Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN
Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
by Bruce Sterling
Preface to the Electronic Release of *The Hacker
January 1, 1994 -- Austin, Texas
Hi, I'm Bruce Sterling, the author of this
Out in the traditional world of print, *The
Hacker Crackdown* is ISBN 0-553-08058-X, and is
formally catalogued by the Library of Congress as "1.
Computer crimes -- United States. 2. Telephone --
United States -- Corrupt practices. 3. Programming
(Electronic computers) -- United States -- Corrupt
practices." 'Corrupt practices,' I always get a kick out
of that description. Librarians are very ingenious
The paperback is ISBN 0-553-56370-X. If you go
and buy a print version of *The Hacker Crackdown,*
an action I encourage heartily, you may notice that
in the front of the book, beneath the copyright
notice -- "Copyright (C) 1992 by Bruce Sterling" -- it
has this little block of printed legal boilerplate from
the publisher. It says, and I quote:
"No part of this book may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic
or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,
or by any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address: Bantam Books."
This is a pretty good disclaimer, as such
disclaimers go. I collect intellectual-property
disclaimers, and I've seen dozens of them, and this
one is at least pretty straightforward. In this narrow
and particular case, however, it isn't quite accurate.
Bantam Books puts that disclaimer on every book
they publish, but Bantam Books does not, in fact,
own the electronic rights to this book. I do, because
of certain extensive contract maneuverings my
agent and I went through before this book was
written. I want to give those electronic publishing
rights away through certain not-for-profit channels,
and I've convinced Bantam that this is a good idea.
Since Bantam has seen fit to peacably agree to
this scheme of mine, Bantam Books is not going to
fuss about this. Provided you don't try to sell the
book, they are not going to bother you for what you
do with the electronic copy of this book. If you want
to check this out personally, you can ask them;
they're at 1540 Broadway NY NY 10036. However, if
you were so foolish as to print this book and start
retailing it for money in violation of my copyright
and the commercial interests of Bantam Books,
then Bantam, a part of the gigantic Bertelsmann
multinational publishing combine, would roust
some of their heavy-duty attorneys out of
hibernation and crush you like a bug. This is only to
be expected. I didn't write this book so that you
could make money out of it. If anybody is gonna
make money out of this book, it's gonna be me and
My publisher deserves to make money out of
this book. Not only did the folks at Bantam Books
commission me to write the book, and pay me a
hefty sum to do so, but they bravely printed, in text,
an electronic document the reproduction of which
was once alleged to be a federal felony. Bantam
Books and their numerous attorneys were very
brave and forthright about this book. Furthermore,
my former editor at Bantam Books, Betsy Mitchell,
genuinely cared about this project, and worked hard
on it, and had a lot of wise things to say about the
manuscript. Betsy deserves genuine credit for this
book, credit that editors too rarely get.
The critics were very kind to *The Hacker
Crackdown,* and commercially the book has done
well. On the other hand, I didn't write this book in
order to squeeze every last nickel and dime out of
the mitts of impoverished sixteen-year-old
cyberpunk high-school-students. Teenagers don't
have any money -- (no, not even enough for the six-
dollar *Hacker Crackdown* paperback, with its
attractive bright-red cover and useful index). That's
a major reason why teenagers sometimes succumb
to the temptation to do things they shouldn't, such
as swiping my books out of libraries. Kids: this one
is all yours, all right? Go give the print version back.
Well-meaning, public-spirited civil libertarians
don't have much money, either. And it seems
almost criminal to snatch cash out of the hands of
America's direly underpaid electronic law
If you're a computer cop, a hacker, or an
electronic civil liberties activist, you are the target
audience for this book. I wrote this book because I
wanted to help you, and help other people
understand you and your unique, uhm, problems. I
wrote this book to aid your activities, and to
contribute to the public discussion of important
political issues. In giving the text away in this
fashion, I am directly contributing to the book's
ultimate aim: to help civilize cyberspace.
