Underground: Chapter 6 -- Page 1 The New York Times

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Read about it Just another incredible scene There's no doubt about it

-- from `Read About It', on 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 by Midnight Oil

Pad had an important warning for the Australian hackers: the computer security community was closing in on them. It was the end of February 1990, not long after Phoenix and Electron had captured Zardoz and just missed out on Deszip. Pad didn't scream or shout the warning, that wasn't his style. But Electron took in the import of the warning loud and clear.

`Feen, they know you did over Spaf's machine,' Pad told Phoenix. `They know it's been you in other systems also. They've got your handle.'

Eugene Spafford was the kind of computer security expert who loses a lot of face when a hacker gets into his machine, and a wounded bull is a dangerous enemy.

The security people had been able to connect and link up a series of break-ins with the hacker who called himself Phoenix because his style was so distinctive. For example, whenever he was creating a root shell--root access--for himself, he would always save it in the same filename and in the same location on the computer. In some instances, he even created accounts called `Phoenix' for himself. It was this consistency of style which had made things so much easier for admins to trace his movements.

In his typical understated fashion, Pad suggested a change of style. And maybe, he added, it wasn't such a bad idea for the Australians to tone down their activities a bit. The undercurrent of the message was serious.

`They said that some security people had contacted Australian law enforcement, who were supposed to be "dealing with it",' Pad said.

`Do they know my real name?' Phoenix asked, worried. Electron was also watching this conversation with some concern.

`Don't know. Got it from Shatter. He's not always reliable, but ...'

Pad was trying to soften the news by playing down Shatter's importance as a source. He didn't trust his fellow British hacker but Shatter had some good, if mysterious, connections. An enigmatic figure who seemed to keep one foot in the computer underworld and the other in the upright computer security industry, Shatter leaked information to Pad and Gandalf, and occasionally to the Australians.

While the two British hackers sometimes discounted Shatter's advice, they also took the time to talk to him. Once, Electron had intercepted email showing Pengo had turned to Shatter for advice about his situation after the raid in Germany. With some spare time prior to his trial, Pengo asked Shatter whether it was safe to travel to the US on a summer holiday in 1989. Shatter asked for Pengo's birthdate and other details. Then he returned with an unequivocal answer: Under no circumstances was Pengo to travel to the US.

Subsequently, it was reported that officials in the US Justice Department had been examining ways to secretly coax Pengo onto American soil, where they could seize him. They would then force him to face trial in their own courts.

Had Shatter known this? Or had he just told Pengo not to go to the US because it was good commonsense? No-one was quite sure, but people took note of what Shatter told them.

`Shatter definitely got the info right about Spaf's machine. 100% right,' Pad continued. `He knew exactly how you hacked it. I couldn't believe it. Be careful if you're still hacking m8, especially on the Inet.' The `Inet' was shorthand for the Internet.

The Altos hackers went quiet.

`It's not just you,' Pad tried to reassure the Australians. `Two security people from the US are coming to the UK to try and find out something about someone named Gandalf. Oh, and Gand's mate, who might be called Patrick.'

Pad had indeed based his handle on the name Patrick, or Paddy, but that wasn't his real name. No intelligent hacker would use his real name for his handle. Paddy was the name of one of his favourite university lecturers, an Irishman who laughed a good deal. Like Par's name, Pad's handle had coincidentally echoed a second meaning when the British hacker moved into exploring X.25 networks. An X.25 PAD is a packet assembler disassembler, the interface between the X.25 network and a modem or terminal server. Similarly, Gandalf, while being first and foremost the wizard from The Lord of The Rings, also happened to be a terminal server brand name.

Despite the gravity of the news that the security community was closing the net around them, none of the hackers lost their wicked sense of humour.

`You know,' Pad went on, `Spaf was out of the country when his machine got hacked.'

`Was he? Where?' asked Gandalf, who had just joined the conversation.

`In Europe.'

Electron couldn't resist. `Where was Spaf, Gandalf asks as he hears a knock on his door ...'

`Haha,' Gandalf laughed.

` ' Electron went on, hamming it up.

`Oh! Hello there, Mr Spafford,' Gandalf typed, playing along.

`Hello, I'm Gene and I'm mean!'

Alone in their separate homes on different corners of the globe, the four hackers chuckled to themselves.

`Hello, and is this the man called Patrick?' Pad jumped in.

`Well, Mr Spafford, it seems you're a right fucking idiot for not patching your FTP!' Gandalf proclaimed.

`Not to mention the CHFN bug--saved by a Sequent! Or you'd be very fucking embarrassed,' Phoenix added.

Phoenix was laughing too, but he was a little nervous about Pad's warning and he turned the conversation back to a serious note.

`So, Pad, what else did Shatter tell you?' Phoenix asked anxiously.

`Not much. Except that some of the security investigations might be partly because of UCB.'

UCB was the University of California at Berkeley. Phoenix had been visiting machines at both Berkeley and LLNL so much recently that the admins seemed to have not only noticed him, but they had pinpointed his handle. One day he had telnetted into dewey.soe.berkeley.edu--the Dewey machine as it was known--and had been startled to find the following message of the day staring him in the face:


Get out of Dewey NOW!

Also, do not use any of the `soe' machines.

Thank you,

Daniel Berger

Phoenix did a double take when he saw this public warning. Having been in and out of the system so many times, he just zoomed past the words on the login screen. Then, in a delayed reaction, he realised the login message was addressed to him.

Ignoring the warning, he proceeded to get root on the Berkeley machine and look through Berger's files. Then he sat back, thinking about the best way to deal with the problem. Finally, he decided to send the admin a note saying he was leaving the system for good.

Within days, Phoenix was back in the Dewey machine, weaving in and out of it as if nothing had happened. After all, he had broken into the system, and managed to get root through his own wit. He had earned the right to be in the computer. He might send the admin a note to put him at ease, but Phoenix wasn't going to give up accessing Berkeley's computers just because it upset Daniel Berger.

`See,' Pad continued, `I think the UCB people kept stuff on their systems that wasn't supposed to be there. Secret things.'

Classified military material wasn't supposed to be stored on non-classified network computers. However, Pad guessed that sometimes researchers broke rules and took short cuts because they were busy thinking about their research and not the security implications.

