He
replied that he was on holiday and that he supposed he was popular, but the
investigators were unimpressed. Draper immediately contacted his friends in
America and said, "No more."
At about this time, Draper had become the king of phreakers. He had rigged up a
VW van with a switchboard and a high-tech MF-er and roamed the highways in
California looking for isolated telephone booths. He would often spend hours at
these telephones, sending calls around the world, bouncing them off
communications satellites, leapfrogging them from the West Coast to London to
Moscow to Sydney and then back again.
The Captain also liked to stack up tandems, which are the instruments that send
the whistling tone from one switching office to another. What the Captain would
do is shoot from one tandem right across the country to another, then back
again to a third tandem, stacking them up as he went back and forth, once
reportedly shooting across America twenty times. Then he might bounce the call
over to a more exotic place, such as a phone box in London's Victoria Station,
or to the American embassy in Moscow. He didn't have anything to say to the
startled commuter who happened to pick up the phone at Victoria, or to the
receptionist at the embassy in Moscow--that wasn't the point. Sometimes he
simply asked about the weather.
The unit he carried in the back of the van was computeroperated, and Draper was
proud of the fact that it was more powerful and faster than the phone company's
own equipment. It could, he claimed, "do extraordinary things," and the
vagueness of the statement only added to the mystique.
Once, making a call around the world, he sent a call to Tokyo, which connected
him to India, then Greece, then South Africa, South America, and London, which
put him through to New York, which connected him to an L.A. operator--who
dialed the number of the phone booth next to the one he was using. He had to
shout to hear himself but, he claimed, the echo was "far out." Another time,
using two phone booths located side by side, Draper sent his voice one way
around the world from one of the telephones to the other, and simultaneously
from the second phone booth he placed a call via satellite in the other
direction back to the first phone. The trick had absolutely no practical value,
but the Captain was much more interested in the mechanics of telecommunications
than in actually calling anyone. "I'm learning about a system," he once said.
"The phone company is a system, a computer is a system. Computers and systems--
that's my bag."
18 APPROACHING ZERO
But by this time the Captain was only stating the obvious. To advanced
phreakers the system linking the millions of phones around the world--that
spider's web of lines, loops, and tandems--was infinitely more interesting than
anything they would ever hope to see. Most of the phreakers were technology
junkies anyway, the sort of kids who took apart radios to see how they worked,
who played with electronics when they were older, and who naturally progressed
to exploring the phone system, if only because it was the biggest and best
piece of technology they could lay their hands on. And the growing awareness
that they were liberating computer technology from Ma Bell made their hobby
even more exciting.
In time even Mark Bernay, who had helped spread phone phreaking across America,
found that his interests were changing. By 1969, he had settled in the Pacific
Northwest and was working as a computer programmer in a company with access to
a large time-share mainframe--a central computer accessed by telephone that was
shared among hundreds of smaller companies. Following normal practice, each
user had his own log-in--identification code, or ID--and password, which he
would need to type in before being allowed access to the computer's files. Even
then, to prevent companies from seeing each other's data, users were confined
to their own sectors of the computer.
But Bernay quickly tired of this arrangement. He wrote a program that allowed
him to read everyone else's ID and password, which he then used to enter the
other sectors, and he began leaving messages for users in their files, signing
them "The Midnight Skulker." He didn't particularly want to get caught, but he
did want to impress others with what he could do; he wanted some sort of
reaction. When the computer operators changed the passwords, Bernay quickly
found another way to access them. He left clues about his identity in certain
files, and even wrote a program that, if activated, would destroy his own
passwordcatching program. He wanted to play, to have his original program
destroyed so that he could write another one to undo what he had, in effect,
done to himself, and then reappear. But the management refused to play. So he
left more clues, all signed by "The Midnight Skulker."
Eventually the management reacted: they interrogated everyone who had access to
the mainframe, and inevitably, one of Bernay's colleagues fingered him. Bernay
When Rosenbaum wrote his article in 1971 the practice of breaking into
computers was so new and so bizarre, it didn't even have a name. Rosenbaum
called it computer freaking--thef used to distinguish it from ordinary phone
phreaking. But what was being described was the birth of hacking.
It was Draper, alias Captain Crunch, who, while serving a jail sentence,
unintentionally spread the techniques of phreaking and hacking to the
underworld--the real underworld of criminals and drug dealers. Part of the
reason Draper went to jail, he now says, was because of the Esquire article: "I
knew I was in trouble as soon as I read it." As a direct result of the article,
five states set up grand juries to investigate phone phreaking and,
incidentally, Captain Crunch's part in it. The authorities also began to
monitor Draper's movements and the phones he used. He was first arrested in
1972, about a year after the article appeared, while phreaking a call to
Sydney, Australia. Typically, he wasn't actually speaking to anyone; he had
called up a number that played a recording of the Australian Top Ten.
Four years later he was convicted and sent to Lompoc Federal Prison in
California for two months, which was where the criminal classes first learned
the details of his techniques. It was, he says, a matter of life or death. As
soon as he was inside, he was asked to cooperate and was badly beaten up when
he refused. He realized that in order to survive, he would have to share his
knowledge. In jail, he figured, it was too easy to get killed. "It happens all
the time. There are just too many members of the 'Five Hundred Club,' guys who
spend most of their time pumping iron and liftinJz five-hundred-pound weights,"
20 APPROACHINC ZERO
So he picked out the top dog, the biggest, meanest, and strongest inmate, as
his protector. But in return Draper had to tell what he knew. Every day he gave
his protector a tutorial about phreaking: how to set up secure loops, or
eavesdrop on other telephone conversations. Every day the information was
passed on to people who could put it to use on the outside. Draper remains
convinced that the techniques that are still used by drug runners for computer
surveillance of federal agents can be traced back to his tutorials.
But criminals were far from the only group to whom Draper's skills appealed.
Rosenbaum's 1971 article introduced Americans for the first time to a new
high-tech counterculture that had grown up in their midst, a group of
technology junkies that epitomized the ethos of the new decade. As the sixties
ended, and the seventies began, youth culture--that odd mix of music, fashion,
and adolescent posturing--had become hardened and more radical. Woodstock had
succumbed to Altamont; Haight-Ashbury to political activism; the Berkeley Free
Speech Movement to the Weathermen and the Students for a Democratic Society.
Playing with Ma Bell's phone system was too intriguing to be dismissed as just
a simple technological game. It was seen as an attack on corporate America--or
"Amerika," as it was often spelt then to suggest an incipient Nazism within the
state--and phreaking, a mostly apolitical pastime, was adopted by the radical
movement. It was an odd mix, the high-tech junkies alongside the theatrical
revolutionaries of the far left, but they were all part of the counterculture.
Draper himself was adopted by the guru of the whole revolutionary movement.
Shortly after his arrest, he was contacted by Abbie Hoffman, the cofounder of
the Youth International Party Line (YIPL). Hoffman invited Draper to attend the
group's 1972 national convention in Miami and offered to organize a campaign
fund for his defense.
At the time Hoffman was the best-known political activist in America. An
anti-Vietnam war campai~ner, a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial, he had
floated YIPL in 1971 as the technical offshoot of his radical Yippie party.
Hoffman had decided that communications would be an important factor in his
revolution and had committed the party to the "liberation" of Ma Bell,
inevitably portrayed as a fascist organization whose influence needed to be
YIPL produced the first underground phreaker newsletter, initially under its
own name. In September 1973 it became TAP, an acronym that stood for
Technological Assistance Program. The newsletter provided its readers with
information on telephone tapping and phreaking techniques and agitated against
the profits being made by Ma Bell.
Draper went to the YIPL convention, at his own expense, but came back
empty-handed. It was, according to Draper, "a total waste of time," and the
defense fund was never organized. But ironically, while the political posturing
of the radicals had little discernible effect on the world, the new dimensions
of technology--represented, if imperfectly, by the phreakers--would undeniably
engender a revolution.
Before he went to jail, Draper was an habitue of the People's Computer Company
(PCC), which met in Menlo Park, California. Started in 1972 with the aim of
demystifying computers, it was a highly informal association, with no members
as such; the twenty-five or so enthusiasts who gathered at PCC meetings would
simply be taught the mysteries of computing, using an old DEC machine. They
also hosted pot-luck dinners and Greek dances; it was as much a social club as
a computer group.
But there was a new buzz in the air: personal computers, small, compact
machines that could be used by anyone. A few of the PCC-ites gathered together
to form a new society, one that would "brew" their own home computers, which
would be called the Homebrew Computer Club. Thirty-two people turned up for the
inaugural meeting of the society on March 5, 1975, held in a garage in Menlo
22 APPROACHING ZERO
The club grew exponentially, from sixty members in April to one hundred and
fifty in May. The Homebrewers outgrew the Menlo Park garage and, within four
months, moved to an auditorium on the Stanford campus. Eventually, Homebrew
boasted five or six hundred members. With Haight-Ashbury down the road and
Berkeley across the bay, the club members shared the countercultural attitudes
of the San Francisco area. The club decried the "commercialization" of
computers and espoused the notion of giving computer power to the people.
In those days the now-ubiquitous personal computer was making its first,
tentative appearance. Before the early 1970S, computers were massive machines,
called mainframes because the electronic equipment had to be mounted on a fixed
frame. They were kept in purpose-built, climate-controlled blocks and were
operated by punch card or paper tape; access was limited--few knew enough about
the machines to make use of them anyway--and their functions were limited. The
idea of a small, lightweight computer that was cheap enough to be bought by any
member of the public was revolutionary, and it was wholeheartedly endorsed by
the technological radicals as their contribution to the counterculture. They
assumed that moving computing power away from the government and large
corporations and bringing it to the public could only be a good thing.
The birthplace of personal computing is widely believed to be a shop sandwiched
between a Laundromat and a massage parlor in a run-down suburban shopping
center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was there, in the early 1970S, that a
small team of self-proclaimed rebels and misfits designed the first personal
computer, the Altair 8800, which was supposedly named after one of the
brightest stars in the universe. Formally launched in January 1975, it was
heralded by Popular Electronics as "the first minicomputer kit to rival
commercial models," and it cost $395.
The proclaimed mission of the Altair design team was to liberate technology, to
"make computing available to millions of people and do it so fast that the US
Stupid Government [sic] couldn't do anything about it." They believed that
Congress was about to pass a law requiring operators to have a license before
programming a computer. "We figured we had to have several hundred machines in
people's hands before this dangerous idea emerged from committee. Otherwise,
1984 would really have been 1984," said David Bunnell, a member of the original
The group looked upon the personal computer, in Bunnell's words, as "just as
important to New Age people as the six-shooter was to the original pioneers. It
was our six-shooter. A tool to fight back with. The PC gave the little guy a
fighting chance when it came to starting a business, organizing a revolution,
or just feeling powerful."
In common with other early PCs,4 the Altair was sold in kit form, limiting its
appeal to hobbyists and computer buffs whose enthusiasm for computing would see
them through the laborious and difficult process of putting the machines
together. Once assembled, the kit actually did very little. It was a piece of
hardware; the software--the programs that can make a PC actually do something,
such as word processing or accounting didn't exist. By present-day standards it
also looked forbidding, a gray box with a metallic cover housing a multitude of
LED lights and switches. The concept of "user-friendliness" had not yet
The launch of the Altair was the catalyst for the founding of the Homebrew
Computer Club. Motivated by the success of the little machine, the members
began working on their own designs, using borrowed parts and operating systems
cadged from other computers. Two members of the club, however, were well ahead
of the others. Inspired by Rosenbaum's article in Esquire, these two young men
had decided to build their own blue boxes and sell them around the neighboring
Stanford and Berkeley campuses. Though Rosenbaum had deliberately left out much
of the technical detail, including the multifrequency tone cycles, the pair
scratched together the missing data from local research libraries and were able
to start manufacturing blue boxes in sizeable quantities. To keep their
identities secret, they adopted aliases: Steve
24 APPROACHING ZERO
Jobs, the effusive, glib salesman of the two, became Berkeley Blue; Steve
Wozniak, or Woz, the consummate technician, became--as far as he can remember--
Oak Toebark. The company they founded in Jobs's parents' garage was to become
The duo's primitive blue-box factory began to manufacture MF-ers on nearly an
assembly-line basis. Jobs, whose sales ability was apparent even then, managed
to find buyers who would purchase up to ten at a time. In interviews given
since, they estimated that they probably sold a couple hundred of the devices.
Under California law at the time, selling blue boxes was perfectly legal,
although using them was an offense. They got close to getting caught only once,
when they were approached by the highway patrol while using one of their own
blue boxes at a telephone booth. They weren't arrested--but only because the
patrolman didn't recognize the strange device they had with them.
The two Steves had grown up in the area around Los Altos, part of that stretch
of Santa Clara County between San Francisco and San Jose that would later
become known as Silicon Valley. They had both been brought up surrounded by the
ideas and technology that were to transform the area: Wozniak's father was an
electronics engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company and helped his son
learn to design logic circuits. When the two boys first met, Jobs was
particularly impressed that Wozniak had already built a computer that had won
the top prize at the Bay Area science fair.
It has been said that Jobs and Wozniak were the perfect team, and that without
Jobs, the entrepreneur, Woz would never have outgrown Homebrew. Wozniak was, at
heart, a hacker and a phreaker; at the club he liked to swap stories with
Draper, and he once tried to phreak a call to the pope by pretending to be
Henry Kissinger. Before a Vatican official caught on, he had almost succeeded
in getting through. Jobs, on the other hand, was first and foremost a
businessman. He needed Wozniak to design the products--the blue boxes, the
computers--for him to sell.
The Apple computer happened almost by accident. Had he had enough money, Woz
would have been happy to go out and buy a model from one of the established
manufacturers. But he was broke, so he sat down and began designing his own
He had set out to build something comparable to the desktop computer he used at
Hewlett-Packard, where he worked at the time. That computer was called the 9830
and sold for $10,000 a unit. Its biggest advantage was that it used BASIC, a
computer language that closely resembles normal English. BASIC alleviated a lot
of complications: a user could sit down, turn on the machine, and begin typing,
which wasn't always possible with other computer languages.
BASIC--an acronym for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code--had
already been adapted by software pioneers Bill Gates and Paul Allen for use on
the Altair. (Gates--soon to become America's youngest billionaire--and Allen
went on to found Microsoft, probably the world's most powerful software
company.) The language was compact, in that it required very little computer
memory to run, an essential requirement for microcomputers. Woz began work on
his new computer by adapting BASIC to run with a microprocessor--a sort of mini
computer brain, invented earlier in the decade, which packed all the functions
of the central processing unit (CPU) of a large computer onto a tiny
semiconductor chip. The invention allowed the manufacture of smaller computers,
but attracted little attention from traditional computer companies, who foresaw
no market at all for PCs. All the action in those days was with mainframes.
Woz's prototype was first demonstrated to the self-proclaimed radicals at the
Homebrew Club, who liked it enough to place a few orders. Even more
encouraging, the local computer store, the Byte Shop, placed a single order
for $50,000 worth of the kits.
The Byte Shop was one of the first retail computer stores in the world. and its
manager knew that a fully assembled, inexpensive
26 APPROACHING ZERO
home computer would sell very well. The idea was suggested to Jobs, who began
looking for the financial backing necessary to turn the garage assembly
operation he and Woz now ran into a real manufacturing concern.
How the two Steves raised the money for Apple has been told before. Traditional
manufacturers turned them down, and venture capitalists had difficulty seeing
beyond appearance and philosophy. It was a clash of cultures. Jobs and Woz
didn't look like serious computer manufacturers; with their long hair and stan-
dard uniform of sandals and jeans, they looked like student radicals. One
venture capitalist, sent out to meet Jobs at the garage, described him as an
unusual business prospect, but eventually they did find a backer.
The first public showing of what was called the Apple II was at the West Coast
Computer Fair in San Francisco in April 1977. The tiny company's dozen or so
employees had worked through the night to prepare the five functioning models
that were to be demonstrated. They were sleek little computers: fully
assembled, light, wrapped in smart gray cases with the six-color Apple logo
discreetly positioned over the keyboard. What would set them apart in
particular, though, was their floppy-disk capability, which became available on
the machines in 1979.
The floppy disk--or diskette--is a data-storage system developed for larger
computers. The diskette itself is a thin piece of plastic, protected by a card
cover, that looks a little like a 45-rpm record, and is used to load programs
or to store data. Prior to the launch of the Apple II, all microcomputers used
cassette tapes and ordinary cassette recorders for data storage, a time-consum-
ing and inefficient process. The inclusion of the floppy-disk system gave the
Apple II a competitive edge: users would no longer need to fiddle about with
tapes and recorders, and the use of diskettes, as well as the simple operating
system that Woz had built into the computer, encouraged other companies to
write software for the new machines.
This last development more than anything else boosted the
Apple II out of the hobbyist ghetto. The new Apple spawned a plethora of
software: word-processing packages, graphics and arts programs, accounting
systems, and computer games. The launch two years later of the VisiCalc spread
sheet, a business forecasting program, made the Apple particularly attractive
to corporate users.
Even Captain Crunch wrote software for the Apple II. At the time, in 1979, he
was incarcerated in Northampton State Prison in Pennsylvania for a second
phreaking offense. While on a rehabilitation course that allowed him access to
a computer he developed a program called EasyWriter, one of the first word-
processing packages, which for a short time became the secondbest-selling
program in America. Draper went on to write other applications, marketed under
the "Captain Software" label.
The Apple II filled a niche in the market, one that traditional computer
manufacturers hadn't realized was there. The Apple was small and light, it was
easy to use and could perform useful functions. A new purchaser could go home,
take the components out of their boxes, plug them in, load the software, then
sit down and write a book, plot a company's cash flow, or play a game.
By any standards Apple's subsequent growth was phenomenal. In its first year of
operation, 1977, it sold $2.5 million worth of computers. The next year sales
grew to $15 million, then in 1979 to $70 million. In 1980 the company broke
through the $100 million mark, with sales of $117 million. The figures
continued to rise, bounding to $335 million in 1981 and $583 million in 1982.
Along the way the founders of Apple became millionaires, and in 1980, when the
company went public, Jobs became worth $165 million and Wozniak $88 million.
The story of Apple, though, isn't just the story of two young men who made an
enviable amount of money. What Jobs and Wozniak began with their invention was
a revolution. Bigger than Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and "the summer of
love" in Haight-Asbury, the technological revolution represented by the
personal computer has brought a real change to society. It gave people access
to data, programs, and computing power they had never had before. In an early
promotional video for Apple, an earnest employee says, "We build a device that
gives people the same power over information that large corporations and the
government have over people."
The statement deliberately echoes the "power to the people" anthem of the
sixties, but while much of the political radicals' time was spent merely
posturing, the technological revolutionaries were delivering a product that
brought the power of information to the masses. That the technological pioneers
became rich and that the funky little companies they founded turned into
massive corporations is perhaps testament to capitalism's capacity to direct
change, or to coopt a revolution.
Apple was joined in the PC market by hundreds of other companies, including
"Big Blue" itself--IBM. When the giant computer manufacturer launched its own
PC in 1981, it expected to sell 250,000 units over five years. Again, the
popular hunger for computing power was underestimated. In a short while, IBM
was selling 250,000 units a month. Penetration of personal computers has now
reached between 15 and 35 percent of all homes in the major industrialized
countries. There are said to be 50 to 90 million PCs in use in homes and
offices throughout the world, and the number is still rising.
And though the PC revolution would probably have happened without Wozniak and
Jobs, it may not have happened as quickly. It's worth remembering that the
catalyst for all this was a magazine article about phreaking.
Computers are more than just boxes that sit on desks. Within the machines and
the programs that run them is a sort of mathematical precision that is
breathtaking in the simplicity of its basic premise. Computers work,
essentially, by routing commands, represented by electrical impulses, through a
series of gates that can only be open or closed--nothing else. Open or closed;
on or off. The two functions are represented symbolically as 1 (open/ on) or 0
(closed/off). The route the pulse takes through the gates determines the
function. It is technology at its purest: utter simplicity generating infinite
The revolution that occurred was over the control of the power represented by
this mathematical precision. And the argument is still going on, although it is
now concerned not with the control of computers but with the control of
information. Computers need not be isolated: with a modem--the boxlike machine
that converts computer commands to tones that can be carried over the phone
lines--they can be hooked up to vast networks of mainframe computers run by
industry, government, universities, and research centers. These networks, all
linked by telephone lines, form a part of a cohesive international web that has
been nicknamed Worldnet. Worldnet is not a real organization: it is the name
given to the international agglomeration of computers, workstations, and
networks, a mix sometimes called information technology. Access to Worldnet is
limited to those who work for the appropriate organizations, who have the
correct passwords, and who are cleared to receive the material available on the
For quite obvious reasons, the companies and organizations that control the
data on these networks want to restrict access, to limit the number of people
wandering through their systems and rifling through their electronic filing
cabinets. But there is a counterargument: the power of information, the
idealists say, should be made available to as many people as possible, and the
revolution wrought by PCs won't be complete until the data and research
available on computer networks can be accessed by all.
This argument has become the philosophical justification for hacking--although
in practice, hacking usually operates on a much more mundane level. Hacking,
like phreaking, is inspired by simple curiosity about what makes the system
tick. But hackers are often much more interested in accessing a computer just
to see if it can be done than in actually reading the information they might
find, just as phreakers became more interested in the
30 APPROACHING ZERO
phone company than in making free calls. The curiosity that impelled phreakers
is the same one that fuels hackers; the two groups merged neatly into one
Hacking, these days, means the unauthorized access of computers or computer
systems. Back in the sixties it meant writing the best, fastest, and cleverest
computer programs. The original hackers were a bunch of technological wizards
at MIT, all considered among the brightest in their field, who worked together
writing programs for the new computer systems then being developed. Their
habits were eccentric: they often worked all night or for thirty-six hours
straight, then disappeared for two days. Dress codes and ordinary standards
were overlooked: they were a disheveled, anarchic bunch. But they were there to
push back the frontiers of computing, to explore areas of the new technology
that no one had seen before, to test the limits of computer science.
Chapter 2 BREAKING AND
In the early eighties, the computer underground, like the computer industry
itself, was centered in the United - States. But technology flows quickly
across boundaries, as do fads and trends, and the ethos of the technological
counterculture became another slice of Americana that, like Hollywood movies
and Coca-Cola, was embraced internationally.
Although the United States nurtured the computer underground, the conditions
that spawned it existed in other countries as well. There were plenty of young
men all over the world who would become obsessed with PC technology and the
vistas it offered, and many who would be attracted to the new society, with its
special jargon and rituals. The renegade spirit that created the computer
underground in the first place exists worldwide.
In 1984, the British branch of the technological counterculture probably began
with a small group that used to meet on an ad hoc basis in a Chinese restaurant
in North London. The group had a floating membership, but usually numbered
about a dozen; its meetings were an excuse to eat and drink, and to exchange
hacker lore and gossip.
Steve Gold, then a junior accountant with the Regional Health Authority in
Sheffield and a part-time computer journalist, was twenty-five, and as one of
the oldest of the group, had been active when phone phreaking first came to
England. Gold liked to tell
32 APPROAC~ING Z~RO
stories about Captain Crunch, the legendary emissary from America who had
carried the fad across the Atlantic.
The Captain can take most of the credit for exporting his hobby to Great
Britain during his holiday there in 1970. Because the U.S. and British
telephone systems were entirely different, MF-ers were of no use in England--
except, of course, to reduce charges on calls originating in America. The
British telephone network didn't use the same multifrequency tones (it used
2280 cycles), so the equipment had to be modified or new ways had to be devised
to fool the British system. Naturally the Captain had risen to the challenge
and carried out the most audacious phreak in England. The British telephone
system was hierarchical, with three tiers: local switching offices, zone
exchanges comprised of a number of local offices, and group offices linking
various zones.l Much of the equipment in the local exchanges in those days
dated back to the 1920S; in the zone and group offices the electronics had been
put in during the 1950S, when Britain introduced national long-distance
dialing, or STD (Standard Trunk Dialing), as it was then known. The Captain
quickly discovered that users could avoid expensive long-distance charges by
routing their calls from the local exchange to one nearby. The mechanism was
simple: all a caller needed to do was dial the area code--known in Britain as
the STD code--for the nearest out-of-area local exchange and then add a 9. The
9 would give the caller another dial tone, and he could then dial through to
any other number in the country. He would only be charged, however, for the
call to the nearby local exchange. The process was known as chaining, or
sometimes bunny hopping.
With his usual enthusiasm for exploring phone networks, Captain Crunch decided
to test the limits of the system. He notified a friend in Edinburgh to wait for
his call from London while the Captain began a long, slow crawl up through
local exchanges, dialing from one to the other, through England and then into
Scotland. He is reputed to have chained six local exchanges; he could hear the
call slowlv clicking its way through exchange after exchange (the call was
being routed through 1920S equipment) on its snaillike progression northward.
Thirty minutes later the Captain's call finally rang at his friend's house. The
connection, it is said, was terrible.
Steve Gold, like many others, had become an enthusiastic phreaker after
learning the Captain's techniques. But like everyone else around the table at
the restaurant, his interest had eventually turned to hacking as soon as
personal computers became generally available. The group was part of the first
generation to take advantage of the technological revolution that took place in
the 1960S and 1970S: they had all learned about computers in school, having
benefited from a sudden awareness that computer literacy was important, not
merely an arcane specialty reserved for hobbyists and engineers. The science
fiction of the 1960S had become a reality, and though it had been less than
eight years 8ince Jobs and Wozniak began assembling Apples in a California
garage, and less than a decade since the Altair had been introduced, computers
were no longer frightening or mysterious to the new generation. Mainframes had
been supplanted by small, compact PCs that were increasingly user-friendly,
thus allowing even the least technically-minded access to computing power.
Also among the group in the Chinese restaurant that night was a twenty-year-old
hacker known as Triludan the Warrior, a close friend of Steve Gold's. Triludan
had discovered Prestel, a data and information service established by British
Telecom (the successor to the GPO) in the early 1980S that contained thousands
of ~pages of news on finance, business, travel, and sport as well as company
reports. The information, updated regularly, was often 8upplied by outside
contractors including publishing houses and newspapers. The pages were read
like an electronic news bulletin on the subscriber's computer screen and were
accessed with the help of the system's first page, which indexed the
information available. Prestel was also supposed to provide other services,
such as on-line telephone directories and home shopping, but there was never
34 APPROACHING ZERO
A Prestel subscriber dialed into the service via a normal phone line connected
to his PC by a modem. At Prestel, another modem linked the PC to the system's
own computer. This arrangement allowed the user to manipulate Prestel's
computer from his home.
Like all public-access computer systems, Prestel required users to key in their
ID (sometimes called a log-in or a user-name) and their password. These are
personal and known only to the individual subscribers. On Prestel, the ID was a
ten-character string of letters and numbers, and the password was a
four-character string. Prestel also provided subscribers with their own "elec-
tronic mailboxes," or MBXs, in which messages from other subscribers could be
received. The system also included an index of all subscribers and their MBX
addresses, so users could communicate with each other.
Triludan's penetration of the Prestel system was a lucky fluke. In February
1984 he had dialed up Prestel from his home computer at 2:30 A.M. For no
obvious reason, he entered ten 2'S. TO his surprise, a message came back
saying, CORRECT. He assumed that if the ID was that simple, then the
four-character password must be equally obvious. He tried 1234, and WELCOME TO
THE PRESTEL TEST came up on the screen. So this is hacking, he thought to
The service Triludan had accessed was only the test system, set up for Prestel
engineers to verify that their computers were operating correctly. Prestel
subscribers dialed into any one of ten mainframes scattered around the country;
the test system was confined to four other computers that simply monitored the
mainframes, and because they were isolated from the actual Prestel service, it
afforded few opportunities for exploration. Nonetheless, Triludan continued to
access the test system once a week to see if he could make any progress. One
day in October 1984 he dialed up as usual and found an ID and password on the
front page, just below the WELCOME TO THE PRESTEL TEST message. He then
redialed the test service and entered the new ID. It turned out t~ he that of
the svstem manager.
Hacking, Triludan decided, was stumbling across other people's mistakes.
The ID and password had been listed on the front page for the convenience of
Prestel's engineers, who would need to know them to roam through the system.
The test service, after all, was itself supposedly secured by a ten-digit ID
and a four-digit password. Prestel had no idea that the test service's security
had already been blown. Now it was doubly blown, because the system manager's
codes would allow Triludan to explore anywhere he wanted throughout the entire
The system manager, or "sysman," is the person in control of a computer
installation. Like the manager of a large building who has keys to all the
offices and knows the combinations to all of the secure areas, he has the keys-
-IDs and passwords--to all areas of his system: he controls and changes on-line
data, updates indexes, assigns mailboxes, and oversees security. With his
system-manager status, Triludan the Warrior had become king of Prestel. He
could do anything: he could run up bills for any of the 50,000 subscribers,
tamper with information, delete files, and read anything in the mailboxes.
When Triludan told the rest of the group at the meeting that he had captured
sysman status on Prestel, they were amazed. In 1984 British hacking was still
in its infancy; though American techniques were slowly spreading across the
ocean, English hackers, unlike their American counterparts, had never managed
to pull off any of the spectacular stunts that attracted press and publicity.
Their access to Prestel seemed like the ideal opportunity to put British
hacking on the map. They discussed plans and schemes: they knew well that with
sysman status they could easily cripple the system. But none of them was
malicious. Pranks were harder to pull, and they seemed more fun.
Accordingly they broke into the mailbox of His Royal Highness, Prince Philip,
and were rewarded by seeing the message GOOD EVENING. HRH DUKE OF EDINBURGH
come up on the computer screen. They left a message for the real sysman, in his
36 APPROACHING ZERO
mailbox, saying, I DO SO ENJOY PUZZLES AND GAMES. TA. TA. PIP! PIP! HRH ROYAL
HACKER. Then they modified the foreign-exchange page on Prestel, provided by
the Financial Times, so that for a few hours on the second of November the
pound-to-dollar exchange rate was a glorious fifty dollars to the pound.
Triludan himself capped all the tricks: when subscribers dial into Prestel,
they immediately see page one, which indexes all other services. Only the
system manager can alter or update listings on this page, but Triludan,
exploiting his sysman status, made a modest change and altered the word Index
to read Idnex. Though it was perfectly harmless, the change was enough to
signal to Prestel that its security had been breached. The other pranks had
been worrisome, but altering the first page was tantamount to telling Prestel
that its entire system was insecure. The company reacted quickly. It notified
all its customers to change their passwords immediately, and then altered the
sysman codes, thus stopping Triludan and his friends from tampering with the
Six months later Triludan was arrested. Though he had lost sysman status, he
had continued hacking the system, using other four-digit combinations. He even
continued to leave messages for the system manager, just to prove that he could
still gain access, and his games had badly embarrassed Prestel and its owner,
British Telecom. The revelation that hackers had penetrated the Prestel system
and broken into Prince Philip's mailbox had proved irresistible to the British
press, which had cheerfully hyped the story into page-one news. The royal
connection ensured that the item got international coverage, most of it
implying that hackers had breached royal security systems and read Prince
Philip's private and confidential electronic mail.2
To catch their hacker, Prestel put monitors on the incoming lines. These
filtered all calls to the system, looking for unusual activity such as users
trying different passwords or repeatedly failing to key in correct IDs. After
watching the lines for a month, tht~ nhorities were convinced that they had two
intruders, not one. The first was calling from London; the second appeared to
be dialing in from Sheffield. British Telecom traced the two callers and put
supplementary monitors on their home lines.
Despite the fact that the company had evidence from the messages to the system
manager that Triludan was still breaking into the system, they needed hard
evidence, so they continued monitoring the lines in London and Sheffield,
carefully noting the times the two callers dialed into Prestel. Finally they
decided to mount simultaneous raids.
On April 10, 1985, a posse of three British Telecom investigators and four
policemen raided the north London address. Just after ten P.M. the police
knocked on the door, which was opened by a young man who was six feet four
inches tall with thick black hair. His name was Robert Schifreen, and yes, he
was Triludan the Warrior--as well as Hex and Hexmaniac, two other hacker
aliases that had appeared on Prestel. He was arrested and his equipment
confiscated. The police were civil and polite, and they allowed the suspect to
bring his bottle of antihistamine tablets with him. Its brand name was
Schifreen was taken to Holborn police station to spend the night in the cells.
He was charged and released on bail the next day.
At the same time Schifreen was arrested, another raid was taking place in
Sheffield at the home of Schifreen's friend and companion, Steve Gold. Gold had
also continued to hack Prestel. Along with Schifreen, he had been the most
excited by the chance to play with the system. Gold remembers the knock on his
door as coming at eight minutes past ten P.M. When he answered, he found three
policemen and three British Telecom investigators, who read him his rights and
promptly took him down to the local police station, where he spent an
uncomfortable night. At nine the next morning he was driven down to London to
Because there were no laws in Britain addressing computer hacking at the time,
the two were charged with forgery--specifically, forging passwords. Five
specimen charges were listed in the
38 APPROACHINC ZERO
warrant for Schifreen, four for Gold. The charges involved a total loss of
about $20 to the Prestel users whose IDs had been hacked. What became known as
the Gold and Schifreen case was Britain's first attempt to prosecute for
The case was tried before a jury some twelve months later. At the beginning of
the trial the judge told counsel: "This isn't murder, but it's a very important
case. It will set a very important precedent." After nine days the two were
found guilty. Schifreen was fined about $1,500, Gold about $1,200; they had to
pay the court almost $2,000 each for costs.
The duo appealed the verdict, and after another twelve months the case was
heard in Britain's highest court of appeal by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord
Lane, who ruled that copying an electronic password was not covered by the
Forgery Act, and overturned the jury's verdict. The prosecution appealed that
decision, and after another twelve-month delay, the House of Lords--which
carries out many of the functions of America's Supreme Court--upheld Lord
Lane's decision. Gold and Schifreen were acquitted.
Since then, Gold and Schifreen have both gone on to respectable careers in
computer journalism. And from time to time they still meet in Chinese
restaurants, though neither continues to hack.
But their case, which cost the British taxpayers about $3.5 million, gave a
misleading signal to the country's hackers and phreakers. Because Gold and
Schifreen had admitted hacking while denying forgery, it was assumed that the
courts had decided that hacking itself was not against the law.
That's certainly what Nick Whiteley believed.
Briefly, in 1990, Nick Whiteley was the most famous hacker in Britain. A quiet,
unremarkable young man with a pedestrian job at a chemical supplies company, by
night he became the Mad Hacker and roamed through computer systems nationwide.
To the alarm of the authorities, he was believed to have broken into computers
at the Ministry of Defense and MI5, Britain's counterintelligence security
service. More troublesome still, there were messages sent by the Mad Hacker
that strongly suggested he had evidence that some type of "surveillance" had
been carried out against the opposition Labor party, the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament (CND), and even the British Cabinet. It was unclear who was
supposed to be carrying out the surveillance, but it was presumed to be MI5.
When Nick was arrested in 1988, he was interviewed for up to six hours by
agents he believes were from the Ministry of Defense and MI5. They were
accompanied by an expert from International Computers Limited (ICL), at the
time Britain's only independent mainframe computer manufacturer (the company is
now controlled by Fujitsu of Japan). Nick was passionate in his admiration for
ICL computers; he never hacked anything else, and both the MoD and MI5 use
Whiteley's ambition was to buy his own ICL: he especially coveted the 3980,
their top-of-the-line mainframe. In his daytime job, he worked on an ICL 2966,
a smaller model, but still a formidable mainframe. Whenever Nick felt his
fellow workers were making fun of him--which he believed they did because he
was only an operator, rather than a real programmer--he would fantasize about
the 3980. It was twenty times faster than the 2966 and could support far more
individual users. But he had to admit that on his salary it would take a long
time to earn the down payment on the almost $2 million purchase price.
Nick had originally wanted to be a computer programmer or to work in technical
support. But without a university degree his chances of becoming a programmer
were limited: he would need to go back to college to get the qualifications. So
instead he became an operator, or "tape monkey," employed to ensure that there
was enough computer tape in the drive and enough paper in the printer to keep
the machinery running. Though he had been offered a promotion to senior
operator, he had turned it down against a vague promise of a job in technical
support sometime in the future.
40 APPROACHING ZERO
Then nineteen years old, Nick lived with his parents in their home in Enfield
in north London. He was affable, intelligent, and articulate, was generally
casually dressed--sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers--and had nicotine-stained
Nick's life became consumed by his passion for the ICL. He was fascinated by
its operating system and by the language--called SCL (System Control Language
used to write its programs. Of course he had to admit that his ambition to buy
an ICL 3980 was pretty unrealistic. Even if he had enough money to buy one, he
would certainly have no use for a computer that was designed for large
businesses. But then he would begin to worry about what would happen if he lost
his job or had to leave the company. Where would he go to work on an ICL then?
In his bedroom in his parents' house Nick had a personal computer, a Commodore
Amiga 1000, equipped with a modem. He had intended to use the modem to dial in
to electronic bulletin boards--specialist data and information services, like
Prestel but generally run by private individuals. It was never his intention to
start hacking, he says; he thought it would be boring. Nonetheless, he started
reading a guide called The Hacker's Handbook. The Handbook had been written by
a British hacker known as "Hugo Cornwall" and achieved instant notoriety when
it was first published in March 1985. Guided by the Handbook, he began dialing
into more bulletin boards. (He found that about 20 percent of them had hacker
sections.) With the information he obtained from the Handbook and the bulletin
boards he learned how to find the access phone numbers for other computers, and
how to deal with IDs and passwords. The Handbook was especially useful: it
contained a list of phone numbers that gave access to JANET.
JANET is the earnestly friendly acronym for the Joint Academic Network, a
system that links computers in eighty to ninety universities, polytechnics, and
research centers throughout the United Kingdom. Because it is designed to be
used by students and researchers. the network needs to be relatively open, and
tries to present a friendly face to users: hence the feminine acronym and the
useful tutorial and guide provided by the system when a user types HELP- The
network's various data banks also contain a wealth of inforrnation on subjects
as dissimilar as military research and theoretical physics. For Nick, however,
the chief appeal of JANET was that it linked a number of ICLs on different
sites around the country. By accessing JANET he could play around on his
favorite computers from his home, just by using his little Commodore.
Nick attempted his first hack in January 1988. He first dialed up a number for
the computer center at Queen Mary College, where he knew there was an ICL 2988.
Because Queen Mary is not far from Nick's home, the telephone charges would be
lower; also, most colleges are easy targets because they generally have weak
security. He got the dial-up from The Hacker's Handbook--but that, as he knew,
would only get him to the front door. Access to the QMC computer would be like
gaining entry to the Prestel system. To get inside, Nick would need both a
user-name--a log-in or ID--and a password. The user-name at QMC is an
individual seven-character ID; the password is a one-way encrypted code. (One
way means the code can only be encrypted once and is entirely random; if the
user forgets the password, a new one needs to be created.)
That was the theory, anyway. But Nick knew that some software supplied by ICL
includes a standard, or default, "low-security" user-name, one that doesn't
require a password. Nick had barned the default user-name from his job and his
constant reading of ICL promotional material, manuals, and security informa-
tion. And because Queen Mary College had never changed its ~ default
user-name, it had left its back door wide open, making it k easy for Nick to
walk right in to the college's mainframe ICL on his first try.
The sole drawback from Nick's point of view was that the low-security user-name
gave him only restricted access to the computer. The QMC computer had a strict
hierarchy of user
42 APPROACHING ZERO
status, and the environment of low-security users--the areas on the computer
they could enter--was severely limited. Most ordinary users had higher status,
though their environment was usually restricted by the nature of their tasks.
At the apex of the hierarchy, as with Prestel, was the systems manager, who had
access to everything. At QMC the sysman is in complete control of the computer,
assigning status to other users, overseeing the functioning of the system, and
managing the programs and data.
Nick's objective was to capture sysman status. Without it his options were too
limited, his environment too restricted. He began searching through the files,
using his knowledge of the minutiae of ICL operating systems to find his way
through the electronic pathways of the QMC computer. He ran into walls or traps
designed to keep him out of restricted areas, but he kept trying.
Nick's hobby, his only one, was collecting unlisted commands for ICL computers.
These are keyboard operations that the company doesn't document, which can be
discovered by experimentation. Sometimes these got him around the traps and
farther into the system. Slowly he moved through the back alleys of the QMC
systems until finally he was able to access the operator libraries, the
collection of programs that manage the computer. He knew that the keys to
raising his status lay among the programs. He had been hacking for hours by
then, but he didn't notice the time or his own tiredness. He played with
commands, his little PC sending signals from his bedroom in Enfield through the
telephone lines to the mainframe at QMC. He went through the programs sys-
tematically, coaxing the ICL, trying to outsmart the security systems that had
been put in place precisely to stop someone like him. Eventually the machine
yielded. On his first hack Nick had managed to capture system-manager status.
He decided not to play with the QMC computer too much--the capture of sysman
status was too valuable to lose by leaving obvious evidence; also, he needed
QMC as a jumping-off point for other computers on JANET. He roamed about the
QMC computer for a bit, looking at electronic mailboxes and assessing different
files. Then he used his sysman status to create four new user-names, OLAD011,
OLAD024, OLAD028, and OLAD059, which would allow him continual entry to the QMC
machine. He assigned the four user-names to Alan Dolby.
The best part of the JANET network, from Nick's point of view, was that it was
a freeway: entry into one point on the system gave a direct route to other
points. That meant that he could dial into QMC and then link into other ICLs
at other sites. Conveniently, the ever-friendly network listed the sites on the
system by computer manufacturer, so he knew just where to go to find more ICLs.
One of Nick's targets was an ICL at Glasgow University in Scotland. Eventually
he linked into Glasgow by logging in as a guest user. He used the same
technique to break into the ICL at Hull University and others in Nottingham,
Belfast, and Bath.
Nick saw hacking as simply a means to play on ICLs. He wasn't interested in
stealing information from the network, and in fact, he had no real purpose at
all. He was hooked on ICLs and wanted only to be able to work on them, to play
around on the operating system, to explore the complexities of the network. He
told his parents there wasn't anything illegal in what he was doing, and
technically he was correct: at the time there were no laws in the U.K. that
specifically addressed hacking, and the Gold-Schifreen case had seemed to make
the practice beyond the law.