Information *wants* to be free. And the
information inside this book longs for freedom with
a peculiar intensity. I genuinely believe that the
natural habitat of this book is inside an electronic
network. That may not be the easiest direct method
to generate revenue for the book's author, but that
doesn't matter; this is where this book belongs by its
nature. I've written other books -- plenty of other
books -- and I'll write more and I am writing more,
but this one is special. I am making *The Hacker
Crackdown* available electronically as widely as I
can conveniently manage, and if you like the book,
and think it is useful, then I urge you to do the same
You can copy this electronic book. Copy the
heck out of it, be my guest, and give those copies to
anybody who wants them. The nascent world of
cyberspace is full of sysadmins, teachers, trainers,
cybrarians, netgurus, and various species of
cybernetic activist. If you're one of those people, I
know about you, and I know the hassle you go
through to try to help people learn about the
electronic frontier. I hope that possessing this book
in electronic form will lessen your troubles. Granted,
this treatment of our electronic social spectrum is
not the ultimate in academic rigor. And politically, it
has something to offend and trouble almost
everyone. But hey, I'm told it's readable, and at
least the price is right.
You can upload the book onto bulletin board
systems, or Internet nodes, or electronic discussion
groups. Go right ahead and do that, I am giving you
express permission right now. Enjoy yourself.
You can put the book on disks and give the disks
away, as long as you don't take any money for it.
But this book is not public domain. You can't
copyright it in your own name. I own the copyright.
Attempts to pirate this book and make money from
selling it may involve you in a serious litigative snarl.
Believe me, for the pittance you might wring out of
such an action, it's really not worth it. This book
don't "belong" to you. In an odd but very genuine
way, I feel it doesn't "belong" to me, either. It's a
book about the people of cyberspace, and
distributing it in this way is the best way I know to
actually make this information available, freely and
easily, to all the people of cyberspace -- including
people far outside the borders of the United States,
who otherwise may never have a chance to see any
edition of the book, and who may perhaps learn
something useful from this strange story of distant,
obscure, but portentous events in so-called
This electronic book is now literary freeware. It
now belongs to the emergent realm of alternative
information economics. You have no right to make
this electronic book part of the conventional flow of
commerce. Let it be part of the flow of knowledge:
there's a difference. I've divided the book into four
sections, so that it is less ungainly for upload and
download; if there's a section of particular relevance
to you and your colleagues, feel free to reproduce
that one and skip the rest.
Just make more when you need them, and give
them to whoever might want them.
Now have fun.
Bruce Sterling -- firstname.lastname@example.org
CHRONOLOGY OF THE HACKER CRACKDOWN
1865 U.S. Secret Service (USSS) founded.
1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents telephone.
1878 First teenage males flung off phone system by
1939 "Futurian" science-fiction group raided by Secret
1971 Yippie phone phreaks start YIPL/TAP magazine.
1972 *Ramparts* magazine seized in blue-box rip-off
1978 Ward Christenson and Randy Suess create first
personal computer bulletin board system.
1982 William Gibson coins term "cyberspace."
1982 "414 Gang" raided.
1983-1983 AT&T dismantled in divestiture.
1984 Congress passes Comprehensive Crime Control Act
giving USSS jurisdiction over credit card fraud and
1984 "Legion of Doom" formed.
1984. *2600: The Hacker Quarterly* founded.
1984. *Whole Earth Software Catalog* published.
1985. First police "sting" bulletin board systems
1985. Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link computer conference
(WELL) goes on-line.
1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act passed.
1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act passed.
1987 Chicago prosecutors form Computer Fraud and
Abuse Task Force.
July. Secret Service covertly videotapes "SummerCon"
September. "Prophet" cracks BellSouth AIMSX computer
network and downloads E911 Document to his own
computer and to Jolnet.
September. AT&T Corporate Information Security
informed of Prophet's action.
October. Bellcore Security informed of Prophet's action.
