Sunday, June 3, 2007

My Early Days On The Electronic Frontier

On November 2, 1988, Robert T. Morris, a student at Cornell, released a worm onto the Internet from MIT. The worm exploited a number of vulnerabilities to copy itself onto servers, find other servers, and continue making copies of itself. It was quite good at this, so good in fact that it unleashed a denial of service attack on the fledgling Internet, bringing a large percentage of those systems to a grinding halt.

I first learned of this event, not from news accounts of the time, but from postings on the bulletin board systems (BBS) I dialed into with my modem. Some of those BBSs connected to the Internet through FidoNet email gateways. The Internet was still known as ARPANET in some corners. The Morris worm and the Internet fascinated me. I wanted to figure out how it all worked and how I could go exploring. It was a real-world text adventure.

I wanted to be a part of this "cyber wilderness" that was far more interesting than any BBS. But where to begin? I needed a guide. A mentor. I started digging around and posting questions to my BBS community. It turned out that there was a sysop who knew a lot. He ran a local BBS called the Pheonix Project and he had written A Novice's Guide to Hacking. Fittingly, he called himself The Mentor and he had written just what I needed. I was 13 years old1.

Following in the footsteps of The Mentor, the TCP/IP based Internet wasn't the first network into which I dipped my toes. Instead, having dutifully RTFM, I jumped into Telenet. Telenet was owned by Sprint at the time after they had acquired GTE a couple of years earlier. It was the first commercial packet switched network in the United States, and connected to similar networks throughout the world. Networks with names like Datapak, Austpac, Venus-P, and Tymnet. These networks would later be absorbed into the Internet.

I spent a lot of time exploring these networks. Once I had found my way into an X.25 PAD the fun really started. I was talking to machines that belonged to organizations such as NASA, Stanford, CMU, IBM, Price Waterhouse, and D&B. (Ironically, I later worked for D&B.) What I found in those places wasn't so interesting as the journey I took to get there. No machine ever asked me if I'd like to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

Eventually, I made it on to the actual Internet. Still learning, I abandoned my hackish endeavors when the government began raiding hackers nationwide in early 1990. On March 1, 1990, the United States Secret Service conducted a raid on the home of Loyd Blankenship in my hometown of Austin, Texas. Loyd had been arrested before, after which he had penned The Conscience of a Hacker. Loyd was The Mentor.

On that same day, the Secret Service raided the office of Steve Jackson Games2. Loyd had written GURPS Cyberpunk, a role playing game that was to be published by SJG. Presenting a sealed warrant, they proceeded to confiscate computers, papers, files, etc. They also took the computer that was running the Illuminati BBS, one of the systems I'd called a few times. They did all of this out of ignorance and inferred guilt-by-association: Loyd's BBS hosted copies of Phrack, Phrack had published a Bell South memo they'd received about E911 admins, Bell South had gotten embarrassed and pissy and had called the cavalry.

These events led to the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on July 10, 1990 and on May 1, 1991, Steve Jackson Games, with the help of the EFF, filed a civil suit against the United States Secret Service.

These events kick-started a community of techno-civil libertarians in the Austin BBS scene. One BBS I dialed into a bunch was Bamboo Gardens North, run by Ed Cavazos. Ed was also studying at UT Law School at the time. The Bamboo Gardens community was an interesting lot, full of activist types after the Steve Jackson Games raid. The Illuminati BBS came back to life and hosted many same members of this new activist community. Mike Godwin, aka Johnny Mnemonic and also at UT Law, was an early fixture of these communities. He went on to become chief counsel for EFF.

Because so much of this was centered in Austin, it was natural that leading community members got together and formed EFF-Austin. And being the young idealist that I was, I joined up. On August 22, 1992, I attended my first EFF-Austin Cyberdawg at Europa Books on The Drag. A Cyberdawg was an "informal networking mixer designed for the general membership to meet face-to-face with others members, as well as the Board of Directors." I had a great time chatting with John Quarterman, Paco Xander Nathan, Ed Cavazos, and Bruce Sterling4. You can read about it in the first ever issue of EFF-Austin WORD. It was my birthday and I was 17 years old.

A few weeks later we all went out and saw an EFF-Austin sponsored screening of Sneakers, one of the great underrated films. It stars Robert Redford, Sydney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Mary McDonnell. My earliest recorded Usenet post was about the film. That Usenet post is chock full of early (Austin) Internet artifacts. I took my handle, Hagbard, from the main character of The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Back then, because of the still fragmented nature of the Internet, we didn't just have an email address. In my sig I had a UUCP, ARPANET (on a dot-mil domain!), and Prodigy address too. The moderator of my post was Prentiss Riddle, another fixture of the Austin BBS and electronic civil liberties scene.

On March 12, 1993, I sat in a federal courtroom and watched as District Judge Sam Sparks found in favor of Steve Jackson Games and awarded the plaintiffs $52,000 in damages, citing lost profits and a violation of the Privacy Protection Act by the US Secret Service. Steve Jackson3 and his counsel were there, as were agents and representatives of the US Secret Service. It has often been referred to as a landmark case that established the limits of law enforcement power over digital communications. I remember seeing Paco Xander Nathan there. He was covering the case for Wired. My friends were originally turned away by the bailiff because we had come wearing blue jeans, which was apparently unacceptable in Judge Sparks' courtroom. We went home and made a quick change to make it back in time for the decision.

At the time, I had no idea that the threads of my life were woven together with some of the pivotal events and people that would come to define the early history of the Internet and the EFF. Some of it I didn't even remember, and I learned of my involvement from archived written accounts while researching this post (thank you, Google). This post is longer than any I've written, and I've left out a lot. I guess that's what happens when you chronicle some portion of your life. Twenty years from now, when I've forgotten it all over again, I'll be able to come back here and remember.

Footnotes:

1. "We cannot unduly inhibit the inquisitive 13-year-old who, if left to experiment today, may tomorrow develop the telecommunications or computer technology to lead the United States into the 21st century. He represents our future and our best hope to remain a technologically competitive nation." - Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 1990

2. Also raided on that day was the home of Chris Goggans, aka Erik Bloodaxe, who was the editor of Phrack Magazine. Chris was a founding member of the Legion of Doom hacker group and he also lived in Texas. No charges were filed.

3. Two other bits of my life trivia in regards to Steve Jackson: I once played Steve's Illuminati card game with him at my high school and Steve was the first to ever pay me for my writing when he published a page I had created for his extended version of the Principia Discordia. If you have a copy, mine is the Discordian Blessing. Fnord.

4. Bruce Sterling and I chatted at this event (the EFF-Austin Cyberdawg) and then again some years later during a party at his home. He had a video of a Rube Goldberg machine running endlessly on his TV. I impressed a number of people with my toothpick fork salt shaker balancing sculpture.