Once Nick had started hacking the Whiteley family phone bills soared from
around $100 a quarter to over $1,600. But Nick always paid his share. He could
afford to do so because he had no other social life: no expensive habits, no
girlfriends. He went to work came home, and started hacking. He hackea at night
because it fit into his schedule, and also because the phone rates were
cheaper, there was less line noise, and the target computers would be unmanned.
The trick was, he said later, to stay awake; sometimes he hacked all through
the night and then had to go to
44 APPROACHINC ZERO
work the next morning. His "day" could stretch to twenty-eight hours: first
eight hours at work, then a night spent hacking, then another eight hours at
work trying to stay awake while keeping the printer stuffed with paper and the
tape running in the drive. After a marathon stretch like that he would take the
next night off and go to bed early.
"It was obsessive," Nick later explained. "Five or six hours can seem like five
minutes." He drank coffee and Coke and ingested caffeine tablets to keep going.
"When you get into a system, you must keep going. It might take four or five
hours to penetrate the defenses and another four or five hours to protect the
position that has been established. If protection isn't put into place, then
the earlier work could be wasted." The challenge was in beating the system;
success came from staying awake. It gave him a feeling of power: he enjoyed
knowing that while the designated sysman thought he controlled the computer, in
fact it was himself, Nick, who had manipulated system-manager status and was
really in control.
Nick compared hacking to a game of chess, a battle of wits between himself and
the system, nothing criminal, just a game:
The excitement comes from knowing that a computer in the bedroom at home can be
used to break into multimillion-dollar installations. There's the thrill of
exploration, of going around the world electronically. The objective is to try
to gain the highest status within the system, that of system manager, and once
there, to begin making the rules instead of following them. If the system
manager blocks one way in, then you find another. It becomes a game with the
systems manager; the hacker's goal is simply to try to persuade the computer
that he should have increased privile~es.
One person who didn't see it as a game was Bob Jones, the chief programmer at
Queen Mary College. A tall, well-built man with beard and ~lasses and an
academic uniform that sometimes runs to jeans and T-shirts, he had been at the
college since 1968, first as a physics student, then staying on to work
full-time at the QMC computer center after earning his degree in 1971.
He worked out of a large office on the top floor of the computer science block,
a nondescript concrete shell of a building in east London. His office was near
the computer center, a cramped room packed with mainframes, some of them ICLs.
In the room's center were eight consoles set up on adjoining desks, which al-
lowed the activities of the mainframes to be monitored but were usually
unmanned, particularly at night.
Jones first realized that the QMC system had been breached by 1 a hacker on
February 19, 1988. He had heard reports from colL bagues at the Universities of
Glasgow and Hull that their own systems had been hacked by someone calling
himself Alan Dolby. What he saw on his computer was a series of files that had
been incorrectly stored in the memory, one of which had been labeled AD. He
began searching for signs of further tampering, and he soon found it: the four
OLAD user files Nick had created to give himself a smooth path into the QMC
computer. The files appeared to have been created a month previously.
Jones immediately reported the intrusion to his superior, Jeremy Brandon, the
director of the computer center, although it was clear that their options were
limited. They could attempt to lock their hacker out by closing all of the
OLAD files, but that might force the hacker to try more devious back-door
methods to regain access. If he entered the system through such a method, they
might not be able to find him again--and he might do some real damage. Instead,
they decided to leave the files as they were and watch him, although they did
remove the Mad Hacker's sysman status.
When Jones came into the office on the morning of March 30th, he found that
there had been no work processed on the computer since about two A.M., when
the scheduler (the program listing the priority of jobs) had failed. Its
failure coincided with a successful hack of the system made by OLAD028.
Jones and Brandon decided to record future intrusions on a
46 APPROACHING ZERO
dedicated journal within the computer. They also decided to wipe out three of
the user-names, leaving only OLAD028, the one the hacker had consistently
employed. It would be easier to track him this way.
By this time the hacking incidents had been reported to QMC's head of security,
who passed on the information to Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit. Although
established in 1971, the CCU had until 1985 consisted of only one officer.
Then, as computer crime escalated and the government became concerned about the
vulnerability of its own systems, it was eventually enlarged to four officers--
still not a big force, given that Scotland Yard can be called in on cases
anywhere in Great Britain. The unit is headed by John Austen, who was the
officer assigned to investigate the Mad Hacker affair.
Austen knew that the only way to catch the hacker was to monitor the lines, the
same time-consuming process used to track down Triludan the Warrior. That meant
involving British Telecom, which needed to assign an engineer to trace calls.
And because the Mad Hacker worked at night, that would involve overtime. For
the first few days the investigation was bogged down over the overtime
question: neither British Telecom nor QMC nor Scotland Yard were willing to
pay. Eventually the phone company gave in and set up a twenty-four-hour trace,
to be activated whenever the hacker was detected on the QMC system.
As the Mad Hacker gained confidence and experience, his activities took on a
new twist. To Bob Jones it seemed malicious, as if the hacker had declared war
on the system. One night the Mad Hacker ordered the QMC computer to print, I
THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW I AM MAD . . . I AM ALSO DEPRESSED, over and over. To
Hull University he sent a message saying, I AM TAKING UP THE CHALLENGE, then
loaded a "rabbit" onto the system. A rabbit is a piece of software that orders
a computer to perform useless tasks endlessly, multiplying ever more work
orders until they finally overwhelm the computer and it can cope with nothing
else. The Hull computer was down for ten hours after this particular rabbit
began breeding. THAT WILL FILL UP YOUR SODDING SYSTEM, another message said.
He then dropped a rabbit into the Glasgow computer. But this time, it didn't
work. As he was on-line, the computer operator discovered him and sent him a
message demanding that he call the operations department. ALAN DOLBY DOESN T
MAKE CALLS, he wrote back.
Glasgow was where Dolby had first been rumbled, three months previously, when a
file he had created as a back door had been discovered. It was Glasgow that
had alerted the rest of the system operators on JANET that there was a hacker.
So there may have been an element of revenge when, one night, the Glasgow
system manager, Dr. Roger MacKenzie, tried to access the mainframe from his
home PC and found that he had been "locked out"--barred from his own computer.
It was later discovered that the Mad Hacker had captured sysman status that
night and instructed the mainframe to kick out MacKenzie.
At QMC an increasingly irritated Bob Jones was watching as intrusion after
intrusion was recorded in the computer journal. At first these were just
messages left for the sysman, schoolboyish nonsense such as WILL ET PLEASE
PHONE HOME and WILL NORMAN BATES PLEASE REPORT TO THE SHOWER ROOM. But then
things became more serious: the Mad Hacker instructed the QMC computer to
generate copies of reports from its memory, which prevented it from processing
necessary work, and on more than one occasion his intrusions caused the
computer to crash. It seemed as if the Mad Hacker had become vindictive and
Once, he left a message asking, WHY DON'T YOU LOCK ME OUT? It was obvious to
Jones that his hacker wanted to play, but he ignored the messages.
Monitoring the lines was slowly getting results. When the Mad Hacker was
spotted making an unusual daytime appearance, Bob Jones called the
twenty-four-hour emergency number at British
48 APPROACHING Z~RO
Telecom--which rang and rang. In frustration he gave the receiver to someone
else to hold while he called a contact at British Telecom direct.
"There's no one answering my emergency call," he shouted.
"Well, yes," the Telecom man said patiently. "The service doesn't start until
five P.M." As they spoke, an assistant passed him a note saying that the hacker
had left the system. Jones, still steamin~, explained the precise meaning of
The monitoring intensified. In early July the engineers at tne telephone office
nearest QMC finally traced the hacker back to a telephone in Enfield. Another
monitor was placed on the suspect number to record all future activity.
On July 5th Jones came in to work to find that the computer journal recording
the Mad Hacker's intrusions had been wiped out. That could only have happened
if the hacker had captured sysman status again. He also found this message:
THIS INSTALLATION HAS BEEN HACKED BY ALAN DOLBY.
ALAN DOLBY IS A REGISTERED MEMBER OF HACKING INC. (ICL DIVISION), WHICH IS A
SUBSIDIARY OF HACKING INTERNATIONAL.
THIS HACK IS ~) 1988 BY ALAN DOLBY (THE MAD HACKER).
The announcement was followed by a message for Marlyn, a computer operator
previously employed by QMC and mistakenly believed bY the Mad Hacker to be the
NOW MARLYN IS PROBABLY THINKING, !~#?$ (SH*T) HOW THE HELL DID HE GET IN THIS
TIME? . . . I BETTER HAVE A LOOK AT WHERE I KEEP HIS JOURNALS. OH SHIT, SHE
SAYS, THEY ARE NOT THERE ANYMORE. !~#?$
NOW, MARLYN, IT'S GETTING PRETTY BORING HAVING TO KEEP ON TEACHING YOU MANNERS.
I'D RATHER BE AT MY
OTHER SYSMAN HACK SITES. SO I HOPE YOU HAVE LEARNED (EXCEPT HOW I DID IT) FROM
THIS, MARLYN, AND REPLY TO MY MESSAGES; OTHERWISE YOU WILL MAKE ME VERY VERY
ANGRY, AND ROGER WILL TELL YOU ONE THING, YOU WON'T LIKE IT WHEN l'M ANGRY.
The reference was to the Mad Hacker's successful lockout of Roger MacKenzie
from his own system. The message continued:
STILL, DON T GET TOO DESPONDENT MARLYN, I MEAN WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? IF I CAN
HACK ROGER S PLACE TWICE, THEN ANYTHING ELSE IS JUST A PIECE OF CAKE, AND I
MEAN YOU'RE NO GURU, MARLYN. ROGER IS THE GURU, HE WRITES PROGRAMS, HE DOESN T
PHONE UP SAYING, OH, ROGER, HELP ME, ROGER.
HAVE I WOUND YOU UP ENOUGH, MARLYN?
YOU WON'T BELIEVE HOW I GOT IN, MARLYN HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAAA
YOURS HACKINGLY, ALAN DOLBY . . . THE MAD HACKER!!!
THE MAD HACKER THE MAD HACKER ALAN DOLBY ALAN DOLBY . . .
Though the Mad Hacker had destroyed the journal when he hacked in to QMC that
night, he didn't destroy the evidence. Like most computer users, QMC keeps
backup copies of files, so the record of the Mad Hacker's intrusions still
existed. But it was becoming evident that eventually real damage to the system
could be caused if the hacking continued. It had already become very
frustrating to Jones, who was spending more and more time cleaning up after
the Mad Hacker and less time doing his real work. But even worse, Scotland Yard
had become concerned about hints that were contained in some of his computer
messages ~,~ that Alan Dolby was hacking into the Ministry of Defense com~4
puter, also an ICL. The break-ins might still be a game to the Mad Hacker, but
it was becoming deadly serious to everyone else.
50 APPROACHINC ZERO
They decided to go for a bust that very evening.
An arrest for computer hacking is not a straightforward affair. To make the
charge stick, the police would have to arrest the Mad Hacker while he was
actually in the middle of a hack, with the unauthorized dial-up on his computer
screen and his fingers on the keyboard. Evidence that the hacking had been
committed from his phone number was not sufficient: it could, after all, have
been done by his mother.
The team assembled for the bust was enormous. There were four policemen from
the Computer Crime Unit, two technicalsupport specialists, two experts from
ICL, a police photographer, two British Telecom engineers, and a phalanx of
uniformed policemen. In addition Jones had to monitor the QMC computer to alert
the team when the Mad Hacker broke in. He was joined in his vigil by the
managers at other ICL sites on the JANET network, as well as by internal
British Telecom staff to monitor the phone lines. In total the team numbered
As luck would have it, however, on that evening nothing happened; the Mad
Hacker simply went to bed early. But the next night, he decided to dial in to
QMC once more to see if anyone had replied to his message. According to the
computer record, he logged on at 7:48 P.M.
Just a few minutes before 8:00 P.M. the Whiteley family heard a knock on the
door. The police later described it as a gentle tap; to Nick, upstairs in his
bedroom, it sounded like loud banging. He thought it odd: why didn't they use
the doorbell? Then he walked to his window and saw four men approaching the
door. He said later that he could tell from their appearance that they weren't
Jehovah's Witnesses, and for one awful second he thought they might be Mafia.
Downstairs Nick's father was at the door bewilderedly reading a warrant
presented to him by the policemen. Nick sat down on his bed. He thought that
perhaps they were after a spy or a murderer. They couldn't be after him: he was
nineteen years old and liked to play games with computers, that was all.
The police moved upstairs to arrest Nick. By this time, there were twelve
members of the team in the tiny house, communicating by portable phone to their
colleagues outside. John Austen from the CCU told Nick he was being arrested
for "criminal damage." Nick looked at him incredulously, then burst out
laughing. He thought it must be a mistake.
Though hacking wasn't illegal at that time, the case against Whiteley had been
put together around the concept of criminal damage, which boiled down to loss
of data and denial of computer service as a result of his hacks. QMC alone had
valued the downtime to fix its computers at $48,000.
Police photographers moved in to record the computer screen, keyboard, and
modem. Every inch of the room was photographed: Nick's files, the books on his
bookshelf, the posters on the wall. The police stayed until midnight: they
confiscated Nick's Commodore and all the other equipment, loading the evidence
into bags; they removed from Nick's room books, blank paper, empty folders,
even the posters; and they interviewed Nick's older brother, Christopher.
Nick's mother, who was out when the raid began, came home to find the team
searching Nick's car.
Nick was still stunned: he was convinced it was all a mistake and that soon the
police would apologize and go away. He presumed that he had never been locked
out of the QMC mainframe because the systems manager wanted him to test the
security, that , he was playing the game too. Nick was the stereotypical
hacker: a kid who wanted to play a big-time computer game to demon8trate how
clever he was. He didn't want to damage anything, although he did enjoy playing
a few malicious pranks from time to time. When he was busted, Nick had only
been hacking for six months.
Two days after the raid, he was taken to Bow Street magistrate's court and
charged with having caused a total of $115,000 damage to computer hardware and
disks. But what concerned the authorities the most were the suggestions that
Nick had been hacking into MoD and MI5; in his room they found a little red
52 APPROACHING ZERO
notebook with dial-ups for ICLs operated by government agencies. They also
wanted to know about the messages that had been left by Nick on the QMC
computer alleging that he had knowledge of "surveillance" of the Labor party,
CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and the Cabinet.
Nick told the police, and later two agents he presumed to be from the MoD and
MI5, that he had never used the numbers in his book; they were for future
reference. As for the messages about surveillance, they were fantasy, part of
the games he was playing with the sysman at QMC.3
The police were unimpressed. Nick was released on bail, but only after
promising not to continue hacking. In May 1990, almost two years after the
incidents took place, he was tried for criminal damage at London's Southwark
crown court. The defense accepted the prosecution's charges, but argued that
there had been no real criminal damage. Nick's lawyers were confident of
getting him off, but it's said that he made a bad impression as a witness in
his own defense: he was too sure of himself, too clever. Bob Jones later
described him as "flippant and sneering." Nick himself thinks he was destined
for a harsh sentence from the start.
"They wanted to make an example of me," he said. "They'd have sent me to jail
for a parking ticket."
In the end, amid a flurry of national publicity, he was cleared of causing
criminal damage to computer hardware, but convicted on four counts of damaging
disks. After the verdict, defense counsel asked for but were refused bail.
Whiteley was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, but eight months were
suspended, and with good behavior in jail, he was paroled after serving only
two months. He was released in March 1991.
Nick was the first person in Britain to be convicted of offenses relating to
hacking. The overtones in his case--and the allegations of MI5 snooping and
break-ins at the MoD--were enough to bring pressure on Parliament to propose a
new computer crime law. The Computer Misuse Act came into effect in 1990: it
made any attempt, successful or otherwise, to alter computer data with criminal
intent an offense punishable by up to five years in jail. It could be called
Nick Whiteley's legacy.
The contrast between Nick--generally polite, easygoing, and articulate--and his
alter ego, the Mad Hacker, impressed everyone who met him. Nick Whiteley would
never leave messages redolent with sexual aggression for Marlyn: that was the
Mad Hacker, or Alan Dolby. Nick Whiteley wouldn't cause damage to an ICL:
again, that was the Mad Hacker. Like so many hackers, Nick played out his
fantasies on the computer keyboard. He was no longer Nick Whiteley from Enfield
when he was hacking, he was the Mad Hacker, the Mr. Hyde of QMC, Hull, Glasgow,
and JANET. With a computer he could become anyone he wanted to be; without it
he was just Nick Whiteley.
Even when the computer underground was in its infancy, in the United States
back in the early sixties, the use of aliases was symbolic of the growing
subculture. Early phreakers had names such as Cheshire Catalyst, Dr. No,
Midnight Skulker, and of course Captain Crunch. Hackers continued to use
aliases to hide their identities--and more often than not to disguise their
real selves behind a fearsome mask. Later, aliases became known as handles,
after CB slang.
A handle with high-tech allusions (Fiber Cables, Apple Maniac, Byte Ripper) or
suggesting personal instability (Perfect Asshole, the Prisoner, Right Wing
Fool) is considered perfectly acceptable. Some hackers opt for fiercer handles
(Knight Stalker, Scorpion) or just co-opt the names of celebrities (there are
hackers called Pink Floyd and Robin Williams). Behind these sometimes demonic
handles often lurks a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy who is hooked on
technology and spends hours alone in his bedroom, hacking into remote
computers. Armchair psychology suggests that the fiercer the handle, the meeker
the kid behind it. There is a huge element of role-playing in hacking, a need
to be accepted among the community, not as the person one really is
54 APPROACHING ZERO
but as the person suggested by the handle. Hacking brings out the Mr. Hyde in
all the little technological Dr. Jekylls.
Adopting a handle is essential for a novice to be accepted on pirate hacker
boards, where he can access information about his hobby and pass on messages to
other hackers. The computer underground is amorphous; any structure it does
have is provided through communication within the community via the boards and
a variety of other technical modes electronic and voice mailboxes, conference
bridges, and even loop-around-pairs, the old phreaker technology. A handle is a
hacker's badge of belonging, his calling card; the pirate boards serve as
electronic meeting places, the high-tech equivalent of hanging out at the mall.
Boards are simply computers loaded with some specialist software and linked to
a modem. They are generally owned and operated by a single person, who becomes
the system operator and controls access. There may be hundreds in existence--
the majority are in North America--and they come and go, as does their status
within the hacker community. At any given time there may be only two or three
"hot boards" that attract the top hackers. Getting access to one of these
boards is a sign of having arrived in the computer underground, a mark of
respect. Belonging to a particular board means belonging to the group that uses
the board: it means becoming part of what one U.S. attorney called a high-tech
Hacker boards are never publicized. Obtaining the dial-up number is itself a
sign that a potential member has some credibility within the community, but
that alone is not enough; no selfrespecting pirate systems operator wants his
board cluttered up with "lamers," kids who pretend to be hackers but don't
really have what it takes.
The registration procedure on pirate boards is a careful process. First-time
callers are met with a request for their user-name and their phone number.
Lamers who enter their real name and real phone number have already blown it.
The correct procedure is to enter a handle and a fake phone number--a healthy
dose of paranoia is a good sign that a caller is a real hacker. The next step
is to provide personal references, which will determine the level of access to
the pirate board. Hacker boards often have several grades of users, and only
the most trusted callers are able to access the "good stuff." The reference
query is designed to elicit the names of other pirate boards the caller has
access to, his level of access on those boards, and the handles of any other
trusted hackers he may know. If the references prove satisfactory, the caller
will be granted leave to use the board.
Some boards go a step farther: they ask the caller to write a short statement
explaining his reasons for wanting access, or to complete a questionnaire, to
test his technical expertise. Some operators, particularly on "cracker" boards
(those used by software pirates to swap "cracked"--illegally copied--programs)
demand that a caller prove himself by supplying what is called warez--for
wares, or pirated software.
Complementing the boards is a sporadically functioning electronic underground
press--newsletters, most distributed electronically, that contain articles
about busts, tips on hacking and phreaking, and technical descriptions of
computer operating systems. The oldest is PHRACKInc. (the name is an
amalgamation of phreak and hack), which was available off and on from 1985
until 1990. Others that have appeared from time to time include the Legion of
Doom: Hackers Technical Journal, Phreakers/ Hackers Underground Network, and
the Activist Times. A traditional, printed, publication, 2600 The Hacker
Quarterly, has been published since 1987, and is available on some newsstands.
The 2600 in its title is a bow to the infamous frequency tone used by phreakers
to make toll-free long-distance calls.
Membership in the computer underground simply means belonging to a
self-selected group of high-tech junkies. Some individual hackers--generally
members of a particular bulletin board--work as a group and acquire a gang
handle. In 1982 the Inner Circle was the first group to claim credit for
breaking into the U.S. military computer network. The 414 gang, named after
56 APPROACHING ZERO
its local Wisconsin area code, specialized in cracking telephonecompany
The telephone company, or "telco," as it is called, is still a favorite target
for many hackers. Those who specialize in exploring the telco system are
sometimes called phreakers like their predecessors Captain Crunch and Joe
Engressia. In words that echo Joe Engressia, one telco phreak wrote, "The phone
system is the most interesting, fascinating thing I know of. There is so much
to know. I myself would like to work for the telco, doing something
interesting, like programming a switch--something that isn't slave labor
bullshit. Exploring the system is something that you enjoy, but have to take
risks in order to participate in, unless you are lucky enough to work for the
telco. To have access to telco things, manuals, etc., would be great."
If there is a credo that unites all members of the computer underground, it is
probably the one first expounded by Steven Levy in his 1984 book, Hackers:
"Access to computers, and anything that might teach you something about the way
the world works, should be unlimited and total." This belief implies a code of
ethics that, put simply, boils down to "Look, but don't touch." Hackers,
according to this code, may break into computers or computer networks with
impunity, but should not tamper with files or programs.
In the real world it rarely works like that. Though hackers see themselves as a
useful part of the system, discovering design flaws and security deficiencies,
the urge to demonstrate that a particular computer has been cracked tempts
hackers to leave evidence, which involves tampering with the computer. The
ethical code is easy to overlook, and sometimes tampering can become malicious
For the authorities, the whole thing is a giant can of worms. Patrolling the
access points and communications webs that make up Worldnet is an impossible
task; in the end, policing in the information age is necessarily reactive.
Adding to the problems of the authorities is the increasing
internationalization of the computer underground. Laws are formed to cover
local conditions, in which the crime, the victim, and the perpetrator share a
common territorY- International crime, in which the victim is in America, say,
and the perpetrator in Europe, while the scene of the crime--the computer that
was violated--may be located in a third country, makes enforcement all the more
difficult. Police agencies only rarely cooperate internationally, language
differences create artificial barriers, and the laws and legal systems are
never the same.
Still, the authorities are bound to try. The argument that began as the
information age dawned, encapsulated in Stephen Levy's uncompromising view that
access to data should be "unlimited and total," has never ended. The
government, corporations, and state agencies will never aliow unlimited access
for very obvious reasons: state security, the privacy of individuals, the
intellectual property conventions . . . the list goes on and on. In all western
countries, hacking is now illegal; the theft of information from computers, and
in some cases even unauthorized access, is punishable by fines and jail
sentences. The position is rigid and clear: the computer underground is a
renegade movement, in conflict with the authority of the state.
But there are still good hackers and bad hackers. And it is even true that
sometimes hackers can be helpful to the authorities--or at least, it's happened
once. A hacker named Michael Synergy (he has legally changed his name to his
handle) once broke into the computer system at a giant credit agency that holds
financial information on 80 million Americans, to have a look at thenpresident
Ronald Reagan's files. He located the files easily and discovered sixty-three
other requests for the president's credit records, all logged that day from
enquirers with unlikely names. Synergy also found something even odder--a group
of about seven hundred people who all appeared to hold one specific credit
card. Their credit histories were bizarre, and to Synergy they all seemed to
have appeared out of nowhere, as if "they had no previous experience." It then
occurred to him that he was almost certainly looking at the credit history--and
names and ad-
58 APPROACHINC ZERO
dresses--of people who were in the U.S. government's Witness Protection
Synergy, a good citizen, notified the FBI about the potential breach of the
Witness Program's security. That was hacker ethics. But not every hacker is as
good a citizen.
Chapter 3 DATA CRIME
Pat Riddle has never claimed to be a good citizen. He is proud of being the
first hacker in America to be prosecuted. Even now, as a thirty-four-year-old
computer security consultant, he is fond of describing cases he has ~vorked on
in which the law, if not actually broken, is overlooked. "I've never been
entirely straight," he says.
As a child growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, he, like most hackers, was
fascinated by technology. He built model rockets, played with electronics, and
he liked to watch space launches. When he became a little older, his interests
turned to telecommunications and computers.
Pat and his friends used to rummage through the garbage left outside the back
doors of phone company offices for discarded manuals or internal memos that
would tell them more about the telephone system--a practice known as dumpster
diving. He I earned how to make a "butt set," a portable phone carried by phone
repairmen to check the lines, and first started "line tapping"--literally,
listening in on telephone calls--in the early 1970s, when he was fourteen or
The butt set he had built was a simple hand-held instrument with a dial on the
back and two alligator clips dangling from one end. All the materials he used
were purchased from hardware and electronics stores. To line-tap, he would
search out a neighbor-
60 APPROACHING ZERO
hood telephone box where the lines for all the local phones come together.
Every three-block area, roughly, has one, either attached to a telephone pole
or freestanding. Opening the box with a special wrench--also available from
most good hardware stores--he would attach the clips to two terminals and
listen in on conversations.
Sometimes, if the telephone box was in a public area, he would run two long
wires from the clips so that he could sit behind the bushes and listen in on
conversations without getting caught. To find out whose phone he was listening
to, he would simply use his butt set to call the operator and pretend to be a
lineman. He would give the correct code, which he had learned from his hours of
dumpster diving, and then ask, "What's this number?" Despite being fourteen, he
was never refused. "So long as you know the lingo, you can get people to do
anything," Pat says.
The area where he grew up was a dull place, however, and he never heard
anything more interesting than a girl talking to her date. "It was basically
boring and mundane," he says, "but at that age any tittle-tattle seemed
Pat learned about hacking from a guy he met while shoplifting electronic parts
at Radio Shack. Doctor Diode, as his new friend was called, didn't really know
much more about hacking than Pat, but the two of them discovered the procedures
together. They began playing with the school's computer, and then found that
with a modem they could actually call into a maintenance port--a dial-up--at
the phone company's switching office. The phone company was the preferred
target for phreakers-turned-hackers: it was huge, it was secretive, and it was
a lot of fun to play on.
Breaking into a switch through a maintenance port shouldn't have been easy, but
in those days security was light. "For years and years the phone company never
had any problems because they were so secret," Pat says. "They never expected
anyone to try to break into their systems." The switch used an operating system
called UNIX, designed by the phone company, that was relatively simple to use.
"It had lots of menus," recalls Pat with satisfaction. ~enus are the lists of
functions and services available to the computer user, or in this case, the
computer hacker. Used skillfully, menus are like a map of the computer.
As Pat learned his way around the switch, he began to play little jokes, such
as resetting the time. This, he says, was absurdly simple: the command for the
clock was Time. Pat would reset the clock from a peak time--when telephone
charges were highest--to an off-peak time. The clock controlled the telephone
com' pany's charges, so until the billing department noticed it was out of
kilter, local telephone users enjoyed a period of relatively inex~pensive
calls. He also learned how to disconnect subscriber's phones and to manipulate
the accounts files. The latter facility enabled him to "pay" bills, at first at
the phone company and later, he claims, at the electric company and at credit
card offices. He would perform this service for a fee of 10 percent of the
bill, which became a useful source of extra income.
He also started to play on the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects
Agency (ARPA) computer network. ARPANET was the oldest and the largest of the
many computer nets--webs of interconnected mainframes and workstations--that
facilitated the Defense Department's transfer of data. ARPANET was conceived in
the 1950s--largely to protect the ability of the U.S. military to communicate
after a nuclear strike--and finally established in the late 1960s. It
eventually linked about sixty thousand computers, or nodes, and interacted with
other networks, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, making it
an integral part of Worldnet. Most universities, research centers, defense
contractors, military installations, and government departments were connected
through ARPANET . Because there was no "center" to the system, it functioned
like a highway network, connecting each node to every other; accessing it at
one point meant accessing the whole system.
Pat used to commune regularly with other hackers on pirate bulletin boards,
where he exchanged information on hacking sites, known computer dial-ups, and
sometimes even stolen IDs
62 APPROACHING ZERO
and passwords. From one of these pirate boards he obtained the dial-up numbers
for several ARPANET nodes.
He began his hack of ARPANET by first breaking into Sprint, the long-distance
phone carrier. He was looking for long-distance access codes, the five-digit
numbers that would get him onto the long-distance lines for free. In the old
days he could have used a blue box, but since then the phone system had become
more sophisticated. Blue boxes were said to have been killed off once and for
all in 1983 when Bell completed the upgrading of its system to what is called
Common Channel Interoffice Signaling (CCIS). Very simply, CCIS separates the
signaling--the transmission of the multifrequency tones--from the voice lines.'
To get the codes he wanted, Pat employed a technique known as war-dialing, in
which a program instructs the computer to systematically call various
combinations of digits until it finds a "good" one, a valid access code. The
system is crude but effective; a few hours spent war-dialing can usually garner
a few good codes.
These long-distance codes are r.ecessary because of the timeconsuming nature of
hacking. It takes patience and persistence to break into a target computer, but
once inside, there is a myriad of menus and routes to explore, to say nothing
of other linked computers to jump to. Hackers can be on the phone for hours,
and whenever possible, they make certain their calls are free.
Pat's target was an ARPANET-linked computer at MIT, a favorite for hackers
because at that time security was light. In common with many other
universities, MIT practiced a sort of open access, believing that its computers
were there to be used. The difficulty for MIT, and other computer operators, is
that if security is light, the computers are abused, but if security is tight,
they become more difficult for even authorized users to access.
Authorized users are given a personal ID and a password, which hackers spend a
considerable amount of time collecting through pirate bulletin boards, peering
over someone's shoulder in an office, or "dumpster divin~." But exploitin~ a
computer's default log-ins and passwords can often be even simpler--as Nick
Whiteley discovered when he hacked in to the QMC computer for the first time. A
common default is "sysmaint," for systems maintenance, used as both the log-in
and the password. Accessing a machine with this default would require no more
than typing "sysmaint" at the log-in prompt and then again at the password
prompt. Experienced hackers also know that common commands such as "test" or
"help" are also often used as IDs and passwords.
Pat first accessed ARPANET by using a default code. "Back then there was no
real need for security," he says. "It was all incredibly simple. Computers were
developed for human beings to use. They have to be simple to access because
humans are idiots."
ARPANET became a game for him--he saw it as "a new frontier to play in." He
jumped from computer to computer within the system, accessing everything from
the main computers regulating the network to mainframes at the Pentagon, air
force, and army installations and research centers. "It was like going through
an electronic road map, trying to get somewhere, without knowing where," he
says. Pat talks in vague terms about downloading information from the computers
he accessed, but is evasive about what he did with it. He says that some of it
was sold, although what he sold and to whom and for how much remains unclear.
It is more likely that selling the data was of secondary concern; he was merely
"fascinated" by the intricacies of the new technol gY- "This is the information
age," he says. "Knowing about
~_omputers made me feel more intelligent. Very few people had access to them,
and even fewer understood them."
At about the time that he was first hacking into ARPANET, a new program called
Super Zap appeared which could bypass copy protection2 on IBM PC-type software.
Pat thought that its function mirrored his own activities, so he decided to
call himself Captain Zap.
64 APPROACHING ZERO
By 1980 Captain Zap was becoming more and more adventurous He had learned the
dial-ups for the White House computer network, which he accessed regularly over
the next year, and had also dialed directly into the Pentagon. He was going for
He used to download information from the White House, reams and reams of
computer paper, and bring it home to his wife. "Look what I've found!" he would
shout, but she was less interested in what he had found than in the fact he
could get caught. And whatever it was that he had discovered, he himself can't
remember. "There was all sorts of bullshit," he says. Some of it was encrypted,
some not, but none of it seems to have been very memorable.
There was another use for the White House phone number, however. He would
sometimes call the central operator number--a voice number, not a dial-up--and
in his best bureaucratic style say something like, "This is Mr. McNamara, admin
counsel. I need a secure line to the American embassy in Germany." He swears
that the operators would patch him through, and that once connected to the
American embassy--on a secure line, from the White House--he could request
another secure line to whatever local number he wanted to call. He claims that
Mr. McNamara was just a name that he had made up, and that whether or not there
was such a person, the operators never turned him down.
Captain Zap was a believer in "knowing the lingo"--the lingo being the language
necessary, whether computer-speak, telcospeak, or even bureaucratese--to obtain
information or to persuade people to help you. This practice, known as social
engineering, is a by-product of hacking, simply getting information from
someone by pretending to be someone else.
It works like this. Say you need the dial-up for a particular computer. You
call the voice number of the target company and ask to speak to the computer
operator. When you get through, you put on your best telco repairman's accent
and say, "We're doing a few repairs on the computer lines in your area. Have
you been having trouble with your terminal?" The answer is invariably yes.
"Yeah, I thought so," you say. "Look, we need to check the line. Can you start
up your system and run me through it? What's your dial-up?" And so on. In most
cases the operator will volunteer not only the dial-up, but the log-in and
password as well.
Social engineering takes a lot of the hassle out of hacking, ~nd for adolescent
hackers it has an additional attraction: it gives them a chance to put one
over on an adult. Deceiving ~rown-ups has always been a youthful pastime;
social engineerg demands it.
While Captain Zap was hacking the White House and the entagon, he was also
putting his skills to a more profitable se--theft. He and his friend, Doctor
Diode, had learned how to rack the sales and invoicing systems of a number of
large comuter companies and equipment wholesalers. The system they ad worked
out was surprisingly simple. First they would create ummy corporations by
hacking into a credit agency, listing their company on the register, and giving
it a "triple-A" credit rating--the highest.3 Then they would hack into a
supplier's computer and create a real-paper trail: they would connect
themselves to the sales department and cut an order, jump to the accounts
department and "pay" the invoice, then skip over to shipping and write out a
delivery manifest. The delivery address would be a mail drop the address of an
answering service, say, which would also receive all documentation from the
target company. From the supplier's point of view the paper trail was complete:
they had an order, a paid invoice, and a delivery manifest. The paperwork made
sense. If they checked with the credit agency, they would find that the buyer
had a triple-A credit rating. Of course the company didn't actually have the
money to cover the equipment it had just delivered, but that wouldn't be
discovered until they tried to balance their books.
The supplies that Captain Zap and his friend ordered included
66 APPROACHINC ZERO
portable terminals, a Hewlett-Packard computer, peripherals, cameras,
walkie-talkies, and other supplies. According to the authorities, the total
amount of goods stolen in the scam amounted to over $500,000.
Pat insists that hacking into the supplier's computers was simple: "There was
no security," he says. Using guesswork and knowledge of the default settings,
they could make their way past the log-in and password prompts. For more
recalcitrant computers they rigged up an adapted "war-dialing" system that
would keep pounding at the door with one ID and password combination after the
other until they got in. Even if a computer operator has assiduously removed
default codes, there are still common combinations that people use over and
over. There are said to be just a few of these combinations--such as name and
surname, or company name and department--that, in a large system, someone will
use. Knowing the names of employees and where they work greatly speeds up the
process of hacking. People pick simple combinations for an obvious reason: they
need to remember them. Choosing something completely off-the-wall increases the
chance of forgetting the ID or password just as the prompt is flashing. And
writing them down defeats the object.
The surveillance of Captain Zap began in May 1981. Pat knew he was being
watched because he noticed a van with two men in it outside his apartment. By
then his unorthodox buying spree had gone on for almost two years. Though each
"order" was relatively small, the companies that had been robbed had been able
to isolate the accounts that appeared to be paid but for which there was no
corresponding check. Then they called the police.
There was a trail of connections the authorities could follow, which led from
the companies that had sold the goods to the mail drops, and from there to Pat
and the others he worked with. The bust came at ten A.M. on July 2, 1981.
Agents from the FBI accompanied by state police from the White Collar Crime
Unit, Bell Security representatives and two military policemen raided Pat's
parents' home. The maid answered the door.
He lived in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Philadelphia; the homes are
substantial, the residents well established. Pat's father owned and managed one
of the largest and oldest shipping companies on the East Coast. When the
newspapers carried the ~tory, Pat and his friends would be castigated as
"children of privilege."
The FBI presented Pat's mother with a thirty-seven-page document. "We have a
search warrant," they said.
"For Pat. He's accused of computer fraud."
His mother looked aghast. "He couldn't pass mathematics. You're telling me he's
a computer genius?"
The agents proceeded to tear apart Pat's room. They packed up dl the computers,
modems, and communications gear they could ~,find. They went through the files,
stuffing them in boxes. When ~Pat came home that night, he found that all of
his eqllipment had t~been taken away.
Pat was indicted on September 21 in both Harrisburg, Pennsyl~ania, and
Washington, D.C., for a number of offenses, including theft of equipment--the
$500,000 worth of computers and supplies--and theft of telephone services. He
was twenty-four years old at the time. In 1981 there was no comprehensive
computerfraud law, so Pat was "shoehorned"--his expression--into the existing
There are advantages to being a child of privilege. Though Pat's colleagues
were also arrested (there were five arrests in total, including Pat and Doctor
Diode) and some turned state's evidence in exchange for a light sentence,
Pat's father's money bought him the services of two of Philadelphia's biggest
law firms. After looking at the evidence, one of the lawyers turned to Pat and
said, "No jury will ever understand what you did and no jury will ever convict
you for ripping off the phone company."
The lawyer's words were not put to the test. The charges against Pat were
plea-bargained down to a $1,000 fine and two and a half years' "phone
probation"--meaning that Pat had to
68 APPROACHING ZERO
report to his probation officer by calling in. He still finds it ironic that a
convicted phreaker and hacker was required to report in by telephone.
In the wake of the Captain Zap case the American authorities quickly woke up to
the threat of computer hacking. By the mid1980S almost every state had
criminalized "theft by browsing"--that is, hacking into computers to see what's
there. The first federal law on computer crime, the Computer Fraud and Abuse
Act, was passed in 1986.
The contrast between the leniency shown Captain Zap in the U.S. courts for what
was, in the end, hacking for profit, and the judgment given to Nick Whiteley in
England for schoolboyish pranks nine years later is illustrative of the changes
in the authorities' perception of hacking over the decade. In 1981, when Cap-
tain Zap was arrested, his lawyer was probably correct in assuming that no jury
would have understood the prosecution's case. In 1990, however, Nick was almost
certainly right in saying the courts were determined to throw the book at him.
Over the course of a decade, both the authorities' awareness of hacking and the
technological underground that committed this crime had grown. Hacking--though
probably only dimly understood by most of the public--had become a fashionable
threat, explained in long, analytical newspaper articles and described in
detail by stylish magazines. Computer security experts (and some hackers) were
invited onto TV talk shows to paint the threats to computer security in lurid
terms. The sense of impending technological apocalypse was heightened by a
number of well-publicized hacking cases during the 1980S, of which the best
known was probably the Kevin Mitnick affair.
Mitnick was said to be obsessed with computers. In 1979 he and a friend had
successfully hacked into the NORAD (North American Air Defense command)
mainframe in Colorado Springs. Mitnick has since said that they didn't tamper
with anything, but simply entered the system, looked around, and got out. He
first ran afoul of the law in 1981, when he and three friends were arrested for
stealing technical manuals from the Pacific Telephone Company: he was convicted
and served six months. In 1983 he was caught by the University of Southern
California while trying to hack one of their computers. Later, he was accused
of breaking into a TRW computer (the TRW Credit Information Corporation holds
data on 80 million Americans nationwide). In 1987 he was arrested for stealing
software from a southern California company and sentenced to thirty-six months'
Mitnick belonged to a group of Los Angeles-area hackers called the Roscoe Gang.
He and the gang allegedly used PCs to harass their victims, break into Defense
Department computers, and sabotage businesses. He was also accused of breaking
into a National Security Agency computer and stealing important information.
More seriously, he was charged with defrauding the computer company Digital
Equipment Corporation (DEC) and the long-distance phone company MCI, and with
transporting proprietary software across state lines. The software was alleged
to be a copy of DEC's Security Software System, which made it possible for
Mitnick to break into DEC's computers and cause $4 million worth of damage.
Mitnick was again arrested in late 1988. He was refused bail by several federal
judges, who said there would be no way to protect society if he were freed. He
was also denied access to a phone while in jail, for fear that he may have
preprogrammed a computer to remotely trigger off damaging programs. In 1989 he
was sentenced to two years in prison.
The decision to deny Mitnick access to a phone was greeted with alarm by an
increasingly nervous hacker community. "We must rise to defend those endangered
by the hacker witch-hunts," wrote an unnamed contributor to 2600, the hacker
journal. The U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, then in the midst of its own
hacker case, responded by saying it intended to prosecute "aggressively."
The Chicago case, though less publicized than the Mitnick
70 APPROACHINC ZEUO
affair, was the first test of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In 1987
local law enforcement agencies began watching a sixteen-year-old hacker and
high school dropout named Herbert Zinn, Jr., who used the handle Shadow Hawk.
The law enforcement officials spent two months investigating Zinn, auditing his
calls and monitoring his activities on computers.
He was subsequently accused of using a PC to hack into a Bell Laboratories
computer in New York, an AT&T computer in North Carolina, another AT&T computer
at Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia, an IBM facility in New York, and other
computers belonging to the Illinois Bell Telephone Company. He was also accused
of copying various documents, including what were called highly sensitive
programs relating to the U.S. Missile Command.
Shadow Hawk was arrested in a raid involving the FBI, AT&T security
representatives, and the Chicago police. He was eventually sentenced to nine
months in prison and fined $10,000.
The Mitnick and Shadow Hawk cases fueled the growing concern among U.S. Iaw
enforcement agencies about hacking. By the end of the decade, the Secret
Service--which is now charged with investigating computer crime, a
responsibility partly, and not entirely amicably, shared with the FBI--was said
to have established a unit for monitoring pirate bulletin boards. A number of
state and local police forces had organized their own computer crime sections,
while separate investigations of the underground were mounted by U.S.
Attorneys' offices and local prosecutors. By the beginning of the 1990s,
American law enforcement agencies had begun paying extraordinary attention to
Across the Atlantic, away from the prying eyes of the American authorities, the
biggest international gathering of hackers ever organized took place in
Amsterdam in early August 1989.