`Some of the stuff might have been illegal,' Pad told his captive audience. `And then they find out some of you guys have been in there ...'

`Shit,' Phoenix said.

`So, well, if it APPEARED like someone was inside trying to get at those secrets ...' Pad paused. `Then you can guess what happened. It seems they really want to get whoever was inside their machines.'

There was momentary silence while the other hackers digested all that Pad had told them. As a personality on Altos, Pad remained ever so slightly withdrawn from the other hackers, even the Australians whom he considered mates. This reserved quality gave his warning a certain sobriety, which seeped into the very fabric of Altos that day.

Eventually, Electron responded to Pad's warning by typing a comment directed at Phoenix: `I told you talking to security guys is nothing but trouble.'

It irritated Electron more and more that Phoenix felt compelled to talk to white hats in the security industry. In Electron's view, drawing attention to yourself was just a bad idea all around and he was increasingly annoyed at watching Phoenix feed his ego. He had made veiled references to Phoenix's bragging on Altos many times, saying things like `I wish people wouldn't talk to security guys'.

Phoenix responded to Electron on-line somewhat piously. `Well, I will never talk to security guys seriously again.'

Electron had heard it all before. It was like listening to an alcoholic swear he would never touch another drink. Bidding the others goodbye, Electron logged off. He didn't care to listen to Phoenix any more.

Others did, however. Hundreds of kilometres away, in a special room secreted away inside a bland building in Canberra, Sergeant Michael Costello and Constable William Apro had been methodically capturing each and every electronic boast as it poured from Phoenix's phone. The two officers recorded the data transmissions passing in and out of his computer. They then played this recording into their own modem and computer and created a text file they could save and use as evidence in court.

Both police officers had travelled north from Melbourne, where they worked with the AFP's Computer Crime Unit. Settling into their temporary desks with their PC and laptop, the officers began their secret eavesdropping work on 1 February 1990.

It was the first time the AFP had done a datatap. They were happy to bide their time, to methodically record Phoenix hacking into Berkeley, into Texas, into NASA, into a dozen computers around the world. The phone tap warrant was good for 60 days, which was more than enough time to secrete away a mountain of damning evidence against the egotistical Realm hacker. Time was on their side.

The officers worked the Operation Dabble job in shifts. Constable Apro arrived at the Telecommunications Intelligence Branch of the AFP at 8 p.m. Precisely ten hours later, at 6 the next morning, Sergeant Costello relieved Apro, who knocked off for a good sleep. Apro returned again at 8 p.m. to begin the night shift.

They were there all the time. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Waiting and listening.

It was too funny. Erik Bloodaxe in Austin, Texas, couldn't stop laughing. In Melbourne, Phoenix's side hurt from laughing so much.

Phoenix loved to talk on the phone. He often called Erik, sometimes every day, and they spoke for ages. Phoenix didn't worry about cost; he wasn't paying for it. The call would appear on some poor sod's bill and he could sort it out with the phone company.

Sometimes Erik worried a little about whether Phoenix wasn't going to get himself in a jam making all these international calls. Not that he didn't like talking to the Australian; it was a hoot. Still, the concern sat there, unsettled, in the back of his mind. A few times he asked Phoenix about it.

`No prob. Hey, AT&T isn't an Australian company,' Phoenix would say. `They can't do anything to me.' And Erik had let it rest at that.

For his part, Erik didn't dare call Phoenix, especially not since his little visit from the US Secret Service. On 1 March 1990, they burst into his home, with guns drawn, in a dawn raid. The agents searched everywhere, tearing the student house apart, but they didn't find anything incriminating. They did take Erik's $59 keyboard terminal with its chintzy little 300 baud modem, but they didn't get his main computer, because Erik knew they were coming.

The Secret Service had subpoenaed his academic records, and Erik had heard about it before the raid. So when the Secret Service arrived, Erik's stuff just wasn't there. It hadn't been there for a few weeks, but for Erik, they had been hard weeks. The hacker found himself suffering withdrawal symptoms, so he bought the cheapest home computer and modem he could find to tide him over.

That equipment was the only computer gear the Secret Service discovered, and they were not happy special agents. But without evidence, their hands were tied. No charges were laid.

Still, Erik thought he was probably being watched. The last thing he wanted was for Phoenix's number to appear on his home phone bill. So he let Phoenix call him, which the Australian did all the time. They often talked for hours when Erik was working nights. It was a slack job, just changing the back-up tapes on various computers and making sure they didn't jam. Perfect for a student. It left Erik hours of free time.

Erik frequently reminded Phoenix that his phone was probably tapped, but Phoenix just laughed. `Yeah, well don't worry about it, mate. What are they going to do? Come and get me?'

After Erik put a hold on his own hacking activities, he lived vicariously, listening to Phoenix's exploits. The Australian called him with a technical problem or an interesting system, and then they discussed various strategies for getting into the machine. However, unlike Electron's talks with Phoenix, conversations with Erik weren't only about hacking. They chatted about life, about what Australia was like, about girls, about what was in the newspaper that day. It was easy to talk to Erik. He had a big ego, like most hackers, but it was inoffensive, largely couched in his self-effacing humour.

Phoenix often made Erik laugh. Like the time he got Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, who wrote The Cuckoo's Egg. The book described his pursuit of a German hacker who had broken into the computer system Stoll managed at Lawrence Berkeley Labs near San Francisco. The hacker had been part of the same hacking ring as Pengo. Stoll took a hard line on hacking, a position which did not win him popularity in the underground. Both Phoenix and Erik had read Stoll's book, and one day they were sitting around chatting about it.

`You know, it's really stupid that Cliffy put his email address in his book,' Phoenix said. `Hmm, why don't I go check?'

Sure enough, Phoenix called Erik back about a day later. `Well, I got root on Cliffy's machine,' he began slowly, then he burst out laughing. `And I changed the message of the day. Now it reads, "It looks like the Cuckoo's got egg on his face"!'

It was uproariously funny. Stoll, the most famous hacker-catcher in the world, had been japed! It was the funniest thing Erik had heard in weeks.