January. Prophet uploads E911 Document to Knight
February 25. Knight Lightning publishes E911Document
in *Phrack* electronic newsletter.
May. Chicago Task Force raids and arrests "Kyrie."
June. "NuPrometheus League" distributes Apple
Computer proprietary software.
June 13. Florida probation office crossed with phone-sex
line in switching-station stunt.
July. "Fry Guy" raided by USSS and Chicago Computer
Fraud and Abuse Task Force.
July. Secret Service raids "Prophet," "Leftist," and
January 15. Martin Luther King Day Crash strikes AT&T
long-distance network nationwide.
January 18-19 Chicago Task Force raids Knight Lightning
in St. Louis.
January 24. USSS and New York State Police raid "Phiber
Optik," "Acid Phreak," and "Scorpion" in New York City.
February 1. USSS raids "Terminus" in Maryland.
February 3. Chicago Task Force raids Richard Andrews'
February 6. Chicago Task Force raids Richard Andrews'
February 6. USSS arrests Terminus, Prophet, Leftist, and
February 9. Chicago Task Force arrests Knight Lightning.
February 20. AT&T Security shuts down public-access
"attctc" computer in Dallas.
February 21. Chicago Task Force raids Robert Izenberg in
March 1. Chicago Task Force raids Steve Jackson Games,
Inc., "Mentor," and "Erik Bloodaxe" in Austin.
May 7,8,9. USSS and Arizona Organized Crime and
Racketeering Bureau conduct "Operation Sundevil" raids
in Cincinnatti, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark,
Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Tucson, San Diego, San
Jose, and San Francisco.
May. FBI interviews John Perry Barlow re NuPrometheus
June. Mitch Kapor and Barlow found Electronic Frontier
Foundation; Barlow publishes *Crime and Puzzlement*
July 24-27. Trial of Knight Lightning.
February. CPSR Roundtable in Washington, D.C.
March 25-28. Computers, Freedom and Privacy
conference in San Francisco.
May 1. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Steve Jackson, and
others file suit against members of Chicago Task Force.
July 1-2. Switching station phone software crash affects
Washington, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco.
September 17. AT&T phone crash affects New York City
and three airports.
This is a book about cops, and wild teenage whiz-
kids, and lawyers, and hairy-eyed anarchists, and
industrial technicians, and hippies, and high-tech
millionaires, and game hobbyists, and computer security
experts, and Secret Service agents, and grifters, and
This book is about the electronic frontier of the
It concerns activities that take place inside computers and
over telephone lines.
A science fiction writer coined the useful term
"cyberspace" in 1982. But the territory in question, the
electronic frontier, is about a hundred and thirty years
Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation
appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the
plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's
phone, in some other city. *The place between* the
phones. The indefinite place *out there,* where the two of
you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.
Although it is not exactly "real," "cyberspace" is a
genuine place. Things happen there that have very
genuine consequences. This "place" is not "real," but it is
serious, it is earnest. Tens of thousands of people have
dedicated their lives to it, to the public service of public
communication by wire and electronics.
People have worked on this "frontier" for
generations now. Some people became rich and famous
from their efforts there. Some just played in it, as
hobbyists. Others soberly pondered it, and wrote about it,
and regulated it, and negotiated over it in international
forums, and sued one another about it, in gigantic, epic
court battles that lasted for years. And almost since the
beginning, some people have committed crimes in this
But in the past twenty years, this electrical "space,"
which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional -- little
more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone
to phone -- has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-in-
box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the
glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld
has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since
the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself
with computers and television, and though there is still no
substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a
strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense
today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.
Because people live in it now. Not just a few people,
not just a few technicians and eccentrics, but thousands of
people, quite normal people. And not just for a little
either, but for hours straight, over weeks, and months, and
years. Cyberspace today is a "Net," a "Matrix,"
international in scope and growing swiftly and steadily.
growing in size, and wealth, and political importance.