The assembly was held in the seedy confines of the Paradiso, a former church
that had been turned into a one-thousand-seat th~t~r. The Paradiso was the home
of Amsterdam's alternative culture; it specialized in musical events,
underground exhibits, and drug parties. The Galactic Hacker Party--or, more
grandly, the International Conference on the Alternative Use of Technol-
gy~brought together some 400 to 450 hackers, hangers-on, journalists, and,
inevitably, undercover cops, to swap stories, refine techniques, gather
information, or simply enjoy themselves.
The conference took place on all three floors of the Paradiso. On the top
floor, above what had been the nave of the church, participants were provided
with computers to play with. (Their popularity decreased after one wag
programmed them to flash,
THIS MACHINE IS BEING MONITORED BY THE DUTCH POLICE, when they were turned on.)
The ground floor, the theater itself, was reserved for speakers and
demonstrations; across the back of the stage drooped a white banner emblazoned
with the words GALACTIC HACKER PARTY. The crypts in the basement of the
Paradiso were reserved for partying.
At ten A.M. on Tuesday, August 2nd, the opening day, a large monitor displayed
a computer-generated image of a head of a hacker. "Keep on hacking," urged the
head in an American accent, as the multinational gathering milled about in the
disorganized way of a crowd that clearly lacked a common language. Then, a
bearded, bespectacled, balding figure shuffled unheralded onto the stage. He
was the keynote speaker, the man who, more than anyone, had given rise to the
whole hacking phenomenon.
At forty-six, Captain Crunch looked strangely out of place among the younger
hackers. It had been eighteen years since he had first come to symbolize the
new technological underground, ten years since he had last been jailed for a
second time for phone phreaking. And here he was in Amsterdam, on a month's
vacation in Europe, still spreading the word.
He began with a rambling discourse in English about the phone system in the
former Soviet Union, information gleaned on an earlier visit there. Their phone
network, the Captain reported, was old, of mixed origin, and, he suspected, had
been continuously monitored by the KGB. He then began the slow process of
72 APPUOACHING ZERO
demonstrating the newly established Sov-Am Teleport Union, a telephone link
that connected San Francisco to Moscow via satel lite. Using a phone on the
stage the Captain first dialed San Francisco, where he linked to the Teleport,
and then jumped via satellite to Moscow. Unusually for the Captain, he had a
purpose to his call. He dialed a number in Moscow, where a group of ten hackers
were waiting to address the conference about the underground in Russia.
The Russians then joined a multilingual babble of hackers on the line from a
number of other countries, including Germany, France, Kenya, New Zealand, and
the U.S. The Captain, reveling in his role as prophet for the whole movement,
fielded calls about technology and the ethics of hacking--one caller wanted to
know if it would be right to hack into South African computers at the behest of
the African National Congress--and then related his own phreaking experiences.
The Captain was in Amsterdam representing what has been called the second
generation of hackers. The kids he was talking to, the visitors to the Galactic
Hacker Party, were dubbed the fourth generation. Though they had been separated
by more than a decade in time and by thousands of miles in geography, the
Hacker Party was their meeting place.
The concept of hacker generations was first suggested by Steven Levy, the man
who also outlined the philosophy of "hacker ethics." In his book Hackers, he
argued that the first generation of hackers was a group of students at MIT in
the 1960s who had access to big, expensive mainframes; worked together to
produce useful, new software; and, in doing so, bent the rules of the
university. More than anything, they believed in freedom of information and
unfettered access to technology. They abhorred security to the extent that they
made sure they could pick every lock in the building they worked in.
The second generation of hackers, according to Levy, were people like Captain
Crunch and Steve Wozniak, as well as the other members of the Bay Area's
Personal Computer Company
and its successor, the Homebrew Computer Club. These were the people who
intuitively believed that the way to drive technology forward was to make the
specifications for their machines freely available, a concept known as open
architecture. They were hardware hackers, and their achievement can now be seen
everywhere in the generality of the ubiquitous PC standard.
Each decade has brought a different twist of geography and
h motivation to the various generations of hackers: the 1960s hackers, the
first generation, were based on the East Coast, developing software; the
second-generation, 1970s hackers were on the West ~Coast, developing hardware.
The next generation, the third, was based both in North Amer~ica and Europe.
These were the kids who had inherited the gift of ~the personal computer and
were copying and selling the first ~computer games. Their motivation was often
a fast buck, and their instincts entirely commercial.
The Captain's audience, the fourth generation, had inherited a world in which
technology was rapidly converging around the new standard-bearer, the IBM PC.
This new generation shared the same obsessions as their predecessors, but now
that they had everything that technology could offer, they hacked merely for
the sake of hacking. Hacking had become an end in itself.
For many of the fourth generation, technology was merely a relief from boredom
and monotony. Hacking was a pastime that varied the routine of school or
university, or a dead-end job. To become proficient, they would typically
devote most of their wak~ng hours--80 to 100 hours a week was not uncommon,
more time than most people give to their jobs--to working on PCs and combing
the international information networks. Hackers, for the most part, are not
those with rich and rewarding careers or personal lives.
Of course, hacking is also a form of rebellion--against parents, schools,
authority, the state, against adults and adult regulations in general. The
rebellion is often pointless and unfocused, often simply for the sake of
defying the system. Ultimately there may
74 APPROACHING ZERO
be no point at all; it has simply become a gesture to ward off boredom or,
perhaps, the banality of ordinary life in a structured society.
The higher principles of hackers were summed up in a draft declaration prepared
by the Galactic Hacker Party's organizers and circulated among delegates for
their signatures. "The free and unfettered flow of information is an essential
part of our fundamental liberties, and shall be upheld in all circumstances,"
the document proclaimed. "Computer technology shall not be used by government
and corporate bodies to control and oppress the people."
The language echoed the beliefs of the second generation of hackers. But the
conversation among the kids in the crypt and in the halls belied the rhetoric
of the organizers. For Lee Felsenstein, an American visitor, it was a
disturbing experience. Lee was a confirmed second-generation hacker, one of the
original founders of the Homebrew Computer Club. He remained a staunch believer
in freedom of speech and an avid supporter of individual rights. But he felt
that the fourth-generation hackers were "underage and underdeveloped"; they
displayed "negative social attitudes." Hacking, he said, had degenerated from
being a collective mission of exploration into an orgy of self-indulgence.
For Lee, evidence of degeneracy included the hackers who boasted about breaking
into American computers to steal military information and then selling it to
the KGB. He was also disheartened to learn about the exploits of the
VAXbusters, a German group that had broken into NASA and over a hundred other
computers worldwide by exploiting a loophole in the operating system of Digital
Equipment Corporation's VAX computers. The VAX, very powerful but small
machines, are widely used in science laboratories, universities, and military
More to the point, from Lee's point of view, the fourth generation of hackers
was becoming involved in a new facet of computer programming, one that
threatened everything he believed in. Far from increasing access and creating
freedom for computer users, this new development could only cause the door to
be slammed shut on access, for freedom to be replaced by fortresslike security.
During the Galactic Party, a number of hackers had been demonstrating new
programs called computer viruses.
Lce left Amsterdam muttering about Babylon and ancient Rome. John Draper, alias
Captain Crunch, was less bothered. He spent the remainder of his vacation
traveling around Germany, taking his hacking road show to eighteen different
There was, in fact, nothing new about computer viruses except their existence.
Viruses had been foreseen in science fiction; the rliest use of the term has
been traced to a series of short stories itten in the 1970s by David Gerrold.
In 1972 Gerrold employed virus theme for a sci-fi potboiler called When HARLIE
Was. HARLIE was an acronym for Human Analogue Robot Life nput Equivalents
computer, which meant simply that the ficional creation could duplicate every
function of the human ain--a sort of mechanical equivalent of Dr.
Frankenstein's onster. This robot could also dial up other computers by teleone
and reprogram them or modify data. In so doing, ARLIE was emulating a computer
program called simply irus, which dialed up telephone numbers at random. When
it und another computer at the end of the line, it loaded a copy ' itself onto
the new machine, which started dialing other comlters to transfer copies of the
program, and so on. Soon hundreds of computers were tied up randomly calling
The Virus program was fictional, of course, and simply part of ~rrold's
convoluted plot, but the concept of a computer program reproducing itself had
been foreseen as early as 1948. In that
John van Neumann, a Hungarian-born mathematician and computer pioneer who had
designed one of the world's first comruters, quaintly called Maniac, began
theoretical work on what was then thought of as electronically created
artificial life, which he termed automata. He predicted that the reproduction
process for such automata would be fairly simple.
76 APPROACHING ZERO
Later, in the 1960s, before the advent of computer games, university
engineering students sometimes amused themselves by seeing who could write the
shortest program that could reproduce an exact copy of itself. These were
called self-replicating programs, but van Neumann would have recognized them as
versions of his concept of electronic automata.
The first attempts to use self-replicating programs for something useful were
made at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the late seventies. Two
researchers, John Shoch and Jon Hupp, devised what they called a worm program
to help with the management of the center's computer network, which linked over
one hundred medium-sized machines. They envisaged the program working
automatically, archiving old files, making backup copies of current files, and
running routine diagnostic checks; they hoped that it would be able to perform
the endless housekeeping tasks that the researchers at Palo Alto were too busy
to keep up with. They named the new program a worm, the two later said, in
honor of their inspiration--another work of science fiction by the English
writer John Brunner called The Shockwave Rider, published in 1975. Brunner's
book heralded the existence of a computer program, which he called a
"tapeworm," that reproduced itself endlessly and couldn't be killed.
Something very similar happened to Shoch and Hupp. Their worm program was
expected to sit quietly on one computer during the day, then emerge at night to
roam the computers in the research center, carrying out housekeeping chores.4
Because it worked only at night, skeptical colleagues nicknamed it the vampire
In their first test, Shoch and Hupp left the worm program "exercising" on half
a dozen designated machines in the lab. It wasn't programmed to do anything; it
was just expected to travel to the designated machines and leave copies of
itself. The next morning, though, when the two arrived back at their office,
they found that the worm had escaped and had rampaged through all the
hundred-plus networked computers in the center. More disturbing~ it had
reproduced so quickly that it had brought every machine to a halt, seemingly
strangling them by taking up all
i available space in the computers' memory.
Worse, when they attempted to restart one of the computers, the worm was
reactivated and proceeded to strangle the machine again. To destroy the worm,
they had to write another pro-
gram--a killer program. Fortunately, unlike Brunner's tapeworm, their
program was not indestructible, but Shoch and Hupp later called its behavior
"rather puzzling," and simply abandoned the experiment, leaving unsolved the
problem of "controlling [its] growth while maintaining stable behavior."
In the early 1980s a number of computer science students suc-
- ceeded in writing self-replicating programs for the new Apple II computers.
Joe Dellinger, a student at Texas A&M University at the time, became intrigued
by the idea that computer programs could become modified when copied. He had no
trouble writing a self-replicating program for the Apple II, even though he
didn't consider himself a particularly clever programmer. His biggest problem
was in writing a program that wouldn't cause damage; he was surprised at how
quickly the program could propagate, moving rapidly from computer to computer
by diskette, eventually traveling to machines outside the A&M campus.
Though Dellinger was intrigued by the notion that programs change as they
replicate and travel from computer to computer, there is nothing metaphysical
about it. It is simply a computer error. The longer and more complex a program
is, the more likely that a line of instruction, a command within the program,
will be skipped or altered in the copying process. These tiny modifications
rarely cause problems, but the potential for error is there.
What is more important is that Dellinger discovered that any self-replicating
program, no matter how benign, carried with it the potential for damage, just
as a fly buzzing about a room carries the possibility of disease. Unlike the
software sold by commercial houses, self-replicating programs are untested, un-
tried and generally unstable. The changes created when these
78 APPROACHING ZERO
programs transfer themselves from machine to machine can cause them to be
damaging, and their very presence on a computer is inherently risky.
Equally intriguing is the speed at which they propagate. In an environment like
a university campus, where anyone has access to any computer and programs are
routinely carried from machine to machine on diskette, they can multiply
exponentially. They are, after all, designed to replicate, so that one copy
quickly becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and so on. Dellinger
found that once let loose, the program's spread was almost unstoppable.
It was another four years, however, before self-replicating programs became
"viruses." In 1983 and 1984 a graduate student at the University of Southern
Califomia named Fred Cohen was experimenting with these programs and, at the
suggestion of his adviser, decided to call them computer viruses. It was a
catchier name, and also became the title of his 1985 doctoral thesis, in which
he offered an explanation of viruses. A virus, he wrote, is "a program that can
infect other programs by modifying them to include a slightly altered copy of
itself." Further, "every program that gets infected can also act as a virus and
thus the infection grows." Cohen also indicated that viruses presented a threat
to computer security and could modify or damage data.
The thesis did not break any new ground in terms of computer science: in
essence, Cohen took the known characteristics of selfreplicating programs and
renamed them viruses. The term itself suggests that the programs are created in
some kind of wild electronic biosphere and are capable of spreading incurable
diseases from computer to computer--the high-tech equivalent of the biological
viruses to which they are often compared. The sensationalistic use of the word
would later prove to be fortuitous to computer security experts and have an
irresistible appeal to rogue computer programmers. Though the word was perhaps
chosen innocently, the metaphor was not entirely apt. Computer viruses, like
biological viruses, are spread unknowingly, and they can mutate while
spreading, but they are not created in the same way. Biological viruses are
carried by small, natural organisms, over which man has little control;
computer viruses, however, are simply programs--and computer programs are
written by people.
Cohen's work quickly attracted attention, not least from a German computer
system engineer named Ralf Burger. At the time, Burger was twenty-six and
living in a small town near the Dutch-German border, not far from the city of
Bremen. Burger became fascinated by the concept of viruses, and in July 1986 he
had succeeded in creating his own, which he called Virdem. It was, to all
intents and purposes, a simple self-replicating program, but with a small
twist. For Burger, the "primary function of the virus is to preserve its
ability to reproduce." After being loaded onto a computer, Virdem was
programmed to hunt down and infect other files in the machine. When there were
no more files to infect, the virus would begin "a randomly-controlled gradual
destruction of all files."
In December 1986 Burger decided to attend the annual convention of the Chaos
Computer Club in nearby Hamburg. The club had been founded in 1981 by Herwart
Holland-Moritz--who prefers to be known as Wau Holland--and is a registered
nonprofit organization. Holland, who was a thirty-two-year-old computer
programmer at the time, set up the club as a hobby; despite the sinister
implications of the name, it was chosen only because "there is a lot of chaos
in the application of computers." According to the club's constitution, it is
dedicated to freedom of information.
Since its foundation the club has proven itself adept at organizing media
events, and this ability together with the connotations of its name have given
the group a high profile. Like many clubs, Chaos unites people with a wide
range of interests: there are members who see computers as a weapon for
sociological change, others who simply want to play computer games, those who
want t o know how computer systems work, and those concerned with making a fast
buck, legally or illegally. The Chaos members refer
80 APPROACHING ZERO
to themselves as data travelers, rather than hackers, but they all share the
same obsession with computers and all vaguely subscribe to a vague notion of
"hacker ethics." Their own unique understanding of that term is that they have
a mission to test, or penetrate, the security of computer systems. Early Chaos
Clubbers were allied with the VAXbusters, the group that sought to break
through the security of VAX computers around the world The club's first brush
with notoriety, though, occurred in 1984, when they broke into Btx, or
Bildschirmtext, an on-line text and information service patterned after
Britain's Prestel. In 1986 they captured the media's attention again when,
after the meltdown of the Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, they provided
alternative information on contamination levels by hacking into government
computers and releasing the data that they found. Their findings were
sufficiently at odds with official reassurances to make them the darlings of
Germany's Green movement.
The annual conferences of the Chaos Club were held in Hamburg, always in
December. They attracted the cream of the German hacker community, as well as
observers from throughout Europe and elsewhere; were always well covered by the
media; and, without a doubt, were carefully watched by the local police. Each
conference was given a theme that was designed to excite media attention, and
in 1986 the theme was computer viruses.
Even though little was known about viruses at the time, the conference
organizers hoped piously that the publicity given to the subject would help
dispel myths. The organizers also declared: "The problem isn't computer
viruses, but the dependence on technology," and they blamed the writing of
viruses on "bad social condition(s) for programmers."
The star performer at the conference was Ralf Burger, simply because he had
actually written a virus, which in those days was something of a feat. To prove
that his virus, Virdem, would work, Burger handed out copies to some two or
three hundred interested delegates. He said it would "give users a chance to
work with computer viruses."
Technically, any virus is little more than a self-replicating program with a
sting in its tail. This sting, usually known as the payload, is what the virus
actually does to the computer, which is often nothing at all--apart from
replicating, or performing a harmless joke, such as making a ball bounce around
the screen or instructing the computer to play a tune. At another level, how-
ever, the payload can cause the destruction of data.
Computer viruses are carried from computer to computer by iiskette or, in
networked computers, by the wires that link them. rhey can also be transmitted
on telephone lines, through ~odems, like ordinary computer programs. Viruses do
not fly through the air and cannot jump from computer to computer vithout being
carried by a physical medium. Moreover, all viruses are man-written: they
aren't natural, or caused spontaneously by computer technology. The only
"artificial life" inherent in a virus is its tendency to modify itself as it is
copied, but that's possible with any computer program.
This explanation may seem simple to the point of absurdity, but when viruses
first began to garner mentions in the press, and breathless reporters began to
write lurid stories about "technological viruses," their properties were
exaggerated into the realm of science fiction. Viruses made a good story--even
when there was no evidence that they had actually damaged anything.
In 1986, when Burger made his presentation to the Chaos conference, there were
almost no viruses in existence. Few people in the computer industry had ever
seen one, despite increasing interest in the subject from security experts, who
were touting them as the next big threat to computer systems. The simple fact
was that Burger's Virdem was probably the only virus that most of them had even
The properties of viruses and the damage that they could cause were widely
known, however. Even the nightmare scenario had been posited: that a plague of
viruses would move swiftly through the computers of the world, wiping out data
82 APPROACHINC ZERO
corporations, government agencies, police forces, financial institutions, the
military, and, eventually, the structure of modern society itself. By 1986,
however, actual attacks by viruses on computer systems had yet to occur.
The next year, 1987, Burger's book about computer viruses Das
Grosse-computervirenbuch, was published by Data Becker GmbH of Dusseldorf.5 In
the book Burger warned: "Traveling at what seems the speed of moving electrons,
comical, sometimes destructive programs known as viruses have been spreading
through the international computer community like an uncontrollable plague."
There was in fact no hard evidence for this statement, and later in the book,
contradicting the apocalyptic tone of the first section, Burger admitted: "So
far it has been impossible to find proof of a virus attack."
Later that year, two new viruses appeared. The first was created by the Greek
computer magazine Pixel, which had hired a local computer wizard named Nick
Nassufis to write one. The magazine published the virus as a list of
BASIC-language instructions in the April 1987 issue. Readers who keyed in the
instructions found themselves with a fully functioning virus on their comput-
ers. It didn't do much apart from replicate, but from time to time it would
display a poorly written English language message on the computer screen:
PROGRAM SICK ERROR: CALL DOCTOR OR BUY PIXEL FOR CURE DESCRIPTION. Three months
later Pixel published instructions for wiping it out.
Then, as Burger was preparing the second edition of his book he received a copy
of a virus found in Vienna by a local journalist. This virus, now known as
Vienna, was said to have appeared at a local university in December 1987. Its
writer is unknown, as are the writers of most viruses.
Burger described Vienna as "extremely clever." But by the standards of virus
writing today, it wasn't, though it was certainly the most advanced virus in
existence at the time. Vienna is known as a file virus because it attaches
itself to what are known in the computer industry somewhat tediously as
executable files (i.e., the software, such as a word-processing program, that
actually enables a computer to do something useful). When an infected program
is loaded onto a computer from a diskette (or transferred through a network),
Vienna comes with it and slips itself into the computer's memory. It then looks
for other executable files to infect, and after infecting seven it damages the
eighth, simply by overwriting itself onto the program code.
Although the payload of the Vienna virus was destructive--the eighth program
that was damaged was irreparable--by presentday standards it wasn't
particularly malicious. More dangerous was Burger's decision to publish a
reconstruction of the Vienna program code in the second edition of his book. It
became the recipe for writing viruses.
Programmers with access to the code could quite easily adapt it for their own
purposes--by altering the payload, for instance. That's what eventually
happened with Vienna.6 Though Burger had deliberately altered his
reconstruction to make it unworkable, programmers had little trouble finding
their way around the alterations. Variants of Vienna have been found all over
the world: in Hungary, a Vienna clone carries a sales message that translates
roughly as POLIMER TAPE CASSETTES ARE THE BEST. GO FOR THEM. A Russian version
was adapted to destroy the computer's hard disk, the internal memory and
storage area for programs, after infecting sixty-four files. A Polish variant
displays the message MERRY CHRISTMAS on infected computers between December
19th and 31st. A version from Portugal carries out the standard overwriting of
the eighth program, but also displays the word AIDS. In the US a group of
unknown American virus writers used Vienna as the basis for a series of viruses
called Violator, all intentionally damaging to computer systems.
It is ironic that a book written to warn about the dangers of viruses should be
the medium for distributing the recipe for writing them. But even though no one
had yet documented a proven virus attack on a computer system anywhere in the
world, and the predicted plague of computer viruses had not yet materialized,
84 ~ APPROACHING ZERO
potential threat of viruses was being aggressively hyped by computer engineers
like Burger and by a small group of computer security consultants in America--
and many people appeared remarkably eager to believe them. In what was probably
the first press report of viruses, in February 1987, the editor of the interna-
tional computer trade journal Computers de Security wrote, "Computer viruses
can be deadly.... Last year a continuousprocess industry's computer crashed
causing hundreds of thousands of dollars' damage. A post mortem revealed that
it had been infected with a computer virus. Another nationwide organization's
computer system crashed twice in less than a year. The cause of each crash was
a computer virus.... A computer virus can cause an epidemic which today we are
unable to combat."
It has never been possible to trace either the "continuousprocess" corporation
or the "nationwide organization" whose computers had been so badly damaged by
viruses. Like so many aspects of computer viruses, investigation only reveals
myth and legend, rarely fact. But myth is self-perpetuating, and prophecies are
Chapter 4 VIRUSES, TROIANS,
WORMS, AND BOMBS
The first documented computer virus attack was recorded on October 22,1987, at
the University of Delaware, in Newark, Delaware. According to a spokesperson
for the Academic Computer Center at the university, the virus infected "several
hundred disks, rendering 1 percent of them unusable, and destroying at least
one student's thesis." Later a news report appeared in The New York Times that
claimed, "Buried within the code of the virus . . . was an apparent ransom
demand. Computer users were asked to send $2,000 to an address in Pakistan to
obtain an immunity program." But that wasn't quite true. Researchers using
specialized software were later able to call up the actual operating program of
the virus onto a computer screen. Within the mass of instructions that
controlled the bug, they found the following message:
WELCOME TO THE DUNGEON
(C) 1986 BASIT & AMJAD (PVT) LTD.
BRAIN COMPUTER SERVICES
730 NIZAB BLOCK ALLAMA IQBAL TOWN
PHONE: 430791, 443248, 280530.
BEWARE OF THIS VIRUS . . .
CONTACT US FOR VACCINATION . . .
86 APPROACHING ZERO
There was no ransom demand.
Computer researchers now know the virus as Brain, though at the time it didn't
have a name, and it was later discovered to have been programmed only to infect
the first sector on a diskette. Diskettes are divided into sectors invisible to
the naked eye, each holding 512 bytes (or characters) of information,
equivalent to about half a page of typewritten material. The first sector on a
diskette is known as the boot sector, and its function is something like that
of the starter motor on a car: it kicks the machine into operation (hence the
expression "booting up," or starting up, a computer). When a computer is
switched on, the machine bursts into life and carries out some simple
self-diagnostic tests. If no fault is found, the machine checks to see if there
is a diskette in the disk drive. The disk drive, acting like a record player
with the diskette as its record, begins to rotate if a diskette is in place,
and the boot sector of the diskette directs the computer to the three actual
start-up programs that make the computer operational.
The Brain virus was designed to hide in the boot sector waiting for the
computer to start up from the diskette so that it can load itself into the
computer's memory, as if it were a legitimate startup program. But at around
2,750 bytes long, it is much too big to fit entirely within the boot sector,
and instead does two things: it places its first 512 bytes in the boot sector
and then stores the rest of its code, together with the original boot-sector
data, in six other sectors on the diskette. When the computer starts up, the
head of the virus jumps into memory, then calls up its tail and the original
Brain is one of the most innocent viruses imaginable, though that wasn't known
at the time. The University of Delaware spent a full week and considerable
manpower cleaning out its computer system and destroying infected diskettes,
only to find that the virus's payload is simply the tagging of infected
diskettes with the label "Brain." A label is the name a user can give to a
diskette, and is of no real importance. Most users don't even bother to label
their diskettes, and if a virus suddenly names it for them, thev are unlikelv
to notice or care.
However, like all viruses, Brain can cause unintended damage. If a diskette is
almost full, it is possible for some sectors to be
identally overwritten while the virus is attaching its tail, ~ereby wiping out
all the data contained there. Also, copying can render the virus unstable,
and could unintentionally overwrite ystems areas (the sectors on diskettes that
enable their use by Computers), thus rendering them useless.
Paramount to the viability of a computer virus is an effective infection
strategy. Brain was viable because it didn't do anythingdeliberately dangerous
or even very obvious, so it wasn't likely to get noticed. Therefore, when it
climbed into the computer memory, it could stay there until the computer was
switched off targeting any other diskettes that were introduced into the com-
puler during that session.
Brain also contained a special counter, which permitted it to infect a new
diskette only after the computer operator had accessed it thirty-one times.
Thereafter, it infected at every fourth use. Yet another, particularly
ingenious, feature was its ability to evade detection. Normally the boot
sector, where the virus hides, can be read by special programs known as disk
editors. But if someone tried to read the boot sector to look for it, Brain
redirected them to the place where the original boot sector had been stored, so
that everything looked normal. This feature, which now takes other forms, has
become known as stealth, after the Stealth bomber that was designed to evade
It wasn't difficult to trace the writers of Brain, since they had conveniently
included their names, telephone numbers, and address on their virus. The
programmers were nineteen-year-old Basit Farooq Alvi and his
twenty-six-year-old brother, Amjad Farooq Alvi. Together they run a computer
store in Lahore, Pakistan, called Brain Computer Services. They wrote the virus
in 1986, they said, "for fun," and it was in all probability the first virus
ever to be disseminated internationally.
Shortly after writing Brain, Basit had given a copy of the virus to an
unidentified friend, and it traveled from Pakistan to North America via an
unknown route, finally reaching the University of
88 APPROACHING ZERO
Delaware. Like Joe Dellinger at A&M, who was surprised at how quickly his
self-replicating programs had traveled, Basit and Amjad Alvi were startled that
their little virus had emigrated all the way to America in less than a year.
The second documented virus attack occurred only a month later, in November
1987, on computers at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Unlike
Brain, the virus at Lehigh was deliberately damaging. It kept a count of the
number of files that it infected and, when its counter reached four, it trashed
the diskette by overwriting it with "garbage" collected from another part of
The university's senior computer consultant, Ken van Wyk, realized he had a
problem when students began complaining that their diskettes didn't work. At
first there was a trickle of bad diskettes, then a flood. Something was zeroing
out the diskettes, and Van Wyk guessed that it was probably a virus.
Van Wyk worked for five days to isolate the bug and find a cure. He discovered
that, unlike Brain, the Lehigh virus did not infect the boot sector; instead,
it hid itself inside one of the three start-up programs that are triggered
immediately after the boot had occurred. Like Brain, the virus jumped into
memory whenever a computer was started from an infected diskette. Van Wyk also
discovered that the antidote was extremely simple: all he needed to do was
delete the infected start-up program and replace it with a clean one. The data
on the trashed diskettes, however, was irrecoverable. Van Wyk notified
colleagues at other colleges that the virus "is not a joke. A large percentage
of our disks have been gonged by this virus in the last couple of days."
Later that year the university suffered another attack from a modified version
of the same virus. This one trashed a diskette after infecting ten files, as
opposed to four. The longer delay made the new version of what was by then
known as the Lehigh virus much more insidious in that it infected more
diskettes with versions of itself, and therefore propagated more widely, before
unleashing its payload. But because the antidote was already known to Van Wyk,
the cleanup operation was quick.
The writer of the Lehigh virus was never discovered, though he or she was
assumed to be a student at the university. But by one of those concurrences
that excite conspiracy theorists, the professor of electrical engineering and
computer science at Lehigh when the viruses attacked was Fred Cohen, by then
Dr. Cohen, the same student who two years earlier had written the dissertation
that had first coined the term computer virus.
Early in 1988 two more viruses were discovered, both of them written for the
Macintosh, a personal computer produced by Apple, which had become the
successor to its historic Apple II. The first became known as MacMag or,
sometimes, Peace, and contained the phrase "universal message of peace" signed
by Richard Brandow, the publisher of MacMag Magazine, a Canadian publication
for Macintosh users. It also included a small drawing of the world autographed
by the author of the virus, Drew Davidson.
Later it was discovered that the virus had been included on a computer game
shown at a meeting of a Macintosh users' group in Montreal. A speaker at the
meeting had accidentally copied the virus onto a diskette, and subsequently
infected a computer in the offices of Aldus, a Seattle-based software
publisher, for whom he was doing some work. The company then unwittingly copied
the virus onto what was later described as "several thousand" copies of a
program called Freehand, which were distributed to thousands of computer
stores. After complaints from consumers, who were quite bewildered at receiving
a peace message with their software, the company recalled five thousand copies
of the program.
The MacMag virus, though relatively widely distributed, was not malicious.
After displaying its message, it removed itself from infected systems.
Nevertheless, it was an unwanted extra and served to demonstrate the speed and
ease with which self-replicating programs could propagate. When questioned
about the morality of deliberately publishing Davidson's virus, Brandow was
quoted as saying, "You can't blame Einstein for Hiroshima."
The second Macintosh virus to be reported in 1988 was called Scores and was
much more serious. On April 19,1988 Electronic Data Systems (EDS) of Dallas, a
subsidiary of General Motors, announced that twenty-four of its machines had
been infected with a virus that was thought to have been written by a disgrun-
tled ex-employee. The virus had infected the operating system and two standard
files of each computer, and then hidden itself inside two more secret files
that it had created. Two days after a system has been infected with Scores, the
virus begins to spread to the other programs on the computer--in particular, it
looks for two specific programs developed by EDS, and when it finds them, it
prevents the computer user from saving his data, thereby causing the loss of
whatever he was workin~ on.
By early 1988 a small but potentially lucrative computer security industry had
begun to specialize in protecting machines from viruses. A number of computer
specialists offered their services as security consultants or sold computer
software designed to track down and kill viruses. But despite Brain, Lehigh,
and the two Macintosh viruses, there was little real evidence of the oft-hyped
plague of computer bugs. It was understandable that writers of antiviral
software and others in the new security industry would exaggerate the threat;
they were like burglar-alarm salesmen in a community without very many
burglars. They needed to convince the public that a slew of viruses was
gathering, to be unleashed on defenseless computer users in the coming year.
The emotive term virus helped their case, as did the willingness of the press
to publish dubious statistics and unverified, unsourced stories of virus
incidents--particularly the computer magazines, which were then locked in a
difficult circulation war and looking for something out of the ordinary to
write about. Viruses made good copy, as did nightmarish stories about the
effects of a plague. In essence, the burglars hadn't quite hit town yet, but by
God they were on the way.
One of the earliest antiviral programs for IBM PC-type computers was the work
of a New York-based programmer, Ross Greenberg. He said that he had seen the
impending virus threat coming for years, and had therefore created a program
called Flu Shot.
During the summer of 1988 Greenberg was contacted by writer Ralph Roberts, who
was researching a book about computer viruses. According to Roberts, Greenberg
insisted that he had "about twenty viruses in quarantine." When asked to
identify them, Greenberg told the writer, "I don't give the little suckers
names." But he did describe his "favorite virus," which he said could randomly
transpose two numbers on the screen. "Sounds cute," he reportedly said, "but it
could be dangerous if you're using Lotus 1-2-3 [a program used for accounting]
to run a multimillion-dollar company."
Roberts's book, Computer Viruses, was the first attempt to put the problem into
perspective. In it he describes his interviews with t he newly formed Computer
Virus Industry Association (CVIA), a body representing virus researchers and
consultants that had identified "twenty different types that attack IBM PCs and
compatibles" and fourteen others that infect other types of computers. The CVIA
also listed the names of the top five virus strains by reported incidence as
Scores, Brain, SCSI, Lehigh, and Merritt. Yet the Lehigh virus seemed to be
confined to Lehigh University; Brain was relatively harmless in that the damage
it caused was infrequent and accidental; and the Merritt virus (sometimes
called Alameda or Yale) was a benign virus that simply replicated and had been
seen at only a few universities and colleges. The SCSI virus attacked only the
Amiga, which was primarily a games machine. The most threatening virus on the
list was Scores, even though it seemed to be directed against one particular
company. Of the twenty-nine other reported viruses, either they had been seen
only once or twice or their existence was unconfirmed. (The twenty viruses
Greenburg claimed to have in quarantine were not on the list.) And that,
according to the CVIA, was about the size of the virus problem in the summer of
In the following year Greenberg wrote an article for Byte, an
92 APPROACHING ZERO
eminently respectable American computer magazine, in which he described two of
the viruses he had in quarantine: his favorite number-transposing virus, now
named Screen, and a similar one that he had reported to researchers as dBase,
which transposed characters within files. It was called dBase because it
targeted records generated by a popular program of the same name.
In 1988 and even early 1989, viruses were exceedingly rare, so there was a
growing suspicion about Greenberg's claims to have twenty unnamed bugs in some
sort of quarantine. It was thought that Greenberg was exaggerating for effect.
Other virus researchers understandably wanted copies of Greenberg's viruses
and, in particular, the dBase virus he had described in detail.
Eventually Greenberg produced a copy of dBase. It wasn't quite as he had first
described it; it had only been seen on one unidentified site, and only then by
Greenberg, but at least its existence could be verified. However, the existence
of the other nineteen viruses, including Screen, has yet to be confirmed.
Other early viruses were equally problematic. A virus researcher named Pamela
Kane told writer Ralph Roberts about the Sunnyvale Slug, which flashed the
message, "Greetings from Sunnyvale. Can you find me?" on infected machines. But
it has never been confirmed as a virus, nor seen since Kane first reported it.
Then there was the "retro-virus," reported to have been distributed with three
popular but unnamed shareware (free, shared software) programs. It was said to
have been programmed to detach itself from its infected hosts--a program or
file--and then to reinfect them at some future date. It was "like a submarine
rigged for silent running . . . the retro-virus waits until the destroyers have
stowed their depth charges and gone back to port before returning to sink
ships," it was claimed, somewhat colorfully, in the computing journal Info
World At the time, the retro-virus was without a doubt the most sinister virus
ever reported, but it had only been seen once--by the researcher who reported
The CVIA was not averse to creating a few myths of its own. Its chairman, John
McAfee, an ebullient and eminently quotable computer expert, was always
available to fill in the press on the irresistible spread of viruses. He was a
good interviewee, with a store of anecdotes about computer viruses and reports
of virus attacks at generally unidentified companies and institutions, and he
managed to give the impression that each anecdote could lead to a thousand
more, that each incident was representative of a hundred others. In 1988 and
1989, reports about viruses always intimated that what was public knowledge was
only the tip of the iceberg--that the problem was much bigger, much wider, and
much more pervasive than anyone suspected. But far from being the tip of the
iceberg, what had been reported was the whole problem--and even that was seen
through a prism. The hype had its effect, however, and sales of antivirus
Born in science fiction, legitimized by academia and institutionalized by the
Computer Virus Industry Association, the computer virus finally came of age on
September 26,1988, when it made the front cover of Time magazine.
Time was once derided as the publication "for those that can't think" (its
sister publication, Life, was said to be "for those who can't read"). It has
been accused of publishing middle-brow analyses and overwrought cover stories,
and its ability to be out of touch has been so noticeable that in show business
the offer of a Time cover story is considered a sure sign that the unfortunate
star's career is on the wane. Not that anyone has ever turned down a cover
story--Time is still one of the most influential publications in America, and
for better or worse, what it says is often believed.
So, when Time headlined its cover about computer viruses "Invasion of the Data
Snatchers!" its readers were more than certain that data was indeed being
snatched. The magazine detailed an attack on a local newspaper office by the
Brain virus, and called it a "deliberate act of sabotage." Brain, Time said,
was "pernicious," "small but deadly," and "only one of a swarm of infectious
programs that have descended on U.S. computer users
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this year." The magazine also announced, "In the past nine months, an estimated
250,000 computers have been hit with similar contagions."
The article captured perfectly the hyperbole about viruses: Brain was far from
pernicious, and it certainly wasn't deadly. There was no swarm of viruses: the
number then proven to have infected systems--as opposed to those conjured up in
the imaginations of virus researchers--was probably less than ten. And as for
the estimate that 250,000 computers had been hit by viruses, it was just that--
an estimate. No one at the time had any real idea how many computer sites had
The Time writer also dug deep to unearth the Cookie Monster, which had appeared
during the 1970s at a number of American colleges. Inspired by a character on
the children's television show Sesame Street, this joke program displayed a
message on a computer screen: I WANT A COOKIE. If the user typed in "cookie,"
it would disappear, but, if the message was ignored, it kept reappearing with
increasing frequency, becoming ever more insistent. But the Cookie Monster
wasn't a virus, even in the broadest definition of the term: it was a joke
program introduced by a prankster on a single computer; it had no ability to
replicate and it couldn't travel surreptitiously from machine to machine.
Time did recognize that "the alarm caused by these . . . viruses was amplified
by two groups with a vested interest in making the threat seem as dramatic as
possible"--the computer security specialists and the computer press, "a
collection of highly competitive weekly tabloids that have seized on the story
like pit bulls, covering every outbreak with breathless copy and splashy head-
lines." It was an apt description of the exaggerated coverage of the virus
phenomenon. But the threat would soon become real.
On the evening of November 2, 1988, a little over five weeks after the Time
story appeared, events occurred that seemed to fulfill all of the doomsday
prophecies. Between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M., eastern standard time, on that
Wednesday ni~ht, a ro~ue pro~ram was loaded onto the ARPANET system. Three
hours later, across the continent at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica,
operators noticed that their computers were running down. Something was taking
up computer space and slowing the machines to a crawl. At 10:54 P-M- managers
at the University of California at Berkeley discovered what they thought was a
hacker trying to break into their systems. As the attempts continued and the
attacks increased, they realized to their horror that it wasn't a hacker. It
was a program, and it was multiplying.
By that time the same program was attacking the computer at MIT's Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory as well as sites at Purdue, Princeton, and Stanford. It
was moving across networks, spreading from the ARPANET onto MILNET--the
Department of Defense computer network--and then onto Internet, which itself
links four hundred local area networks. It spread to the Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory, then to the University of Maryland, then across the
country again to the University of California campus at San Diego, and then
into the NASA Ames Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New
Mexico. Within a few hours the entire Internet system was under siege. Peter
Yee, at Ames, posted the first warning on the network's electronic mail service
at 2:28 A.M.: "We are currently under attack from an Internet virus. It has hit
UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Lawrence Livermore, Stanford, and NASA, Ames . . ."
Yee had earlier spotted what seemed to be an entire army of intruders
attempting to storm his computer. He counterattacked, killing off some of the
invaders. But then came another wave, and another, and he was soon overwhelmed.
His powerful computer had started to slow down noticeably, its energy drained
by the proliferation of vampire programs that were reproducing uncontrollably
and monopolizing its resources.
The same attackers hit the MIT Media Laboratory in Massachusetts. Pascal
Chesnais, a scientist who had been working late in the lab, thought he had
managed to kill off his mysterious intruderS~ then went to grab a meal. When he
got back, he found
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that more copies of the invaders were coming in with his elec tronic mail, so
he shut down his network connection for a few hours. Then, at 3:10 A.M., he
sent out his own warning: ' A virus has been detected at Media Lab. We suspect
that the whole Internet is infected by now. The virus is spread by [electronic]
mail . . . So mail will not be accepted or delivered."
Just before midnight the rogue program had spread to the Ballistic Research
Laboratory, an army weapons center in Mary land. The managers at the lab feared
the worst: they could be under attack from hostile agents. Even if that proved
not to be the case, they didn't know what the program was doing. It was cer-
tainly multiplying, that was clear, but it might also be destroying data. By
the next morning the lab had disconnected itself from the network and would
remain isolated for nearly a week. It wasn't alone in disconnecting--so many
sites attempted to isolate themselves that electronic mail (the usual channel
of communication between computer operators) was hampered, creating even more
confusion about what was happening. At one point the entire MILNET system
severed all mailbridges--the transfer points for electronic mail--to ARPANET.
By midnight the electronic freeways between the sixty thousand or so
interconnected computers on Internet and ARPANET were so clogged with traffic
that computer specialists were roused from their sleep and summoned to their
offfices to help fight the attack. Most of them wouldn't get back home until
the next night.
At 3:34 A.M. on November 3rd, shortly after Yee had sounded the first alarm,
another message about the virus was sent from Harvard. This message was much
more helpful: it wasn't just a warning, but offered constructive suggestions
and outlined three steps that would stop the virus. The anonymous sender seemed
to be well informed about its mechanisms, but because of the chaos on the
network, the message wouldn't get through for forty-nine hours.
At first the experts believed that all of the sixty thousand-plus computers on
the besieged networks were at risk. But it quickly became apparent that the
rogue program was attacking only particular models: Sun Microsystems, Series 3
machines, and VAX computers running variants of the UNIX operating system.l On
infected machines unusual messages appeared in the files of some utilities,
particularly the electronic-mail handling agent, called Sendmail. But what was
most apparent was that the rogue program was multiplying at devastating speed,
spreading from computer to computer, reinfecting machines over and over. As the
reinfections multiplied, the systems became bogged down; then the machines ran
out of space and crashed.