But it was not nearly so amusing as what Erik told Phoenix later about the New York Times. The paper had published an article on 19 March suggesting a hacker had written some sort of virus or worm which was breaking into dozens of computers.

`Listen to this,' Erik had said, reading Phoenix the lead paragraph, `"A computer intruder has written a program that has entered dozens of computers in a nationwide network in recent weeks, automatically stealing electronic documents containing users' passwords and erasing files to help conceal itself."'

Phoenix was falling off his chair he was laughing so hard. A program? Which was automatically doing this? No. It wasn't an automated program, it was the Australians! It was the Realm hackers! God, this was funny.

`Wait--there's more! It says, "Another rogue program shows a widespread vulnerability". I laughed my ass off,' Erik said, struggling to get the words out.

`A rogue program! Who wrote the article?'

`A John Markoff,' Erik answered, wiping his eyes. `I called him up.'

`You did? What did you say?' Phoenix tried to gather himself together.

`"John," I said, "You know that article you wrote on page 12 of the Times? It's wrong! There's no rogue program attacking the Internet." He goes, "What is it then?" "It's not a virus or a worm," I said. "It's PEOPLE."'

Erik started laughing uncontrollably again.

`Then Markoff sounds really stunned, and he goes, "People?" And I said, "Yeah, people." Then he said, "How do you know?" And I said, "Because, John, I KNOW."'

Phoenix erupted in laughter again. The Times reporter obviously had worms on his mind, since the author of the famous Internet worm, Robert T. Morris Jr, had just been tried and convicted in the US. He was due to be sentenced in May.

US investigators had tracked the hacker's connections, looping through site after site in a burrowing manner which they assumed belonged to a worm. The idea of penetrating so many sites all in such a short time clearly baffled the investigators, who concluded it must be a program rather than human beings launching the attacks.

`Yeah,' Erik continued, `And then Markoff said, "Can you get me to talk to them?" And I said I'd see what I could do.'

`Yeah,' Phoenix said. `Go tell him, yes. Yeah, I gotta talk to this idiot. I'll set him straight.'

Page one, the New York Times, 21 March 1990: `Caller Says he Broke Computers' Barriers to Taunt the Experts', by John Markoff.

True, the article was below the crease--on the bottom half of the page--but at least it was in column 1, the place a reader turns to first.

Phoenix was chuffed. He'd made the front page of the New York Times.

`The man identified himself only as an Australian named Dave,' the article said. Phoenix chuckled softly. Dave Lissek was the pseudonym he'd used. Of course, he wasn't the only one using the name Dave. When Erik first met the Australians on Altos, he marvelled at how they all called themselves Dave. I'm Dave, he's Dave, we're all Dave, they told him. It was just easier that way, they said.

The article revealed that `Dave' had attacked Spaf's and Stoll's machines, and that the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory at Harvard University--where Stoll now worked--had pulled its computers off the Internet as a result of the break in. Markoff had even included the `egg on his face' story Phoenix had described to him.

Phoenix laughed at how well he had thumbed his nose at Cliffy Stoll. This article would show him up all right. It felt so good, seeing himself in print that way. He did that. That was him there in black in white, for all the world to see. He had outsmarted the world's best known hacker-catcher, and he had smeared the insult across the front page of the most prestigious newspaper in America.

And Markoff reported that he had been in Spaf's system too! Phoenix glowed happily. Better still, Markoff had quoted `Dave' on the subject: `The caller said ... "It used to be the security guys chasing the hackers. Now it's the hackers chasing the security people."'

The article went on: `Among the institutions believed to have been penetrated by the intruder are the Los Alamos National Laboratories, Harvard, Digital Equipment Corporation, Boston University and the University of Texas.' Yes, that list sounded about right. Well, for the Australians as a group anyway. Even if Phoenix hadn't masterminded or even penetrated some of those himself, he was happy to take the credit in the Times.

This was a red-letter day for Phoenix.

Electron, however, was furious. How could Phoenix be so stupid? He knew that Phoenix had an ego, that he talked too much, and that his tendency to brag had grown worse over time, fed by the skyrocketing success of the Australian hackers. Electron knew all of that, but he still couldn't quite believe that Phoenix had gone so far as to strut and preen like a show pony for the New York Times.

To think that he had associated with Phoenix. Electron was disgusted. He had never trusted Phoenix--a caution now proved wise. But he had spent hours with him on the phone, with most of the information flowing in one direction. But not only did Phoenix show no discretion at all in dealing with the paper, he bragged about doing things that Electron had done! If Phoenix had to talk--and clearly he should have kept his mouth shut--he should have at least been honest about the systems for which he could claim credit.

Electron had tried with Phoenix. Electron had suggested that he stop talking to the security guys. He had continually urged caution and discretion. He had even subtly withdrawn each time Phoenix suggested one of his hair-brained schemes to show off to a security bigwig. Electron had done this in the hope that Phoenix might get the hint. Maybe, if Phoenix couldn't hear someone shouting advice at him, he might at least listen to someone whispering it. But no. Phoenix was far too thick for that.

The Internet--indeed, all hacking--was out of bounds for weeks, if not months. There was no chance the Australian authorities would let a front-page story in the Times go by un-heeded. The Americans would be all over them. In one selfish act of hubris, Phoenix had ruined the party for everyone else.

Electron unplugged his modem and took it to his father. During exams, he had often asked his father to hide it. He didn't have the self-discipline needed to stay away on his own and there was no other way Electron could keep himself from jacking in--plugging his modem into the wall. His father had become an expert at hiding the device, but Electron usually still managed to find it after a few days, tearing the house apart until he emerged, triumphant, with the modem held high above his head. Even when his father began hiding the modem outside the family home it would only postpone the inevitable.

This time, however, Electron vowed he would stop hacking until the fallout had cleared--he had to. So he handed the modem to his father, with strict instructions, and then tried to distract himself by cleaning up his hard drive and disks. His hacking files had to go too. So much damning evidence of his activities. He deleted some files and took others on disks to store at a friend's house. Deleting files caused Electron considerable pain, but there was no other way. Phoenix had backed him into a corner.

Brimming with excitement, Phoenix rang Electron on a sunny March afternoon.

`Guess what?' Phoenix was jumping around like an eager puppy at the other end of the line. `We made the nightly news right across the US!'