People are making entire careers in modern
cyberspace. Scientists and technicians, of course; they've
been there for twenty years now. But increasingly,
cyberspace is filling with journalists and doctors and
lawyers and artists and clerks. Civil servants make their
careers there now, "on-line" in vast government data-
banks; and so do spies, industrial, political, and just
snoops; and so do police, at least a few of them. And there
are children living there now.
People have met there and been married there.
There are entire living communities in cyberspace today;
chattering, gossipping, planning, conferring and
scheming, leaving one another voice-mail and electronic
mail, giving one another big weightless chunks of valuable
data, both legitimate and illegitimate. They busily pass
one another computer software and the occasional
festering computer virus.
We do not really understand how to live in
cyberspace yet. We are feeling our way into it, blundering
about. That is not surprising. Our lives in the physical
world, the "real" world, are also far from perfect, despite
lot more practice. Human lives, real lives, are imperfect
by their nature, and there are human beings in
cyberspace. The way we live in cyberspace is a funhouse
mirror of the way we live in the real world. We take both
our advantages and our troubles with us.
This book is about trouble in cyberspace.
Specifically, this book is about certain strange events in
the year 1990, an unprecedented and startling year for the
the growing world of computerized communications.
In 1990 there came a nationwide crackdown on
computer hackers, with arrests, criminal charges, one
dramatic show-trial, several guilty pleas, and huge
confiscations of data and equipment all over the USA.
The Hacker Crackdown of 1990 was larger, better
organized, more deliberate, and more resolute than any
previous effort in the brave new world of computer crime.
The U.S. Secret Service, private telephone security, and
state and local law enforcement groups across the country
all joined forces in a determined attempt to break the
back of America's electronic underground. It was a
fascinating effort, with very mixed results.
The Hacker Crackdown had another unprecedented
effect; it spurred the creation, within "the computer
community," of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a new
and very odd interest group, fiercely dedicated to the
establishment and preservation of electronic civil
The crackdown, remarkable in itself, has created a melee
of debate over electronic crime, punishment, freedom of
the press, and issues of search and seizure. Politics has
entered cyberspace. Where people go, politics follow.
This is the story of the people of cyberspace.
PART ONE: Crashing the System
On January 15, 1990, AT&T's long-distance telephone
switching system crashed.
This was a strange, dire, huge event. Sixty thousand
people lost their telephone service completely. During
the nine long hours of frantic effort that it took to
service, some seventy million telephone calls went
Losses of service, known as "outages" in the telco
trade, are a known and accepted hazard of the telephone
business. Hurricanes hit, and phone cables get snapped
by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through buried
fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn
the ground. These things do happen. There are
contingency plans for them, and decades of experience in
dealing with them. But the Crash of January 15 was
unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred
for no apparent physical reason.
The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single
switching-station in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely
physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after
station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until
fully half of AT&T's network had gone haywire and the
remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow.
Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or
less understood what had caused the crash. Replicating
the problem exactly, poring over software line by line,
took them a couple of weeks. But because it was hard to
understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its
implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and
explained. The root cause of the crash remained obscure,
surrounded by rumor and fear.
The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment.
The "culprit" was a bug in AT&T's own software -- not the
sort of admission the telecommunications giant wanted to
make, especially in the face of increasing competition.
Still, the truth *was* told, in the baffling technical
necessary to explain it.
Somehow the explanation failed to persuade
American law enforcement officials and even telephone
corporate security personnel. These people were not
technical experts or software wizards, and they had their
own suspicions about the cause of this disaster.
The police and telco security had important sources
of information denied to mere software engineers. They
had informants in the computer underground and years
of experience in dealing with high-tech rascality that
seemed to grow ever more sophisticated. For years they
had been expecting a direct and savage attack against the
American national telephone system. And with the Crash
of January 15 -- the first month of a new, high-tech decade
-- their predictions, fears, and suspicions seemed at last
have entered the real world. A world where the telephone
system had not merely crashed, but, quite likely, *been*
crashed -- by "hackers."