On the morning of Thursday, November 3rd, Gene Spafford, a computer science
professor at Purdue University, sent the following message to his colleagues:
"All of our Vaxen2 and some of our Suns here were infected with the virus. The
virus made repeated copies of itself as it tried to spread, and the load
averages on the infected machines skyrocketed. In fact, it got to the point
that some of the machines ran out of space, preventing log-in to even see what
was going on!" Spafford did manage to capture part of the rogue program, but
only the half that controlled its spread. The other half, the main operating
system within the program, erased itself as it moved from computer to computer,
so as not to leave any evidence. The deviousness of the program lent weight to
the theory that it would also be damaging: that the rogue program could somehow
have been tampering with systems, altering files, or destroying information.
The rogue program, it was subsequently discovered, moved from computer to
computer by exploiting flaws in the Berkeley version of UNIX. The principal
flaw was in Sendmail, the program designed to send electronic mail between
computers in the interlinked networks. A trapdoor on Sendmail would allow com-
mands (as opposed to actual mail) to be sent from computer to computer. Those
commands were the rogue program. Once it had entered one computer through
Sendmail, it would collect information about other machines in the system to
which it could jump, and then proceed to infect those machines.
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In addition to exploiting the Sendmail flaw, the rogue program could try to
guess the passwords to jump to target computers. Its password routine used
three methods: it tried simple permuta tions of known users' names, it tried a
list of 432 frequently used passwords, and it also tried names from the host
computer's own dictionary.3 If one method didn't work, it would try another and
then another until it had managed to prise open the door of the target
computer. An early analysis of the program made at four A.M. on the morning
after the initial attack described it as "high quality." Some twelve hours
after its release, it was estimated that about 6,200 computers on Internet had
been infected; the costs, in downtime and personnel, were mounting.
In the meantime, three ad hoc response teams, at the University of California
at Berkeley, at MIT, and at Purdue, were attempting to put an end to the
attack. At five A.M. the Berkeley team sent out the first, interim set of
instructions designed to halt the spread. By that time the initial fears that
the rogue program might destroy information or systems had proved unfounded.
The program, it was discovered, was designed to do nothing more than propagate.
It contained no destructive elements apart from its ability to multiply and
reinfect to such an extent that it would take over all available space on a
Later on Thursday the team at Purdue sent out an electronic bulletin that
catalogued methods to eradicate the virus. And at Berkeley they isolated the
trapdoors it had used and published procedures for closing them.
Once the commotion had died down and computer managers had cleared out the
memories on their machines and checked all the software, their thoughts turned
to the reasons for the attack. That it was deliberate was certain: the rogue
program had been a cleverly engineered code that had exploited little-known
flaws in UNIX; it had erased evidence of its intrusions on the computers it had
infected; and it was encrypted (written in code) to make it more difficult to
tear apart. There was little doubt in anyone's mind that the program was the
work of a very clever virus writer, perhaps someone who had a grudge against
ARPANET or one of the universities, a computer freak outside of the mainstream
attempting to get back at the establishment. But these suppositions were wrong.
Internet's rogue program became a media event. The New York Times called the
incident "the largest assault ever on the nation's systems." The program itself
became known as the Internet Virus or, more accurately, the Internet Worm.4 At
a press conference at MIT the day after the worm was released onto ARPANET, the
university's normally reticent computer boffins found themselves facing ten
camera crews and twenty-five reporters. The press, the MIT researchers felt,
was principally concerned with confirming details of either the collapse of
the entire U.S. computer system or the beginning of a new world war, preferably
both. One participant had nightmarish visions of a tabloid headline: COMPUTER
VIRUS ESCAPES TO HUMANS, 96 KILLED.
The incident received worldwide press coverage, and the extent of the damage
was magnified along the way. One of the first estimates--from John McAfee, the
personable chairman of CVIA--was that cleaning up the networks and fixing the
system's flaws would cost $96 million. Other estimates ran as high as $186
million. These figures were widely repeated, and it wasn't until later that
cooler heads began to assess the damage realistically. The initial estimate
that about 6,200 machines, some 10 percent of the computers on Internet, had
been infected was revised to roughly 2,000, and the cleanup cost has now been
calculated at about $1 million, a figure that is based on the assumed value of
"downtime," the estimated loss of income while a computer is idle. The actual
restitutional cost has been assessed as $150,000; McAfee's exaggerated estimate
of $96 million was dismissed.
By the time the real assessments had been made, the identity of the author of
the worm had been discovered. He was Robert Morris, Jr., a
twenty-three-year-old graduate of Harvard University and, at the time of the
incident, a postgraduate student at Cornell. Far from being an embittered
hacker or an outsider, he
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was very much the product of an "insider" family. His father Robert Morris,
Sr., was the chief scientist at the National Computer Security Center, a
nationally recognized expert on computer crime, and a veteran of Bell
Laboratories. He was, coincidentally, also one of the three designers of a
high-tech game called Core Wars, in which two programs engage in battle in a
specially reserved area of the computer's memory. The game, which was written
in the early 1960S at Bell, used "killer" programs that were designed to wipe
out the defenses of the oppo nent. The curious similarities between Core Wars
and the Internet Worm were often cited in press reports.
Morris received an enormous amount of publicity after his identity became
known. His motives have been endlessly reviewed and analysed, especially in a
recent book, Cyberpunk, that was partly devoted to the Internet Worm. The
consensus was that Morris wrote a program that fulfilled a number of criteria,
including the ability to propagate widely, but that he vastly underestimated
the speed at which it would spread and infect and then reinfect other machines.
He himself called the worm "a dismal failure" and claimed that it was never
intended to slow computers down or cause any of them to crash.S His intention,
he said, was for the program to make a single copy on each machine and then
hide within the network. When he realized, on the night of November 2nd, that
his program was crashing computers on the linked networks, he asked a friend,
Andrew Sudduth, to post an electronic message with an apology and instructions
for killing the program. That was the message sent out at 3:34 A.M., the one
overlooked in the general confusion.
Morris was indicted for "intentionally and without authorization" accessing
"federal-interest computers," preventing their use and causing a loss of at
least $1,000 (that figure being the minimum loss for an indictment). The
charge, under a section of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, potentially
carries a fine of $250,000 and up to five years in prison.
Morris was tried in January 1990. HiS defense lawyers said that be had been
attempting to "help security" on Internet and that his program had simply
gotten out of control. The prosecution argued that "the worm was not merely a
mistake; it was a crime against the government of the United States."
On January 22nd a federal jury found Morris guilty, the first conviction under
that particular section of the 1986 act. Despite the verdict the judge stated
that he believed the sentencing requirements did not apply in Morris's case,
saying the circumstances did not exhibit "fraud and deceit." The sentence given
was three years' probation, a fine of $10,000, and four hundred hours'
The type of program that Morris had released onto ARPANET, a worm, has been
defined as a program that takes up residence in a computer's memory, similar to
the way a real worm takes up residence in an apple. Like the biological worm,
the electronic one reproduces itself; unlike the real-life worm, however, the
offspring of a computer worm will live in another machine and generally remain
in communication with its progenitor. Its function is to use up space on the
computer system and cause the machine to slow down or crash.
To researchers there is a clear distinction between worms and viruses, which
are a separate sort of malicious program that require a "host," a program or
file on a disk or diskette that they can attach themselves to. Viruses almost
always have a payload as well, which is designed to change, modify, or even
attack the system they take residence on. Worms can also usually be destroyed
by closing down the network.
The fact that worms can travel independently from one linked machine to another
has always intrigued programmers, and there have been many attempts to harness
this ability for beneficial purposes. Ironically, one of the first experiments
was made on ARPANET. A demonstration program called Creeper was designed to
find and print a file on one computer, then move to a second and repeat the
task. A later version not only moved
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through computers performing chores, but could also reproduce, creating perfect
clones of itself that would undertake the same chores and replicate again. The
problem became obvious: the number of worms would increase exponentially as
each generation replicated, creating a seemingly endless number of clones.
The solution was to create another, nonreplicating worm, called the Reaper,
which would crawl through the system behind the Creeper and kill off the
proliferating clones after they had performed their tasks. The experiment was
abandoned when it became apparent that the Reaper would never be able to keep
up with the proliferating number of Creepers.
There are other sorts of malicious programs, including what are known as
trojans--after the Greek wooden horse. The first trojan incident was reported
in Germany in 1987. On the afternoon of December 9th, several students at the
University of Clausthal-Zellerfeld, just south of Hannover, logged in to their
computers and found that they had received electronic mail in the form of a
file called Christmas. On reading the file, they saw the message LET THIS EXEC
RUN AND ENJOY YOURSELF! followed by a small drawing of a Christmas tree,
crudely represented by asterisks. An "exec" is an executable file, or program,
and the suggestion was that if they ran the program, a large Christmas tree
would appear on their computer screens. By the side of the small drawing was
the greeting: A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND
BEST WISHES FOR THE NEXT YEAR.
Underneath the drawing was a further message, in broken
English: BROWSING THIS FILE IS NO FUN AT ALL JUST TYPE "CHRISTMAS," followed by
some seventy lines of computer instructions. The students could recognize that
these instructions were written in an easy-to-use programming language that was
available on their IBM mainframe, but few could comprehend what the program was
designed to do. Most of the students decided to give the program a try, typed
in "Christmas," and were duly rewarded with a large drawing of a Christmas
tree. Typically, they then deleted the file. However the next time they logged
in to their computers, they found that they had received more copies of the
Christmas file, as had many other computer users at the university. What no
one had realized was that as well as drawing a Christmas tree, the program had
been reading the files containing
~the students' electronic address books with the details of their other regular
contacts on the IBM mainframe computer. The program then sent a copy of itself
to all the other names that it could find. It was an electronic chain letter:
each time the program was run, it could trigger fifty, or a hundred, or even
more copies of itself, depending on the size of each user's electronic address
The unidentified student who playfully introduced the Christmas file into the
electronic mail system had probably visualized a little local fun. He hadn't
realized that some of the university's computer users had electronic addresses
outside Clausthal-Zellerfeld linked by EARNet, the European Academic Research
Network. Or that when copies of the file started whizzing around EARNet, they
would then find their way onto BitNet, an academic computer network linking
1,300 sites in the United States, and from there onto VNet, IBM's private
worldwide electronic mail network, which links about four thousand mainframe
computers and many more smaller computers and workstations. The electronic
chain letter reached VNet on December 15th, just six days after it was
IBM's corporate users typically carry more names and addresses in their files
than university users. Soon thousands of copies of the file were circulating
around the world; it quickly reached Japan, which, like all the addresses, was
. away by electronic mail. Within two days the rampaging programs brought
IBM's entire network to a standstill, simply by sending Christmas greetings
throughout the network. The company spent an unfestive Christmas season
killing all copies of the file.
The program was later dubbed the IBM Christmas Tree Virus, but because it
needed some user interaction--in this case, typing in the word Christmas--it
isn't considered a true virus. User interactiOn implies inviting the intruder
in behind your defenses,
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as the Trojans did with the Greek horse. But virus researchers have created a
subcategory for trojans that replicate--as the IBM Christmas Tree did called,
naturally enough, replicating trojans.
The pervasive media coverage of the Internet Worm was probably one reason for
the next major computer incident that year. On December 23, 1988, just six
weeks after Morris's Internet Worm hit the front pages, a very different worm
hit the NASA Space Physics Astronomy Network (SPAN) and the Department of
Energy computer networks.
Like the IBM Christmas Tree Trojan, it carried a Christmas greeting, and like
the Internet Worm, it also targeted Digital Equipment's VAX computers. What
later became known as the Father Christmas Worm waited until midnight on
December 24th before delivering its message to users on the network: HI HOW ARE
YOU? I HAD A HARD TIME PREPARING ALL THE PRESENTS. IT ISNT QUITE AN EASY JOB.
IM GETTING MORE AND MORE LETTERS.... NOW STOP COMPUTING AND HAVE A GOOD TIME AT
HOME!! MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR. YOUR FATHER CHRISTMAS.
The Father Christmas Worm was considered nothing more than a nuisance, and did
no damage. But in October 1989 the SPAN network was hit again, with a worm
delivering a protest message. The new worm was a variant of Father Christmas,
but this time when users logged in to their systems, they found that their
normal opening page had been replaced with a large graphics display woven
around the word WANK6 In ordinary characters, the symbolism was explained:
WORMS AGAINST NUCLEAR KILLERS Your System Has Been Officially WANKed.
You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.
The arrival of the worm coincided with reports of protestors in Florida
attempting to disrupt the launch of a nuclear-powered shuttle payload. It is
assumed that the worm was also a protest against the launch.
The WANK Worm spread itself at a more leisurely rate than the lntcrnet Worm,
sending out fewer alarms and creating less hysteria. But when Kevin Obermann, a
computer technician at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, took it apart, he
reported, "This is a mean bug to kill and could have done a lot of damage."
The WANK Worm had some features that were not present in thc l ather Christmas
Worm: to a limited extent it could evolve an(l miltate, allowing it to become
just a little bit smarter as it made its way from machine to machine. In other
words, the worm had bccn designed to mutate deliberately, to add to the
problems that might be caused by accidental mutation or by unintentional
programming errors. And, by not immediately announcing its resence, it had more
time to spread.
A method for combatting the worm was developed by Bernard Perrot of the
Institut de Physique Nucleaire at Orsay, France. Perrot's scheme was to create
a booby-trapped file of the type that the worm could be expected to attack. If
the worm tried to use iformation from the file, it would itself come under
attack and be blown up and killed.
BY the end of 1989 the prophecies of the computer virus experts | seemed to
have come true. Now not only were there viruses, but ~here was a whole panoply
of malicious software to deal with: worms, trojans, and the programs known as
Bombs are always deliberately damaging but, unlike viruses, lon't replicate.
They are designed to lay dormant within a com~uter for a period of time, then
explode at some preprogrammed date or event.7 Their targets vary: some delete
or modify files, some ,ap the hard disk; some even release a virus or a worm
when they cxplode. Their only common feature is the single blast of intentional
What had started out as simple self-replicating programs had grown into a
full-blown threat to computer security. Those who
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had warned about the potential danger for the past two years were entitled to
say, "I told you so."
But the prophecies were self-fulfilling. The choice of the terrn virus to
describe quite unremarkable programs glamorized the mundane; the relentless
promotion of the presumed threat put ideas in the minds of potential virus
writers; the publicity given the concept ensured that the writer's progeny
would become known and discussed. Even if the writer himself remained anony-
mous, he would know that his creative offspring would become famous.
The computer underworld is populated with young men (and almost no women),
mostly single, who live out their fantasies of power and glory on a keyboard.
That some young men find computing a substitute for sexual activity is probably
incontrovertible. Just as a handle will often hide a shy and frightened
fifteen-year-old, an obsession with computing to the exclusion of all else may
represent security for a sexually insecure youngster. The computer is his
partner, his handle is his alter ego, and the virus he writes is the child of
this alter ego and his partner.
A German virus writer once said, "You feel something wonderful has happened
when you've produced one. You've created something that lives. You don't know
where it will go or what it will do, but you know it will live on."
The antivirus industry, of course, had no thoughts of creating a hobby for
insecure technology wizards when it began its campaign of publicity and hype in
1987 and 1988. But there was little question that by the end of 1989 a real
threat to computer systems had been created, posed by what was indeed becoming
a plague of viruses. The number of catalogued viruses in the West would grow
exponentially: from thirty-odd in mid-1988, to a hundred at the end of 1989,
five hundred in 1990 and over two thousand-plus at the end of 1992. Along the
way the antivirus industry would lose all control of the plague--its security
software overwhelmed, its confidence battered by the sheer number of new
viruses confronting it. And the new viruses became much more destructive,
malicious, and uncontrollable than anyone had ever imagined.
Chapter 5 THE BULGARIAN
In March 1990 the first attempt was made to quantify the extent of the threat
posed by computer viruses. Dr. Peter Tippett, a Case Western University scholar
and the president of Certus International, a software company, predicted that 8
percent of all PCs would be infected within two years, even if no new viruses
were written. He estimated the cost of removing the infections at $1.5 billion
over five years--not taking into account the value of the data that would be
destroyed. In 1991 he estimated that organizations in North America with over
four hundred computers had a 26 percent probability of being hit by a virus
within the next year; they also had a 5 percent chance of that virus causing a
"disaster," which he defined as an infection that spread to twenty-five or more
machines. A more recent projection, made in late 1991, went farther. It
suggested that as many as 12 million of the world's 70 million computers--or
roughly 17 percent--would be infected within the next two years.
But predictions such as those made by Dr. Tippett have proved difficult to
substantiate: most virus attacks simply aren't reported; there is no body that
regularly collects reliable statistics about the virus problem, and estimates
of costs are always just guesses. When Dr. Tippett made his predictions, the
number of new viruses that were appearing made it seem possible that their
sheer volume would overwhelm the world's computer systems. By 1992,
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there were over 1,500 catalogued viruses and variants in the West by spring
1993, there could well be twice that number.
Tippett had based his predictions on the behavior of just one virus, called
Jerusalem. It was first discovered in December 1987 at the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, though it is thought to have been written in Haifa, the country's
principal port and the home of its leading technical college, Technion
University. At least, that is one theory. No one has proved that the virus was
written in Haifa, nor has anyone ever claimed authorship.
The Jerusalem virus was a malicious joke, which would delete any program files
used on Friday the 13th. There are two Friday the 13ths in any given year; in
between those dates the virus signaled its presence by displaying a little box
in the lower half of the computer screen and then slowing down infected systems
to an unacceptable crawl. It also contained a gremlin that, contrary to the
programmer's intentions, caused it to reinfect--or add itself to--many of the
same program files. Eventually the files would grow so big that the virus would
take up all of the computer's memory.
The virus quickly acquired a fearsome reputation. Maariv, one of Israel's
leading daily newspapers, heralded its discovery with an article on January 8,
1988, that warned, "Don't use your computer on Friday the 13th of May this
year! On this day, the Israeli virus which is running wild will wake up from
its hibernation and destroy any information found in the computer memory or on
The report was somewhat exaggerated. It wasn't true that Jerusalem could
destroy "any information found in the computer memory or on the disks," as it
had been written to delete only programs that were used on Friday the 1 3th. In
practice, few users suffered any real damage. Most operators would delete the
virus as soon as they saw the little box appear on the screen and noticed the
system slow down--which generally happened about half an hour after the virus
had infected a computer.
While Jerusalem mav not have been as destructive as its publicity suggested, it
was exceptionally virulent and spread quickly and widely. Unlike most previous
viruses, Jerusalem could infect nearly any common program file, which gave it
more opportunity to travel. (By contrast, the Pakistani virus, Brain, could
only infect the boot sector on specific diskettes, and Lehigh could only infect
one particular type of program file.)
Jerusalem's propagation rate was phenomenal. From Israel it spread quickly to
Europe and North America, and a year after its discovery in Israel it had
become the most common virus in the world. In 1989 it was said to have been
responsible for almost 90 percent of all reported incidents of viral infection
in the United States.
Because Tippett's predictions were based on the propagation .rate of this
particularly infectious bug, they probably overstated ~the potential growth
rate of viruses.' One of the peculiarities of ~viruses that Tippett overlooked
is that most remain localized, causing infection on a limited number of
machines, sometimes on ~just a single site. So far only about fifty viruses
have propagated ~rapidly and spread from their spawning ground to computers
throughout the world. The rate of propagation seems to be a matter of luck.
Through an unpredictable combination of circumstance and chance, some viruses
are destined to wither away in parochial isolation, while others achieve a sort
of international notoriety. There seems little logic to which remain localized
and which propagate.
In March 1989 a new virus was discovered in the United States, which was
reported to have come to North America via Venezuela. Its payload was simple:
it displayed the words Den and Zuk, converging from separate sides of the
computer screen. The word Zuk was followed by a globe resembling the AT&T
corporate k logo. Inevitably, the virus became known as Den Zuk.
The bug was found to be relatively harmless. Like Brain, it nestled in the boot
sector of infected diskettes, but changed their volume labels to "Y.C.I.E.R.P."
Its payload was set to trigger after what is known as a warm reboot--restarting
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from the keyboard without using the power switch. Warm reboots are generally
employed when the computer has frozen, or stopped--a fairly uncommon
occurrence, so the payload wasnt triggered very often.
An Icelandic virus researcher, Fridrik Skulason, surmised that the character
string "Y.C.I.E.R.P" could be an amateur radio call sign. He looked up the sign
in the International Callbook and found that it was attributed to an operator
in Bandung, a city on the island of Java, in Indonesia. Skulason wrote to the
operator, Denny Ramdhani, who replied with a long and detailed letter. He was,
he admitted, the author of Den Zuk: "Den" was an allusion to his first name;
"Zuk" came from his nickname, Zuko, after Danny Zuko, the character played by
John Travolta in the film Grease. He had written the virus in March 1988, when
he was twenty-four, "as an experiment." He wanted, he said, "to 'say hello' to
other computer users in my city. I never thought or expected it to spread
nationwide and then worldwide. I was really surprised when my virus attacked
If Denny was surprised, the computer industry was flabbergasted. Den Zuk was
neither a particularly infectious bug, nor was it grown in a locale that could
be said to be within the communication mainstream. Bandung, for all of its
exotic charm, is not a city normally associated with high-technology
industries. Denny's virus traveled simply because it got lucky.
Viruses are unguided missiles, so it seems almost as likely that a bug launched
from an obscure Indonesian city will hit targets in North America as one set
off from, say, Germany. Nor is the sophistication of the bug any arbiter of its
reach: Den Zuk was a simple virus, without any real pretension to what is known
as an infection strategy.
The universality of the PC culture is reflected by the provenance of viruses.
In Britain, New Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit recently compiled a list of
the country's most troublesome bugs, which originated in places as diverse as
New Zealand, Taiwan. Italy, Israel (the Jerusalem virus), Austria, Pakistan
(Brain), Switzerland, India, and Spain--as well as a couple from the United
States and even one that is believed to be from China.2
The increasing links between virus writers in different parts of the world is
demonstrated by the growing number of adaptations of existing viruses. The
Vienna virus, which Ralph Burger had included in his Das grosse
Computerirenbuch spawned a whole series of knockoffs, with slightly differing
payloads and messages. As did the Jerusalem virus: there are now perhaps a
hundred variants, all based on the one prototype. The knockoffs come from all
over the world: Australia, the Netherlands, the republics of the former Soviet
Union, Britain, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Malaysia, Argentina, Spain,
Switzerland, the United States--the list is only slightly shorter than the
membership of the U.N. Some of the new variants are just jokes, and play tunes,
but others are even more destructive than the original.
Jerusalem's most fearsome variant came from Asia. Called Invader, this bug
first appeared in Taiwan in July 1990, where it is presumed to have been
written. Within a month it had swept through the Far East and was reported to
have reached North America. Just four months later it was found at the Canadian
Computer Show, where it was running amok on the PC displays. Invader is an
exceptionally sophisticated variant. It would infect a target computer's hard
disk, diskettes, and program files, and its payload was devastating: it would
zap data stored on a hard disk or diskette to the sound of an exploding bomb
whenever a particular, quite common, piece of drafting software, called
Autocad, was loaded.
Invader is part of the new generation of viruses: destructive, malicious, and
clever. Since 1988, as the number of bugs has grown exponentially, virus
techniques have improved dramatically, and their infection strategies have
become more effective, which means they have a better chance of traveling. They
exploit obscure functions of computers in order to evade detection; they can
trash data; and in some cases, they can zero out large-scale computer networks.
112 APPROACHING ZERO
While the early viruses could cause damage, it was generally by accident; the
new strains are programmed to be destructive. Some seem demonic and frenzied,
as if the virus writer was driven by a personal animus.
On January 15, 1991, the principal bank on the Mediterranean island of Malta
was attacked by a particularly vicious bug. The first warning of the virus was
an announcement that popped up suddenly on the computer screen:
DISK DESTROYER--A SOUVENIR OF MALTA I HAVE JUST DESTROYED THE FAT ON YOUR
HOWEVER, I HAVE KEPT A COPY IN RAM, AND IM GIVING YOU
A LAST CHANCE TO RESTORE YOUR PRECIOUS DATA.
WARNING: IF YOU RESET NOW ALL YOUR DATA
WILL BE LOST FOREVER!!
YOUR DATA DEPENDS ON A GAME OF JACKPOT
CASINO DE MALTE JACKPOT
ANY KEY TO PLAY
The virus was, in essence, inviting operators to gamble with the data on their
hard disks. It had captured the FAT, the File Allocation Table which, despite
its unprepossessing name, is one of the most important components of a
computer's hard disk: it is a master index that keeps track of where all the
pages for each file are kept. On a hard disk, unlike in a filing cabinet, pages
of a single file are not necessarily stored together; they are stored wherever
there happens to be disk space, which often results in "fragmentation"--
particularly of larger files. Whenever a user selects a particular file, the
FAT is responsible for finding all of the file's parts and assembling them in
the correct order. Once corrupted, the FAT takes on all the attributes of an
unqualified temporary secretary: it can't find anything, it loses files, and
the ones it doesn't lose are incomplete or presented in the wrong order.
The gamble the operators faced was more or less the same as on a slot machine--
except that the computer user was playing with data instead of a coin. If he
played and lost, the virus would zap the FAT, with disastrous consequences. If
he played and won, the virus would replace the FAT it had captured with the
copy it had sequestered in the RAM, or random access memory, the computer's
principal memory, and the area where programs are run.
When the user followed the on-screen instructions and pressed a key, the
characters in the three "windows" ran through a sequence, like a real slot
machine. The operator had five "credits," or tries, and the game ended when
three Ls, Cs, or .~s came up. The operator could try again if a combination of
characters came up. The jackpot was three Ls. Then the operator would see the
following message on his screen: BASTARD! YOURE LUCKY THIS TIME, BUT FOR YOUR
OWN SAKE, SWITCH OFF YOUR COMPUTER NOW AND DONT TURN IT ON UNTIL TOMORROW!
Three .~s was a loser: the virus would then announce NO FUCKING CHANCE and
destroy the FAT. Three Cs, unsportingly, was also a loser: the message was:
HA HA! YOU ASSHOLE, YOUVE LOST: SAY BYE TO YOUR BALLS. Once again, the FAT
would be zapped.
The Maltese bank had no choice but to gamble. Once the virus had seized control
of the FAT, there was no possible way of retrieving it other than by coming up
with a jackpot, and the odds against that were three to one. The computer
operators pressed their keys, losing two games to every one they won and having
to rebuild the system and restore the damaged files on two thirds of their
infected computers. They also had to track down and destroy the virus, which
became known as Casino, on all of their machines, a process that required the
help of a computer security expert from Britain.
>From the spelling and the use of American expressions such as asshole, it was
thought that the author of Casino was American, or perhaps a Maltese who had
previously lived in the States. But, L as in so many cases, his identity was
Casino epitomized many of the characteristics of the new breed
114 APPROACHING ZERO
of viruses: it was vicious, destructive, and its payload was curi ously
spiteful. To date, the virus hasn't spread from its island home, though that
doesn't mean that it won't travel in the future.
It is estimated that a virus that is going to travel will reach its peak
propagation within eighteen months. (Casino is thought to have been written
just a few weeks before it hit the bank.) About half of the viruses ever
written are less than six months old: they are, in a manner of speaking, now
waiting for their travel documents, for that odd confluence of luck and
circumstance that will unleash them throughout the world.
As the world population of computer viruses grows exponentially, so does the
potential for real disaster. Viruses will affect computer users first, but
then, indirectly, many people who have never even touched a computer will be
affected. A virus let loose in a hospital computer could harm vital records and
might result in patients receiving the wrong dosages of medicine; workers could
suffer job losses in virus-ravaged businesses; dangerous emissions could be
released from nuclear power plants if the controlling computers were
compromised; and so on. Even military operations could be affected. Already,
during the 1991 Gulf conflict, Allied forces had to contend with at least two
separate virus assaults affecting over seven thousand computers. One of the
incidents was caused by the ubiquitous Jerusalem bug, the other by a "fun"
virus from New Zealand called Stoned, which displayed the message YOUR PC IS
NOW STONED on the screen. The two outbreaks were enough to cause computer
shutdowns and the loss of data. The consequences for the military, now utterly
dependent on computers, of an attack by one of the newer, more destructive
viruses--perhaps one unleashed by the enemy--could be catastrophic.
In truth, there has been no major disaster, no loss of life or jobs due to a
virus. The only losses to date have been financial. But hospitals have already
found viruses lurking in their systems; the military has been affected; and a
Russian nuclear power plant's central computer was once shut down because of a
virus. None of the bugs were destructive, but it is probably only a matter of
time before there is a real catastrophe.
It is now believed by many that the real threat from computer viruses will
escalate in the mid-nineties when a new generation of bugs begins to spread
throughout the industrialized countries of the West. The new viruses will
attack from every corner of the world, but the biggest threat will come from
The first call came in to the Help Desk of a California magazme publisher just
after five P.M. on Thursday, June 27, 1991.3 The company has 1,500 interlinked
computers spread around three buildings. The Help Desk, part of the
technical-support department, works as a sort of troubleshooter for the entire
networked system, dealing with routine problems and helping the less com-
puter-literate staff with their hassles.
"My computer has started making a noise," said the caller.
In the normal run of events, noises, apart from the standard beep when starting
up or the low-pitched whir of the machine's cooling system, are not part of a
computer's standard repertoire. A noise usually suggests a problem--a
high-pitched whine can be a warning that the computer's monitor is faulty; a
loud hum can signal a difficulty with the hard disk.
"What sort of noise?" asked the girl at the Help Desk.
"I don't know, it's just a noise. I've switched it off. Can someone come over?"
Seconds later the Help Desk received a call from another user with the same
problem. Then the switchboard lit up. There were callers from all over the
company, all with the same complaint: their computers were making odd noises.
It may be a tune, one of the callers added helpfully, coming from the
computer's small internal speaker. The sixth caller recognized the melody. The
computers were all playing tinny renditions of "Yankee Doodle."
To the specialists in the technical-support department, the discovery that the
tune was "Yankee Doodle" was confirmation that
116 APPROACHINC ZERO
they had been hit by a virus, and a well-known one at that. The Yankee Doodle
virus had first been seen in 1989 and was said to be relatively harmless. There
are a number of variants of the bug but most simply cause computers to play
"Yankee Doodle." This particular variant, known as Version 44, played the tune
at five P.M. every eight days.
The company arranged for antiviral software to be shipped overnight by Federal
Express. The publishers of the software assured the Help Desk that they would
simply need to run the program on the computers to locate the infected files
and kill the virus; the files wouldn't be damaged and no data would be lost.
Yankee Doodle was a nuisance, they said, but not a major problem.
On Friday morning the technical-support staff began the timeconsuming task of
checking every computer in the company. They discovered that eighteen of their
machines had been hit by the virus and that the killer function of the software
they had just bought wouldn't work on their particular variant of Yankee Doo-
dle. Instead, to clean the bug out, they would need to delete all infected
files and replace them.
The virus they were fighting is generally transferred by diskette. It attaches
itself to an executable file--a word-processing program or a game, for
instance--then, once loaded on to a computer, it searches out other programs to
infect. It is generally harmless in that it never attacks data files, the ones
users actually work on, so it can't cause serious damage. Its nuisance value
comes in eradicating it: deleting programs and then replacing them can be
In the meantime, to stop the virus from spreading any farther, the company
decided to shut down the entire network of 1,500 computers, leaving machines
and staff idle. The technical-support specialists estimated that killing the
bug and replacing the programs would take them two or three hours at the most.
But by mid-afternoon they realized that they had underestimated the size of the
job, and arranged to come in over the weekend. In the end, the technical
staffworked for four days, Friday through Monday, before they were satisfied
that all the machines were free of the virus. During that time computers and
staff were inactive, neither processing work in progress nor going ahead with
The computers worked well for the next three days, but then, at ten A.M. on
Thursday, July 4th, the virus was rediscovered. In a routine scan of one of the
computers with the new antiviral software, one member of a small crew working
over the Independence Day holiday received a big shock: Yankee Doodle was back.
The technical specialists, called into the offices from their homes, discovered
to their horror that this time 320 machines had been infected and when they
asked the maker of the antiviral software for an explanation, they were simply
told, "You missed a spot.
The company was forced to shut ctown ItS COmpUlerS agam, and again staff and
machinery sat idle while the support staff searched laboriously through every
program on all 1,500 machines. There was no damage: the bug was eradicated and
the programs reinstalled without even a byte of data lost. But the lack of
damage disguised the virus's real cost in downtime. By the time Yankee Doodle
had been completely eradicated, the company had suffered one week of lost
production, one week in which 1,500 staff were idle, one week of irrecoverable
business. The company never quantified its loss, but it is estimated to run
into the hundreds of thousands of dollars--all from what was purported to be a
Since 1990 virus researchers have pieced together a history of Yankee Doodle.
It was first spotted in 1989 in the United Nations offices in Vienna on a
computer game called Outrun. The game is proprietary, though unauthorized
pirate copies are often passed , around on diskette. Someone, somewhere, is
thought to have infected a copy of the game, accidentally or deliberately, and
the Virus began its travels, first to Vienna, then around the world courtesy of
the United Nations. Though there are known to be fifty-one versions of the
virus, they are all based on one original
118 APPROACHING ZERO
prototype. And that program, despite the virus's all-American name, was written
In the same month that the California publishing company was trying to
eradicate Yankee Doodle, a major financial-services house on the other side of
the country was hit by another bug. This one wasn't a joke; it was deliberately
The first symptoms appeared when one of the secretaries was unable to print out
a letter she had just entered into her computer. In such cases people usually
follow the same routine: the secretary checked the paper, switched both the
computer and the printer off and on, and then fiddled with the connecting
cables. Still nothing printed out. Finally she rang her company's
When the specialist arrived, he began running tests on the affected machine.
First he created a new document and tried printing it out, but that didn't
work. He then guessed that the word-processing program itself was defective,
that one of its files had become corrupted and was preventing the machine from
printing. He went to another computer and copied out the list of program files
used by the company, which showed the names of the programs and their size, in
bytes (or characters). He then compared the files on the problem machine with
the list. Everything matched, except that eight of the files on the affected
computer were slightly larger than on the other. He checked the differences,
and in each case the files on the problem machine were exactly 1,800 bytes
With that information, the specialist knew immediately that the company had
been hit by a virus; he also knew it was 1,800 bytes long and attached itself
to program files. He called his supervisor, who hurried over with a
virus-detection diskette. They inserted it in the infected computer and
instructed it to check the machine for viruses. Program file names appeared
briefly, one by one on the screen, as the virus detector bustled through its
checks, examining each file for known bugs. After five minutes, a message
appeared on the screen: it stated that eighty-three files had been checked and
no virus had been found. In exasperation, the supervisor called the vendor of
the virus-detection program.
lt does sound like you've got a virus," the vendor agreed. 'But if it's not
getting picked up by our software, then it must be a new virus. Or a new strain
of an old one."
Most virus-detection programs operate by looking for known characteristics of
familiar viruses--in other words, for a string of text or a jumble of
characters that is known to be contained within the program of a previously
discovered bug. Such virusdetection kits are, of course, unable to detect new
or modified viruses.
At the suggestion of the vendor, the technical-support staff began a search of
one of the infected files, looking for text or ~messages. Specialized software
is needed to inspect the inside of ffll program file; during the inspection the
screen displays a jumble ~'of computer code. But within the code the staff saw
two strings of text: EDDIE LIVES . . . SOMEWHERE IN TIME! said the first. The
second announced: THIS PROGRAM WAS WRITTEN IN THE CITY OF SOFIA
1988--1989 (C) DARK AVENGER.
The supervisor phoned the vendor again: "Who the hell is the Dark Avenger?"
The short answer, the vendor explained patiently, is that no one knows. The
Dark Avenger is an enigma. Most virus writers remain anonymous, their viruses
appearing, seemingly, out of the ether, without provenance or claimed
authorship, but the Dark Avenger is different: not only does he put his name to
his viruses, he also signals where they were written--Sofia, the capital of
Bulgaria. The Dark Avenger's viruses began seeping into the West in 1989. They
are all highly contagious and maliciously destructive.
"The virus you've been hit with is called Eddie, or sometimes the Dark Avenger,
the vendor told the increasingly worried technical-support supervisor. "It must
be a new strain or something. That's why it wasn't picked up. Is there any
other text message, a girl's name?"
The supervisor took a closer look at the virus. "I missed it
120 APPROACHING ZERO
before. There's another word here, Diana P. What does this thing do?"
"Well, as it's a new version, the answer is I don't know. Until we've seen a
copy, it's anybody's guess."
To discover what a virus actually does, it has to be disassem bled, its
operating instructions--the program--taken apart line by line. This is a
difficult and time-consuming process and can be carried out only by
specialists. In the meantime the technical support staffcould only wait and
watch as the virus spread slowly through the company, bouncing from machine to
machine via the network cables that interlinked the company's 2,200 computers.
Viruses like Eddie work by attaching a copy of themselves to an executable
file; whenever an infected program is used, the virus springs into action. It
usually has two tasks: first, to find more files to infect; then, after it has
had enough time to spread its infection to release its payload. It was obvious
that Eddie was spreading so it was already performing its infection task. What
was worrying was what its payload would prove to be.
To arrest the spread of the bug, it was decided to turn off all the computers
in the company and wait until the virus could be cleaned out. It was a
difficult decision--it would mean downtime and lost business--but it was a
sensible precaution. It was later discovered that the payload in the Eddie
variant was particularly malicious. When unleashed, it takes occasional
potshots at the hard disk, zapping any data or programs it hits. The effect is
equivalent to tearing a page out of a book at random. The loss of the pages may
not become evident until one can't be found. But on a computer, if the loss
goes undetected over a period of time, then the backup files, taken as a
security measure in case of problems with the originals, could also have pages
missing. The slow corruption of data is particularly insidious. Any computer
breakdown can cause a loss of data, necessitating some reentry of the affected
transactions since the last backup. But if the backups are also affected, then
the task could become impossible. At worst, the data could be lost forever.
In this instance some data was irrecoverably destroyed, even though only sixty
machines were found to be infected. But, in a sense, the company had been
lucky: because Eddie had taken a potshot at a secretary's word-processing
program and knocked out its print capability, it was discovered fairly early
on. Had it lurked undetected for longer, it could have destroyed even more
The process of checking all 2,200 computers in the company took four and a half
days, with a team of twelve people working twelve hours a day. Every executable
file on every hard disk on every machine had to be checked. The team had
special programs to help with the task, but viruses could easily get wrapped up
inside "archived" files--files that are compressed to save computer space--
where they can escape detection. All archived files had to be expanded back to
their full size, checked, and then packed away again. That took time. Also, all
diskettes had to be checked, a nearly impossible task given the difficulty in
finding them: diskettes have a habit of disappearing into black holes in desk
drawers, in briefcases, in storage cupboards.
The computer diskette has now assumed the generality of paper as a medium for
storing information. Staff with home computers often carry diskettes to and
from their office, and it makes sense that diskettes containing valuable data
should be stored off-site, as a precaution against problems with the office
computer. But the home PC also encourages the transfer of viruses among fami-
lies. A student might transfer a virus from college to home; a parent might
transfer a virus from home to office. For the most j part, viruses are spread
innocently, but there is now such a large f~ traffic in diskettes that it is
usually impossible to trace the source of an infection.
After seven hundred hours of intensive effort, the technicalf~' support staff
felt confident they had eliminated all traces of Eddie. Their confidence was
short-lived. Within a week Eddie was back. This time they lost a further one
and a half days' work. (Because it is very difficult to remove all traces of a
virus, 90 percent of victims suffer a recurrence within thirty days.)
After the final bout of Eddie was cleared away, executives of
122 APPROACHING ZERO
the company tried to quantify how much the bug's visit had cost them--not that
any of it would be recoverable from insurance. "We lost $500,000 of business--
really lost business, not orders deferred until we could catch up, but business
that had to be done there and then or it went to a competitor," said the
company's chief financial officer. "We also lost data. That cost us $20,000.
But what really hurt was the lost business. If we force a customer into the
hands of a competitor, he might go there again. I guess that could cost us
The company tried to find out how the virus had got into its machines in the
first place. Sometimes disenchanted employees (or ex-employees) have been known
deliberately to cause havoc on computer systems, but it seemed unlikely in this
case. The company concluded that the infection was almost certainly accidental,
probably introduced on a diskette brought in from outside. All they knew for
certain was that some Bulgarian who called himself the Dark Avenger had cost
them $1 million.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in England, computer operators in government
offices in Whitehall and regional centers were confounded by a new virus that
spread, seemingly unstoppably, from office to office and department to
The virus was first observed in the House of Commons library in the Palace of
Westminster. In early October 1990, researchers at the library became concerned
about one of their computer systems. The library operates a PC-based research
service for members of Parliament, providing information, background, and
documentation on subjects of concern. Part of the service uses a network of
Compaq computers, and it was this system that was causing problems. Computer
files that should have been available suddenly appeared to be missing, while
others were corrupted or incomplete, and some of the file names were distorted.
As the days went by, the problems multiplied, and the head of computer systems
at the library called in an outside specialist. A virus-detection program run
on one of the affected machines came up clean, but from the way the computers
were malfunctioning, the specialist was convinced that the House of Commons
library had been hit by a virus. He compared the lengths of the program files
on an infected machine with those on a clean computer. As expected, the
programs on the infected computer were longer, which suggested the unknown
virus was attaching itself to the ends of program files. A visual inspection of
the virus followed, revealing one full word in the jumble of characters on the
The word is of Russian origin, though in common use throughout Eastern Europe.
It was the name given to the upper echelons of the Communist party and the
high-ranking bureaucrats--the .class that did well from the old system, those
who had access to ; the special shops and the special rations, the cars and the
country homes. It is a pejorative now and was almost certainly picked by the
virus writer for its ironic overtones.
A copy of the virus, immediately nicknamed Nomenklatura, was sent to a British
researcher, Alan Solomon, who runs a specialist computer data-recovery service
from Berkhamsted, northwest of London. When he disassembled the bug, he found
he was looking at one of the most destructive viruses he had ever seen.
The virus's target proved to be the FAT, the all-important File Allocation
Table. With the FAT corrupted, the computer would be unable to reassemble data
files in the correct order--hence the gaps in the information accessed in the
House of Commons library. Solomon also noticed a string of text characters
within the Nomenklatura program. It could be a message, he thought, except that
the text was represented on his computer screen by a code that appeared to
refer to non-English-language characters, which looked like Greek or Russian.
Solomon guessed it was Bulgarian.