`Uhuh,' Electron responded, unimpressed.

`This is not a joke!' We were on cable news all day too. I called Erik and he told me.'

`Mmm,' Electron said.

`You know, we did a lot of things right. Like Harvard. We got into every system at Harvard. It was a good move. Harvard gave us the fame we needed.'

Electron couldn't believe what he was hearing. He didn't need any fame--and he certainly didn't need to be busted. The conversation--like Phoenix himself--was really beginning to annoy him.

`Hey, and they know your name,' Phoenix said coyly.

That got a reaction. Electron gulped his anger.

`Haha! Just joshing!' Phoenix practically shouted. `Don't worry! They didn't really mention anyone's name.'

`Good,' Electron answered curtly. His irritation stewed quietly.

`So, do you reckon we'll make the cover of Time or Newsweek?'

Good grief! Didn't Phoenix ever give up? As if it wasn't enough to appear on the 6 o'clock national news in a country crawling with over-zealous law enforcement agencies. Or to make the New York Times. He had to have the weeklies too.

Phoenix was revelling in his own publicity. He felt like he was on top of the world, and he wanted to shout about it. Electron had felt the same wave of excitement from hacking many high-profile targets and matching wits with the best, but he was happy to stand on the peak by himself, or with people like Pad and Gandalf, and enjoy the view quietly. He was happy to know he had been the best on the frontier of a computer underground which was fresh, experimental and, most of all, international. He didn't need to call up newspaper reporters or gloat about it in Clifford Stoll's face.

`Well, what do you reckon?' Phoenix asked impatiently.

`No,' Electron answered.

`No? You don't think we will?' Phoenix sounded disappointed.


`Well, I'll demand it!' Phoenix said laughing, `Fuck it, we want the cover of Newsweek, nothing less.' Then, more seriously, `I'm trying to work out what really big target would clinch it for us.'

`Yeah, OK, whatever,' Electron replied, distancing himself again.

But Electron was thinking, Phoenix, you are a fool. Didn't he see the warning signs? Pad's warning, all the busts in the US, reports that the Americans were hunting down the Brits. As a result of these news reports of which Phoenix was so proud, bosses across the world would be calling their computer managers into their offices and breathing down their necks about their own computer security.

The brazen hackers had deeply offended the computer security industry, spurring it into action. In the process, some in the industry had also seen an opportunity to raise its own public profile. The security experts had talked to the law enforcement agencies, who were now clearly sharing information across national borders and closing in fast. The conspirators in the global electronic village were at the point of maximum overreach.

`We could hack Spaf again,' Phoenix volunteered.

`The general public couldn't give a fuck about Eugene Spafford,' Electron said, trying to dampen Phoenix's bizarre enthusiasm. He was all for thumbing one's nose at authority, but this was not the way to do it.

`It'd be so funny in court, though. The lawyer would call Spaf and say, "So, Mr Spafford, is it true that you are a world-renowned computer security expert?" When he said, "Yes" I'd jump up and go, "I object, your honour, this guy doesn't know jackshit, 'cause I hacked his machine and it was a breeze!"'


`Hey, if we don't get busted in the next two weeks, it will be a miracle,' Phoenix continued happily.

`I hope not.'

`This is a lot of fun!' Phoenix shouted sarcastically. `We're gonna get busted! We're gonna get busted!'

Electron's jaw fell to the ground. Phoenix was mad. Only a lunatic would behave this way. Mumbling something about how tired he was, Electron said goodbye and hung up.

At 5.50 a.m. on 2 April 1990, Electron dragged himself out of bed and made his way to the bathroom. Part way through his visit, the light suddenly went out.

How strange. Electron opened his eyes wide in the early morning dimness. He returned to his bedroom and began putting on some jeans before going to investigate the problem.

Suddenly, two men in street clothes yanked his window open and jumped through into the room shouting, `GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR!'

Who were these people? Half-naked, Electron stood in the middle of his room, stunned and immobile. He had suspected the police might pay him a visit, but didn't they normally wear uniforms? Didn't they announce themselves?

The two men grabbed Electron, threw him face down onto the floor and pulled his arms behind his back. They jammed handcuffs on his wrists--hard--cutting his skin. Then someone kicked him in the stomach.

`Are there any firearms in the house?' one of the men asked.

Electron couldn't answer because he couldn't breathe. The kick had winded him. He felt someone pull him up from the floor and prop him in a chair. Lights went on everywhere and he could see six or seven people moving around in the hallway. They must have come into the house another way. The ones in the hallway were all wearing bibs with three large letters emblazoned across the front: AFP.

As Electron slowly gathered his wits, he realised why the cops had asked about firearms. He had once joked to Phoenix on the phone about how he was practising with his dad's .22 for when the feds came around. Obviously the feds had been tapping his phone.

While his father talked with one of the officers in the other room and read the warrant, Electron saw the police pack up his computer gear--worth some $3000--and carry it out of the house. The only thing they didn't discover was the modem. His father had become so expert at hiding it that not even the Australian Federal Police could find it.

Several other officers began searching Electron's bedroom, which was no small feat, given the state it was in. The floor was covered in a thick layer of junk. Half crumpled music band posters, lots of scribbled notes with passwords and NUAs, pens, T-shirts both clean and dirty, jeans, sneakers, accounting books, cassettes, magazines, the occasional dirty cup. By the time the police had sifted through it all the room was tidier than when they started.

As they moved into another room at the end of the raid, Electron bent down to pick up one of his posters which had fallen onto the floor. It was a Police Drug Identification Chart--a gift from a friend's father--and there, smack dab in the middle, was a genuine AFP footprint. Now it was a collector's item. Electron smiled to himself and carefully tucked the poster away.

When he went out to the living room, he saw a policemen holding a couple of shovels and he wanted to laugh again. Electron had also once told Phoenix that all his sensitive hacking disks were buried in the backyard. Now the police were going to dig it up in search of something which had been destroyed a few days before. It was too funny.

The police found little evidence of Electron's hacking at his house, but that didn't really matter. They already had almost everything they needed.

Later that morning, the police put the 20-year-old Electron into an unmarked car and drove him to the AFP's imposing-looking headquarters at 383 Latrobe Street for questioning.