The crash created a large dark cloud of suspicion
that would color certain people's assumptions and actions
for months. The fact that it took place in the realm of
software was suspicious on its face. The fact that it
occurred on Martin Luther King Day, still the most
politically touchy of American holidays, made it more
The Crash of January 15 gave the Hacker
Crackdown its sense of edge and its sweaty urgency. It
made people, powerful people in positions of public
authority, willing to believe the worst. And, most fatally,
helped to give investigators a willingness to take extreme
measures and the determination to preserve almost total
An obscure software fault in an aging switching
system in New York was to lead to a chain reaction of legal
and constitutional trouble all across the country.
Like the crash in the telephone system, this chain
reaction was ready and waiting to happen. During the
1980s, the American legal system was extensively patched
to deal with the novel issues of computer crime. There
was, for instance, the Electronic Communications Privacy
Act of 1986 (eloquently described as "a stinking mess" by a
prominent law enforcement official). And there was the
draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, passed
unanimously by the United States Senate, which later
would reveal a large number of flaws. Extensive, well-
meant efforts had been made to keep the legal system up
to date. But in the day-to-day grind of the real world,
the most elegant software tends to crumble and suddenly
reveal its hidden bugs.
Like the advancing telephone system, the American
legal system was certainly not ruined by its temporary
crash; but for those caught under the weight of the
collapsing system, life became a series of blackouts and
In order to understand why these weird events
occurred, both in the world of technology and in the world
of law, it's not enough to understand the merely technical
problems. We will get to those; but first and foremost, we
must try to understand the telephone, and the business of
telephones, and the community of human beings that
telephones have created.
Technologies have life cycles, like cities do, like
institutions do, like laws and governments do.
The first stage of any technology is the Question
Mark, often known as the "Golden Vaporware" stage. At
this early point, the technology is only a phantom, a mere
gleam in the inventor's eye. One such inventor was a
speech teacher and electrical tinkerer named Alexander
Bell's early inventions, while ingenious, failed to
move the world. In 1863, the teenage Bell and his brother
Melville made an artificial talking mechanism out of
wood, rubber, gutta-percha, and tin. This weird device had
a rubber-covered "tongue" made of movable wooden
segments, with vibrating rubber "vocal cords," and rubber
"lips" and "cheeks." While Melville puffed a bellows into a
tin tube, imitating the lungs, young Alec Bell would
manipulate the "lips," "teeth," and "tongue," causing the
thing to emit high-pitched falsetto gibberish.
Another would-be technical breakthrough was the
Bell "phonautograph" of 1874, actually made out of a
human cadaver's ear. Clamped into place on a tripod, this
grisly gadget drew sound-wave images on smoked glass
through a thin straw glued to its vibrating earbones.
By 1875, Bell had learned to produce audible sounds -
- ugly shrieks and squawks -- by using magnets,
diaphragms, and electrical current.
Most "Golden Vaporware" technologies go nowhere.
But the second stage of technology is the Rising Star,
or, the "Goofy Prototype," stage. The telephone, Bell's
most ambitious gadget yet, reached this stage on March
10, 1876. On that great day, Alexander Graham Bell
became the first person to transmit intelligible human
speech electrically. As it happened, young Professor
industriously tinkering in his Boston lab, had spattered
his trousers with acid. His assistant, Mr. Watson, heard
his cry for help -- over Bell's experimental audio-
telegraph. This was an event without precedent.
Technologies in their "Goofy Prototype" stage rarely
work very well. They're experimental, and therefore half-
baked and rather frazzled. The prototype may be
attractive and novel, and it does look as if it ought to be
good for something-or-other. But nobody, including the
inventor, is quite sure what. Inventors, and speculators,
and pundits may have very firm ideas about its potential
use, but those ideas are often very wrong.