To confirm his hunch, Solomon dialed an electronic bulletin board in Sofia,
linking to the East European country via Fidonet, an international
public-access computer network run by hobby-
124 APPROACHING ZERO
ists. The board he accessed was owned by MicroComm, a subsidi ary of the
Bulgarian public telephone company. Once linked to the board, he managed to
make contact with one of the company's engineers, Veni Markovski, who spoke a
little English Solomon uploaded the code to Sofia, and Veni looked at it with
his Cyrillic converter. If the code represented Cyrillic characters the
converter--a program that translates keyboard strokes into Cyrillic--would
recognize them and display the message in the virus. The text, though, would be
in Bulgarian, which was why Solomon needed Veni's help.
The converter rapidly deciphered the code, changing it to Cyrillic. Solomon had
guessed correctly. The phrase, Veni reported, was an idiomatic Bulgarian
expression. It took some time to translate--Veni's English is poor--and its
meaning is obscure. But, Veni said, it translates to something like: "This fat
idiot instead of kissing the girl's lips, kisses quite some other thing."
Solomon wasn't surprised that the message was in Bulgarian. By 1990 everyone
involved in computer security had become aware that something odd was going on
in that obscure East European country. Increasingly sophisticated and damaging
viruses that affected IBM-type PCs were moving into the West, carried on
diskette or transferred by electronic bulletin boards, and all had one thing in
common: they had been written in Bulgaria.
Though only a few of the viruses had actually been seen "in the wild"--that is,
infecting computers--reports from Bulgaria suggested that two new viruses were
being discovered in that country every week. By mid-1990 there were so many
reported Bulgarian viruses that one researcher was moved to refer to the
existence of a "Bulgarian virus factory." The phrase stuck.
The origins of that factory go back to the last decade. In the early 1980s the
then president of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, decided that his country was to
become a high-tech power, with computers managing the economy while industry
concentrated on manufacturing hardware to match that of the West. Bulgaria he
decided, would function as the hardware-manufacturing center
for Comecon (Eastern Europe's Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, now
defunct), trading its computers for cheap raw materials from the Soviet Union
and basic imports from the other Socialist countries. Bulgaria had the
potential, in that it had many well-educated young electronics engineers; what
it didn't have, with its archaic infrastructure and ill-managed economy, was
any particularly useful application for its own hardware.
With the resources of the state behind Bulgaria's computerization, the country
began manufacturing copies of IBM and Apple models. The machines were slow--
very slow by today's standards--and were already obsolete even when they first
started crawling off the production line. They had been "designed" at the
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, but without the help or blessing of either IBM
or Apple. The Bulgarian machines were simply poorly manufactured clones that
used the same operating systems and computer language as the real IBMs and
In the latter half of the 1980s shiny new computers started to appear in state
organizations, schools, colleges, and computer clubs. Many were destined to sit
on the boss's desk, largely unused, symbols of a high-tech society that never
really existed. Few businesses had any real need for computers; some used them
simply to store personnel records. It was a gloss of technology laid over a
system that, at its core, wasn't functioning.
In addition, Bulgaria didn't have any software. While the factories continued
to manufacture PCs, the most basic requirement--programs to make the machines
function had to be pirated. So the Bulgarians began copying Western programs,
cracking any copy-protection schemes that stood in their way, and became more
and more skilled at hacking--in the classic sense of the word. They could
program their way around any problem; they learned the ins and outs of the IBM
and Apple operating systems; they became skilled computer technicians as they
struggled to keep their unreliable and poorly manufactured computers func-
tioning. In short, they were assimilating all the skills they would need to
become first-class virus writers.
The first Bulgarian viruses to arrive in the West were seen in
126 APPROACHING ZERO
1989. They became increasingly sophisticated and malignant progressing within a
year from the relatively harmless Yankee Doodle to the more destructive Eddie
and then to Nomenklatura, which was deadly.
Nomenklatura's attack on the House of Commons library had zapped data in the
statistical section, rendering valuable informa tion irrecoverable. From the
House of Commons, the virus began to journey through other sectors of the
British government, presumably carried on diskettes from the library. The virus
traveled slowly, popping up first in one department, then spreading to another.
As soon as it was wiped out in one office, it would reappear elsewhere; it has
not been completely eradicated to this day. Alan Solomon, a computer security
specialist who worked on the case, is convinced that Nomenklatura's creator is
the Dark Avenger.
In November 1988 stories about Robert Morris, Jr., and the Internet Worm were
published in Bulgaria. The news, already exaggerated in the American press,
became even more fanciful by the time it was retold in Bulgarian newspapers.
The worm excited the curiosity of two young men, Teodor Prevalsky and Vesselin
(Vesko) Bontchev. They had been close friends for many years, had gone to
university together, and had served side by side as officers in the Bulgarian
army. Aged twentyseven, they were both engineering graduates from professional
families, which made them part of the privileged class in Bulgaria at the time.
The Bulgarian computer industry was in full swing by then, but the country had
few uses for the new machines. In response, a magazine was started called
Komputar za vas ("Computer for You"), to show readers how to do something
constructive on their relatively worthless PCs. The magazine needed technical
writers who could explain how the machines worked, and Vesko, provided with
desk space at the magazine's offices, found that he could double his income of
$45 a month by writin~ the articles. By Bulgarian standards his salary was
already high; with the additional income from the magazine he was positively
When news of the Internet Worm broke, Vesko and his friend Teodor discussed it
at length. For Vesko, it would be the inspira,tion for an article; for Teodor,
it was the catalyst for a new 1intel1ectual pursuit.
On November 10, 1988, Teodor sat down at a computer at the technical institute
where he worked and started to write his first virus. He had managed to get a
copy of Vienna, which had been copied from Ralf Burger's book, and he used it
as a model for his own bug. On November 12th Teodor proudly made an entry in
his diary: "Version 0 lives."
Version 0 was, in all probability, the first homegrown Bulgarian virus. It did
very little except replicate, leaving copies of itself on what are called COM
files--simple program files of limited length, used for basic computer
utilities. When the virus infected a file, it beeped.
Just two days after writing Version 0, Teodor had prepared Version 2.4 It was
more clever than the original in that it could infect both common types of
executable files: COM and EXE. The latter are the more sophisticated programs--
like word-processing, for instance--and because they are structurally complex
they are more difficult to infect. But Teodor's Version 2 employed a little
trick that would convert the shorter EXE files into COM files. When the
operator called up, or loaded, an EXE file, the lurking virus saw the load
command, jumped in ahead and modified the structure of the EXE file so it
resembled a COM file. The next time a restructured EXE file was loaded up, it
could be successfully infected by the virus, just like an ordinary COM file.
Teodor was also experimenting with anti-virus software at the time, and
developed a program that would hunt down and kill Versions 0 and 2. It was
called "Vacsina," the Bulgarian word for vaccine. However, by Version 5 Teodor
had adapted his virus so that it was immune to his own killer program. He
accomplished this by simply adding the character string "Vacsina" to the virus.
128 APPROACHING ZERO
When his anti-virus program saw the string, it would leave the bug alone.
It was shortly thereafter that Version 5 escaped. Like most Bulgarians, Teodor
had to share his computer with colleagues at the Technical Institute; with four
people using one machine, with software copying rampant, and with the casual
transfer of diskettes, it was only a matter of time before one of the bugs
began to propagate out of his control. Within weeks Version 5 had spread
throughout Bulgaria. In less than a year it had reached the West--the first
Eastern virus to jump the Iron Curtain. When the virus was examined,
researchers discovered the text string "Vacsina," which immediately gave a name
to Version 5.
Meanwhile, Teodor continued experimenting. By December 15, 1988 he had advanced
to Version 8. On this variant the payload--the innocuous beep--now sounded only
when an infected computer was restarted from the keyboard (a "warm reboot"),
allowing it to remain hidden for longer. In the best programming tradition, all
his improvements were duly documented and given version numbers as they
Later in December a new Bulgarian virus was discovered. It carried a text
string which said it had been authored by a Vladimir Botchev. The bug was
almost certainly written in response to one of Vesko's magazine articles: in
November Vesko had stated that it would be "difficult" to write a virus that
could infect all EXE files, including the longer ones, and Vladimir had
presumably seen that as a challenge. His virus appeared less than a month after
the article was published. It employed a novel and technically elegant device
that enabled it to attach itself to any EXE file, no matter what length. After
it infected a file it played the tune "Yankee Doodle"--in celebration, perhaps.
This virus was generally not damaging--its payload was the tune--and because it
was easy to detect, it never spread. But lhe new bug's payload was immediately
copied by Teodor in his new variant, Version 18, which appeared on January 6,
1989. This OnC didn't beep; instead it played "Yankee Doodle," which Teodor had
lifted, note for note, straight from Vladimir's program.
Five days later, Teodor produced Version 21, which could remove the virus from
infected files if a more recent version of this bug attacked the same system.
Then, on February 6, 1989, Version 30 appeared. It incorporated a "detection
and repair" capability, that would warn the virus if it had been modified or
corrupted while replicating. Eerily, it could then fix the damage i tself by
changing the corrupted instructions back to their original form. It was a kind
of artificial life, though the repair capability was limited (it could handle
only changes of up to 16 bytes in length).
By the end of February Teodor was on to Version 39 and his virus was now full
of tricks: it could infect EXE files of any size,
3, it could even evade antiviral software. As soon as it noted the presence of
a detection program, it would detach itself from the infected file and hide
elsewhere in the computer's memory.
With Version 42, which appeared in March, his virus took on a new role: virus
fighter. The Ping Pong boot-sector virus, which is believed to have been
created at Turin University in Italy, had now reached Bulgaria. Ping Pong (also
called Bouncing Ball) was a joke virus: from time to time it simply sent a dot
careering around the screen, like a ball in a squash court. Teodor's new virus
could detect Ping Pong and was able to modify it in such a way that, after a
time, it destroyed itself, leaving behind its corpse. He persisted with the
tune "Yankee Doodle" as his payload, but he varied the time and frequency it
would play. One of his next variants was Version 44, which plays the tune every
eight days at 5 P.M. This was the version destined to become the most widely
traveled of all Teodor's viruses: once again, it escaped from his office
machine, probably on a diskette, and spread through Bulgaria; on September 30,
1989 it was sighted in offices of the United Nations in Vienna; and from there,
now known as Yankee Doodle, it traveled the world. It was this version which
caused mayhem at the California publishing house in July 1991.
Teodor continued to develop his virus. The last variant was Version 50, by
which time it had been given the additional power to detect and destroy the
Cascade bug, which had just arrived in
130 APPROACHING ZERO
Bulgaria from Austria. Cascade was another joke virus: it caused the letters on
a computer terminal to fall down and pile up in heaps at the bottom of the
screen to an accompanying clicking noise. After it had finished its
performance, a user could resume his work--though he would need to replace the
letters and words that had fallen from his screen. It wasn't particularly
damaging, though the operator's nerves could well have been frayed.
After Version 50 Teodor began to explore some of his other ideas. One was a
joke virus that hopped around a hard disk while challenging the operator to
FIND ME! It was unusual in that it was nearly undetectable: unlike other
viruses, Find Me! wouldn't infect the boot sector or a program file. It created
its own home within infected systems by stealing the name of an EXE file and
attributing it to a new COM file; this new COM file became its hiding place.5
It was a clever trick. Teodor knew that on computers with two files of the same
name the COM file is always loaded prior to the EXE file. So his little bug
would get to the screen first, to taunt the operator with "Find Me!" messages.
If the operator looked at his list of files he might notice that he had an
extra COM file with the same name as one of his EXE files, but he generally
wouldn't realize the significance. Even if he did, the bug would probably be
one step ahead of him. From time to time, Find Me! would create a new COM file
(always with the same name as an EXE file) and transfer itself to a new home,
deleting the old one as it did so. In that way it continued to hop around the
hard disk, usually well ahead of the increasingly irritated operator. It was
possible to remove the bug completely, but it invariably took a few manhours of
Teodor also experimented with "stealth" viruses--silent, deadly, and almost
undetectable bugs that evade antiviral software in much the same way that the
Stealth plane evades radar detection. Stealth technology has been exploited by
virus writers since 1986 (the Pakistani Brain virus has some stealth capability
in that it is able to camouflage its presence on the boot sector), but Teodor's
was the first that could add itself to a program file without, apparently,
increasing the length of the file. Of course it was only an illusion: the virus
would simply deduct its own length from the infected file whenever it was being
With his stealth bug Teodor had more or less reached the pinnacle: there was
little he could do to improve the programming of his latest virus except,
perhaps, to add a destructive payload. But, for Teodor, destruction of data or
programs was never the point. He wrote viruses as an intellectual challenge.
None of his viruses had ever been intentionally damaging, though he had become
aware that they could cause collateral losses. He had also realized that a
completely harmless virus was an impossibility. All viruses, by their mere
presence on a computer, can accidentally overwrite data or cause a system to
crash. And the most dangerous of all, he thought, was an undetectable virus
that could spread unstoppably, causing collateral damage without the operators
even being aware they were under attack.
In 1989 Teodor decided to retire from virus writing. His own career up until
then had, curiously, mirrored his friend Vesko's. While Teodor wrote viruses,
Vesko wrote about them; as Teodor became more proficient at writing bugs, Vesko
became more accomplished at analyzing them. By 1989 Vesko had become Bulgaria's
most important virus researcher and a major contributor to Western literature
on the subject. He had been invited to submit papers and to lecture at Western
European computer security conferences: he was recognized as an authority on
viruses, particularly those from Eastern Europe.
Vesko's reputation was due, in a large part, to having been in the right place
at the right time. First, there were his friend Teodor's bugs. Teodor would
often pass on the programming code to Vesko for analysis, who would then report
on their capabilities in the local press and in Western journals. It was a
convenient arrangement, and the resulting publicity would encourage other
writerS. Eventually, what became known as the Bulgarian virus factory started
to pump out bug after bug, each more dangerous
132 APPROACHING ZERO
than the last, and Vesko was there to record it. He was in the eye of the
storm, collecting viruses from all over Bulgaria as they spread from computer
to computer. By 1991 he was reporting two new locally grown viruses each week.
In a country with so many bugs flying around, it was inevitable that Bulgarian
computers would become overrun. Most computers in the country had been hit at
least once; many had been hit with multiple viruses at the same time. Because
Vesko was the country's leading authority on the malicious programs, he was
eventually given responsibility for coordinating Bulgaria's effort to fight
them off. He was constantly on call. Days he worked in his office in the
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where he was given the dour title of Assistant
Research Worker Engineer. Weekends and nights he continued the fight from his
own cramped room on a borrowed Bulgarian clone of an IBM PC. He dealt with ten
to twenty phone calls each day from institutions or firms that had been
attacked by viruses.
By then the Bulgarian virus factory was in full production. It was no longer a
matter of Vesko and his friend Teodor, one a researcher, the other a virus
writer. Bulgaria had spawned some of the most skilled and prolific virus
writers in the world.
In Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest town, a student named Peter Dimov
produced a series of viruses "as revenge against his tutor" and another two "in
tribute" to his girlfriend, Nina (it is not known if she was pleased). One of
Peter's ambitions was to write the world's smallest virus: his first came to
under 200 bytes. Later he wrote one only 45 bytes long. For a few weeks it was
the shortest virus known--until another Bulgarian programmer produced one that
was just 30 bytes. Peter was also the author of the first Bulgarian boot-sector
virus as well as two ominous-sounding bugs that he called Terror and Manowar.
But despite their names, neither was particularly damaging. In total, Peter
wrote around twenty-five viruses.
In Varna, on the Black Sea, two students at the MathematicS Gymnasium (Upper
School), Vasil Popov and Stanislav Kirilov, produced a series of viruses and
trojans. Their most dangerous, called Creeping Death (or DIR-2),6 was reported
to be able to infect all the files on a hard disk within minutes.
Lubomir Mateev, then a twenty-three-year-old university student, and his friend
Iani Brankov wrote a virus together to embarrass their professor when they were
studying at Sofia University. Their first bug was programmed to make a
shuffling noise while he was lecturing that sounded like the rustling of paper.
This virus and a subsequent variant (which borrowed the bouncing-ball payload
from Ping Pong) became known as Murphy 1 and Murphy 2.' Highly infectious, they
spread throughout Bulgaria and reached the West in 1991.
Many other programmers and students took a stab at writing nruses, with varying
degrees of success. It became something of a fad among computer freaks in Sofia
and other Bulgarian cities in the late 1980s. There was, of course, no
"factory" in the usual sense of the word--just a group of young men (they were
all male), probably unknown to each other, who had learned the tricks of
writing viruses through the techniques perfected while stealing Western
The value to Bulgaria of all the virus-writing activity was negligible. Though
the programmers who compiled the bugs were, no doubt, honing their skills, and
some of the viruses demonstrated a cleverness and technical dexterity that may
have been admirable, viruses simply do not have any productive purpose. Indeed,
Fred Cohen--the man who coined the term "computer virus" in the first place--
once tried to find a role for them and organized a competition to write a
beneficial virus. None was found.
In any event, in late 1990 and early 1991, Bulgaria itself, no longer
Communist and not quite democratic, was going through an identity crisis.
Public confidence in the government, in state institutiOns, and in the currency
had evaporated, to be replaced by a deeply cynical, almost anarchic national
ethos. Bulgaria had become a country of shabby, small-time dealers, of petty
blackmarketers and crooked currency changers. The symbols of the
134 APPROACHING ZERO
immediate past, of the near half-century of Communism, had been pulled down;
little had been erected in their place. But the computers that President
Zhirkov had decreed would turn Bul garia into a modern technological power
remained, and indeed offered themselves to the new generation of computer
programmers as weapons to be turned against the state, to drive an electronic
stake through the heart of the system. Viruses would cripple Zhivkov's dream.
In this gray time of shortages and rationing, of cynicism and despair, writing
viruses was a sort of protest--perhaps against the Communists, possibly against
the transitional state, almost certainly against the lack of opportunity and
hope. Writing viruses was a form of individualism, of striking out; it was also
an opportunity for notoriety.
Since 1988 the Bulgarian virus factory has produced around two hundred new
viruses. Most have yet to travel; only a few have reached the industrialized
West. The scale of the problem may not become apparent for several years.
Some of those who created the viruses are known, some aren't, but the greatest
threat is Bulgaria's most proficient and fearsome virus writer: the Dark
The man who was to become known as the Dark Avenger began work on his first
virus in September 1988. "In those days there were no viruses being written in
Bulgaria, so I decided to write the first," he once said. "In early March 1989
it came into existence and started to live its own life, and to terrorize all
engineers and other suckers."
The Dark Avenger had started work on the virus known as Eddie just weeks before
Teodor had sat down to write the first of what became his Vacsina-Yankee Doodle
series. Teodor's virus was ready first, but the Dark Avenger's bug was much
more malicious and infective. "It may be of interest to you to know that Eddie
is the most widespread virus in Bulgaria. I also have information that Eddie is
well known in the U.S.A., West Germany, and Russia too," the Dark Avenger once
The Dark Avenger likes to leave teasing references to his identity in his
viruses. As in the Eddie virus, he sometimes "copyrights" his bugs, and often
gives Sofia as the source. The text strillg DIANA P. was assumed to be a
reference to his girlfriend, exccpl that Diana isn't a particularly Bulgarian
name. It's now belicvcd to be a reference to Diana, Princess of Wales.
The Dark Avenger also likes heavy-metal music: the other text string in his
first virus, the mysterious EDDIE LIVES . . ., apparently refers to the
skeletal mascot, Eddie, used by the British heavymetal group Iron Maiden in
their stage act. Heavy-metal symbols and motifs run through many of the other
viruses written by the Dark Avenger. A family of perhaps twenty or more viruses
can be attributed to him, all technically advanced, most deliberately ma-
licious, some containing text strings that use the titles of Iron Maiden
tracks: "Somewhere in Time," "The Evil That Men Do," and "The Good Die Young."
His viruses also mimic the posturing Satanism of heavy-metal music. His Number
of the Beast virus (the name is yet another reference to an Iron Maiden song)
contains the 3-byte signature "666," the mystical number believed to refer to
"the beast," the Antichrist in the Book of Revelations.
Perhaps appropriately, of all the viruses attributed to the Dark Avenger,
Number of the Beast is considered the most technically accomplished. A stealth
virus, it exploits an obscure feature of the standard PC operating system to
evade detection and hide in unused space on program files so that it doesn't
change the length of the host file. Oddly, the virus doesn't have a payload,
though its mere presence on a PC is likely to cause it to crash.
The Dark Avenger has produced four versions of Eddie and six versions of Number
of the Beast, as well as four variants of a virus called Phoenix and four of
another one known as Anthrax (the name of an American heavy-metal group). He is
also generally believed to have written Nomenklatura, the virus that attacked
Britain s House of Commons library, principally because the bug is technically
sophisticated and vicious and employs techniques that have been seen in his
other viruses. In a way, the Dark
136 APPROACHING ZERO
Avenger has become so well known that any particularly destruc tive and clever
Bulgarian virus will almost automatically be attributed to him. The alternative
is too dire for the computer security industry to contemplate.
The Dark Avenger's fame was evident from the response to his calls to the
world's first "virus exchange" bulletin board, which was established in Sofia
by twenty-year-old Todor Todorov on November 1, 1990. The idea was eventually
copied by others in Britain, Italy, Sweden, Germany, the United States, and
Russia, but Todorov was the first. The board describes itself as "a place for
free exchange of viruses and a place where everything is permitted!"
Todorov built up a large collection of viruses after callers learned of his
IF YOU WANT TO DOWNLOAD VIRUSES FROM THIS BULLETIN BOARD, JUST UPLOAD TO US AT
LEAST 1 VIRUS WHICH WE DON'T ALREADY HAVE. THEN YOU WILL BE GIVEN ACCESS TO THE
VIRUS AREA, WHERE YOU CAN FIND MANY LIVE VIRUSES, DOCUMENTED DISASSEMBLIES,
VIRUS DESCRIPTIONS, AND ORIGINAL VIRUS SOURCE COPIES! IF YOU CANNOT UPLOAD A
VIRUS, JUST ASK THE SYSOP [SYSTEM OPERATOR] AND HE WILL DECIDE IF HE WILL GIVE
YOU SOME VIRUSES.8
The Dark Avenger made his first call on November 28, 1990, four weeks after the
bulletin board was set up. I'M GLAD TO SEE THAT THIS BOARD lS RUNNING, he wrote
Todorov. I'VE UPLOADED
A COUPLE OF VIRUSES TO YOU. I HOPE YOU WILL GIVE ME ACCESS TO THE VIRUS AREA.
To which Todorov replied, THANK YOU FOR THE
UPLOAD. YOUR SECURITY LEVEL HAS BEEN UPGRADED . . . AND YOU HAVE ACCESS TO THE
VIRUS AREA NOW. IF YOU FIND ANY OTHER VIRUSES, PLEASE UPLOAD THEM HERE.
When it was learned that the Dark Avenger frequented Todorov's bulletin board,
other users began leaving messages for him.
HI. DARK AVENGER! WHERE HAVE YOU LEARNED PROGRAMMING?
AND WHAT DOES EDDIE LIVES MEAN? AND WHO IS DIANA P. ? IS s~E YOUR GIRLFRIEND OR
WHAT? The queries were from Yves P., a French virus writer. Free Raider posted
his salute on December 9th: Hl, BRILLIANT VIRUS WRITER. Another message said,
Hl, I'M ONE SYSOP OF THE INNERSOFT BULLETIN BOARD. SHOULD I CONSIDER ~IY BOARD
NOT POPULAR BECAUSE YOU DON T LIKE TO CALL IT? PLEASE GIVE IT A CALL.
The messages from his fans reflected the Dark Avenger's new status: he had
become a star. In the two years since he created Eddie, he had become the
computer underworld's most notorious virus writer. He had established a brand
identity: the Dark Avenger's viruses were known to be the most destructive and
among the best engineered ever seen. His fame, as he knew, had spread
throughout Europe and to North America as well.
So it's not surprising that he wanted to be treated like the star he was, and
reacted badly to criticism. In March 1991 he sent the ~following message to
Fidonet, the international bulletin board network: HELLO, ALL ANTIVIRUS
RESEARCHERS WHO ARE READING THIS MESSAGE. I AM GLAD TO INFORM YOU THAT MY
FRIENDS AND I ARE DEVELOPING A NEW VIRUS, THAT WILL MUTATE IN 1 OF
4,000,000,000 DIFFERENT WAYS! IT WILL NOT CONTAIN ANY CONSTANT INFORMATION. NO
VIRUS SCANNER CAN DETECT IT. THE VIRUS WILL HAVE MANY OTHER NEW FEATURES THAT
WILL MAKE IT COMPLETELY UNDETECTABLE AND VERY DESTRUCTIVE! Fidonet may not have
been the best outlet for his boasting: its users are mostly ethical computer
enthusiasts. The Dark Avenger received a flood of replies, from all over
Europe. Most were critical; some were abusive. The Dark Avenger replied
testily, I RECEIVED NO FRIENDLY REPLIE~S TO MY MESSAGE. THAT'S WHY I WILL NOT
REPLY TO ALL THESE MESSAGES SAYING "FUCK YOU." THAT'S WHY I WILL NOT SAY
IY MORE ABOUT MY PLANS.
At thirty-one, Vesko Bontchev is surprisingly young looking, thin and somewhat
frail. He is a serious man who speaks deliberately and intensely about the
virus problem in Bulgaria. He lives with
138 APPROACHING ZERO
his mother in a shabby five-story 1950s block on a characteristically grim East
European housing estate on the outskirts of Sofia. The apartment is large by
Bulgarian standards: Vesko has his own room.
Although he is unassuming, it is apparent that he is proud of his reputation as
the country's foremost virus fighter and of his contacts with other researchers
in the West. His position is ensured by his oddly symbiotic relationship with
the Dark Avenger, one that almost parallels his earlier relationship with
Teodor. Because the Dark Avenger lives in Bulgaria, Vesko's position as a
lecturer and researcher is secure. At the same time, Vesko contributes to the
Dark Avenger's fame by publicizing his activities abroad. In a curious way the
two need each other.
Cynics who have noticed this have argued that if the Dark Avenger hadn't
existed, it would have been in Vesko's interest to have invented him. Some have
even theorized that the two are one and the same: that the quiet, intense virus
researcher has an alter ego--the demonic, heavy-metal fan, the admirer of
Princess Diana, the virus writer called the Dark Avenger. The Avenger has
himself contributed to the notion: one of his viruses contains Vesko's own
copyright notice, and every so often he teases Vesko. Once, the Dark Avenger
wrote: "To learn how to find out a program author by its code, or why
virus-writers are not dead yet, contact Mr. Vesselin Bontchev. So, never say
die! Eddie lives on and on and on . . ."
In an interview in a Bulgarian newspaper, Vesko was asked about the rumours.
"Can you give me the name of Dark Avenger?" the reporter queried.
"Is it possibly you?"
"I have been asked similar questions both in the West and in the Soviet Union.
But it is not true."
Despite the rumors, Vesko isn't the Dark Avenger--but he does provide the
oxygen of publicity for the Bulgarian virus writer. It suits them both: for
Vesko, the Dark Aven~er provides the raw material for his reports; for the Dark
Avenger, Vesko's ~vatchfulness ensures his own reputation as the demonic
scourge of computers.
The two young men--the hunter and the outlaw--are locked in an unfriendly
embrace. The relationship between the two is one of mutual distrust, which
neither attempts to disguise. It is the clas~ic relationship between a cop and
his adversary: hatred, tinged with a measure of respect.
On several occasions, Vesko says, he has tried to smoke out the virus writer.
Once Vesko announced that he had carefully analyzed two viruses attributed to
the Dark Avenger: the Number of the Beast and Eddie. He said that, in his view,
they could not possibly be the work of the same writer. One was clever, the
work of a professional, the other sloppy, the work of an amateur. Furthermore,
he said that he intended to present his evidence at a lecture that would be
held in Sofia. He guessed that the Dark Avenger would appear, if only to hear
what Vesko had to say about his programs.
The meeting was well attended, particularly for a cold Friday night in early
December. Vesko presented his evidence. Number of the Beast, he said, was
obviously written by an extremely skilled specialist whose style contrasted in
every way with the poor quality of Eddie. He watched the audience during his
presentation, Vesko says, looking for someone who might be the Dark Avenger;
during the questions and discussion afterwards he listened for anyone defending
the programming of Eddie. He saw and heard nothing that gave him any clues.
But two days after the lecture he received a letter from the Dark Avenger.
According to the letter, the virus writer had attended the meeting. Vesko
published his comments in the magazine Komputar za ~/.s. "The author of the
Eddie virus is writing to you," the Dark Avenger began. "I have been reading
your pieces of stupidity for quite a long time but what I heard in your lecture
was, to put it boldly, the tops." The virus writer went on to complain about
Vesko~s critique of his programming skills. Then he added:
140 APPROACHING ZERO
"I will tell you that my viruses really destroy information but, on the other
hand, I don't turn other people's misfortunes into money. Since you [get paid
to] write articles that mention my programs, do you not think I should get
Virus writing is not a lucrative field. The Dark Avenger had once before
alluded to getting paid for his skills, in a message to a local bulletin board
operator, when he had suggested, none too hopefully, that "maybe someone can
buy viruses." So far as is known, he has never sold any of his bugs.
In 1990 Vesko put together a psychological profile of the Dark Avenger, a
compilation of all the known facts about him: his taste in music, his favorite
groups, his supposed interest in the Princess of Wales, his need for money and
so on. From his letter Vesko gleaned he had been a student at Sofia University
and, from sarcastic remarks he had made about Vesko's engineering degree, that
he was either a mathematics or science student (there is a traditional rivalry
between engineering and the other two faculties). He sent the profile to seven
former students at the university, asking if they knew anyone who fitted the
criteria. All seven replied, Vesko says, and all seven mentioned the same name-
-that of a young man, then twenty-three, a programmer in a small, private
software house in Sofia.
Vesko didn't turn him in. Even had he wanted to, there was little point:
writing viruses is not illegal in Bulgaria.
Chapter 6 HACKING FOR
Inevitably there are people in the computer underworld who use their skills to
make money--legally or illegally. Hacking into suppliers to steal goods, or
looting credit card companies, has become established practice. But there seems
to be little commercial potential in viruses--unless it becomes part of a scam.
In December 1989 the first such scam appeared. The virus was used as a
blackmail weapon to frighten computer users into paying for protection. Jim
Bates, a free-lance computer ecurity consultant, was one of the first to
examine the blackmail demand delivered on an apparently ordinary computer
diskette. He had received a call earlier that day from Mark Hamilton, the
technical editor of a British computer magazine called PC Business World. Mark
had sounded worried: "There's apparently been a trojan diskette sent out to PC
Business World customers. We don't know anything about it. If we send you a
copy, can you look into it?"
Jim runs his little business from his home in a commuter suburb ith the
misleadingly bucolic name of Wigston Magna, near ~icester, in the English
Midlands. Though he had other work to at the time, he agreed to "look into it"-
-which meant, effecvely, disassembling the bug. It would be a time-consuming
task. ~"What does it do?" he asked.
"We don't know. It may be some sort of blackmail attempt."
142 APPROACHING ZERO
To Jim, the concept of viral blackmail sounded unlikely. As far as he knew, no
one had ever made a penny out of writing virUses. It was said that if there was
any money in writing bugs, Bulgaria would be one of the richest countries in
Europe; but instead it remained one of the poorest.
At 5:30 that afternoon, December 12,1989, the package from PC Business World
arrived. As promised, it contained a diskette, of the sort sent out to the
magazine's readers; it also contained a copy of a blue instruction leaflet that
had accompanied the diskette.
Jim examined the leaflet closely. "Read this license agreement carefully [and]
if you do not agree with the terms and conditions . . . do not use the
software," it began. It then stated that the program on the diskette was leased
to operators for either 365 uses at a price of $189, or the lifetime of their
hard disk at a price of $389. "PC Cyborg Corporation," it continued, "also
reserves the right [sic] to use program mechanisms to ensure termination of the
use of the program [which] will adversely affect other program applications."
So far, Jim thought, it read much like a normal software licensing agreement,
except for the warning that the program might "adversely effect other program
But farther down in the small print on the leaflet was a paragraph that made
him sit up. "You are advised of the most serious consequences of your failure
to abide by the terms of this agreement: your conscience may haunt you for the
rest of your life . . . and your computer will stop functioning normally
This, Jim thought, was carrying the concept of a licensing agreement too far.
Licensing software was a perfectly acceptable business practice, as was making
threats that unauthorized users of their products would be prosecuted for
"copyright infringement." They never threatened to punish unauthorized users by
damaging their computers.
Even more unusual, the diskette had been sent out like junk mail, unrequested,
to computer users around Great Britain, inviting them to run it on their
machines. Whoever had distributed the diskettes had obviously purchased PC
Business World's mailing list, which the magazine routinely rented out in the
form of addressed labels. The magazine had seeded its list with names and
addresses of its own staff, an ordinary practice that allows the renter to
check that its clients aren't using the list more often than agreed. These
seeded addresses had alerted the magazine to the existence of the diskette. If
the publication had received copies from its seeded addresses, so had some
seven thousand others on the mailing list. And Jim knew that many of these
would have loaded the program without reading the blue leaflet--which was, in
any case, printed in type so small that it was almost unreadable. Anyone who
had already run the diskette, Jim thought, could well be sitting on a time
Later that evening an increasingly anxious Mark Hamilton phoned again: "We're
now getting reports that this disk has been found in Belgium, Paris, Germany,
Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Italy. Can you do anything with it?"
In fact, Jim was already working on an antidote. He had loaded the diskette on
an isolated test computer in his upstairs office and had discovered that it
contained two very large executable files: an "Install" program and an "AIDS"
program. Jim had previously attempted to run the AIDS file on its own, but
after a few seconds it aborted, displaying the message: "You must run the
Install program before you can use the AIDS program."
He followed the instructions, warily loading up Install. It beeped into life,
the light on the hard disk flickering off and on. When the installation was
finished, Jim looked at the hard disk, using software designed to see all of
the files listed in the computer's various directories. The software also
allowed him to see any "hidden" files, those generally concealed from casual
inspection to prevent them being deleted accidentally. There are always two
hidden operating system files on a hard disk; but now, after running the
Install program, there was suddenly a whole series of them, none of them named.
He decided to have a look at the hidden files, using another
144 APPROACHING ZERO
special program. This software went right into the heart of the files,
penetrating the binary code, the building blocks of programs. It presented the
contents on a vertically split screen: the left side displaying the files in
computer code, the right in ordinary text. Jim went through them page by page.
He discovered that the hidden files contained a counter, which kept track of
the number of times the computer was turned on. After ninety start-ups the
hidden files would spring to life and attack the computer's hard disk,
encrypting working files and hiding programs.' Without access to programs and
data, the system would be unusable.
The diskette Jim realized, was a huge trojan horse, a malicious piece of
software that entered a system in the guise of something useful, then unleashed
its payload. In this case the "useful" component was the "AIDS information"
file; the payload was the scrambling of the hard disk.
Curiously, Jim found that the program had been written to behave almost like
the real AIDS virus. It was opportunistic, just like its biological
counterpart; it spread its infection slowly; and was ultimately fatal to its
hosts. Whoever wrote the program must have been casually interested in AIDS,
though perhaps he didn't know a great deal about the subject. Switching to the
AIDS information file, Jim read through the material it offered, which
described itself as "An interactive program for health education on the disease
called AIDS.... The health information provided could save your life.... Please
share this program diskette with other people so that they can benefit from it
The program offered "up-to-date information about how you can reduce the risk
of future infection, based on the details of your own lifestyle and history."
It required a user to answer thirtyeight questions--sex, age, number of sexual
partners since 1980, medical history, sexual behavior, and so on--and according
to the user's answers it provided "confidential advice," most of which was
eccentric and misleading: "Scientific studies show that you cannot catch AIDS
from insects," and "AIDS can be prevented by avoiding the virus" were two of
the less helpful comments. Others included, "Danger: Reduce the number of your
sex partners now!" "You are advised that your risk of contracting Al DS is so
large that it goes off the chart of probabilities." "Buy condoms today when you
leave your office." "Insist that your sex partner be mutually faithful to the
relationship." "Casual kissing appears to be safe. Open-mouth kissing appears
to be more dangerous. It is that which follows open-mouth kissing that is most
risky.'' "The AIDS virus may appear in small quantities in the tears of an
The AIDS trojan, as it had quickly become named, also produced a variety of
messages demanding payment for the license. In certain cases, if the computer
was linked to a printer, it could cause an invoice to be printed out. The money
for the license was to be sent to PC Cyborg Corporation at a post office box in
Panama City, Panama. It was not specified what users would receive for the fee,
apart from a license. But it was assumed that an antidote for the trojan would
be included in the deal.
The AIDS information diskette was the largest and most complex trojan Jim had
ever seen. He worked on it eighteen hours a day for seventeen days and later
said that taking the program apart was "like peeling an onion with a paper
clip." His final disassembly ran to 383 pages, each containing 120 lines of
code. He had managed to produce a quick antidote to the AIDS trojan on the day
he received it, but after he had disassembled the bug, he put together a
program called ClearAid which would restore files and cleanse infected systems.
The antidote and ClearAid were offered free to infected computer users by Jim
and PC Business World.
Later, when the furor died down, Jim decided that the trojan had been written
"by a young, inexperienced programmer with only scant knowledge of both the
language and the machine capabilities at his disposal." Its tortuous complexity
had been caused by incompetence rather than design.
' This was little comfort for those who had suffered damage from the bug. Over
twenty thousand of the AIDS diskettes had been
146 APPROACHING ZERO
sent out, using not only the PC Business World mailing list, but the delegate
register to a World Health Organization (WHO) conference on AIDS in Stockholm.
In the first few days, a number of recipients had panicked when they realized
that they had just loaded a potentially destructive trojan onto their systems.
The trojan had caused the loss of data at the U.N. Development Program offices
in Geneva, and in Italy an AIDS research center at the University of Bologna
reported the loss of ten years of research. Like many users, they had not kept
backup copies of their valuable data. The trojan reached hospitals and clinics
throughout Europe, and the Chase Manhattan Bank and International Computers
Limited (ICL) in England both reported unspecified "problems" caused by the
program. In every instance, scientists, researchers, and computer operators
wasted days chasing down and eliminating the bug, even after Jim's antidote and
ClearAid program became generally available.
At New Scotland Yard the Computer Crime Unit under Detective Inspector John
Austen established that all twenty thousand diskettes had been posted from west
and southwest London, between December 7 and I I, 1989, and that they had been
sent to addresses in almost every country of the world, with one glaring
exception: none had been sent to the United States.
The Computer Crime Unit does not have an easy job.
In many cases it has been frustrated by the unusual nature of computer crime,
and with viruses it has been noticeably unsuccessful in bringing prosecutions.
Most viruses are written abroad, by unknown and certainly untraceable authors,
often in countries such as Bulgaria where the act itself is not a criminal
offense. To prosecute a case against a virus writer, the unit must have a
complaint against the author from a victim in Britain, evidence of criminal
intent, proof of the author's identity, and finally, his presence in Britain,
or at least in a country from which he can be extradited.
The legal problem with viruses, quite simply, is their internationality. They
seep across borders, carried anonymously on diskettes or uploaded via phone
lines to bulletin boards; their provenance is often unknown, their authorship
usually a mystery. But inspectOr John Austen was determined that the AIDS
diskette incident would be different. He viewed it as the "most serious" case
the unit had faced: not only was it a large-scale attack on computers by a
trojan-horse program, it was blackmail--or something very similar. In this
case, he also had a complaint; indeed, he had a few thousand complaints. It was
clearly time for the unit to throw its resources into tracking down the author
of the trojan.
The publishers of PC Business World told the police that they had sold this
particular mailing list for about $2,000 to a Mr. E. Ketema of Ketema &
Associates, who purported to be an African businessman representing a Nigerian
software company. The transaction had been carried out by post; no one had ever
Ketema & Associates operated out of a maildrop address in Bond Street, London.
Company documents revealed that the firm had three other directors, supposedly
Nigerian: Kitian Mekonen, Asrat Wakjiri, and Fantu Mekesse. The staff of the
company that operated the maildrop had never seen the three Nigerians, but they
had met Mr. Ketema. Far from being an African businessman, he was described as
white, bearded, and probably American.
Computer Unit detectives then turned their attention to PC Cyborg Corporation
of Panama City. Through inquiries to the Panamanian police, it was discovered
that the company had been registered a year earlier. The Panamanians were also
able to find the company's local telephone number.
Waiting until early evening in London, when it would be ten A.M. in Panama, a
detective put a call through, and was rewarded by the sound of an American
voice when the phone was answered. "Mr. Ketema?" asked the detective
tentatively. "Who?" answered the voice. It turned out to be an American marine.
Panama had been invaded on that very day.2
- Simultaneous inquiries in Nigeria did not turn up evidence of
148 APPROACHING ZERO
the three Nigerian businessmen who were registered as directors of the company.
Indeed, the Unit discovered that the three names didn't sound Nigerian at all.
They might have been made up.
By then the Computer Unit's detectives were convinced that they were chasing
one man, probably an American.
The arrest happened almost by accident. New Scotland Yard had routinely
circulated details of the case to Interpol, the international police
intelligence agency. Four days before Christmas in 1989, just two weeks after
the diskettes had been posted from London, the Dutch police detained an
American citizen at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, who had been behaving
The American was Joseph Lewis Popp. He was en route from Nairobi, where he had
been attending a WHO seminar, to Ohio, where he lived with his parents in the
small town of Willowick, near Cleveland. Popp seemed to think that someone was
trying to kill him: at Schiphol he had written "Dr. Popp has been poisoned" on
the suitcase of another traveler, apparently in an attempt to notify the
police. When he had calmed down, the authorities took a discreet look through
his bags: in one, they found the company seal for PC Cyborg Corporation.
The police let Popp continue his journey to Ohio, then notified Austen in
England about the seal. On January 18, 1990, Austen began extradition
proceedings. The charge: "That on December 11, 1989, within the jurisdiction of
the Central Criminal Court, you with a view to gain for another, viz. PC Cyborg
Corporation of Panama, with menaces made unwarranted demands, viz. a payment of
one hundred and eighty nine U.S. dollars or three hundred and seventy eight
U.S. dollars from the victim." In Ohio the FBI began a surveillance of Popp's
parents' home, and finally arrested him on February 3rd.