In the afternoon, when Electron had a break from the endless questions, he walked out to the hallway. The boyish-faced Phoenix, aged eighteen, and fellow Realm member Nom, 21, were walking with police at the other end of the hall. They were too far apart to talk, but Electron smiled. Nom looked worried. Phoenix looked annoyed.

Electron was too intimidated to insist on having a lawyer. What was the point in asking for one anyway? It was clear the police had information they could only have obtained from tapping his phone. They also showed him logs taken from Melbourne University, which had been traced back to his phone. Electron figured the game was up, so he might as well tell them the whole story--or at least as much of it as he had told Phoenix on the phone.

Two officers conducted the interview. The lead interviewer was Detective Constable Glenn Proebstl, which seemed to be pronounced `probe stool'--an unfortunate name, Electron thought. Proebstl was accompanied by Constable Natasha Elliott, who occasionally added a few questions at the end of various interview topics but otherwise kept to herself. Although he had decided to answer their questions truthfully, Electron thought that neither of them knew much about computers and found himself struggling to understand what they were trying to ask.

Electron had to begin with the basics. He explained what the FINGER command was--how you could type `finger' followed by a username, and then the computer would provide basic information about the user's name and other details.

`So, what is the methodology behind it ... finger ... then, it's normally ... what is the normal command after that to try and get the password out?' Constable Elliott finally completed her convoluted attempt at a question.

The only problem was that Electron had no idea what she was talking about.

`Well, um, I mean there is none. I mean you don't use finger like that ...'

`Right. OK,' Constable Elliott got down to business. `Well, have you ever used that system before?'

`Uhm, which system?' Electron had been explaining commands for so long he had forgotten if they were still talking about how he hacked the Lawrence Livermore computer or some other site.

`The finger ... The finger system?'

Huh? Electron wasn't quite sure how to answer that question. There was no such thing. Finger was a command, not a computer.

`Uh, yes,' he said.

The interview went the same way, jolting awkwardly through computer technology which he understood far better than either officer. Finally, at the end of a long day, Detective Constable Proebstl asked Electron:

`In your own words, tell me what fascination you find with accessing computers overseas?'

`Well, basically, it's not for any kind of personal gain or anything,' Electron said slowly. It was a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Not because he didn't know the answer, but because it was a difficult answer to describe to someone who had never hacked a computer. `It's just the kick of getting in to a system. I mean, once you are in, you very often get bored and even though you can still access the system, you may never call back.

`Because once you've gotten in, it's a challenge over and you don't really care much about it,' Electron continued, struggling. `It's a hot challenge thing, trying to do things that other people are also trying to do but can't.

`So, I mean, I guess it is a sort of ego thing. It's knowing that you can do stuff that other people cannot, and well, it is the challenge and the ego boost you get from doing something well ... where other people try and fail.'

A few more questions and the day-long interview finally finished. The police then took Electron to the Fitzroy police station. He guessed it was the nearest location with a JP they could find willing to process a bail application at that hour.

In front of the ugly brick building, Electron noticed a small group of people gathered on the footpath in the dusky light. As the police car pulled up, the group swung into a frenzy of activity, fidgeting in over-the-shoulder briefcases, pulling out notebooks and pens, scooping up big microphones with fuzzy shag covers, turning on TV camera lights.

Oh NO! Electron wasn't prepared for this at all.

Flanked by police, Electron stepped out of the police car and blinked in the glare of photographers' camera flashes and TV camera searchlights. The hacker tried to ignore them, walking as briskly as his captors would allow. Sound recordists and reporters tagged beside him, keeping pace, while the TV cameramen and photographers weaved in front of him. Finally he escaped into the safety of the watchhouse.

First there was paperwork, followed by the visit to the JP. While shuffling through his papers, the JP gave Electron a big speech about how defendants often claimed to have been beaten by the police. Sitting in the dingy meeting room, Electron felt somewhat confused by the purpose of this tangential commentary. However, the JP's next question cleared things up: `Have you had any problems with your treatment by the police which you would like to record at this time?'

Electron thought about the brutal kick he had suffered while lying on his bedroom floor, then he looked up and found Detective Constable Proebstl staring him in the eye. A slight smile passed across the detective's face.

`No,' Electron answered.

The JP proceeded to launch into another speech which Electron found even stranger. There was another defendant in the lock-up at the moment, a dangerous criminal who had a disease the JP knew about, and the JP could decide to lock Electron up with that criminal instead of granting him bail.

Was this meant to be helpful warning, or just the gratification of some kind of sadistic tendency? Electron was baffled but he didn't have to consider the situation for long. The JP granted bail. Electron's father came to the watchhouse, collected his son and signed the papers for a $1000 surety--to be paid if Electron skipped town. That night Electron watched as his name appeared on the late night news.

At home over the next few weeks, Electron struggled to come to terms with the fact that he would have to give up hacking forever. He still had his modem, but no computer. Even if he had a machine, he realised it was far too dangerous to even contemplate hacking again.

So he took up drugs instead.

Electron's father waited until the very last days of his illness, in March 1991, before he went into hospital. He knew that once he went in, he would not be coming out again.

There was so much to do before that trip, so many things to organise. The house, the life insurance paperwork, the will, the funeral, the instructions for the family friend who promised to watch over both children when he was gone. And, of course, the children themselves.

He looked at his two children and worried. Despite their ages of 21 and 19, they were in many ways still very sheltered. He realised that Electron's anti-establishment attitude and his sister's emotional remoteness would remain unresolved difficulties at the time of his death. As the cancer progressed, Electron's father tried to tell both children how much he cared for them. He might have been somewhat emotionally remote himself in the past, but with so little time left, he wanted to set the record straight.

On the issue of Electron's problems with the police, however, Electron's father maintained a hands-off approach. Electron had only talked to his father about his hacking exploits occasionally, usually when he had achieved what he considered to be a very noteworthy hack. His father's view was always the same. Hacking is illegal, he told his son, and the police will probably eventually catch you. Then you will have to deal with the problem yourself. He didn't lecture his son, or forbid Electron from hacking. On this issue he considered his son old enough to make his own choices and live with the consequences.

