net.wars: Return of the Hacker Crackdown

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 June 2010

Probably many people had forgotten about the Gary McKinnon case until the new government reversed their decision to intervene in his extradition. Legal analysis is beyond our expertise, but we can outline some of the historical factors at work.

Wendy M Grossman

By 2001, when McKinnon did his breaking and entering into US military computers, hacking had been illegal in the UK for just over ten years – the Computer Misuse Act was passed in 1990 after the overturned conviction of Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold for accessing Prince Philip's Prestel mailbox.

Early 1990s hacking (earlier, the word meant technological cleverness) was far more benign than today's flat-out crimes of identity fraud, money laundering, and raiding bank accounts. The hackers of the era – most famously Kevin Mitnick were more the cyberspace equivalent of teenaged joyriders: they wandered around the Net rattling doorknobs and playing tricks to get passwords, and occasionally copied some bit of trophy software for bragging rights. Mitnick, despite spending four and a half years in jail awaiting trial, was not known to profit from his forays.

McKinnon's claim that he was looking for evidence that the US government was covering up information about alternative energy and alien visitations seems to me wholly credible. There was and is a definite streak of conspiracy theorists – particularly about UFOs – among the hacker community.

People seemed more alarmed by those early-stage hackers than they are by today's cybercriminals: the fear of new technology was projected onto those who seemed to be its masters. The series of  1990 "Operation Sundown" raids in the US, documented in Bruce Sterling's book The Hacker Crackdown, inspired the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Among other egregious confusions, law enforcement seized game manuals from Steven Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, calling them hacking instruction books.

The raids came alongside a controversial push to make hacking illegal around the world. It didn't help when police burst in at the crack of dawn to arrest bright teenagers and hold them and their families (including younger children) at gunpoint while their computers and notebooks were seized and their homes ransacked for evidence.

"I think that in the years to come this will be recognized as the time of a witch hunt approximately equivalent to McCarthyism – that some of our best and brightest were made to suffer this kind of persecution for the fact that they dared to be creative in a way that society didn't understand," 21-year-old convicted hacker Mark Abene ("Phiber Optik") told filmmaker Annaliza Savage for her 1994 documentary, Unauthorized Access (YouTube).

Phiber Optik was an early 1990s cause célèbre. A member of the hacker groups Legion of Doom and Masters of Deception, he had an exceptionally high media profile. In January 1990, he and other MoD members were raided on suspicion of having caused the AT&T crash of January 15, 1990, when more than half of the telephone network ceased functioning for nine hours. Abene and others were eventually charged in 1991, with law enforcement demanding $2.5 million in fines and 59 years in jail. Plea agreements reduced that a year in prison and 600 hours of community service. The company eventually admitted the crash was due to its own flawed software upgrade.

There are many parallels between these early days of hacking and today's copyright wars. Entrenched large businesses (then AT&T; now RIAA, MPAA, BPI, et al) perceive mostly young, smart Net users as dangerous enemies and pursue them with the full force of the law claiming exaggeratedly large-figure sums in damages. Isolated, often young, targets were threatened with jail and/or huge sums in damages to make examples of them to deter others. The upshot in the 1990s was an entrenched distrust of and contempt for law enforcement on the part of the hacker community, exacerbated by the fact that back then so few law enforcement officers understood anything about the technology they were dealing with. The equivalent now may be a permanent contempt for copyright law.

In his 1990 essay  Crime and Puzzlement examining the issues raised by hacking, EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow wrote of Phiber Optik, whom he met on the WELL: "His cracking impulses seemed purely exploratory, and I've begun to wonder if we wouldn't also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if AT&T owned all the caves."

When McKinnon was first arrested in March 2002 and then indicted in a Virginia court in October 2002 for cracking into various US military computers – with damage estimated at $800,000 – all this history will still fresh. Meanwhile, the sympathy and good will toward the US engendered by the 9/11 attacks had been dissipated by the Bush administration's reaction: the PATRIOT Act (passed October 2001) expanded US government powers to detain and deport foreign citizens, and the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo in January 2002. Since then, the US has begun fingerprinting all foreign visitors and has seen many erosions to civil liberties. The 2005 changes to British law that made hacking into an extraditable offense were controversial for precisely these reasons.

As McKinnon's case has dragged on through extradition appeals this emotional background has not changed. McKinnon's diagnosis with Asperger's Syndrome in 2008 made him into a more fragile and sympathetic figure. Meanwhile, the really dangerous cybercriminals continue committing fraud, theft, and real damage, apparently safe from prosecution.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).