Neighbors in Willowick were said to have been surprised at his arrest. He was
described as "quiet, intelligent, and a real gentleman." At the time of his
arrest he was thirty-nine, a zoologist and anthropologist who had worked as a
consultant on animal behavior with UNICEF and WHO. He was a soft-spoken man,
darkhaired, with flecks of gray in his beard. He had graduated from Ohio State
University in 1972 and obtained a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard in
1979. In the previous few years he had become passionately interested in AIDS.
Austen's extradition request ground through the American courts for nearly a
year. In September 1990 Jim Bates was flown over to Cleveland for five days to
give evidence at Popp's extradition hearing. It is unusual to have live
witnesses at such hearings, but Jim brought the AIDS diskette. He was the
principal witness, and it was his task to demonstrate to the court what the
diskette was and what it did.
In the hallway outside the small courtroom, Jim sat beside Popp's parents, a
friendly and courteous pair. "Do you like Cleveland?" Popp's mother asked. Jim
wasn't sure; all he had seen by then was the airport, a hotel room, and the
hallway. Inside the courtroom Jim had his first glance at Joseph Popp. His hair
was long and unkempt, his beard had grown out, making the ~ray more emphatic.
He shuffled around the courtroom, wearing ~a shabby jacket, a sweater, and
faded jeans. He looked, Jim later ~aid, "like a lost soul."
Popp's mental state was the crux of the defense's argument in the extradition
hearings: his lawyers argued that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and was
unfit to stand trial. Popp never denied writing the AIDS trojan nor sending out
the diskettes. But at the time, his lawyers said, he was in the grip of mental
illness and was behaving abnormally.
The lawyers also argued that the demand for a license fee for the use of the
diskette was not tantamount to blackmail. It was, they agreed, somewhat extreme
to wreck a computer's hard disk if the user didn't pay, but operators were
warned not to load the diskette if they didn't accept the terms and conditions
laid down in the instruction leaflet. And it was quite clearly stated on the
same sheet that if they used the diskette and didn't pay, the computer "would
stop functioning normally."
There was a basis in law to the argument. Software publishers
150 APPROACHING ZERO
have long struggled to stop the unauthorized use and copying of their copyright
programs. Software piracy is said to cost Ameri
can publishers as much as $5 billion a year, and many markets
Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, India, and even Japan, among
others--have become what are euphemistically referred to as "single-disk"
countries: in other words, countries where one legitimate copy of a software
program is bought and the rest illegally copied. To combat piracy, publishing
houses have used a number of devices: some programs, for example, contain
deliberate "errors," which are triggered at set intervals--say, once every
year--and which require a call from the user to the publisher to rectify. The
publisher can then verify that the user is legitimate and has paid his license
fee before telling him how to fix it.
Other publishers have resorted to more extreme methods. One celebrated case
involved an American cosmetics conglomerate that had leased a program from a
small software house to handle the distribution of its products. On October 16,
1990, after a disagreement between the two about the lease payments, the soft-
ware company dialed into the cosmetic giant's computer and entered a code that
disabled its own program. The cosmetics company's entire distribution operation
was halted for three days. The software house argued that it was simply
protecting its property and that its action was akin to a disconnection by the
telephone company. The cosmetics company said that it was "commercial
The Cleveland District Court, however, rejected arguments that the AIDS
diskettes simply contained some sort of elaborate copyright-protection device.
It also ruled that Popp was fit to stand trial and ordered his extradition to
Britain to face charges.
Popp was the first person ever extradited for a computer crime and the first
ever to be tried in Britain for writing a malicious program. From the welter of
complaints, the police had prepared five counts against him; he faced ten years
in prison on each charge. According to the police, Popp had perpetrated a scam
that could have grossed him over $7.5 million, assuming that each of the twenty
thousand recipients of the diskette had sent the "lifetime" license fee. More
realistically, it was estimated that one thousand recipients had actually
loaded the diskette after receiving it; but even if only those one thousand had
sent him the minimum license fee, he still would have earned $189,000.
The police also discovered a diskette that they believed Popp intended to send
out to "registered users" who had opted for the cheaper, $189 license. Far from
being an antidote, it was another trojan and merely extended the counter from
90 boot-ups to 365 before scrambling the hard disk. In addition, there was
evidence that the London mailing was only an initial test run: when Popp's home
in Ohio was raided, the FBI found one million blank diskettes. It was believed
that Popp was intending to use the proceeds from the AIDS scheme to fund a
mass, worldwide mailing, using another trojan. The potential return from one
million diskettes is a rather improbable $378 million.
The police also had suspicions that Popp, far from being mentally unstable, had
launched the scheme with cunning and foresight. For example, he had purposely
avoided sending any of the diskettes to addresses in the United States, where
he lived, possibly believing that it would make him immune to prosecution under
But the case was never to come to trial. Popp's defense presented evidence that
his mental state had deteriorated. Their client, his British lawyers said, had
begun putting curlers in his beard and wearing a cardboard box on his head to
protect himself from radiation. In November 1991 the prosecution accepted that
Popp was mentally unfit to stand trial. To this day, the Computer Crime Unit
has never successfully prosecuted a virus writer.3
For Popp, whatever his motives and his mental state, the AIDS scheme was an
expensive affair--all funded from his own pocket. The postage needed to send
out the first twenty thousand diskettes had cost nearly $7,700, the envelopes
and labels about $11,500, the diskettes and the blue printed instruction
152 APPROACHING ZERO
another $11,500--to say nothing of the cost of registering PC Cyborg
Corporation in Panama, or establishing an address in London. To add insult to
injury, not one license payment was ever received from anyone, anywhere.
Popp's scheme was not particularly well thought out. The scam depended on
recipients of his diskettes mailing checks halfway around the world in the hope
of receiving an antidote to the trojan. But, as John Austen said, "Who in their
right mind would send money to a post office box number in Panama City for an
antidote that might never arrive?" Or that may not be an antidote anyway.
It seems unlikely that anyone will ever again attempt a mass blackmail of this
type; it's not the sort of crime that lends itself to a high volume, low cost
formula. It's far more likely that specific corporations will be singled out
for targeted attacks. Individually, they are far more vulnerable to blackmail,
particularly if the plotters are aided by an insider with knowledge of any
loopholes. An added advantage for the perpetrators is the likely publicity
blackout with which the corporate victim would immediately shroud the affair:
every major corporation has its regular quota of threats, mostly empty, and a
well-defined response strategy.
But at present, hacking--which gives access to information--has proven to be
substantially more lucrative. Present-day hackers traffic in what the
authorities call access device codes, the collective name for credit card
numbers, telephone authorization codes, and computer passwords. They are
defined as any card, code, account number, or "means of account access" that
can be used to obtain money, goods, or services. In the United States the codes
are traded through a number of telecom devices, principally voice-mail
computers; internationally, they are swapped on hacker boards.
The existence of this international traffic has created what one press report
referred to colorfully as "offshore data havens"--pirate boards where hackers
from different countries convene to trade Visa numbers for computer passwords,
or American Express accounts for telephone codes. The passwords and telephone
codes, the common currency of hacking, are traded to enable hackers to maintain
their lifeline--the phone--and to break into computers. Credit card numbers are
used more conventionally: to fraudulently acquire money, goods, and services.
The acquisition of stolen numbers by hacking into credit agency computers or by
means as mundane as dumpster diving (scavenging rubbish in search of the
carbons from credit card receipts) differs from ordinary theft. When a person
is mugged, for example, he knows his cards have been stolen and cancels them.
But if the numbers were acquired without the victim knowing about it, the cards
generally remain "live" until the next bill is sent out, which could be a month
Live cards--ones that haven't been canceled and that still have 60me credit on
them--are a valuable commodity in the computer underworld. Most obviously, they
can be used to buy goods over the phone, with the purchases delivered to a
temporary address or an abandoned house to which the hacker has access.
The extent of fraud of this sort is difficult to quantify. In April 1989
Computerworld magazine estimated that computer-related crime costs American
companies as much as $555,464,000 each year, not including lost man-hours and
computer downtime. The figure is global, in that it takes in everything: fraud,
loss of data, theft of software, theft of telephone services, and so on. Though
it's difficult to accept the number as anything more than a rough estimate, its
apparent precision has given the figure a spurious legitimacy. The same number
frequently appears in most surveys of computer crime in the United States and
is even in many government documents. The blunt truth is that no one can be
certain what computer fraud of any sort really costs. All anyone knows is that
154 APPROACHING ZERO
erably older than the 150 or so adolescent Olivers she gathered into her ring.
As a woman, she has the distinction of being one of only two or three female
hackers who have ever come to the attention of the authorities.
In 1989 Doucette lived in an apartment on the north side of Chicago in the sort
of neighborhood that had seen better days; the block looked substantial, though
it was showing the first signs of neglect. Despite having what the police like
to term "no visible means of support," Doucette was able to provide for herself
and her two children, pay the rent, and keep up with the bills. Her small
apartment was filled with electronic gear: personal computer equipment, modems,
automatic dialers, and other telecom peripherals.
Doucette was a professional computer criminal. She operated a scheme dealing in
stolen access codes: credit cards, telephone cards (from AT&T, MCI, Sprint, and
ITT) as well as corporate PBX telephone access codes, computer passwords, and
codes for voice-mail (VM) computers. She dealt mostly in MasterCard and Visa
numbers, though occasionally in American Express too. Her job was to turn
around live numbers as rapidly as possible. Using a network of teenage hackers
throughout the country, she would receive credit card numbers taken from a
variety of sources. She would then check them, either by hacking into any one
of a number of credit card validation computers or, more often, by calling a
"chat line" telephone number. If the chat line accepted the card as payment, it
was live. She then grouped the cards by type, and called the numbers through to
a "code line," a hijacked mailbox on a voice-mail computer.
Because Doucette turned the cards around quickly, checking their validity
within hours of receiving their numbers and then, more importantly, getting the
good numbers disseminated on a code line within days, they remained live for a
longer period. It was a very efficiently run hacker service industry. To
supplement her income, she would pass on card numbers to members of her rin~ in
other cities, who would use them to buy Western Union money orders payable to
one of Doucette's aliases. The cards were also used to pay for an unknown
number of airline tickets and for hotel accommodation when Doucette or her
accomplices were traveling.
The key to Doucette's business was communication--hence the emphasis on PBX and
voice-mail computer access codes. The PBXs provided the means for
communication; the voice-mail computers the location for code lines.
PBX is a customer-operated, computerized telephone system, providing both
internal and external communication. One of its features is the Remote Access
Unit (RAU), designed to permit legilimate users to call in from out of the
office, often on a 1-800 nunlher. and access a long-distance line after
punching in a short co~e Oll the telephone keypad. The long-distance calls made
in this way are then charged to the customer company. Less legitimate users--
hackers, in other words--force access to the RAU by guessing the code. This is
usually done by calling the system and trying different sequences of numbers on
the keypad until stumbling on a code. The process is time-consuming, but
hackers are a patient bunch.
The losses to a company whose PBX is compromised can be staggering. Some
hackers are known to run what are known as "call-sell" operations: sidewalk or
street-corner enterprises offering passersby cheap long-distance calls (both
national and international) on a cellular or pay phone. The calls, of course,
are routed through some company's PBX. In a recent case, a "callsell" operator
ran up $1.4 million in charges against one PBX owner over a four-day holiday
period. (The rewards to "call-sell" merchants can be equally enormous: at $10 a
call some operators working whole banks of pay phones are estimated by U.S. Iaw
enforcement agencies to have made as much as $10,000 a day.)
PBXs may have become the blue boxes for a new generation of phreakers, but
voice-mail computers have taken over as hacker bulletin boards. The problem
with the boards was that they became too well known: most were re~ularly
monitored by law
156 APPROACHING ZERO
enforcement agencies. Among other things, the police recorded the numbers of
access device codes trafficked on boards, and as the codes are useful only as
long as they are live--usually the time between their first fraudulent use and
the victim's first bill--the police monitoring served to invalidate them that
much faster. Worse, from the point of view of hackers, the police then took
steps to catch the individuals who had posted the codes.
The solution was to use voice mail. Voice-mail computers operate like highly
sophisticated answering machines and are often attached to a company's
toll-free 1-800 number. For users, voicemail systems are much more flexible
than answering machines: they can receive and store messages from callers, or
route them from one box to another box on the system, or even send one single
message to a preselected number of boxes. The functions are controlled by the
appropriate numerical commands on a telephone keypad. Users can access their
boxes and pick up their messages while they're away from the office by calling
their 1-800 number, punching in the digits for their box, then pressing the
keys for their private password. The system is just a simple computer,
accessible by telephone and controllable by the phone keys.
But for hackers voice mail is made to order. The 1-800 numbers for voice-mail
systems are easy enough to find; the tried-and-true methods of dumpster diving,
social engineering, and war-dialing will almost always turn up a few usable
targets. War-dialing has been simplified in the last decade with the advent of
automatic dialers, programs which churn through hundreds of numbers, recording
those that are answered by machines or computers. The process is still
inelegant, but it works.
After identifying a suitable 1-800 number, hackers break into the system to
take over a box or, better, a series of boxes. Security is often lax on
voice-mail computers, with box numbers and passwords ridiculously easy to guess
by an experienced hacker. One of the methods has become known as finger
hacking: punching away on the telephone keypad trying groups of numbers until a
box and the appropriate password are found. Ideally, hackers look for unused
boxes. That way they can assign their own passwords and are less likely to be
detected. Failing that, though, they will simply annex an assigned box,
changing the password to lock out the real user.
VM boxes are more secure than hacker boards: the police, for a start, can't
routinely monitor voice-mail systems as they can boards, while hackers can
quickly move to new systems if they suspect the authorities of monitoring one
they are using. The messaging technology of voice-mail systems lends itself to
passing on lists of codes. The code line is often the greeting message of the
hacker-controlled mailbox; in other words, instead of hearing the standard
"Hello, Mr. Smith is not in the office. Please leave a message," hackers
calling in will hear the current list of stolen code numbers. In this manner,
only the hacker leaving the codes need know the box password. The other
hackers, those picking up the codes or leaving a message, only need to know the
It was ultimately a voice-mail computer that led the authorities |~ to
Doucette. On February 9, 1989, the president of a real estate | company in
Rolling Meadow, Illinois, contacted the U.S. Secret Service office in Chicago.
His voice-mail computer, he complained, had been overrun by hackers.
The harassed real estate man became known as Source 1. On February 1 5th, two
Secret Service agents--William "Fred" Moore and Bill Tebbe--drove from Chicago
to the realtor's office to interview him. They found a man beset by unwanted
The company had installed its voice-mail system in the autumn of 1988. The box
numbers and passwords were personally asi signed by the company president.
While the 1-800 number to i access the system was published, he insisted that
the passwords were known only to himself and to the individual box users.
In November 1988, during an ordinary review of the traffic on the system, he
had been startled to discover a number of unexplained messages. He had no idea
what they were about or who they were for; he thought they could have been
left in error.
158 APPROACHING ZERO
However, the number of "errors" had grown throughout Novem ber and December. By
January 1989 the "errors" had become so frequent that they overwhelmed the
system, taking over almost all of the voice-mail computer's memory and wiping
out messages for the company's business.
The Secret Service recorded the messages over a period from late February to
March. Listening to the tapes, they realized they were dealing with a code
The law on access devices prohibits the unauthorized possession of fifteen or
more of such codes, or the swapping or sale of the codes "with an intent to
defraud." (Fraud is defined as a $1,000 loss to the victim or profit to the
violator.) On the tapes, the agents could identify 130 devices that were
trafficked by the various unknown callers. They also heard the voice of a woman
who identified herself alternatively as "Kyrie" or "long-distance information."
It seemed as if she was running the code line, so they decided to focus the
investigation on her.
In March security officials from MCI, the long-distance telephone company, told
the Secret Service that Canadian Bell believed "Kyrie" to be an alias of Leslie
Lynne Doucette, a Canadian citizen who had been hacking for six or seven years.
In March 1987 Doucette had been convicted of telecommunications fraud in Canada
and sentenced to ninety days' imprisonment with two years' probation. She had
been charged with running a code line and trafficking stolen access codes.
Subsequently, the Canadians reported, Doucette had left the country with her
Later that month an MCI operative, Tom Schutz, told Moore that an informant had
passed on the word that a well-known hacker named Kyrie had just moved from the
West Coast to the Chicago area. The informant, Schutz said, had overheard the
information on a hacker "bridge" (a conference call). At the beginning of April
an MCI security officer, Sue Walsh, received information from another informant
that Kyrie had a Chicago telephone number.
By mid-month, Moore was able to get court authorization to attach a
dialed-number recorder (DNR), to Doucette's phone. A DNR monitors outgoing
calls, recording the number accessed and any codes used. From the surveillance,
agents were able to detect a large volume of calls to various voice-mail
systems and PBX networks.
The authorities traced the other compromised voice-mail systems to Long Beach,
California, and Mobile, Alabama. They discovered that Kyrie was operating code
lines on both networks. It's not unusual for hackers to work more than one
system; sometimes Hacker A will leave codes for Hacker B on a voicemail
computer in, say, Florida, while Hacker B might leave his messages for Hacker A
on a system in New York. By rotating through voice-mail computers in different
states, hackers ensure that local law enforcement officials who stumble upon
their activities see only part of the picture.
The agents also realized that Kyrie was running a gang. From other sources they
heard tapes on which she gave tutorials to neophyte hackers on the techniques
of credit card fraud. Over the period of the investigation they identified 152
separate contacts from all over the country, all used as sources for stolen
codes. Of the gang, the agents noted seven in particular, whom they identified
as "major hackers" within the ring: Little Silence in Los Angeles; the
ironically named FBI Agent in Michigan; Outsider, also in Michigan; Stingray
from Massachusetts; EG in Columbus, Ohio; Navoronne, also from Columbus; and
Game Warden in Georgia.4 DNRs were also attached to their telephones.
The agents assigned to the case described the group, imaginatively, as "a
high-tech street gang." By then the Secret Service had turned the enquiry into
a nationwide investigation involving the FBI, the Illinois State Police, the
Arizona Attorney General's Office, the Chicago Police Department, the Columbus
(Ohio) Police Department, the Cobb County (Georgia) Sherifrs Office, the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police, and the Ontario Provincial Police. Security agents
from MCI, Sprint, AT&T, and nine Bell phone companies provided technical
160 APPROACHING ZERO
On May 24th the Secret Service asked local authorities in six cities for
assistance to mount raids on Doucette's Chicago apart ment and the addresses of
the five other major hackers in the ring. Prior to the raids the authorities
compiled a list of equipment that was to be seized: telephones and
speed-dialing devices; computers and peripherals; diskettes; cassette tapes;
videotapes; records and documents; computer or data-processing literature;
bills, letters invoices, or any other material relating to occupancy; informa-
tion pertaining to access device codes; and "degaussing" equipment.5
The raid on Doucette's Chicago apartment produced a lode of access codes. Moore
found a book listing the numbers for 171 AT&T, ITT, and other telephone cards,
as well as authorization codes for 39 PBXs. In addition, the agents found
numbers for 118 Visa cards, 150 MasterCards, and 2 American Express cards.
Doucette admitted that she was Kyrie. Later in the Secret Service offices, she
confessed to operating code lines, trafficking stolen numbers, and receiving
unauthorized Western Union money orders. She was held in custody without bond
and indicted on seventeen counts of violating rederal computer, access device,
and telecom fraud laws between January 1988 and May 1989.
Estimates of the costs of Doucette's activities varied. On the day of her
arrest, she was accused of causing "$200,000 in losses . . . by corporations
and telephone service providers." Later it was announced that "substantially
more than $1.6 million in losses were suffered" by credit card companies and
Doucette's was a high-profile arrest, the first federal prosecution for hacking
voice-mail systems and trafficking in access devices. The prosecution was
determined that she would be made an example of; her case, the authorities
said, would reflect "a new reality for hackers" in the 1990s--the certainty of
"meaningful punishment." If convicted of all charges, Doucette faced eightynine
years' imprisonment, a $69,000 fine, and $1.6 million in restitution charges.
The case was plea-bar~ained. Doucette admitted to one count; the other charges
were dismissed. On August 17, 1990, Doucette, then aged thirty-six, was
sentenced to twenty-seven months in prison. It was one of the most severe
sentences ever given to a computer hacker in the United States.6
Willie Sutton, a U.S. gangster, was once asked why he robbed banks. "Because
that's where the money is," he replied.
Little has changed; banks still have the money. Only the means of robbing them
have become more numerous. Modern banks are dependent on computer technology,
creating new opportunities for fraud and high-tech bank robbery.
Probably the best-known story about modern-day bank fraud involves the
computation of "rounded-off" interest payments. A bank employee noticed that
the quarterly interest payments on the millions of savings accounts held by the
bank were worked out to four decimal points, then rounded up or down. Anything
above .0075 of a dollar was rounded up to the next penny and paid to the
customer; anything below that was rounded down and kept by the bank. In other
words, anything up to three quarters of a cent in earned interest on millions
of accounts was going back into the bank's coffers.
Interest earned by bank customers was calculated and credited by computer. So
it would be a simple matter for an employee to write a program amending the
process: instead of the roundeddown interest going back to the bank, it could
all be amalgamated in one account, to which the employee alone had access. Over
the two or three years that such a scam was said to have been operational, an
employee was supposed to have grossed millions, even billions, of dollars.
The story is an urban legend that has been told for years and accepted by many,
but there has not been a single documented case. However, it certainly could be
true: banks' dependence on computers has made fraud easier to commit and harder
to detect. Computers are impersonal, their procedures faster and more anonymous
than paper-based transactions. They can move
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money around the world in microseconds, and accounts can effortlessly be
created and hidden from a computer keyboard.
Like any corporate fraud, most bank fraud is committed by insiders, employees
with access to codes and procedures who can create a "paper trail" justifying a
transaction. In such cases the fraud is not really different from illegal
transactions carried out in the quill-pen era: the use of a computer has simply
mechanized such fraud and made it more difficult to track.
The new threat to banks comes from hackers. In addition to the familiar duo of
the bank robber and the criminal employee--the one bashing through the front
door with a shotgun, the other sitting in the back room quietly cooking the
books--banks now face a third security risk: the adolescent hacker with a PC, a
modem, and the ability to access the bank's computers from a remote site.
Unlike traditional bank robbers, hackers don't come through the front door:
they sneak in through the bank's own computer access ports, then roam unseen
through the systems, looking for vulnerable areas. Unlike crooked employees,
hackers aren't a physical presence: they remain unseen and undetected until
it's too late.
Though banks spend millions protecting their computer systems from intruders,
they aren't necessarily that secure. Bank employees, particularly those who
work in dealing rooms, are notorious for using the most obvious passwords,
generally those that reflect their own ambitions: Porsche and sex are perennial
favorites. Sometimes even the most basic security precautions are overlooked.
Recently two hackers demonstrated this point for a London newspaper. They
targeted the local headquarters of "a leading American bank" one that was so
well known for its laxity that its systems had become a training ground for
neophyte hackers. The two had first hacked into the bank's computer in March
1988, and in October 1990 the pair did it again, using the same ID and password
they had first employed in 1988. The bank hadn't bothered to modify its most
basic procedures, and its first line of defense against hackers, for over two
and a half years.
Given such opportunity, it could be assumed that banks are regularlY being
looted by hackers. The mechanics appear straightforward enough: operating from
home a hacker should be able to break into a bank's central computer quite
anonymously, access the sector dealing with cash transfers, then quickly move
the moneY to an account that he controls. However, in practice the procedure is
more complex. Banks use codes to validate transfers; in addition, transactions
must be confirmed electronically by the recipient of the funds. Because of such
safeguards, the plundering is probably limited.'
But the threat from hackers is still real. There may be a hundred hackers in
the United States with the necessary skills to break into a bank and steal
funds, which is a sizable number of potential bank robbers. And of course it
would be the dream hack, the one that justifies the time spent staring at a
video terminal while learning the craft.
The most successful bank robbery ever carried out by hackers mal have occurred
two years ago. The target was a branch of Citibank in New York. The identity of
the two hackers is unknown, though they are thought to be in their late teens
or early twenties.
The scheme began when the two became aware that certain financial institutions,
including Citibank, used their connections on the various X.25 networks--the
computer networks operated by commercial carriers such as Telenet or Sprint--to
transfer money.8 (The process is known as Electronic Fund Transfer, or EFT.)
The two decided that if the funds could be intercepted in mid-transfer and
diverted into another account--in this case, a computer file hidden within the
system--then they could be redirected and withdrawn before the error was
The hackers began the robbery by investigating Telenet. They knew that Citibank
had two "address prefixes" of its own--223 and 22~on the network; these were
the prefixes for the sevendigit numbers (or "addresses") that denoted Citibank
links to the
164 APPROACHING ZERO
system. By churning through sequential numbers they found a series of addresses
for Citibank computer terminals, many of which were VAXen, the popular
computers manufactured by DEC. One weekend they hacked into eight of the VAXen
and found their way to the Citibank DECNET, an internal bank network linking
the DEC computers. From there they found gateways to other banks and financial
institutions in the New York area.
They ignored the other banks. What had particularly intrigued them were
references in the computer systems to an EFT operation run by Citibank: in
various files and throughout the electronic mail system they kept turning up
allusions to EFT, clues that they were convinced pointed to a terminal that did
nothing but transfer funds. They began sifting through their lists of computer
access numbers, looking for one among hundreds that belonged to the EFT
computer, and by a laborious process of elimination they whittled the lists
down to five machines whose function they couldn't divine: Of those, one seemed
particularly interesting. It could be entered by a debug port (a computer
access port used for maintenance) that had been left in default mode--in other
words, it could be accessed with the standard manufacturer-supplied password,
because yet again no one had ever bothered to change it.
The system they entered contained menus that guided them through the computer.
One path took them directly into an administration area used by system
operators. After an hour of exploration they found a directory that held a
tools package, allowing them to create their own programs. With it, they wrote
a procedure to copy all incoming and outgoing transmissions on the terminal
into their own file. They named the file ".trans" and placed it in a directory
they called "..- -" (dot, dot, space, space), effectively hiding it from view.
What they had created was a "capture" file; from the transmissions that were
copied, they would be able to divine the functions of the computer terminal.
The capture file was created late on a Sunday night. At about nine P-M- on the
next evening they logged on to the system again, and from the day's
transmissions they could tell that the targeted machine was indeed an EFT
terminal. They discovered that the computer began transactions by linking
itself to a similar com~puter at another bank, waiting for a particular control
sequence to be sent, and then transferring a long sequence of numbers and
letters. They captured about 170 different transactions on the first day and
several hundred more in the following week. At the end of the week they removed
the ".trans" file and its directory, killed the capture routine, and went
through the system removing any trace that they had ever been there.
>From the captured transmissions they were able to piece together the meaning o
the control sequence and the transfers themselves. They also noticed that after
the Citibank computer had sent its transfer, the destination bank would repeat
the transaction (by way of confirmation) and in ten seconds would say
TRANSACTION COMPLETED, followed by the destination bank ID. The two guessed
that the bank IDs were the standard Federal Reserve numbers for banks (every
bank in America that deals with the Federal Reserve system has a number
assigned to it, as do several European banks). To confirm the hunch, they
called up Citibank and asked for its Federal Reserve number. It was the same as
the ID being sent by the computer.
The two hackers then realized that they had collected all of the technical
information they needed to raid the bank. They had discovered the codes and the
procedures for the control sequence and the transfers; they knew what the bank
IDs signified; and from the Federal Reserve itself they got a listing of all
the national and international bank ID numbers. Now they had to organize the
downstream: a secure process of getting money into their own pockets.
One of the duo had a friend, an accountant of questionable moral character, who
opened a numbered Swiss account under a false name for the two hackers. He had
originally laughed at the idea, explaining that an initial $50,000 was required
to open a
166 APPROACHING ZERO
numbered account. But when he was told to get the forms so that the money could
be wired to Switzerland, he began to take the scheme seriously. A few days
later the accountant delivered the paperwork, the account number, and several
transaction slips. He also raised his usual $1,000 fee to $6,500.
The two hackers flew to Oklahoma City to visit the hall of records and get new
birth certificates. With these they obtained new Oklahoma IDs and Social
Security numbers. Then, using the false IDs, they opened accounts at six
different banks in Houston and Dallas, with $1,000 cash deposited in each.
The next day, armed with one Swiss and six American accounts, they began the
attack. They rigged the Citicorp computer controlling the EFT transfers to
direct all of its data flow to an unused Telenet terminal they had previously
discovered. They took turns sitting on the terminal, collecting the
transmissions, and returning the correct acknowledgments with the Federal Re-
serve IDs. The transmissions each represented a cash transfer: essentially, the
money was being hijacked. But by sending the required acknowledgments the
hackers were giving Citibank "confirmation" that the transactions had reached
the destination banks. By noon the two had $184,300 in their limbo account.
The two then disabled the "data forwarding" function on the Citibank computer,
taking control of the EFT machine themselves so that they could redistribute
the captured funds. By altering the transmissions, they transferred the money
to the Swiss account. To the Swiss, it looked like a normal Citibank transmis-
sion; after all, it had come through the Citibank's own EFT computer.
Once the two hackers had received the standard confirmation from the Swiss
bank, they immediately filled out six withdrawal forms and faxed them to its
New York branch, along with instructions detailing where the funds should be
sent. They told the Swiss bank to send $7,333 to each of the six U.S. accounts.
(The amount was chosen because it was below the sum requiring notification of
the authorities.) They followed the same procedure for three days, leaving the
Swiss account with a little over $52,000 remaining on deposit.
Over the next week they withdrew $22,000 from each of the Dallas and Houston
banks in amounts of $5,000 per day, leaving just under $1,000 in each account.
At the end of the week they had each taken home $66,000 in cash.
You can believe this story or not as you wish. Certainly Citibank doesn't
believe a word of it; it has consistently denied that anything resembling the
events described above have ever happened, or that it has lost money in an EFT
transfer due to hacking. The only reason anyone knows about the incident is
that the two hackers who did it--or say they did--posted the details on a
pirate board called Black ICE. The board was used by the Legion of Doom, at one
time the most proficient and experienced hacker gang in the United States, and
the two hackers-cum-robbers are thought to be LoD members--or at least to
consider themselves LoD members.
Hackers are generally boastful. They gain credibility by exaggerating their
abilities and glamorizing their exploits. It's the issue of identity: just as
meek little Harvey Merkelstein from Brooklyn becomes the fearsome Killer Hacker
when he gets loose on a keyboard, he also gains points with his peers by
topping everyone else's last hack, and robbing a bank would be considered a
pretty good hack.
The report from the two hackers could have been a fantasy, a means of
impressing other LoD members. But, if they had managed to pull the robbery off,
they would still have wanted to boast about it. And the perfect crime is the
one that even the victim doesn't realize has happened. In the report posted on
Black ICE, one of the two "bank robbers" wrote,
IT WILL BE INTERESTING TO SEE HOW THE CITICORP [CITI-
BANK'S PARENT] INTERNAL FRAUD AUDITORS AND THE
TREASURY DEPARTMENT SORT THIS OUT. THERE ARE NO
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TRACES OF THE DIVERSION, IT JUST SEEMS TO HAVE HAPPENED. CITIBANK HAS PRINTED
PROOF THAT THE FUNDS WERE SENT TO THE CORRECT BANKS, AND THE CORRECT BANKS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT ON THE SAME PRINTOUT. THE CORRECT DESTINATION BANKS, HOWEVER,
HAVE NO RECORD OF THE TRANSACTION. THERE IS RECORD OF CITIBANK SENDING FUNDS TO
OUR SWISS ACCOUNT, BUT ONLY THE SWISS HAVE THOSE RECORDS. SINCE WE WERE
CONTROLLING THE HOST [THE EFT COMPUTER] WHEN THE TRANSACTIONS WERE SENT, THERE
WERE NO PRINTOUTS ON THE SENDING SIDE. SINCE WE WERE NOT ACTUALLY AT A TERMINAL
CONNECTED TO ONE OF THEIR LINE PRINTERS, NO ONE SHOULD FIGURE OUT TO START
CONTACTING SWISS BANKS, AND SINCE CITIBANK DOES THIS SORT OF THING DAILY WITH
LARGE EUROPEAN BANKS, THEY WILL BE ALL TWISTED AND CONFUSED BY THE TIME THEY
FIND OURS. SHOULD THEY EVEN GET TO OUR BANK, THEY WILL THEN HAVE TO START THE
LONG AND TEDIOUS PROCESS OF EXTRACTING INFORMATION FROM THE SWISS. THEN IF THEY
GET THE SWISS TO COOPERATE, THEY WILL HAVE A DEAD END WITH THE ACCOUNT, SINCE
IT WAS SET UP UNDER THE GUISE OF A NONENTITY. THE ACCOUNTS IN DALLAS AND
HOUSTON WERE ALSO IN FAKE NAMES WITH FAKE SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS; WE EVEN
CHANGED OUR APPEARANCES AND HANDWRITING STYLES AT EACH BANK.
I'M GLAD l'M NOT THE ONE WHO WILL HAVE THE JOB OF TRACKING ME DOWN, OR EVEN
TRYING TO MUSTER UP PROOF OF WHAT HAPPENED. NOW WE WON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT
DISPOSABLE INCOME FOR A WHILE. I CAN FINISH COLLEGE WITHOUT WORKING AND STILL
LIVE IN RELATIVE LUXURY. IT'S KIND OF WEIRD HAVING OVER SIX HUNDRED $100 BILLS
IN THE DRAWER, THOUGH. TOO BAD WE CAN'T EARN ANY INTEREST ON IT!
Needless to say, the anonymous authors of this report have never been traced.
It wasnt until later that anyone in the LoD realized that Black ICF had been
compromised. The board had been regularly monitorcd by the authorities,
particularly the U.S. Secret Service, as part of a continuing investigation of
the LoD, an investigation that was just about to blow open.
The authorities tended to take reports of hacker exploits seriously. The
various federal agencies, police forces, and prosecutors who had dealt with the
computer underworld knew that computer security had been undermined by hacking.
Everything was at risk: hackers had entered the military computer networks;
they had hacked NASA and the Pentagon; they had compromised credit agencies and
defrauded credit card companies; they had broken into bank systems; and they
had made the telecom system a playground. But it wasn't just fraud that
concerned the authorities. It was now also apparent that some hackers were
selling their services to the KGB.
Chapter 7 THE ILLUMINATI
Karl Koch was last seen alive on May 23, 1989. That morning he had turned up to
work as usual at the Hannover office of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic
party. Just before twelve o'clock he drove off alone to deliver a package
across town, but he never arrived. In the late afternoon his employers notified
the police of his disappearance.
Nine days later the police went to a woods on the outskirts of the small
village of Ohof, just outside Hannover, on a routine enquiry. They were
investigating a report of an abandoned car, its roof, hood, and windscreen
thick with dust. In the undergrowth near the car, the police stumbled on a
charred corpse Iying next to an empty gasoline can. The vegetation around the
body was scorched and burned. The police noticed that the corpse was barefoot--
but no shoes were found in the car or in the surrounding area.
The investigators were perplexed. There had been no rain for five weeks, and
the undergrowth was as dry as matchwood. But the scorched patch around the body
was contained, as if the fire that consumed the victim had been carefully
The body was later identified as that of the twenty-four-yearold Karl Koch. The
police assumed he had committed suicide. But still there were questions:
principally, if Koch had killed himself, how had he been able to control the
fire? Why had it not spread outside the confined perimeter?
Then there were the shoes: Koch had obviously been wearing shoes when he left
his office. If he had taken them off, what had he done with them? It seemed as
if someone had taken them.
But there were no clues to a killer, and the death was deemed to ke suicide.
Four years previously Karl Koch had been the first hacker in Germany recruited
by agents working for the KGB. At the time he was living in Hannover, a dropout
from society and school who had recently squandered the small inheritance he
had receivcd following the death of his parents. A small-time drug habit helped
him through his bereavement, and beyond, but his life was going nowhere.
Apart from drugs, Koch's only interest was hacking. His handle was Hagbard, an
alias taken from the Illuminati trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
According to the books, the Illuminati is a secret cult that has been in
existence since the beginning of time and has orchestrated every major crime,
misfortune. and calamity. Only one man had ever emerged who could fight the
cult: the hero, Hagbard Celine. Koch was drawn by the conspiracy theories
nurtured in the books; he believed there were parallels in real life.
That year Koch met an older man named Peter Kahl. Kahl was then in his
mid-thirties, a small-time fixer who was looking for a big break. He worked
nights as a croupier in a Hannover casino and during the day was occupied with
putting together his latest scheme.
Kahl's idea was simple: he planned to recruit a gang of hackers who could break
into West European and American computer systems, particularly those on
military or defense-industry sites. Then he would sell the data and information
they had gathered to the KGB.
Kahl first encountered Koch at a hacker's meeting in Hannover. The young man
seemed an ideal recruit: malleable, drifting, amoral. Later, when Kahl
explained his scheme to Koch, the
172 APPROACHING ZERO
hacker appeared receptive. Two weeks later Koch agreed to become a member of
the Soviet hacker gang.
In 1985 the computer underworld was a growing force in Germany. Hacking had
become prevalent at the beginning of the decade, as low-cost personal computers
became increasingly available. It had grown in popularity with the release of
War Games--the 1983 film in which Matthew Broderick nearly unleashes the next
world war by hacking into NORAD which proved peculiarly influential in Germany.
By the mid-1980s the Germans were second only to the Americans in the number of
hackers and their audacity. The national computer networks had all been
compromised; German hackers would later turn up on systems all over the world.
The growth of the computer underworld was nurtured by sustained media coverage
and the quasi-institutionalization of hacking. Nearly everything in Germany is
organized, even anarchy. So, in a parody of Teutonic orderliness, hackers
assembled into clubs: there was the BHP (the Bayrische Hackerpost) in Munich,
Foebud-Bi in Bielefeld, Suecrates-S in Stuttgart, and HICop-CE (the
Headquarters of the Independent Computer-Freaks) in Celle. Of course the most
famous and best-organized of all was the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg. Since
its inception in 1981, it had spawned affiliates in other towns and cities,
even a branch in France, and in 1984 hosted the first of its annual confer-
ences, an event that served to keep the Chaos name in the press. In between the
annual congresses, Chaos also held smaller hacker meets at the various computer
conventions held around Germany. Whatever the event, the venue for the hacker
meet was always next to the stand occupied by the Bundespost, the German Post
Office, and the time was always four P.M. on the first Tuesday of the
Chaos was never a huge organization--even now it only has about 150 registered
members--but it is very accomplished at self-promotion and zealous in
disseminating information on hacking. It publishes a bimonthly magazine, Die
Datenschleuder (literally, "the Distribution of Data by Centrifuge") with
sixteen to twenty pages an issue. It also promotes Die Hackerbibel ("The Hacker
Bible"), a two-part set of reference books detailing hacker techniques.
Chaos first came to the notice of the general public in 1984, ~hen it hacked
into the German computer information system, ,tx (Bildschirmtext).' Like all
telephone and data services in Jermany, the system is run by the Bundespost, an
unloved, lureaucratic institution that is obsessive in its attempts to control
Jl national telecommunications links. The company added to its ~popularity with
hackers when it began licensing telephone anwering machines and regulating the
use of modems.
At first, Chaos was just another "information provider" on ~tx. Subscribers to
the service could dial up and read pages of nformation supplied by Chaos on
their home computers. Users vere charged at a premium rate for the calls, with
proceeds shared etween the Bundespost and Chaos. This seemed a good recipe or
making money--until one of the computer wizards at Chaos liscovered that
security on the system was hopelessly weak. He
lized that if a hacker broke into Btx, he could get hold of the laos ID and
password (used by the club to access and update ule information on its pages),
then dial up other services and ~ddle Chaos with the cost. With a minimum of 10
marks per call, bout $6.80, the amount involved could soon become astronomi-
Chaos's founder, Wau Holland, and a younger member of the club, Steffen
Wernery, then aged twenty-two, decided to go public with the discovery. The two
contacted Hans Gliss, the managing editor of the computer security journal
Datenschutz-Berater ~"Data Security Adviser"). Gliss invited Holland and
Steffen to attend an upcoming conference on data security and present their
information. But at the meeting Bundespost representatives disputed the club's
claims, unwisely stating that its Btx security was impenetrable. It was the cue
for Chaos to demonstrate otherwise.
174 APPROACHING ZERO
The Chaos team hacked into the Btx system and into the account of their local
savings bank, the Hamburger Sparkasse. They then introduced a computer program
they had written, causing the bank to call up the Chaos Btx pages repeatedly
over a ten-hour period. The program was simple: it merely called the Chaos Btx
number, waited for an answer and then hung up. Over and over again. After ten
hours, the bill for the bank came to almost $92,000. But although the bill was
never presented, the ensuing publicity carefully orchestrated by Chaos through
the German press agency--forced the Bundespost to improve its computer
security, and Holland and Steffen became national heroes.
The publicity increased Chaos's notoriety; its first annual congress was
organized as a result of the coverage engendered by the Btx hack. Chaos became
a byword for high-tech mischief, and its congresses became an important
breeding ground for the German computer underworld. These congresses were
always held during the week after Christmas at the Eidelstedter Burgerhaus on
Hamburg's Elbgaustrasse. The events lasted for three days, and press and
visitors were welcome, provided they paid the entrance fee.
In 1985 one of the paying visitors was Karl Koch. Steffen remembers seeing him
there and being introduced briefly. He is also certain that they also met on
one other occasion, at a hacker conference at an exhibition in Munich. Koch was
an unmistakable figure: tall, emaciated, and invariably spaced out.
For the next three years their lives would crisscross in a complex dance. If
Koch had seen the pattern, he would have understood. It was the Illuminati,
faceless, unknown, all-powerful, conspiring to take cs)ntrol of Steffen's life.
Koch's purpose in visiting the 1985 Chaos congress was to seek out certain
information on computer systems and networks. Despite his years of practice, he
himself was a second-rate hacker. He had come to realize that he was not a born
computer wizard; he needed assistance. He was coming under increasing pressure
from Kahl to find and copy classified material from computers in the West, and
his money was running out just as his dependency on drugs was increasing: from
the relatively harmless hashish favored by many hackers, he had graduated to
LSD and cocaine.
At first the Soviets had seemed incredibly naive: Koch was able to pass Kahl
public-domain software, programs he had simply downloaded for free from
electronic bulletin boards. The KGB had accepted the software, and Koch had
received payment. It seemed very simple, and he assumed he wasn't doing
anything illegal: after all, public-domain software is freely available to
anyone who wants it.