True to his word, Electron's father had shown little sympathy for his son's legal predicament after the police raid. He remained neutral on the subject, saying only, `I told you something like this would happen and now it is your responsibility'.

Electron's hacking case progressed slowly over the year, as did his university accounting studies. In March 1991, he faced committal proceedings and had to decide whether to fight his committal.

He faced fifteen charges, most of which were for obtaining unauthorised access to computers in the US and Australia. A few were aggravated offences, for obtaining access to data of a commercial nature. On one count each, the DPP (the Office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions) said he altered and erased data. Those two counts were the result of his inserting backdoors for himself, not because he did damage to any files. The evidence was reasonably strong: telephone intercepts and datataps on Phoenix's phone which showed him talking to Electron about hacking; logs of Electron's own sessions in Melbourne University's systems which were traced back to his home phone; and Electron's own confession to the police.

This was the first major computer hacking case in Australia under the new legislation. It was a test case--the test case for computer hacking in Australia--and the DPP was going in hard. The case had generated seventeen volumes of evidence, totalling some 25000 pages, and Crown prosecutor Lisa West planned to call up to twenty expert witnesses from Australia, Europe and the US.

Those witnesses had some tales to tell about the Australian hackers, who had caused havoc in systems around the world. Phoenix had accidentally deleted a Texas-based company's inventory of assets--the only copy in existence according to Execucom Systems Corporation. The hackers had also baffled security personnel at the US Naval Research Labs. They had bragged to the New York Times. And they forced NASA to cut off its computer network for 24 hours.

AFP Detective Sergeant Ken Day had flown halfway around the world to obtain a witness statement from none other than NASA Langley computer manager Sharon Beskenis--the admin Phoenix had accidentally kicked off her own system when he was trying to get Deszip. Beskenis had been more than happy to oblige and on 24 July 1990 she signed a statement in Virginia, witnessed by Day. Her statement said that, as a result of the hackers' intrusion, `the entire NASA computer system was disconnected from any external communications with the rest of the world' for about 24 hours on 22 February 1990.

In short, Electron thought, there didn't seem to be much chance of winning at the committal hearing. Nom seemed to feel the same way. He faced two counts, both `knowingly concerned' with Phoenix obtaining unauthorised access. One was for NASA Langley, the other for CSIRO--the Zardoz file. Nom didn't fight his committal either, although Legal Aid's refusal to fund a lawyer for the procedure no doubt weighed in his decision.

On 6 March 1991, Magistrate Robert Langton committed Electron and Nom to stand trial in the Victorian County Court.

Phoenix, however, didn't agree with his fellow hackers' point of view. With financial help from his family, he had decided to fight his committal. He wasn't going to hand this case to the prosecution on a silver platter, and they would have to fight him every step of the way, dragging him forward from proceeding to proceeding. His barrister, Felicity Hampel, argued the court should throw out 47 of the 48 charges against her client on jurisdictional grounds. All but one charge--breaking into the CSIRO machine in order to steal Zardoz--related to hacking activities outside Australia. How could an Australian court claim jurisdiction over a hacked computer in Texas?

Privately, Phoenix worried more about being extradited to the US than dealing with the Australian courts, but publicly he was going into the committal with all guns blazing. It was a test case in many ways; not only the first major hacking case in Australia but also the first time a hacker had fought Australian committal proceedings for computer crimes.

The prosecution agreed to drop one of the 48 counts, noting it was a duplicate charge, but the backdown was a pyrrhic victory for Phoenix. After a two-day committal hearing, Magistrate John Wilkinson decided Hampel's jurisdictional argument didn't hold water and on 14 August 1991 he committed Phoenix to stand trial in the County Court.

By the day of Electron's committal, in March, Electron's father had begun his final decline. The bowel cancer created a roller-coaster of good and bad days, but soon there were only bad days, and they were getting worse. On the last day of March, the doctors told him that it was finally time to make the trip to hospital. He stubbornly refused to go, fighting their advice, questioning their authority. They quietly urged him again. He protested. Finally, they insisted.

Electron and his sister stayed with their father for hours that day, and the following one. Their father had other visitors to keep his spirits up, including his brother who fervently beseeched him to accept Jesus Christ as his personal saviour before he died. That way, he wouldn't burn in hell. Electron looked at his uncle, disbelieving. He couldn't believe his father was having to put up with such crap on his deathbed. Still, Electron chose to be discreet. Apart from an occasional rolling of the eyes, he kept his peace at his father's bedside.

Perhaps, however, the fervent words did some good, for as Electron's father spoke about the funeral arrangements, he made a strange slip of the tongue. He said `wedding' instead of funeral, then paused, realising his mistake. Glancing slowly down at the intricate braided silver wedding band still on his finger, he smiled frailly and said, `I suppose, in a way, it will be like a wedding'.

Electron and his sister went to hospital every day for four days, to sit by their father's bed.

At 6 a.m. on the fifth day, the telephone rang. It was the family friend their father had asked to watch over them. Their father's life signs were very, very weak, fluttering on the edge of death.

When Electron and his sister arrived at the hospital, the nurse's face said everything. They were too late. Their father had died ten minutes before they arrived. Electron broke down and wept. He hugged his sister, who, for a brief moment, seemed almost reachable. Driving them back to the house, the family friend stopped and bought them an answering machine.

`You'll need this when everyone starts calling in,' she told them. `You might not want to talk to anyone for a while.'

In the months after his bust in 1990 Electron began smoking marijuana regularly. At first, as with many other university students, it was a social thing. Some friends dropped by, they happened to have a few joints, and so everybody went out for a night on the town. When he was in serious hacking mode, he never smoked. A clear head was much too important. Besides, the high he got from hacking was a hundred times better than anything dope could ever do for him.

When Phoenix appeared on the front page of the New York Times, Electron gave up hacking. And even if he had been tempted to return to it, he didn't have anything to hack with after the police took his only computer. Electron found himself casting around for something to distract him from his father's deteriorating condition and the void left by giving up hacking. His accounting studies didn't quite fit the bill. They had always seemed empty, but never more so than now.

Smoking pot filled the void. So did tripping. Filled it very nicely. Besides, he told himself, it's harder to get caught smoking dope in your friends' houses than hacking in your own. The habit grew gradually. Soon, he was smoking dope at home. New friends began coming around, and they seemed to have drugs with them all the time--not just occasionally, and not just for fun.

Electron and his sister had been left the family home and enough money to give them a modest income. Electron began spending this money on his new-found hobby. A couple of Electron's new friends moved into the house for a few months. His sister didn't like them dealing drugs out of the place, but Electron didn't care what was happening around him. He just sat in his room, listening to his stereo, smoking dope, dropping acid and watching the walls.

The headphones blocked out everyone in the house, and, more importantly, what was going on inside Electron's own head. Billy Bragg. Faith No More. Cosmic Psychos. Celibate Rifles. Jane's Addiction. The Sex Pistols. The Ramones. Music gave Electron a pinpoint, a figurative dot of light on his forehead where he could focus his mind. Blot out the increasingly strange thoughts creeping through his consciousness.

His father was alive. He was sure of it. He knew it, like he knew the sun would rise tomorrow. Yet he had seen his father lying, dead, in the hospital bed. It didn't make sense.

So he took another hit from the bong, floated in slow motion to his bed, lay down, carefully slid the earphones over his head, closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on what the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were saying instead. When that wasn't enough, he ventured down the hallway, down to his new friends--the friends with the acid tabs. Then, eight more hours without having to worry about the strange thoughts.

Soon people began acting strangely too. They would tell Electron things, but he had trouble understanding them. Pulling a milk carton from the fridge and sniffing it, Electron's sister might say, `Milk's gone off'. But Electron wasn't sure what she meant. He would look at her warily. Maybe she was trying to tell him something else, about spiders. Milking spiders for venom.

When thoughts like these wafted through Electron's mind, they disturbed him, lingering like a sour smell. So he floated back to the safety of his room and listened to songs by Henry Rollins.

After several months in this cloudy state of limbo, Electron awoke one day to find the Crisis Assessment Team--a mobile psychiatric team--in his bedroom. They asked him questions, then they tried to feed him little blue tablets. Electron didn't want to take the tablets. Were little blue pills placebos? He was sure they were. Or maybe they were something more sinister.

Finally, the CAT workers convinced Electron to take the Stelazine tablet. But when they left, terrifying things began to happen. Electron's eyes rolled uncontrollably to the back of his head. His head twisted to the left. His mouth dropped open, very wide. Try as he might, he couldn't shut it, any more than he could turn his head straight. Electron saw himself in the mirror and he panicked. He looked like a character out of a horror picture.

His new house-mates reacted to this strange new behaviour by trying to psychoanalyse Electron, which was less than helpful. They discussed him as if he wasn't even present. He felt like a ghost and, agitated and confused, he began telling his friends that he was going to kill himself. Someone called the CAT team again. This time they refused to leave unless he would guarantee not to attempt suicide.

Electron refused. So they had him committed.

Inside the locked psychiatric ward of Plenty Hospital (now known as NEMPS), Electron believed that, although he had gone crazy, he wasn't really in a hospital psychiatric ward. The place was just supposed to look like one. His father had set it all up.

Electron refused to believe anything that anyone told him. It was all lies. They said one thing, but always meant another.

He had proof. Electron read a list of patients' names on the wall and found one called Tanas. That name had a special meaning. It was an anagram for the word `Santa'. But Santa Claus was a myth, so the name Tanas appearing on the hospital list proved to him that he shouldn't listen to anything anyone told him.

Electron ate his meals mostly in silence, trying to ignore the voluntary and involuntary patients who shared the dining hall. One lunchtime, a stranger sat down at Electron's table and started talking to him. Electron found it excruciatingly painful talking to other people, and he kept wishing the stranger would go away.

The stranger talked about how good the drugs were in hospital.

`Mm,' Electron said. `I used to do a lot of drugs.'

`How much is a lot?'

`I spent $28000 on dope alone in about four months.'

`Wow,' the stranger said, impressed. `Of course, you don't have to pay for drugs. You can always get them for free. I do.'

`You do?' Electron asked, somewhat perplexed.

`Sure! All the time,' the stranger said grandly. `No problem. Just watch.'

The stranger calmly put his fork down on the tray, carefully stood up and then began yelling at the top of his lungs. He waved his arms around frantically and shouted abuse at the other patients.

Two nurses came running from the observation room. One of them tried to calm the stranger down while the other quickly measured out various pills and grabbed a cup of water. The stranger swallowed the pills, chased them with a swig of water and sat down quietly. The nurses retreated, glancing back over their shoulders.

`See?' The stranger said. `Well, I'd better be on my way, before the pills kick in. See ya.'

Electron watched, amazed, as the stranger picked up his bag, walked through the dining-hall door, and straight out the front door of the psychiatric ward.

After a month, the psychiatrists reluctantly allowed Electron to leave the hospital in order to stay with his maternal grandmother in Queensland. He was required to see a psychiatrist regularly. He spent his first few days in Queensland believing he was Jesus Christ. But he didn't hold onto that one for long. After two weeks of patiently waiting and checking for signs of the imminent apocalypse, consistent with the second coming, he decided he was really the reincarnation of Buddha.

In late February 1992, after three months of psychiatric care up north, Electron returned to Melbourne and his university studies, with a bag full of medication. Prozac, major tranquillisers, Lithium. The daily routine went smoothly for a while. Six Prozac--two in the morning, two at midday and two at night. Another anti-depressant to be taken at night. Also at night, the anti-side effect tablets to combat the involuntary eye-rolling, jaw-dropping and neck-twisting associated with the anti-depressants.

All of it was designed to help him deal with what had by now become a long list of diagnoses. Cannabis psychosis. Schizophrenia. Manic depression. Unipolar effective disorder. Schizophrenaform. Amphetamine psychosis. Major effective disorder. Atypical psychosis. And his own personal favourite--facticious disorder, or faking it to get into hospital. But the medication wasn't helping much. Electron still felt wretched, and returning to a host of problems in Melbourne made things worse.

Because of his illness, Electron had been largely out of the loop of legal proceedings. Sunny Queensland provided a welcome escape. Now he was back in Victoria facing a tedious university course in accounting, an ongoing battle with mental illness, federal charges which could see him locked up for ten years, and publicity surrounding the first major hacking case in Australia. It was going to be a hard winter.