But then the Soviets became more demanding. The KGB had produced lists of
programs it wanted to obtain and sites it wanted cracked. They also wanted
dial-ups, user IDs, passwords, and instructions on how to gain system-operator
privileges in computer systems. In short, the KGB wanted to learn how to become
The Soviet secret service's list of sites included the Pentagon, NORAD, the
research laboratories at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, Genrad in Dallas,
and Fermilab in Illinois, as well as MIT, Union Carbide, and NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. It was a shopping list of top-secret defense
contractors and installations. The list continued with names of companies in
the U.K. and Japan. The KGB stipulated that it was interested in micro-
electronics projects for military and industrial purposes--specifically in
programs for designing megachips, the electronic brains that were responsible
for the military strength of the Western allies. Two French companies in
particular attracted the KGB's attention: Philips-France and SGS-Thomson, both
known to be involved in megachip research.
Koch knew that on the sites picked by the KGB he would be confronted with VAX
computers, which were made by DEC, but he had no experience with VMS, the
proprietary operating system used by VAXen. It was VAX expertise he was hunting
for at the Chaos congress: someone to make up for the skills he lacked.
176 APPROACHING ZERO
It was lucky, then, that he met a seventeen-year-old hacker from West Berlin
named Hans Hubner. Hubner, a tall, slender young man with the paleness that
comes from staring at a computer screen too long, had been fascinated by
computers since he was a child. He was also addicted to an arcade game that
involved a little penguinlike character called Pengo. He liked it so much that
he adopted Pengo as his handle.
When he met Koch, Pengo was unemployed and desperately needed money. He also
shared Koch's liking for drugs, but more important, he had experience with VMS.
Since 1985 he had been playing on Tymnet, an international computer network run
by the American defense contractor McDonnell Douglas, and had learned to use
the VAX default passwords--the standard account names that are included with
the machines when they're shipped out from the manufacturer. Pengo was also one
of the first German hackers to break into CERN, the European Nuclear Research
Center in Geneva, Switzerland, and was a caller to the Altos bulletin board in
Munich--where, coincidentally, he had met Fry Guy, the Indiana hacker.
Koch befriended the young Berliner, invited him to Hannover, and introduced him
to Peter Kahl. Before long Pengo had become the second member of the gang,
operating from what was then West Berlin, while Koch continued his activities
in Hannover. Kahl later involved a contact in West Berlin, Dirk Brescinsky,
whose job it became to run Pengo.
Koch and Pengo had some early successes hacking into VAX machines. They
discovered that DEC's Singapore computer center was exceptionally lax about
security. From there they were able to copy a VMS program called Securepack,
which allowed system managers to alter user status.
It was a useful piece of software for the KGB. But it wasn't military data. To
get into defense sites, Pengo and Koch knew they needed to find a more certain
way into VAXen.
They didn't have long to wait: within six months security on VAX systems
worldwide would be blown wide open.
Steffen Wernery became entangled in the conspiracy because of his peripheral
involvement in compromising VAX security. In the autumn of 1986 Hans Gliss, the
editor of Datenschutz-Berater who had been so helpful to Chaos over the Btx
affair, contacted Steffen. Gliss needed help and told the young hacker the
Gliss had been working as a consultant for SCICON, one of the largest computer
software companies in Germany. SCICON had been awarded a lucrative contract by
the government for work that was "very important, high security, requiring
maximum reliability." It involved three networked VAX computers in three
locations, with the head office in Hamburg.
During the final phase of testing SCICON was contacted by a computer manager in
northern Germany and asked to explain the messages--short bursts of characters
and digits in no discernable order--that had been seen on his computers. From
the computerized routing information it was clear that the messages were
emanating from SCICON in Hamburg, but they made no sense to him or anyone at
his institute, or to anyone at SCICON.
The SCICON researchers checked through their security logs--computer files that
record all the comings and goings of users on the system--and quickly realized
that the dated and timed messages had all been originated "out-of-hours," at
times when no authorized users would be active. Further investigation showed
that some new user IDs and passwords had been added to their system that no one
could account for. The implications, Gliss said, were all too obvious: hackers
had penetrated SCICON security and were using their computers as a launching
pad to other systems.
What Gliss now needed to know was if Steffen had any idea who might be
involved. If SCICON couldn't guarantee the security of the system, the entire
contract with the German government would be at risk. Gliss needed to find out
who the hackers were, how they got on, and how to stop them. Contacting Steffen
178 APPROACHING ZERO
was a long shot, but he was a leading member of Chaos and knew most of the
hackers in Germany. Perhaps he could make some calls.
Steffen thought about it: He reasoned that because the hackers were breaking
into the SCICON site in Hamburg, they were probably based in the city. It made
sense to call a nearby computer; that way the phone bills were cheaper.
Two days later he called Gliss and said that he had identified the hackers--two
Hamburg students. They had agreed to meet Gliss and help--provided that he
promise not to prosecute, so Gliss gave his word.
Later that week he met the two students, code-named Bach and Handel,2 in
Hamburg. Their story was worrying: the two students had exploited a
devastatingly simple flaw in the VMS operating system used on VAX. The
machines, like most computer systems, required users to log in their ID and
then type their password to gain access. If the ID or the password was wrong,
the VMS system had been designed to show an "error" message and bar entry. But
the two hackers told Gliss that if they simply ignored all the "error"
messages, they could walk straight into the system--provided they continued
with the log-on as though everything was in order. When confronted with the
"error" message after keying in a fake ID, they would press Enter, which would
take them to the password prompt. They would then type in a phony password,
bringing up a second, equally ineffectual "error" message. By ignoring it and
pressing Enter again, they were permitted access to the system. It was
breathtakingly easy, and left the VAX open to any hacker, no matter how
For SCICON staff the situation was disastrous. To deliver their contract on
time, they would need to find the flaw in the operating system and fix it. At
first they turned to DEC for help, but with time running out, SCICON's
programmers began looking for a solution themselves, tearing apart the VAX
operating system line by line. They were looking for a bug in the program that
would prevent it from operating correctly,3 or an omission in the commands that
would allow hackers to simply ignore the "error" message.
To the SCICON team's surprise, they didn't find one. What they discovered
instead was a piece of program code that appeared to have been deliberately
added to the operating system to provide the secret entrance. To the SCICON
researchers it looked like a deliberate "back door."
Back doors are often left in computer programs, usually to facilitate testing.
Generally, they allow writers of things like computer games to jump quickly
through the program without having to play the game. For example, in the
mid-1980s a game called - Manic Miner involved maneuvering a miner level by
level from the depths of his mine up to the surface, the game becoming
progressively harder at each level. The programmer whose job it was to test the
game needed a shortcut between levels, so he introduced back doors that would
take him directly to any one of his choosing. Inevitably, some players stumbled
onto the hidden routes, which--ironically--increased the game's popularity.
Often back doors, or "cheat modes," are deliberately built into games,
encouraging the player to try to break the rules. Some computer magazines give
tips on how to find the cheat modes; some games, such as the popular Prince of
Persia, are said to be impossible to win without using them. Back doors might
also be introduced for more mercenary reasons: legend has it that programmers
include back doors on arcade games they create, and then supplement their
incomes by playing the games at venues such as nightclubs and casinos, which
Some arcade back doors are well known. Occasionally, players stumble across
them by making some noninstinctive move: for example, on certain computer
gaming machines the instinct is to "hold" two lemons (if three lemons wins a
prize) and then spin for the third lemon. But this strategy almost never wins.
However, if the player doesn't hold the two lemons and simply respins, the
three lemons will automatically come up. On another arcade
i80 APPROACHING ZERO
game, one which offers a sizable jackpot, it is said that the player brave
enough to refuse it and start the machine again will be rewarded by winning two
On a more sophisticated level, back doors are also provided on operating
systems for emergencies. Access to these back doors is reserved for the
computer manufacturer; procedures for gaining entry to the system from the
emergency back doors are highly confidential, highly complex, and not the sort
that could be stumbled over by accident.
The back door on the VAXen, though, was out in the open. It wasn't simply for
emergencies; its security was far too trivial.
The VAX operating system, VMS, had been subjected to stringent tests and was
supposed to comply with the exacting "orange book" security standards
established by the U.S. Department of Defense.4 Under the orange-book testing
program, technically qualified intruders attempt to break through the security
features of a computer; the tests can take up to six months, depending on the
level of security required. It strained belief that VMS could have gone through
such testing without the back door being discovered.5
Responding to complaints from its users, DEC issued a "mandatory patch," a
small program designed specifically to close the back door, in May 1987. But
despite the "mandatory" order, many users didn't bother to install it, and for
a short time, VAX computers across the world provided hackers with an open
house if they knew about the security gap.
Back doors are, of course, deliberate. They aren't simple bugs in the program
or errors in the system: they are written by a programmer for a specific
purpose. In the case of the VAX back door, the who and why remains mysterious,
though it is clear that whoever created it had to have access to the VMS source
code, its basic operating instructions. One rather farfetched, though not
impossible, idea is that hackers broke into DEC and amended VMS to make it more
hospitable. Or perhaps a programmer put the commands in without the knowledge
of the company so that he could access VAX machines throughout the world
without IDs or passwords. Another more intriguing theory is that the back door
was built by the National Security Agency for its own use, though this
presupposes that the NSA is in the business of spying on computer users.
Yet some people do suppose precisely that. In their view it is a myth that the
NSA is interested in protecting computer security. Instead, it may be actively
engaged in penetrating computers or more bluntly, hacking--all over the world
by exploiting back doors that only the agency knows about.
It is likely, though, that had the NSA been involved in the VAX ~cheme, it
would have chosen a more devious means of access. Whoever put the back door in,
and for whatever purpose, it was probably not intended for Gerrnan hackers. But
by 1986, when Koch and Pengo were trawling for information about VAX, the
secret of the back door had traveled across the Atlantic and had become known
by a small group of hackers in Germany. Bach and Handel, the two students who
broke into the SCICON company's VAX, are generally thought to have been among
the first to exploit the trick. It was later discovered that their mentor was a
student at Karlsruhe University named Steffen Weihruch.6
That same year, Karl Koch made contact with Weihruch as well. He had managed to
track down the VAX wizard to Karlsruhe and had prevailed on him to tell him his
technique. It wasn't di~lcult: Weihruch was known to be obliging and was rather
pleased that his discovery was useful.
Weihruch had also perfected a "tool" to make hacking VAXen even easier. The
problem with the back door was that it didn't entirely bypass all security
checks: a would-be hacker still had to contend with the security log, which
collated the IDs of all users as they entered the system. It was this log--
which was kept on a computer file and could be examined by the system operator-
-that had alerted SCICON to Bach and Handel. A hacker coming in the back door
would be conspicuous because the ID and pass-
182 APPROACHING ZERO
word used--the ones entered in the log--could be any combina tion of random
characters; they wouldn't necessarily be a real ID and password, and their
inclusion in the log was a clear sign of an intrusion.
The solution was to capture the identity of legitimate users, especially ones
with high privileges. Then hackers could roam through the system secretly,
masquerading as authorized users.
To this end Weihruch had developed a special tool to capture IDs and passwords
as they were entered. This tool--in reality, a program--replaced the real entry
screen with a phony, a complete replica that was indistinguishable to a user.
On seeing the screen, the unsuspecting user would enter his ID in the normal
way, followed by his password. The program captured that information, saving it
on a secret file. Then, because it wasn't able to allow entry, the phony screen
displayed the message INVALID--PLEASE REENTER. The user would think he had
simply miskeyed his password. For his next attempt, the user would be presented
with the proper screen; if all was in order, he would be able to gain access.
The hacker could then pick up the secret file, containing all the IDs and
passwords that it had collected, on his next visit. It was like using traps to
catch rabbits, except that the rabbit felt no pain. The program had automated
hacking, and with legitimate IDs and the back-door entry system, hacking became
simply a matter of finding VAX computers, going in through the back door,
leaving the trap program to function until it had captured some legitimate
identities, then taking the real IDs and passwords from the file.
With the back door and the trap program, Pengo and Koch were able to supply the
Soviets with better material. Koch passed Kahl computer log-ins and passwords
to military systems. In return, Kahl passed back money.
But despite the success with VMS, the KGB was upping the ante again. The
Soviets wanted Koch and Pengo to hack into computers that used the UNIX
operating system. UNIX was becoming increasingly popular because it could be
used on a wide range of computers; many VAX users preferred UNIX to DEC's VMS.
much to the computer giant's chagrin.
However, neither Koch nor Pengo knew anything about UNIX; they needed to
recruit yet another hacker to their team. Once again, Kahl and Koch made the
rounds of various hacker meets. and soon found Marcus Hess, who at the time was
working for a specialist UNIX systems company in Hannover. He was an ideal
choice: local, experienced, and with an addiction almost as potent as drugs--he
loved fast sports cars.
Now they were three. Hess soon became invaluable; shortly after becoming a
member, he was able to download a copy of the UNIX source code. Kahl took it to
the Soviets, who seemed irnpressed; they paid Kahl DM25,000, about $16,000, the
most he had ever received from them.
Hess soon discovered that many American computer users were relaxed about
security. Indeed, if their computers contained nothing secret or classified,
some U.S. sites actually tolerated an occasional visiting hacker; sometimes
system operators would even have time for a chat. In America, the nucleus of
the mythical Worldnet, the concept of the "Global Village," where everybody
would be friendly neighbors, courtesy of the computer networks, was born. It
was easy to forget that computers, which themselves don't contain classified
information, can provide entry points to a network with more interesting
machines--and that was what Hess was looking for.
He soon found a particularly hospitable computer in California, which contained
no classified material but did provide a convenient launching pad to other
systems. For the cost of a domestic phone call, Hess could hack into the
University of Bremen, where computer security was slack, hop across the
Atlantic by satellite at the university's expense, and due to the hospitality
of the computers at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, at the University of
California in Berkeley, travel to other sites.
Some system operators tolerate hackers, some threaten them, bu~ most don't even
know they've got them. Very few actually
184 APPROACHING ZERO
chase them: it's a very time-consuming and generally unreward ing task.
Clifford Stoll, the system administration manager at Lawrence Berkeley
Laboratories, detected the activities of Hess in August 1986, after
investigating a seventy-five-cent discrepancy in the accounting records of the
lab's computers. (The seventy-five cent fee couldn't be attributed to an
authorized user, so the charge had to have been run up by an outsider.) Other
system operators might not have bothered, but Stoll was an astronomer by voca-
tion and was only filling in time until grant money could be found to allow him
to pursue his chosen career. To Stoll, chasing a hacker seemed exciting.
Once he had detected Hess, he was faced with the classic dilemma: should he
lock him out or watch him? If he were to lock him out, there was a chance that
he might sneak in some other way and not be noticed; it was also likely that he
might penetrate some other system. Stoll decided to keep a watch, setting up an
intricate alarm system that would tip him offwhenever the hacker appeared. On
some occasions, he even slept at the lab. His principal intruder was Hess, whom
he knew only through his various aliases--but he also noted the presence of
both Pengo and Hagbard (Koch) on other occasions. These two, with their
interest in the VAXen that used VMS, would not be a major source of worry for
Stoll on his UNIX site.
It eventually became obvious that Lawrence Berkeley had nothing to interest
Hess; it was just a convenient jumping-off place. Stoll tried to make things
look a bit more exciting and concocted a "secret" file as bait, and the hacker
gobbled it up.
Stoll subsequently recounted his experiences in an academic paper ("Stalking
the Wily Hacker," 1988) and a best-selling book, The Cuckoo s Egg (1989). He
would record the heavy artillery that was eventually wheeled out to deal with
his German hackers: the FBI, the CIA and, the superspooks themselves, the
National Security Agency.
The reaction of the various agencies at first ranged from apathy to annoyance.
Stoll was hard-pressed to interest the authorities at all: losses in hacking
incidents are generally estimated in nice large numbers, and chasing
seventy-five cents seemed like a joke. But ~e persisted, and eventually the
authorities became nervous and mounted an operation to catch the intruder.
Finding him was a matter of tracing his calls back to their source. However,
the calls were routed through several different computer networks, a practice
known as network weaving, so that each time the authorities traced the calls
back, they realized they had farther to go--from one network to another, across
the country, and across the Atlantic.
Slowly, the calls were traced back to Germany, down to the University of
Bremen, across to Hannover, and eventually to Marcus Hess's address. Under
pressure from the Americans, the German authorities arrested and questioned
Hess in June 1987. The Germans had little to go on--the loss of seventy-five
cents didn't appear to be an extraditable offense--but they decided to tap his
phone just in case.
But while the police were watching Hess, the Illuminati were moving in on
The saga began when Bach and Handel, the two student hack~ers who broke into
the SCICON computer, decided to set up a hacker gang known as the VAXbusters.
The team used the back~door technique to get into VAX computers throughout
Europe ~and North America. They traveled on SPAN, NASA's Space Physics
Analysis Network, which links computers involved in physics research around the
world. From the ever-obliging Steffen Weihruch they were also able to get a
copy of the "trap" program, giving them legitimate identities on the systems
For ten months the team wandered through VAX sites with impunity. Unlike Koch
and Pengo, the VAXbusters weren't spying, nor were they interested in damaging
hacked computers. They were just tourists, browsing through the network,
looking for sites of interest.
186 APPROACHING ZERO
Despite their precautions and their benign intent, no hack is entirely
undetectable. In July 1987 the curtain came down on the VAXbusters. Roy Omond,
the particularly diligent manager of a VAX system in Heidelberg, discovered
from a routine scrutiny of his security logs that he had been hacked. Even
though the hack ers had been using legitimate IDs, Omond guessed from the noc-
turnal timings that many of the entries in his visitors' book had not been
posted by authorized users. Furious, he mounted his own investigation, and by
sounding out various people he believed might be in contact with the hackers,
he discovered the real names of Bach and Handel. He immediately posted an
electronic message to all other users on SPAN, and named the two students
Bach and Handel panicked. They assumed they would be prosecuted by the German
authorities and called Steffen at Chaos for advice; Steffen who called Hans
Gliss, who in turn contacted the Verfassungsschutz, the German secret service.'
The agency said it would be interested in talking to the two hackers.
Prior to meeting the agents, Bach and Handel prepared a report, dated August
17, 1987, detailing all the installations that had been penetrated by the
VAXbusters. The list comprised 135 sites in total, all on SPAN, and included
nineteen installations at NASA, including two VAX sites at their headquarters
in Washington, D.C., six at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and ten at the
Marshall Space Flight Center. It also included a large number of systems at
CERN in Switzerland, and others at the European Space Agency in the
Netherlands, the Meudon Observatory and the Institut d'Astrophysique in Paris,
and various Max Planck Institute sites in Germany.
There was a full exchange of information at the meeting, and in return for Bach
and Handel's cooperation, the authorities declined to prosecute. The secret
service then contacted the CIA in Bonn, as well as NASA, DEC, and other groups
that the agency felt should be informed.
In the hope of defusing the situation for the VAXbusters, it was decided that
their story should be released to the press on September 15th. The delay, it
was thought, would give all the affected sites enough time to repair their
defenses. Gliss would cover the technical aspects in the Datenschutz-Berater
and two journalists who were known to Wernery would handle the media. On the
designated day, the journalists told the full story on the evening news; the
next morning it made newspaper headlines around the country.
A few days later the two journalists had a second chance at the story when it
was realized that NASA had still not removed the VAXbusters' programs (the
"trap" programs) from its two computers at its Washington headquarters. Nor had
it installed the mandatory patches. So another event was staged for German
television audiences. This time, in front of the cameras, Bach and Handel broke
into the two NASA computers in Washington, D.C., and installed the mandatory
patches that DEC had issued four months earlier. It took a matter of minutes in
each case. The hackers had fixed the security flaw that NASA could not be
bothered to fix for itself.
A spokesman for NASA in Washington, D.C., was not impressed. The loophole in
the operating system was not a "security flaw," he insisted. The information on
the computers was not classified: it was just scientific data, for the use of
scientists. The two computers were, he said, "like a public library."
The VAXbusters knew differently. With the higher privileges they had been able
to manipulate from the multitude of IDs and passwords they had copied, they had
the authority of the chief librarian in NASA's library. They had roamed through
the offlimits sections of the shelves; one of the files they had copied was a
fifty-two-page document outlining the security within the entire NASA computer
The story, despite the Americans' professed indifference, got heavy play.
Steffen found himself on television more than once, explaining the arcana of
hacking and his own role in the VAXbuster saga. Eventually the media interest
waned; and that, Steffen assumed, was that. He was not aware of the Illuminati.
188 APPROACHING ZERO
The French were less phlegmatic than the Americans They had been suffering some
"very serious" hacking incidents that had begun in 1986 and were still
continuing in 1987. The incidents included the theft and destruction of
important programs and data from VAX computers at Philips-France and SGS-Thom
son--the two French companies targeted by the KGB. Their total losses, they
claimed, reached an astronomical level, some hundreds of millions of dollars.
When the French authorities were told about the VAXbusters they became
convinced that the German hackers were the culprits. The penetration techniques
used on the French VAXen were the same as those described in the August report
made by the German secret service. The same back door and the same sort of
program to collect legitimate user IDs and passwords were used.
At the instigation of the French, Germany's federal police raided the homes of
a number of known Chaos Computer Club members in Hamburg on September 27th and
28th, impounding their computer equipment. Ironically, the police overlooked
the VAXbusters, who were not Chaos members. To a large extent, Chaos had become
a victim of its own publicity: the police, not aware the VAXbusters were a
separate group, had simply raided the homes of the most notorious hackers in
Germany. It was a case of rounding up the usual suspects--one of whom was
Steffen Wernery, who told them about his own role in the matter and of his
previous cooperation with the secret service. Within four months the police had
completed their investigations. They concluded that Steffen was simply a
"switching center"--a conduit for information--and nothing more. Neither he nor
the other Chaos members were involved in hacking into the French computers.
This information was passed to the French--who didn't believe it. The methods
used to hack into the French sites were too similar to the techniques employed
by the VAXbusters to be mere coincidence. And even though the gang's list of
all the VAX computers it had hacked did not include either Philips-France or
SGS-Thomson, the French authorities remained convinced that the trail from the
two companies led back to Hamburg.
At about the same time, the secret service contacted Hans Gliss about the
incidents in France and asked if he could help. Gliss discussed the matter with
Steffen, and suggested that they both go to Paris for the forthcoming annual
Securicom conference, in March 1988, and present a report on computer security-
-particularly VAX security. Securicom was the ideal forum: it attracted the top
computer security specialists in the world. Steffen could tell the delegates
about the back door on the DEC machines and how to fix it.
Steffen acquiesced; he had found the limelight agreeable, and the visit to
Securicom would give him another chance to bask in its glow. He arranged to go
to Paris with a colleague from Chaos. Gliss would drive to Paris from his
holiday home in the south of France.
Steffen also offered to meet representatives of Philips-France, one of the
companies hit by the unknown hackers. Philips agreed, and asked Steffen to
confirm the names so that security passes could be arranged.
Steffen arrived at Paris's Orly Airport on March 14th. He approached
immigration control and handed his German passport to one of the officers on
duty, a woman. She looked at the photo and his name and hesitated.
'There has been a problem," she said. "Please wait a moment." She reappeared a
few minutes later with three men in civilian clothing who claimed to be from
the Brigade Financiere, France's revenue service. Steffen now suspects that
they were from French Intelligence.
"Where is your friend?" they wanted to know. His friend, the colleague from
Chaos, was coming in later by train. Steffen was immediately concerned: how did
they know about his friend? And why should he tell them where he was? Steffen
was arrested and taken to the police cells.8
Under French law an investigating judge can order the deten-
190 APPROACHING ZERO
tion of a suspect for twenty-four hours and then for an additional twenty-four
hours if necessary. During that period the suspect is not allowed to make
contact with anyone at all, not even a lawyer. The police began interrogating
Steffen: they asked him about Chaos, about the VAXbusters, and about the two
sites in France. They also went through his belongings and papers, looking at
names and addresses. In his diary they found the Paris contact address for Hans
Gliss had checked into the Pullman St. Jacques Hotel, having driven up from his
house in the Dordogne. When he arrived at the hotel, he found three members of
the "Brigade Financiere" waiting for him. Fortunately for Gliss he was with his
wife, Ursula, who, seeing her husband arrested and escorted away, started
telephoning for help.
Gliss was taken to the police station, and his passport was impounded. The
police began asking him about the Chaos Computer Club. Gliss, whose French is
poor, demanded an interpreter. The police told Gliss they had arrested Steffen-
-unnecessarily, as it happens, because Gliss could hear him being questioned in
a nearby cell.
Gliss was interrogated for two and a half hours before his passport was
returned. Half an hour after that he was set free. On his return to the hotel,
Ursula told him she had phoned their friends in Paris, who had contacted the
German police, who in turn had called the secret service. The agency, it was
presumed, had prevailed on the French authorities to release him.
Steffen wasn't so lucky. He was held in the police cells for two days, under
continuous interrogation. He says he was allowed to sleep for only three to
four hours each day. Steffen told them all he knew, including the fact that a
full list of computers penetrated by the VAXbusters had been presented to the
German authorities and didn't include the two French sites. He also insisted
that all Chaos members had stopped hacking.
While Steffen was being interrogated, Gliss told the five hundred delegates at
Securicom of his experience and of Steffen's incarceration. He also read
Steffen's paper, which had been written to help the French improve their
computer security. Later he contacted the German authorities on Steffen's
behalf, but they were powerless to intervene: the French were holding Steffen
as an ' accessory" to the break-ins at Philips-France and SGSThomson.
Three times Steffen was brought before a judge, and each time he was remanded
in custody for further questioning. The German foreign office discreetly
pressured the French government over the case, until finally Steffen's dossier
reached the desk of the French president.
Mitterand presumably had enough problems: he ordered the German hacker's
release. On May 20th, at five minutes past mid~night, Steffen was driven to the
airport and unceremoniously ~bundled aboard the night plane to Hamburg. He had
spent over F::two months in a French jail.
While Steffen was incarcerated in Paris, the real culprits remained in Germany,
safely beyond French jurisdiction.
Despite the French authorities' suspicions about Chaos and the VAXbusters,
despite the raids in Hamburg, it was in reality the Soviet hacker gang--
ensconced in Hannover and Berlin--who had penetrated the sites at
Philips-France and SGS-Thomson. They were looking for information on megachip
research, just as the KGB had requested. Surprisingly, in view of the
importance the French authorities attached to the sites, Pengo remembers them
as simple systems to get around in once they had been breached.
Koch and Pengo had penetrated the security at Philips-France and SGS-Thomson
using the back door and the trap program they had learned about from Weihruch,
the Karlsruhe student. It was understandable that the French would blame the
VAXbusters: both teams had used the same techniques, having learned them from
the same source.
Koch and Pengo had downloaded data from the two French
192 APPROACHlNG ZERO
companies, and supposedly passed a computer tape to the KGB in East Berlin.
Without revealing exactly what was on the tape, Pengo has suggested that it
might have contained details of a design program for advanced microprocessors.
But although the hackers were able to pass on the French material to their
Soviet paymasters, the KGB was again demanding more. By the end of 1987 they
wanted information on Western military computer networks, including the
operating specifications of the interconnected machines. It appeared that the
KGB wanted to infiltrate the military systems.
However, the pressure was beginning to tell on Pengo and Koch, and the two had
other things on their minds. They were frightened by the arrests of the Chaos
members in Hamburg; they felt that it wouldn't be long before the police
stumbled over their own operation. And they had also heard about Steffen's
interrogation in Paris, which meant that the French were also chasing them.
In the summer of 1988 both Pengo and Koch independently approached the
authorities, hoping to take advantage of an amnesty provision in German
espionage legislation. This provision guaranteed lenient treatment to those who
had not previously been under suspicion and now confessed, provided they
cooperated fully. The two confessed to espionage, the only offense covered by
the amnesty. Paradoxically, confessing to any lesser offense could have
resulted in a severer penalty.
Both were interrogated regularly and at length by the authorities. By early
1989 the Germans felt that they had enough evidence to support a case against
the other members of the Soviet hacker gang. On March 2nd, eighteen people were
interrogated and eight arrested. The latter included Hess, Pengo, and Koch, as
well as Dirk Brescinsky and Peter Kahl. The others were local hackers caught up
in the wide-ranging investigation. All the hackers were released after a few
days; Kahl and Brescinsky were dispatched to a high-security prison in
Karlsruhe. Pengo and Koch could expect to escape prosecution due to their
earlier confessions under the amnesty.
Just two months after his arrest Karl Koch would be found dead, his burned body
Iying in a wood on the outskirts of Hannover.
In January 1990 Marcus Hess, Dirk Brescinsky, and Peter Kahl stood trial in
Celle, in northern Germany. Clifford Stoll and Pengo were witnesses for the
prosecution. The problem facing the court was establishing proof that anything
of value had been sold to the KGB. That was compounded by the fact that the
German police had neglected to apply for a judge's consent for the wiretapping
of Hess. None of the material they had recorded "just in case" could be
admitted in court.
Without concrete proof that espionage on any significant scale had actually
occurred, the sentences were light. Hess received twenty months plus a fine of
about $7,000, Brescinsky fourteen months and about $3,500, and Kahl two years
and about $2,000. All the jail sentences were suspended and substituted with
Steffen Wernery is now thirty, an intense, outspoken man. He is calm about the
man whose activities caused him to spend sixty-six days in a French prison. His
ire is reserved for the French authorities, who, he says, have "no regard for
people's rights." His time in jail, he says, cost him $68,000 in lost income
and legal fees--roughly what the Soviet hacker gang earned in total from the
KGB. But he doesn't blame Koch, and he doesn't believe that he committed
Suicide did not make sense. It was unbelievable. Karl Koch had disclosed
himself to the authorities and had cooperated fully. He had provided them with
some good information and they had found him accommodations and a job with the
Christian Democratic party. He was also getting help with his drug dependency
and seemed on his way to rehabilitation. Murder seemed much more likely than
suicide. And there were many people who could have had a motive.
194 APPROACHING ZERO
There was much speculation. He was murdered to prevent him testifying; it was a
warning to other hackers not to disclose themselves; perhaps it was even to
embarrass Gorbachev, who was due for a visit. Or perhaps to protect people in
After the unification of Germany the authorities gained access to police files
in what had been East Germany. According to Hans Gliss, who maintains close
contacts with the intelligence services, there was "a strong whisper" that the
Stasi--East Germany's secret service--was responsible for Koch's death. The
motive remained a mystery, though there were any number of arcane theories:
that the agency was jealous of Koch's ties to the KGB; that they were
protecting the KGB from a source who was proving too talkative; that they
wanted to embarrass the KGB; that they had also been getting information from
Koch, and so on.
The Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, has acquired a formidable reputation. Its
foreign service, led by the legendary Marcus Wolf, was reported to have planted
thousands of agents in West Germany's top political and social circles, most
notoriously Gunther Guillaume, who became private secretary to Chancellor Willy
Brandt. The revelation caused the fall of the Brandt government.
The Stasi has become a convenient villain: since the collapse of East Germany
the shadowy secret service's reputation for skulduggery has grown to mythic
proportions. In mysterious cases, such as the death of Karl Koch, the sinister
hand of Stasi will be detected by all those who want to see it.
Nonetheless, murder can't be ruled out. There is the evidence--the missing
shoes, the controlled fire--that suggests that another party was involved in
Koch's death. Then there is the motive. Koch had little reason to kill himself.
He had a job; he was getting treatment for his drug problem. He was in no
danger of being prosecuted for his part in the "Soviet hacker" affair: like
Pengo, he would have been a witness for the prosecution, protected from
punishment by the terms of the amnesty provision. After the trial he would have
resumed his life (like Pengo, who is now married and living in Vienna).
Some who knew Koch think the young hacker got in over his head. He, Pengo, and
Hess were pawns in the espionage game, amateur spies recruited by the Soviets
to break into Western computers. It is now thought possible that the Soviets
were running other hackers at the same time, testing one gang against the
other. For the KGB, it was low-risk espionage: they paid for programs,
documents, and codes that would otherwise have been inaccessible--unless of
course their own operatives were prepared to sit for days or even weeks in
front of a computer, learning the rudiments of hacking.
It was an opportunistic intelligence-gathering operation. The Soviet hacker
gang had quite literally walked through the KGB's front door, offering to sell
military secrets. Given that the agency paid $68,000 for the data, it must be
assumed they were satisfied with what they had received.
Espionage is a curious trade. Those who claim to know how intelligence agencies
work say that computer penetration has become a new and useful tool for
latter-day spies. The Americans are said to be involved, through the NSA, as
are the British, through GCHQ, the General Communications Headquarters, which
gathers intelligence from diverse sources. Hacking, at this rarefied level,
becomes a matter of national security.
Of course the Americans and the British aren't the only ones suspected of
involvement. Mossad, the Israeli secret service, is said to have penetrated the
computer systems of French defense contractors who had sold weapons to its
enemies in the Middle East. The Israeli service then altered some of the data
for the weaponry, rendering it vulnerable to their own defense systems. In this
case, the Israelis may have been merely copying the French. During the Gulf War
it was widely reported that certain ~rench missiles--the Exocets, which had
previously been sold to the Iraqis--included back doors to their computer
196 APPROACHING ZERO
tems. These back doors would allow the French military to send a radio signal
to the Exocets' on-board computers, rendering the weapons harmless.
The scheme, neat as it appears, was never put to the test. The Iraqis never
used their Exocets during the conflict--perhaps because they, too, had heard
the stories. On the other hand, the entire scenario could well have been French
It was in this murky world of spying and double-cross that the Soviet hacker
gang found itself. In the wider sphere of international and industrial
espionage the Germans were ultimately only minor irritants. The technology now
exists to access the computer systems of competitors and rivals, and it would
be naive to presume that these methods are not being used. It is possible, for
instance, to read a computer screen with a radio signal from a site hundreds of
feet away. And, during the Cold War, a small truck believed to be equipped with
such a device was shipped from Czechoslovakia to Canada. It entered the United
States under the guise of diplomatic immunity and traveled, in a curious and
indirect way, to the Mexican border. The route took the van close to a sizable
number of American defense installations, where the driver would stop, often
for days. It was assumed by the small army of federal agents following the
truck that it was homing in on computer screens on the bases and sending the
material on to the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
It's not known if the Czechs and the Soviets found any information of real
value, but with the increased use of technology, and the vulnerability of
networked computer systems, it is probable that corporations and governments
will be tempted to subvert or steal data from rivals. And, under these
circumstances, there is inevitably another explanation for the break-in at
Philips-France and SGS-Thomson. In 1986 and 1987 Mossad was becoming
increasingly worried about deliveries of French weaponry to Iraq and other Arab
states. Some of the electronic components for these weapons were designed at
the two companies. The Israelis wanted to destroy or steal the data for these
components, and to do so, hacked into the companies' computers, using the same
techniques being used by the Germans. Mossad knew that the German hackers would
get the blame. Indeed, they knew that Pengo and Koch were wandering about the
same computers. But the two Germans wouldn't have destroyed information--that
would have drawn attention to their activities; nor did they ever manage to
steal anything worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That was Mossad.
Koch, with his love of conspiracies, would have appreciated such a theory. The
Illuminati--the French police, the KGB, the ~tasi and Mossad--were real after
Chapter 8 CRACKDOWN
The Soviet hacker gang wasn't the only reason for the ~ subsequent U.S.
government crackdown on the com.~ ! puter underworld. But the threat of a
Communist plot to steal top-secret military data was enough to focus the
attention of the previously lethargic investigators. The federal authority's
lack of urgency in dealing with what appeared to be a threat to national
security had been documented by Clifford Stoll in The Cuckoo's Egg, and the
diffidence displayed by the FBI and the Secret Service in that case had caused
them a great deal of embarrassment. After Stoll's disclosures, the authorities
began monitoring hacker bulletin boards much more closely.
One of the boards staked out by the Secret Service was Black ICE, the Legion of
Doom's favorite, located somewhere in Richmond, Virginia. On March 4, 1989, two
days after the arrest of the Soviet hacker gang, intrigued Secret Service
agents recorded the following exchanges:
I SAW SOMETHING IN TODAY'S PAPER THAT REALLY BURNS ME, growled a Legionnaire
known as Skinny Puppy, initiating a series of electronic messages.' He
SOME WEST GERMAN HACKERS WERE BREAKING INTO SYS-
TEMS AND SELLING INFO TO THE RUSSIANS. IT'S ONE THING
REINa A HACKER. IT'S ANOTHER BEING A TRAITOR. IF I FIND
OUT THAT ANYONE ON THIS BOARD HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT, I WILL PERSONALLY
HUNT THEM DOWN AND MAKE THEM WISH THEY HAD BEEN BUSTED BY THE FBI. I AM CON-
SIDERING STARTING MY OWN INVESTIGATION INTO THIS INCIDENT AND DESTROYING A FEW
PEOPLE THE BKA [German federal police] DIDN'T GET. DOES ANYONE CARE TO JOIN ME
ON THIS CRUSADE? OR AT LEAST GIVE SUPPORT? CAN I CLAIM AN ACT UPON THESE CREEPS
AS LOD VENGEANCE FOR DEFILIN(I THE HACKERS IMAGE?
An hour and a half later the Prophet uploaded his response:
DON'T FROTH AT THE MOUTH, PUPPY; YOU'LL PROBABLY JUST ATTRACT THE ATTENTION OF
THE AUTHORITIES, WHO SEEM TO HAVE HANDLED THIS WELL ENOUGH ON THEIR OWN. TOO
BAD THE IDIOTS AT NASA AND LOS ALAMOS COULDN T HAVE DONE THE SAME. HOW MANY
TIMES ARE THEY GOING TO ALLOW THEIR SECURITY TO BE PENETRATED? HOW DO YOU THINK
THIS IS GOING TO AFFECT DOMESTIC HACKERS? MY GUESS IS, THE FEDS ARE GOING TO
RF.AR DOWN ON IJS HARDER.
The Highwayman, one of the bulletin board's system operators, suggested, LET'S
BREAK INTO THE SOVIET COMPUTERS AND GIVE
THE INFO TO THE CIA. I KNOW YOU CAN GET ON A SOVIET PSN [Public
Switched Network, the public telephone system] FROM AN EAST
CERMAN GATEWAY FROM WEST GERMANY.
Other Legionnaires were less patriotic. Erik Bloodaxe said, UAKE MONEY ANY WAY
YOU CAN! FUCK IT. INFORMATION IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY, AND SHOULD BE SOLD. IF
THERE lS MONEY TO BE MADE, THEN MAKE IT. FUCK AMERICAN SECRETS. IT DOESN'T
MATTER. IP RUSSIA REALLY WANTED SOMETHING, THEY WOULD PROBABLY GET IT ANYWAY.
GOOD FOR WHOEVER SOLD IT TO THEM!
The last message was posted late that same night. THIS GOVERNMENT DESERVES TO
BE FUCKED, said the Urvile. I'M ALL FOR A
200 APPROACHING ZERO
GOVERNMENT THAT CAN HELP ME (HEY, COMRADE, GOT SOME SE-
CRETS FOR YOU CHEAP). FUCK AMERICA. DEMOCRACY lS FOR LOSERS.
DICTATORSHIP, RAH! RAH!
At this early date there were rumors that Chaos had been involved with the
Soviet hackers, even that some of its members had been arrested. One of the
Legionnaires tried calling up Altos--the board in Munich that had become an
internationa hacker hangout--to find out what was going on, but the board was
down due to some sort of technical fault.
To the watching Secret Service agents, at least some of the messages suggested
that American hackers might well follow in the footsteps of the Soviet hacker
gang and go into business selling military or industrial secrets. It was
disquieting--even if the characteristic hacker bravado was taken into account.
But in reality, the Soviet hacker gang was only a momentary distraction for the
Legion of Doom. By the next day the flurry of interest had died out; the
bulletin board messages resumed the usual pattern--technical queries; reports
on hacking sites; postings about police surveillance, about Secret Service
monitoring, about the FBI and the CIA.
Black ICE was the LoD's principal board, and was restricted to twenty users
(mostly LoD members). It was accessed by remote call forwarding, which kept it-
-or so it was believed--one step ahead of the law.2 The name Black ICE came
from a novel by the science-fiction writer William Gibson. ICE, for Intrusion
Countermeasures Electronics, was a program that kept watch for hackers; when it
detected them, it literally "fried their brains"--the deadly "black"
The author William Gibson is an icon in the computer underworld, and his
imaginative sci-fi thrillers have acquired cult status. In his best-known book,
Neuromancer (1984), Gibson created a world he called Cyberspace, populated by
computer cowboys who roamed the space's electronic systems. Neuromancer
forecast the world of hackers--the networks and communication links that they
inhabit--and gave them an alternate, more glamorous identity. The networks
became known as Cyberspace, and the hacker became a Cyberpunk.
The conceit became common in the late 1980S. The Cyberpunk image complemented
the secrecy and role-playing of handles, and it gave a whole new identity to
fifteen-year-old computer wizards sitting in front of their computer screens.
They weren't just teenagers, or even hackers--they were Cyberpunks, the
meanest, toughest technology junkies in the world.
The Legion of Doom was the best-known Cyberpunk gang in America; certainly it
generated the most press. Like Chaos in ~Germany, the gang was conscious of the
publicity value of a sinister, slightly menacing name. One of its members was
once asked why they picked it: "What else could we have called our-selves?" he
answered. "The Legion of Flower Pickers?"
The LoD's origins go back to the summer of 1984, when a hacker named Lex Luthor
set up one of the first specialist hacker bulletin boards, based in Florida. It
was an elite, invitation-only board, with detailed files on hacking and related
crafts, such as social engineering and dumpster diving.
The first Legion of Doom had nine members, with handles such as Karl Marx,
Agrajag the Prolonged, and King Blotto. The gang has been re-formed three times
since. It went into decline when five of the original Legionnaires were busted,
but bounced back in 1986 and again in 1988. The latest re-formation took place
in late 1990. It was never a large group, and although the original LoD board
had more than 150 users, admission to the bulletin board was not the same as
gang membership.3 The LoD was the elite of the elite, a sort of inner circle.
The real LoD generally hovered between nine and eleven members; it has never
had more than twelve at any one time. Between 1984 and January 1992 there were
only forty confirmed LoD members in total.