To make matters worse, Electron's medication interfered with his ability to study properly. The anti-side effect pills relaxed the muscles in his eyes, preventing them from focusing. The writing on the blackboard at the front of the lecture hall was nothing but a hazy blur. Taking notes was also a problem. The medication made his hands tremble, so he couldn't write properly. By the end of a lecture, Electron's notes were as unreadable as the blackboard. Frustrated, Electron stopped taking his medicine, started smoking dope again and soon felt a little better. When the dope wasn't enough, he turned to magic mushrooms and hallucinogenic cactus.

The hacking case was dragging on and on. On 6 December 1991, just after he left psych hospital but before he flew to Queensland, the office of the DPP had formally filed an indictment containing fifteen charges against Electron, and three against Nom, in the Victorian County Court.

Electron didn't talk to Phoenix much any more, but the DPP lawyers hadn't forgotten about him--far from it. They had much bigger plans for Phoenix, perhaps because he was fighting every step of the way. Phoenix was uncooperative with police in the interview on the day of the raid, frequently refusing to answer their questions. When they asked to fingerprint him, he refused and argued with them about it. This behaviour did not endear him to either the police or the DPP.

On 5 May 1992, the DPP filed a final indictment with 40 charges against Phoenix in the County Court. The charges, in conjunction with those against Electron and Nom, formed part of a joint indictment totalling 58 counts.

Electron worried about being sent to prison. Around the world, hackers were under siege--Par, Pengo, LOD and Erik Bloodaxe, MOD, The Realm hackers, Pad and Gandalf and, most recently, the International Subversives. Somebody seemed to be trying to make a point. Furthermore, Electron's charges had changed considerably--for the worse--from the original ones documented in April 1990.

The DPP's final indictment bore little resemblance to the original charge sheet handed to the young hacker when he left the police station the day he was raided. The final indictment read like a veritable Who's Who of prestigious institutions around the world. Lawrence Livermore Labs, California. Two different computers at the US Naval Research Laboratories, Washington DC. Rutgers University, New Jersey. Tampere University of Technology, Finland. The University of Illinios. Three different computers at the University of Melbourne. Helsinki University of Technology, Finland. The University of New York. NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. CSIRO, Carlton, Victoria.

The charges which worried Electron most related to the US Naval Research Labs, CSIRO, Lawrence Livermore Labs and NASA. The last three weren't full hacking charges. The DPP alleged Electron had been `knowingly concerned' with Phoenix's access of these sites.

Electron looked at the thirteen-page joint indictment and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He had been a lot more than `knowingly concerned' with accessing those sites. In many cases, he had given Phoenix access to those computers in the first place. But Electron tried to tread quietly, carefully, through most systems, while Phoenix had noisily stomped around with all the grace of a buffalo--and left just as many footprints. Electron hardly wanted to face full charges for those or any other sites. He had broken into thousands of sites on the X.25 network, but he hadn't been charged with any of them. He couldn't help feeling a little like the gangster Al Capone being done for tax evasion.

The proceedings were attracting considerable media attention. Electron suspected the AFP or the DPP were alerting the media to upcoming court appearances, perhaps in part to prove to the Americans that `something was being done'.

This case had American pressure written all over it. Electron's barrister, Boris Kayser, said he suspected that `the Americans'--American institutions, companies or government agencies--were indirectly funding some of the prosecution's case by offering to pay for US witnesses to attend the trial. The Americans wanted to see the Australian hackers go down, and they were throwing all their best resources at the case to make sure it happened.

There was one other thing--in some ways the most disturbing matter of all. In the course of the legal to-ing and fro-ing, Electron was told that it was the US Secret Service back in 1988 which had triggered the AFP investigation into The Realm hackers--an investigation which had led to Electron's bust and current legal problems. The Secret Service was after the hackers who broke into Citibank.

As it happened, Electron had never touched Citibank. Credit cards couldn't interest him less. He found banks boring and, the way he looked at it, their computers were full of mundane numbers belonging to the world of accounting. He had already suffered through enough of those tedious types of numbers in his university course. Unless he wanted to steal from banks--something he would not do--there was no point in breaking into their computers.

But the US Secret Service was very interested in banks--and in Phoenix. For they didn't just believe that Phoenix had been inside Citibank's computers. They believed he had masterminded the Citibank attack.

And why did the US Secret Service think that? Because, Electron was told, Phoenix had gone around bragging about it in the underground. He hadn't just told people he had hacked into Citibank computers, he reportedly boasted that he had stolen some $50000 from the bank.

Going through his legal brief, Electron had discovered something which seemed to confirm what he was being told. The warrant for the telephone tap on both of Phoenix's home phones mentioned a potential `serious loss to Citibank' as a justification for the warrant. Strangely, the typed words had been crossed out in the handwritten scrawl of the judge who approved the warrant. But they were still legible. No wonder the US Secret Service began chasing the case, Electron thought. Banks get upset when they think people have found a way to rip them off anonymously.

Electron knew that Phoenix hadn't stolen any money from Citibank. Rather, he had been circulating fantastic stories about himself to puff up his image in the underground, and in the process had managed to get them all busted.

In September 1992, Phoenix rang Electron suggesting they get together to discuss the case. Electron wondered why. Maybe he suspected something, sensing that the links binding them were weak, and becoming weaker by the month. That Electron's mental illness had changed his perception of the world. That his increasingly remote attitude to Phoenix suggested an underlying anger about the continual bragging. Whatever the reason, Phoenix's gnawing worry must have been confirmed when Electron put off meeting with him.

Electron didn't want to meet with Phoenix because he didn't like him, and because he thought Phoenix was largely responsible for getting the Australian hackers into their current predicament.

With these thoughts fermenting in his mind, Electron listened with interest a few months later when his solicitor, John McLoughlin, proposed an idea. In legal circles, it was nothing new. But it was new to Electron. He resolved to take up McLoughlin's advice.

Electron decided to testify as a Crown witness against Phoenix.

Contents | Previous: Chapter 5 -- The Holy Grail | Next: Chapter 7 -- Judgement Day