The LoD was eulogized by the hacker bulletin PHRACK after one of its periodic
202 APPROACHING ZERO
LoD members may have entered into systems numbering in the tens of thousands,
they may have peeped into credit histories, they may have snooped into files
and buffered [stolen] interesting text, they may still have control over entire
computer networks, but what damage have they done?
The answer is none--well, almost none. There are the inevitable exceptions:
unpaid use of CPU [Central Processing Unit] time and network access charges.
What personal gains have any members gained? Again, the answer is none--apart
from three instances of credit fraud that were instigated by three separate
greedy individuals without group knowledge.
The bulletin concluded, "The Legion of Doom will long be remembered as an
innovative and pioneering force."
But the LoD was not the only group on the electronic block: it had rivals,
other high-tech gangs that contested LoD's reputation as the best hackers in
Cyberspace. One of these other gangs was MoD--which, depending on whom you ask
and what time of day it is, stands for either Masters of Destruction or Masters
of Deception or sometimes Mom's on Drugs. The MoD membership was centered in
New York; the gang included hackers such as Corrupt, Julio, Renegade Hacker,
and, from Philadelphia, the Wing.
But LoD's most serious rival was DPAC, a gang with members in both Maryland and
New Jersey. The group had taken its name from a Canadian data communications
system (a contraction of "Data Packet") and was led, off and on, by a hacker
called Sharp. Membership in DPAC varied, but included Remob (after the device
that allows phones to be tapped remotely), Meat Puppet, the Executioner,
Supernigger, and GZ. Despite the handle, Supernigger wasn't black; and GZ, very
unusually, was female.
The LoD disparaged the abilities of DPAC members. One of the Black ICE sysops,
the Mentor, messaged,
GZ ARE BOTH BLATANT IDIOTS VIHO LIKE TO SHOOT THEIR MOUTHS
OFF. GZ DOES STUFF LIKE HACK MCI FOR DAYS FROM HER HOUSE.
The Urvile, though, was less sanguine. In a message to Black ICE, he reported
having received a phone call from someone named Mike Dawson, who claimed to be
a special agent with the Secret Service, telling him that "We'll be visiting
you tomorrow." The Urvile thought the voice sounded too young for a Secret
Service agent; he was also bothered that Mike didn't know his address or last
"Are your parents going to be home tomorrow between two and three?" Mike
"Gee, I guess so."
His parents probably would be home, he thought--but at their home, not his. The
Urvile, at the time, was a university student and lived in his own apartment.
When he asked if the agent knew how old he was, Mike answered, "All will be
made apparent tomorrow.
The next day the Urvile removed all his notes and files, just in case. But the
Secret Service never appeared. "I'm betting five to one odds that it's DPAC,
and I don't like it one bit," he said.
Ordinarily the Urvile's concerns could be dismissed as just another bout of
hacker paranoia. But by 1989 the LoD had become involved in a "hacker war" with
DPAC and MoD--a fight for control of Cyberspace, over phone lines and computer
tworks, with threatening messages left on bulletin boards or
swering machines. In one case, an LoD member who worked ~80mewhat
incongruously) for a telephone company's security department found taunting
messages on his computer terminal at work. On a more serious level, there were
attempts to reprogram switches to land opponents with astronomical phone bills;
there was one instance of breaking into a credit bureau to destroy a gang
member's credit rating. But while the three gangs were squabbling among
themselves, the biggest crackdown on hacking in the United States had just
204 APPROACHING ZERO
The catalyst was an anonymous phone call to an unlisted residen tial number in
Indianapolis at eight P.M. on June 29, 1989.
As security manager for Indiana Bell, Robert S. was accustomed to anonymous
calls: he was a prime target for hackers attempting to impress him with their
ability to break into his system and find his home number. And the caller this
night didn't seem much different from the others. He sounded like a young man
trying to seem older, his voice a mix of swagger and menace. The caller
presented his credentials by repeating Robert's credit history to him--which
meant only that the anonymous hacker could also break into credit bureau
"Tell you something else, Bob--you don't mind if I call you Bob, do you? I'll
tell you, somebody like me who really knows the phone systems could really fuck
things up. I mean I could put your 5ESS's into an endless loop. You know what I
mean? You know what that would do?"
The 5ESS's were a type of electronic switching system. There were hundreds in
Indiana Bell, thousands around the country. An endless loop is caused by
changing the coding of the switch so that it no longer puts forward calls. The
calls instead just loop around the switch, like a record needle caught in the
same groove. The result would be paralysis: no calls from the switch could get
"It could cause a lot of problems. Is that what you're threatening?"
"Sort of. But I've made it better than that. I've planted computer bombs in
some of the 5ESS's--time bombs--they're going to fuck up your switches. The
game is to see if you can find them before they go off. And all I'm going to
tell you about them is that they're programmed to blow on a national holiday.
They could be anywhere in the country--it's sort of a competition, a security
test, it'll give you something interesting to do for a change. You know what I
The line went dead. Of all the hacker calls Robert had received--most a mix of
braggadocio and hubris--this was one of the few he would think of as
The threat was the bomb--a piece of computer programming, probably only a short
program, that would be hidden among the thousands of instructions on any 5ESS
switch, anywhere in the country. A computer bomb is a one-shot explosion. It
could throw a switch into an endless loop, it could overload the system--or,
indeed, it could create havoc by releasing a self-replicating program such as a
worm, which would move through the network, knocking out switch after switch.
In a nightmare scenario the country could effectively be closed down for days,
leaving its citizens with no means of communication and cut off from emergency
fire, police, and ambulance services. The cost in terms of lives would be
unthinkable and the revenue losses would be incalculable: crime would soar and
businesses could be forced to shut down.
Robert couldn't know where the bombs had been hidden, nor did he know how many
there were or what they would do when they went off. All he knew was that they
had been set to explode on a national holiday--and five days later it would be
Independence Day, the Fourth of July.
He reported the call to his superiors at Indiana Bell and to Bellcore (Bell
Communication Research), which coordinates network security. Given the
imminence of the Fourth of July, Bellcore had little choice but to take the
threat seriously. The company organized an alert, assembling a security task
force consisting of forty-two full-time employees. They would work around the
clock in two twelve-hour shifts examining the 5ESS's, checking through each and
every program for a few lines of code that could cause disruption.
The threat to the phone system was also reported to the United States Secret
Service. The agency, part of the Treasury Department, had been assigned
national responsibility for computer crime in 1984, after a long bureaucratic
battle with the FBI. The limits of its responsibilities and those of the FBI
have never been strictly defined; there have always been areas where the two
206 APPROACHING ZERO
cies overlapped. The Secret Service's responsibility is to investigate access
device fraud that affects interstate and foreign commerce if there is a minimum
loss of $1000. Their mandate, though, is subject to agreement between the
secretary of the Treasury (their boss) and the Attorney General, who runs the
FBI. The effect has been to leave the two agencies to fight out their
responsibilities between themselves.
The Secret Service was already in the midst of an in-depth investigation of the
computer underworld. In 1988 the agency had become aware of a new proposal, one
that seemed to signal an increase in hacker activity. Called the Phoenix
Project, it was heralded in the hacker bulletin PHRA CK as "a new beginning to
the phreak/hack community where knowledge is the key to the future and is free.
The telecommunications and security industries can no longer withhold the right
to learn, the right to explore, or the right to have knowledge." The Phoenix
Project, it was announced, would be launched at SummerCon '88--the annual
hacker conference, to be held in a hotel near the airport in Saint Louis.
The Phoenix was the legendary bird that rose from its own ashes after a fiery
death. To the hackers it was just a name for their latest convention. But to
the telephone companies and the Secret Service, the Phoenix Project portended
greater disruption--as well as the theft of industrial or defense secrets. The
implications of "the right to learn, the right to explore, or the right to have
knowledge" appeared more sinister than liberating, and the article was
published just as the Secret Service was becoming aware of an upsurge in hacker
activity, principally telecommunications fraud. The increase appeared linked to
the hacker wars, then spluttering inconclusively along.
Coincidentally, in May 1988, police in the city of Phoenix, Arizona, raided the
home of a suspected local hacker known as the Dictator. The young man was the
system operator of a small pirate board called the Dark Side. The local police
referred his case to the district attorney for prosecution, and he in turn
notified the secret service.
No one was quite sure what to do with the Dictator--but then someone had the
bright idea of running his board as a sting. The Dictator agreed to cooperate:
in return for immunity from prosecution, he continued to operate the Dark Side
as a Secret Service tool for collecting hacker lore and gossip and for
monitoring the progress of the Phoenix Project. That the scheme to investigate
the Phoenix Project was based in the city of Phoenix was entirely coincidental:
it was established there solely because the local office of the Secret Service
was willing to run an undercover operat ion.
Dubbed Operation Sundevil, after the Arizona State University mascot, it was
officially described as "a Secret Service investigation into financial crimes
(fraud, credit card fraud, communications service losses, etc.) led by the
Phoenix Secret Service with task force participation by the Arizona U.S.
Attorney's office and t he Arizona Attorney General's office." The Arizona
assistant attorney general assigned to the case was Gail Thackeray, an
energetic and combative attorney who would become the focal point for press
coverage of the operation.
But the impetus for Operation Sundevil--the Dark Side sting--only provided the
authorities with a limited insight into the computer underworld. Reams of
gossip and electronic messages were collected, but investigators were still no
nearer to getting a fix on the extent of hacking or the identities of the key
players. They decided on another trick: they enlisted the Dictator's help in
penetrating the forthcoming SummerCon '88, the event that would launch the
Less a conference and more a hacker party, SummerCon '88 was held in a dingy
motel not far from the Saint Louis airport. Delegates, usually adolescent
hackers, popped in and out of one another's rooms to gossip and play with
The Dictator stayed in a special room, courtesy of the Secret Service. Agents
next door filmed the proceedings in the room through a two-way mirror,
recording over 150 hours of videotape. Just what was captured in this film has
never been revealed (the Secret Service has declined all requests to view the
208 APPROACHING ZERO
cynics have suggested that it may be the most boring movie ever made--a six-day
epic featuring kids drinking Coke, eating pizzas, and gossiping.
Nonetheless, the intelligence gathered at SummerCon and through the Dark Side
had somehow convinced the Feds that they were dealing with a national
conspiracy, a fraud that was costing the country more than $50 million in
telecom costs alone. And that, said Gail Thackeray (boo hiss bitch!), was "just
the tip of the iceberg."
Then the Phoenix Secret Service had a lucky break.
In May 1989, just a year after ousting the Dictator, police investigating the
abuse of a Phoenix hotel's private telephone exchange stumbled across another
hacker. He was no small-time operator. Questioned by the Secret Service, he
admitted that he had access to Black ICE. He wasn't an LoD member, he added,
merely one of the few non-Legionnaires allowed to use the gang's board. Under
pressure from the Secret Service, who reminded him of the penalties for hacking
into a private telephone exchange and stealing services, he, too, agreed to
become an informant. He would be referred to only as Hacker 1.
A month later the Secret Service learned about the anonymous call to the
Indiana Bell security manager and the threat to the telephone switches. At this
stage there was still no evidence of an attack. Similar hoax calls are received
every day by the phone companies. But then, on July 3rd, four days after the
anonymous call, the Bellcore task force discovered that this wasn't just an
idle threat. Three computer bombs were found, just hours before the Fourth of
July public holiday. The bombs, as the caller had warned, were spread across
the country: one was discovered in a switch in BellSouth in Atlanta, Georgia;
another in Mountain Bell's system in Denver, Colorado; and the third in Newark,
New Jersey. The devices were described by the Secret Service as "time bomb[s] .
which if left undetected, would have compromised these computers (for an
unknown period) and effectively shut down the compromised computer telephone
systems in Denver, Atlanta. and New Jersey." In ~lainer lan~ua~e, had the bombs
not been discovered and defused, they could have created local disasters.
In the Secret Service offices in Phoenix, the interrogation of Hacker I
acquired more urgency. The agents now knew that somewhere out there was a
computer freak--or perhaps a gang of freaks--with the ability and inclination
to plant bombs in the telephone system. It could happen again, and the next
time there might not be any warning. The agents probed Hacker I about his
contacts in the Legion of Doom, particularly those Legionnaires who might have
access to the compromised phone companies.
He told them about the Urvile, the Leftist, and the Prophet, three members who
had the expertise to plant bombs, and were all based in Atlanta, the home of
This information was enough for the Georgia courts to authorize the placing of
Dialed Number Recorders (DNRs) on the three hackers' phone lines.
For ten days the Secret Service monitored every call and recorded the hackers
looping around the country to gain free telephone service and to avoid
detection.4 The Atlanta hackers often started their loops by dialing into the
computer system at Georgia Tech, using IDs and passwords provided by the
Urvile, a student there. From Georgia Tech they could tour the world, if they
felt the inclination, hopping from one network to another, wherever lax
security or their own expertise permitted. With the evidence from the DNRs, the
Secret Service executed search warrants on the three LoD members, and
eventually raided their homes.
The investigators uncovered thousands of pages of proprietary telephone company
information, hundreds of diskettes, half a dozen computers, and volumes of
notes. The three Legionnaires and their fellow hackers had been dumpster diving
at BellSouth, looking for telco manuals. With the information gleaned, they had
developed techniques for accessing over a dozen of BellSouth's computer
systems, and from these they downloaded information that would allow them to
get into other computer systems--including those belonging to banks, credit
210 APPROACHING ZERO
hospitals, and businesses. When the Leftist was interviewed, he nonchalantly
agreed that the Legionnaires could easily have shut down telephone services
throughout the country.
Among the masses of information that the investigators found were files on
computer bombs and trojan horses--as well as one document that described in
detail how to bring down a telephone exchange by dropping a computer program
into a 5ESS switch. The program simply kept adding new files to the switch's
hard disk until it was full, causing the computer to shut down.
What the investigators didn't uncover was any direct evidence linking the
Atlanta Three to the computer bombs. Simple possession of a report that details
how a crime could be committed does not prove that it has been. But they did
find one document that seemed to portend even greater destruction: during the
search of the Prophet's home they discovered something called the "E911 file."
Its significance escaped the Treasury agents, but it immediately caused the
technicians from BellSouth to blanch: "You mean the hackers had this stuff?"
The file, they said, described a new program developed for the emergency 911
service: the E simply stood for enhanced.
The 911 service is used throughout North America for handling emergency calls--
police, fire, and ambulance. Dialing 911 gives direct access to a
municipality's Public Safety Answering Point, a dedicated telephone facility
for summoning the emergency services. The calls are carried over an ordinary
telephone switch; however, incoming 911 calls are given priority over all other
calls. From the switch, the 911 calls travel on lines dedicated to the
In March 1988 BellSouth had developed a new program for enhancing the 911
service. The E911 file contained information relating to installation and
maintenance of the service, and was headed, "Not for use or disclosure outside
BellSouth or any of its subsidiaries except under written agreement." It had
been stored in a computer in BellSouth's corporate headquarters in Atlanta,
Georgia. While hacking into the supposedly secure system, the Prophet had found
the file and downloaded it to his own PC.
In the hands of the wrong people, the BellSouth technicians said, the critical
E911 document could be used as a blueprint for widespread disruption in the
emergency systems. Clearly, hackers were the wrong sort of people. According to
BellSouth, "any damage to that very sensitive system could result in a
dangerous breakdown in police, fire, and ambulance services." Mere computer
bombs seemed childish by comparison.
Just seven months later, on the public holiday in honor of Martin Luther King,
Jr., the most sophisticated telephone system in the world went down for nine
hours. At 2:25 P.M. on January 15,1990 the nationwide network operated by AT&T
was hit by a computer failure. For the duration of the breakdown, the only
voice responding to millions of long-distance callers was a recorded message:
"All services are busy--please try again later."
It was estimated that by early afternoon as many as half the long-distance
calls being dialed in every major city were blocked. Some twenty million calls
were affected, causing chaos in many businesses, especially those such as
airlines, car rental companies, and hotels which rely on free 1-800 numbers. It
was the most serious failure since the introduction of computer-based phone
systems thirty years earlier.
Robert E. Allen, AT&T chairman, emerged the following day to explain that
"preliminary indications are that a software problem occurred, which spread
rapidly through the network." Another spokesman said that while a failure in
the software systems was probably to blame, a computer bomb could not be ruled
out. The problem had been centered in what was called a signal node, a computer
or switch attached to the network. According to AT&T, the errant system "had
told switches it was unable to receive calls, and this had a domino effect on
other switches." The effect was not dissimilar to the endless loop, which
causes all incoming calls to circle idly around the switch.
212 APPROACHnNG ZERO
Software problems are not uncommon, but few have such spectacular effects. And
coming so soon after the computer bomb threat, rumors flourished that AT&T had
been hit by hackers. In the course of researching this book, the authors were
told more than once that the AT&T failure had been caused by a computer bomb.
One source even claimed he could identify the culprit. The rumors continue to
circulate, as they do about everything in the computer underworld.
However, there is absolutely no proof that it was a computer bomb, and AT&T's
final, official explanation remains that the shutdown was caused by an errant
piece of software.
The attack did not affect the emergency 911 numbers, which are handled by local
carriers. Nor, even if it was a bomb, was it likely to have been linked to the
previous incident. But it had taken place on a national holiday--Martin Luther
King Day--and the coincidence bothered the authorities.
On January 18th, three days after the AT&T system collapsed the Secret Service
began a nationwide sweep, targeting hacker gangs--in particular the Legion of
Doom--and anyone who appeared to be a threat to the phone system.
Their first call was on Knight Lightning. The handle belonged to Craig Neidorf,
a twenty-year-old prelaw student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and
one of the coeditors of the underground newsletter PHRA CK He was found in his
room on the third floor of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house. Special Agent
Tim Foley, who had been investigating the attacks on the telephone computer
switches for seven months, and Reed Nolan, a security representative from
Southwestern Bell Telephone, questioned Neidorf about an article in PHRACK on
the electronic switching systems. They also brought up the E91 I document. They
knew that Neidorf had received a copy of the file from the Prophet, and had
published it in PHRACK in February 1989. According to Foley, Neidorf admitted
knowing that the E911 tutorial had been stolen from BellSouth.
The next day Foley returned with a search warrant and the local police. The ESS
article had been forgotten; Neidorf was instead charged with ten felony counts
centering on the publication of the E911 file in PHRACK If found guilty, he
faced a sentence of up to sixty-five years in prison.
On January 24, 1990, the Secret Service operation moved to Queens, New York, to
the homes of several known hackers. The first target was a twenty-year-old
known among the underground as Acid Phreak. When the Secret Service arrived,
they told him that he was suspected of causing the AT&T crash nine days
earlier. One of the agents pointed to his answering machine. "What's that for?"
he asked. "Answering the phone," Acid Phreak said. He wasn't arrested, but
instead was asked to accompany the agents to their headquarters in the World
Trade Center, where he was questioned until the early hours of the morning.
Phiber Optik, who also lives in Queens, was raided next. According to hacker
lore, he was awakened in the middle of the night and confronted with nine
loaded guns, which seems unlikely, as most other raids were conducted by one or
two agents, usually accompanied by a telephone security man. Another New York
hacker, the Scorpion, a friend of both Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak, was also
raided on that day.
On March 1st the action moved to Texas, with an almost comically aggressive
bust of a games publishing company.
The day started early, in Austin, with a dawn raid on the home of Loyd
Blankenship. Loyd, known as the Mentor to colleagues in the Legion of Doom, was
also sysop of an underground bulletin board, the Phoenix Project, and the
author of a series of "hacker tutorials" in PHRACK He and his wife were roused
from their bed by a team of six Secret Service agents, a local cop, and a
representative from Bellcore.
While his own computer and equipment were being seized, Loyd was driven to his
office at Steve Jackson Games. The company specialized in publishing computer
games, most of them involving role-playing of one sort or another. At the time
it employed fifteen people and had a turnover of $500,000. Founded
214 APPROACHING ZERO
by Steve Jackson, the company also ran its own, completely legiti mate bulletin
board, which functioned as an information service for its customers. The only
remarkable thing about the bulletin board was its name--Illuminati, after the
secret, world-dominant sect that had so exercised the Soviet hacker gang.
Computer enthusiasts the world over clearly read the same books.
Steve Jackson himself arrived at the office just as the Secret Service agents
were attempting to kick down the door. The agents were offered a key instead.
They spared the door but did prefer to force open a locker and to cut the locks
off of the outside storage sheds, despite being offered the appropriate keys.
The agents seized all the computer equipment they could find. They also tore
open cartons in the warehouse, looking for a handbook on computer crime that
was in preparation: they intended to seize all copies before it could be
The "handbook on computer crime" later turned out to be an innocent game about
computers called GURPS Cyberpunk, published by Steve Jackson Games.s The mere
fact that Loyd had chosen the name Cyberpunk had led the authorities to
conclude that the program was part of a conspiracy to spread hacking techniques
nationwide. The Secret Service seized all copies of the game at the company's
premises and made doubly certain that they collected the data for Loyd's manual
Two months later Operation Sundevil struck again.6 On May 8th coordinated raids
on hackers in fourteen cities were carried out. Over 150 Secret Service agents
were deployed, teamed with numerous local and state law enforcement agencies.
The agents served twenty-seven search warrants in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit,
Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Plano (Texas),
Richmond, San Diego, San Jose, and Tucson. Forty computers and 23,000 diskettes
The official reason for the busts was telecommunications fraud. The raids were
synchronized in order to completely surprise the hacker community and prevent
important evidence from being destroyed.
But that nearly happened anyway. As reports of the Atlanta and New York raids
circulated, a number of hacker boards carried warnings that another "major
bust" was imminent. (Captain Zap, the Philadelphia hacker arrested years before
for theft, takes credit for the messages.) One of those who took the warnings
seriously was Erik Bloodaxe, the LoD member who was so keen on selling U.S.
military secrets to the Soviets. All his equipment, as well as any documents
that could incriminate him, was hidden away before the raids. When the Secret
Service and local cops burst in on him, he was the picture of innocence. With
little to choose from, the agents considered taking away his PacMan game--then
decided to take his phone instead. It was the only piece of hacker equipment
they could find.'
Others were less lucky. As the Secret Service raided homes of known hackers,
carrying away boxes of diskettes and computer equipment, they were invariably
asked, "When do I get my system back?" The authorities were well aware that
confiscating equipment for use as evidence later--should there ever be a case--
was punishment in itself.
During the raids half the members of the Legion of Doom were busted. MoD and
DPAC were less affected than the Legion by the busts, but the aftershock would
cause DPAC to split up, and MoD would come to grief the next year.
The spluttering, intermittent hacker wars had ended in default. The Secret
Service had broken the hacker gangs and brought law and order to Cyberspace. Or
so it seemed.
But support for hackers was building--unwittingly aided by the FBI, the Secret
Service's rival in the bureaucratic battle for responsibility for computer
crime. On May 1, 1990, an FBI agent named Richard Baxter, Jr., drove to
Pinedale, Wyoming, for a meeting with John Perry Barlow. The two men came from
different worlds. Barlow was a bundle of idiosyncrasies and contradictions, the
sort of man who seems to survive only in the American West: aged forty-two, a
former rancher, the Lyricist for the Grate-
216 APPROACHnNG ZERO
ful Dead, and also the local Republican party county chairman he believed in
the frontier, both the real one around Pinedale and the electronic one
accessible through his computer. Barlow wasn't a hacker, but he was part of
something called WELL--the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, the embodiment of the
sixties counterculture surviving in the 1990s on an electronic bulletin board
based in Sausalito, California. His philosophy was a mix of sixties liberalism
leavened by a rancher's rugged individualism; he was a Republican hippie with a
Agent Baxter was a country boy who "didn't know a ROM chip from a vise grip,"
according to Barlow.8 He wanted to talk to Barlow about high-tech crime,
although hackers were not his usual beat.
Baxter was investigating the theft of the operating system source code for the
Macintosh computer. According to Baxter, it had been stolen by a group that was
threatening to destroy the American company by releasing the code to East Asian
manufacturers of Apple clones.
Briefed at length by his San Francisco office, Agent Baxter told Barlow that
the FBI wanted to interview John Draper, the legendary Captain Crunch. Draper,
the FBI believed, was a known member of the Hackers' Conference, an underground
association with likely ties to those responsible for the theft. The FBI also
believed that Draper was the chief executive of Autodesk, a software company
with many top-secret government Star Wars contracts.
Jurisdiction for this particular investigation had fallen to the FBI, not the
Secret Service. It was one of the oddities of U.S. Iaw enforcement that even
when the responsibilities of the two agencies overlapped, their intelligence
and resources were almost never pooled. And in this case, Barlow knew that the
FBI agent's information was almost completely wrong.
Draper wasn't the chief executive of Autodesk, though he had worked there as a
programmer at one time, and Autodesk was not a major Star Wars contractor, but
a software developer. Also, the Hackers' Conference was not an underground
association, but an annual gathering of the nation's brightest and most
respected computer experts. As for the group that had supposedly stolen the
Macintosh source code, Barlow presumed that the agent was referring to the
self-styled nuPrometheus League, which had been circulating filched copies of
the Macintosh code to annoy Apple. Opinion in the computer underground was that
the code was probably picked up by kids who'd been dumpster diving. (The ethos
at Apple had changed since 1979. Then it was a small company with roots in the
hacker community; now a major corporation, it called in the FBI to chase down
kids for dumpster diving.)
The only thing that the FBI had gotten right, Barlow reckoned, was the address
of Autodesk. So Barlow explained to Baxter what was really going on, spending
most of the two-hour interview educating him about source codes. THINGS HAVE
THE GROOVE WHEN POTENTIAL SUSPECTS MUST EXPLAIN TO LAW
ENFORCERS THE NATURE OF THEIR ALLEGED PERPETRATIONS, he said
in his posting to the WELL about the incident.
Barlow's message produced an unexpected response. A number of other
WELL-beings--the users' excruciatingly cute name for themselves--had also been
interviewed by the FBI. They had all heard pretty much the same garbled story.
Baxter had only been repeating the information contained in the agency's files.
The entire Bureau seemed to be working on erroneous data. It was enough to
tweak the ideological hackles of any Republican hippie, particularly one who
believed in the new frontier of the computer village.
So, a week later, when news of the Secret Service crackdown broke, Barlow
decided to investigate, to ensure that officialdom wasn't looking at the hacker
threat through a haze of ignorance. Barlow had been inundated by messages, up
to a hundred a day, after his posting to the WELL. Most had expressed
indignation at the FBI's ignorance, and worries about the treatment of hackers
who had been picked up in the dragnet. Barlow also met with
218 APPROACHING ZERO
Mitch Kapor, another WELL-being and the coauthor of Lotus 1-2-3, a best-selling
computer program. Kapor had been shrewd enough to sell his stake in Lotus at
(or very near) the top. Among other things, his earnings enabled him to operate
his own business jet, which he used to fly to Wyoming for the meeting.
Both Kapor and Barlow empathized with the raided hackers though neither would
ever condone criminal or malicious activity of any kind. Their concern was
about whether the Feds knew what they were doing or were merely being pulled
along by uninformed hysteria about hacking.
Together, Barlow and Kapor agreed to set up the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Its purpose was not necessarily to protect hackers, but to extend the
protection of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of
expression to computer-based media: bulletin boards, electronic publishing,
computer conferencing, and so on. The foundation dedicated itself to six aims,
all related to influencing future legislation so that the civil liberties of
computer users, whether they were hackers or not, would not be ignored. It
attracted the support of a number of affluent technocrats in the computer
industry--including $150,000 from Steve Wozniak, one of the Apple founders.
(Woz had remained faithful to the original ideals of Apple. He resigned his
position at the company in the early 1980s when it became too "corporate" and
busied himself promoting music festivals and teaching, among other things.)
By the time the Foundation was established, the full force of the federal
crackdown had already been felt. The New York hackers Acid Phreak, Phiber
Optik, and the Scorpion had been raided; Craig Neidorf had been arrested; the
Atlanta Three had been indicted; Loyd Blankenship (the Mentor) and Steve
Jackson had been busted and their equipment confiscated; and the nationwide
raids had rounded up LoD, MoD, and DPAC members, as well as an assortment of
The catalog of charges ranged from wire fraud to handling stolen property, from
unauthorized possession of access devices to misappropriating source codes.
There were also allegations of credit card fraud, bank fraud, and altering
hospital computer records, and references to specific incidents: dropping
computer bombs in telephone switches and stealing the E911 documents. It had
all of the makings of a nationwide conspiracy.
The first case the Foundation took on was in Chicago. Assistant U.S. Attorney
William Cook, who had earlier successfully prosecuted Kyrie--the "Fagin" of the
stolen access code gang--and who had become something of an authority on
computer crime, was now in charge of the case against PHRACK editor Craig
Neidorf. Neidorf had been indicted for transporting the stolen E91 I document
across state lines. He finally came to trial in Chicago on July 23rd.
The prosecution's case was opened by Cook, who outlined the government claim of
a conspiracy involving Neidorf and members of the Legion of Doom and asserted
that the E911 file was "a highly proprietary and sensitive document" valued at
Four days later the case collapsed.
The defense demonstrated that the same E911 information was available from
local bookstores and in libraries. Furthermore, by dialing a free 1-800 number,
two publications could be obtained from Bellcore for $34 which contained even
more detailed information. Neidorf's lawyers also argued that, far from being
the serious and imminent threat represented by Bellcore, the file had been
published in PHRACK nearly a year before the telephone company bothered to do
anything about it. Neidorf was cleared of all charges, but though he was helped
by the foundation, he was still left with some $100,000 in legal costs.
The E911 file, however, was to come up once again.
On November 16, the Atlanta Three pleaded guilty to a number of charges
variously described as computer fraud, wire fraud, access code fraud, and
interstate transportation of stolen property--the latter referring to the E91 I
Because the three agreed to guilty pleas the charges were reduced, but as a
result no defense could be mounted. In the sen-
220 APPROACHING ZERO
tencing memorandum, the prosecution said that Robert Riggs (the Prophet) had
stolen the E911 file "containing the program for the emergency 911 dialling
system," adding that "any damage to that very sensitive system could result in
a dangerous breakdown in police, fire and ambulance services." The file's
value, the prosecution added, was $24,639.05--the 5 cents presumably included
to indicate that the figure had been very accurately determined. The memo also
stated that the three had gained free telephone service and access to BellSouth
The Electronic Frontier Foundation was enraged. Although the plea bargaining
precluded a formal defense, the Foundation said the claims about the E911 file
were "clearly false. Defense witnesses . . . were prepared to testify that the
E9 11 document was not a [computer] program, that it could not be used to
disrupt 911 service, and the same information could be ordered from BellSouth
at a cost of less than $20." The foundation also noted that the prosecution had
begun its memorandum by detailing the planting of computer bombs. "Only after
going to some length describing these allegations does the prosecution state,
in passing, that the defendants were not implicated in these crimes [Foundation
Despite the protests, Robert Riggs (the Prophet) was sentenced to twenty-one
months and his two colleagues--Adam Grant (the Urvile) and Frank Dearden (the
Leftist)--received fourteen months each. They also had to make restitutional
payments of $233,000 for the value of the "access devices" found in their
possession. The access devices were the IDs and passwords that they had
collected from BellSouth during their various raids.
There was no question that the Atlanta Three were hackers who had, without
doubt, broken into BellSouth. But the valuation of the "access devices"--
computer codes, telephone card numbers--was highly questionable. As the
foundation asked, how can a value be assessed when no loss can be demonstrated?
But in the new climate engendered by the crackdown, everything associated with
hacking was suspect. Every self-proclaimed hacker acquired a Secret Service
dossier, irrespective of his activities; every hacker with a handle qualified
for a bust; every busted hacker was suspected of belonging to the Legion of
Doom; and the mere mention of the word Cyberpunk seemed enough to bring down
the full force of the law.
Under the circumstances, Steve Jackson had drawn a full house. Not only did he
employ a known hacker--Loyd Blankenship, who had a handle and was even a member
of the LoD--he was also engaged in producing a "hacker handbook" called
During the raid on Steve Jackson Games, the Secret Service had confiscated much
of the company's computer equipment, without which equipment the company could
barely function. It took months, and the assistance of a foundation-supplied
lawyer, before the Feds returned the equipment--some of it, according to Steve,
damaged, with valuable data missing.
The Secret Service kept the equipment as potential evidence for a "crime" that
was never committed. For, while GURPS Cyberpunk does contain information on
dumpster diving and social engineering, it is ultimately a game. It is no more
a "handbook on hacking" than, say, this book is. (The game was finally
published later that year, without causing any noticeable increase in hacking
Even though no charges were filed against Steve, his business suffered while
the Secret Service held his computer systems. His turnover was down and half of
his staff was laid off. He estimates his losses for the period at over
$300,000. With the help of the foundation, he has since filed a civil suit
against the Secret Service and two of its agents, Assistant U.S. Attorney
William Cook, and a Bellcore security manager.
At the time of writing, Loyd Blankenship (the Mentor) has not been charged with
anything either, although he still has not received his computer equipment
back. Given his background in the LoD, it is not thought likely that he ever
will. As a known hacker, he is not pressing the Secret Service too hard;
instead, said a friend, he's "Lying low."
222 APPROACHnNG ZERO
The Electronic Frontier Foundation couldn't help everyone. Phiber Optik was
sentenced to a period of thirty-five hours of community service for a
relatively minor hacking offense. Even worse, he suffered the shame of being
thrown out of the Legion of Doom--though that had nothing to do with his
arrest. His crime, in the LoD's eyes, was that he and Acid Phreak (a
non-Legionnaire) had demonstrated their hacking skills for a magazine article
published in Esquire in December 1990. Although both he and Acid Phreak had
kept their identities secret even using phony handles--the other Legionnaires
felt that the young hacker was on "an ego trip," a charge confirmed for them
when he appeared on a number of television shows. Phiber Optik, the other
Legionnaires decided, had too high a profile for the Legion.
Not being in LoD didn't stop him from hacking. He joined the MoD instead--but
then he was busted along with four other MoD members: Outlaw, Corrupt, Renegade
Hacker, and the Wing. These arrests were devastating to the gang, principally
because their equipment was confiscated. (The MoD accused the Legion of turning
them in as a last reprisal in the hacker wars, but this seems unlikely.) In
July lg92 a federal grand jury indicted Outlaw, Corrupt, Phiber Optik, Acid
Phreak, and Scorpion for breaking into telco and credit agency computers, and
for stealing data.
Given all the effort, this was a modest payoff--hardly justification for a
massive crackdown. Even the Operation Sundevil busts of May 8th, which the
foundation called a use of "force and terror which would have been more
appropriate to the apprehension of urban guerrillas than barely postpubescent
computer nerds," have yielded remarkably few indictments. Gail Thackeray, an
attorney in Phoenix dealing with the aftermath of the Sundevil busts, notes
that "80 percent of those arrested were adults [over eighteen years old]"--
hardly postpubescents. She says that more indictments are still being prepared,
and that the delay was caused by the sheer weight of evidence: more than twenty
thousand diskettes have been examined, which has taken the authorities over
But perhaps indictments were never the point. Sundevil was a search-and-seizure
operation; the quarantined computers and diskettes will be held until the
material can be analyzed. Only at that point will the indictments, if any, be
handed down, and the authorities are in no rush. While the computers are in
their possession, the Cyberpunks are out of action.
As for the Phoenix Project, it, too, was probably a false alarm. The vaunted
rebirth of hacking, which convinced the Secret Service that there was a
nationwide conspiracy, may not have been what it seemed. After all, the
Project's organizers had only exhorted hackers to welcome the new age "with the
use of every legal means available." A sympathetic interpretation of the Phoe-
nix Project would suggest that older hackers were simply counseling others not
to break the law. It was a timely warning: the Computer Fraud and Misuse Act
had entered the statute books two years previously, and some jail sentences had
already been handed out. Hacking was no longer being viewed tolerantly, and the
Phoenix Project's organizers expected a crackdown by the authorities. They got
that right at least.
However, there was yet another hacker swept up in the Secret Service busts,
who, unlike the others, was unquestionably hacking for profit. In mid-June 1989
BellSouth had begun investigating two relatively minor incidents on one of its
switches in Florida. In the first incident, on June 16th, an intruder had
hacked into the switch and rerouted calls for the city offices of Miramar,
Florida, to a long-distance information number. On the next day the same hacker
(or so it was assumed) had also rerouted calls intended for the Delray Beach
probation office. This time the hacker demonstrated an impish sense of humor:
callers to the probation office instead found themselves connected to a
Dial-a-Porn service in New York State.
As a result of the two incidents, BellSouth had stepped up the monitoring of
its switches. On June 21st, security agents were told that the monitors had
detected a hacker loose in one of its computers.
224 APPROACHING ZERO
The carrier put a trace on the call, following it back through a series of
loops around the country. The hacker had tried to disguise his entry point into
the system by first dialing into his local exchange, jumping to a connected
switch on another network, then skipping from there to yet another network, and
so on. Each time a loop was made through a network, it had to be traced to the
entry switch. But the precautions must have given the hacker a false sense of
security, because he stayed in the system too long, allowing the trace to be
followed all the way through, from network to network, right back to a phone
number in Indiana.
BellSouth passed the number they had traced on to Bellcore, which began
monitoring all outgoing and incoming calls. The telephone company agents had
discovered a hard-core hacker: they watched as their target looped calls around
the country, from system to system; they recorded him breaking into a credit
agency computer in Delaware belonging to CSA; and they listened as he had money
wired to Paducah, Kentucky, on a credit card number.
Their target, of course, was Fry Guy, the fifteen-year-old Indiana hacker who
had spent months perfecting his credit card scam.
With evidence that the young hacker was committing fraud, the telco agents
turned the details over to the Secret Service, which included him on the
Atlanta Three's DNR request. The inclusion was mostly a matter of convenience,
but the agents had noted a geographic coincidence that intrigued them: Fry Guy
lived in Indiana, as did the recipient of the anonymous telephone call warning
of the computer bombs in the switches; Fry Guy also knew his way around
BellSouth, where one of the bombs had been planted--indeed, other hackers
regarded it as his "sphere of influence."
In mid-July the Secret Service recorded Fry Guy charging $500 to a stolen
credit card number. With that piece of evidence (previous telco monitors had
not been court-approved and therefore could not be used as evidence), the
Secret Service was also able to include Fry Guy in the Atlanta Three search
The house in Elmwood, Indiana, was raided the same day the three addresses in
Atlanta were busted. Fry Guy awoke from his summer-long haze to find that he
was suspected of the two Florida incidents, the anonymous telephone call to
Indiana Bell's security manager, planting the computer bombs, and credit card
Hackers are often victims of their own hype. The LoD was the principal target
of the crackdown because it promoted itself as the biggest and meanest gang in
Cyberspace--and because the authorities believed them.
The computer underworld is a hall of mirrors. Reality becomes bent, the truth
shrunken. The authorities who organized Operation Sundevil and its related
investigations believed they were dealing with a nationwide conspiracy
involving $50 million in telecommunications fraud alone. And that, they said,
was only the tip of the iceberg.
What they got in the end, notwithstanding the Atlanta Three's guilty pleas,
were some relatively minor convictions. After the barrage of criticism from
John Perry Barlow's Electronic Frontier Foundation, the investigators began to
pull back. The Phoenix officials, such as Gail Thackeray, are now keen to
distance both themselves and Operation Sundevil from the other antihacker
actions that year. The wilder suggestions--that the AT&T incident had been
caused by Acid Phreak; that hackers were looting banks; that hospital records
were being altered, and patients put at risk--have been dropped. The word
conspiracy is used less and less, and the computer bombs, the specific
catalyst for the whole crackdown, have been quietly forgotten. No one has been
officially charged with planting the bombs, and it is unlikely that anyone ever
will be. Everyone in the underworld's hall of mirrors claims to know who did
it, but they all finger different people.
As for Fry Guy, he denies any responsibility for the bombs: "They're just
pointless destruction. I can't understand why anyone would do it. I'm not
malicious or destructive: I only do things for gain."
226 APPROACHING ZERO
That was Fry Guy's downfall: he operated for gain. When he was raided, the
Secret Service found more than a hundred "access devices" in his possession--
credit card numbers and telephone calling cards. He could never be charged with
planting the bombs, and no one was able to pin the Florida incidents on him,
but he was caught red-handed on the credit card fraud. Following his arrest, it
was estimated that his little scam had netted him $6,000 that year. He is now
on probation, his equipment confiscated, but if you ask him why he hacked, he
still sighs: "It's the greatest thing in the world."
New technology requires new approaches. The reactions of the authorities to the
computer underworld show a dependence on old ideas. Hacking becomes "breaking
and entering"; role-playing games become "conspiracies"; exploration becomes
"espionage." The dated terms obliterate the difference between the "bad"
hackers and the "good" hackers.
And there is a difference. Society might tolerate some activities of the
computer underground. Hackers are mostly explorers exercising intellectual
curiosity. Undoubtedly, they will break into computers, sometimes causing
ancillary damage or taking up system time, and they probably will exploit the
telecom systems to do so. But their intent, for the most part, is not
On the other hand, the black arts of virus writing or hacking to steal money
are unjustifiable. Virus writers are electronic vandals; hackers who rob are
The difference between the good and the bad is often blurred. The distinction
is one of motive: the malicious and the criminal should be viewed differently
from the merely clever or curious.
Someday it may be possible to get a clearer picture of what the activities of
the computer underground actually cost industry and telecom companies. Present
estimates vary so widely as to be worthless. Figures seem to be plucked from
the air: it is utterly impossible to verify whether the true cost in the United
States is around $550 million each year (the Computerworld estimate), or
whether total losses could actually amount to as much as $5 billion (as was
estimated at a security conference in 1991). These exaggerations are compounded
by the hackers themselves--who are only too willing to embellish their
accomplishments. With both sides expounding fanciful stories and ever wilder
claims, truth is lost in the telling.
What is ironic is that the activities of the hackers are leading to a situation
they would decry. Security managers have a clear responsibility to protect
their sites from electronic intrusion. As hackers become bolder, security is
becoming tightened, threatening the very "freedom of information" that hacking,
in its benign form, is said to promote.
Hackers are an engaging bunch, even the "bad" ones: bright, curious,
technically gifted, passionate, prone to harmless boasting, and more than a
little obsessed. They are usually creative, probing, and impatient with rules
and restrictions. In character, they closely resemble the first-generation
Computing has always gained from the activities of those who look beyond what
is there, to think of what there might be. The final irony for the computer
industry is that the hackers who are being shut out today will be the
programmers, managers, and even security experts of tomorrow.