The natural habitat of the Goofy Prototype is in
shows and in the popular press. Infant technologies need
publicity and investment money like a tottering calf need
milk. This was very true of Bell's machine. To raise
research and development money, Bell toured with his
device as a stage attraction.
Contemporary press reports of the stage debut of
the telephone showed pleased astonishment mixed with
considerable dread. Bell's stage telephone was a large
wooden box with a crude speaker-nozzle, the whole
contraption about the size and shape of an overgrown
Brownie camera. Its buzzing steel soundplate, pumped
up by powerful electromagnets, was loud enough to fill an
auditorium. Bell's assistant Mr. Watson, who could
manage on the keyboards fairly well, kicked in by playing
the organ from distant rooms, and, later, distant cities.
This feat was considered marvellous, but very eerie
Bell's original notion for the telephone, an idea
promoted for a couple of years, was that it would become
a mass medium. We might recognize Bell's idea today as
something close to modern "cable radio." Telephones at
a central source would transmit music, Sunday sermons,
and important public speeches to a paying network of
At the time, most people thought this notion made
good sense. In fact, Bell's idea was workable. In
Hungary, this philosophy of the telephone was
successfully put into everyday practice. In Budapest, for
decades, from 1893 until after World War I, there was a
government-run information service called "Telefon
Hirmondo=." Hirmondo= was a centralized source of news
and entertainment and culture, including stock reports,
plays, concerts, and novels read aloud. At certain hours of
the day, the phone would ring, you would plug in a
loudspeaker for the use of the family, and Telefon
Hirmondo= would be on the air -- or rather, on the phone.
Hirmondo= is dead tech today, but Hirmondo= might
be considered a spiritual ancestor of the modern
telephone-accessed computer data services, such as
CompuServe, GEnie or Prodigy. The principle behind
Hirmondo= is also not too far from computer "bulletin-
board systems" or BBS's, which arrived in the late 1970s,
spread rapidly across America, and will figure largely in
We are used to using telephones for individual
person-to-person speech, because we are used to the Bell
system. But this was just one possibility among many.
Communication networks are very flexible and protean,
especially when their hardware becomes sufficiently
advanced. They can be put to all kinds of uses. And they
have been -- and they will be.
Bell's telephone was bound for glory, but this was a
combination of political decisions, canny infighting in
court, inspired industrial leadership, receptive local
conditions and outright good luck. Much the same is true
of communications systems today.
As Bell and his backers struggled to install their
newfangled system in the real world of nineteenth-century
New England, they had to fight against skepticism and
industrial rivalry. There was already a strong electrical
communications network present in America: the
telegraph. The head of the Western Union telegraph
system dismissed Bell's prototype as "an electrical toy"
and refused to buy the rights to Bell's patent. The
telephone, it seemed, might be all right as a parlor
entertainment -- but not for serious business.
Telegrams, unlike mere telephones, left a permanent
physical record of their messages. Telegrams, unlike
telephones, could be answered whenever the recipient
had time and convenience. And the telegram had a much
longer distance-range than Bell's early telephone. These
factors made telegraphy seem a much more sound and
businesslike technology -- at least to some.
The telegraph system was huge, and well-entrenched.
In 1876, the United States had 214,000 miles of telegraph
wire, and 8500 telegraph offices. There were specialized
telegraphs for businesses and stock traders, government,
police and fire departments. And Bell's "toy" was best
known as a stage-magic musical device.
The third stage of technology is known as the "Cash
Cow" stage. In the "cash cow" stage, a technology finds
place in the world, and matures, and becomes settled and
productive. After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell
and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music
piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the
real selling-point of his invention. Instead, the telephone
was about speech -- individual, personal speech, the
human voice, human conversation and human
interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from
any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal,
When you picked up a telephone, you were not
absorbing the cold output of a machine -- you were
speaking to another human being. Once people realized
this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie,
unnatural device, swiftly vanished. A "telephone call" was
not a "call" from a "telephone" itself, but a call from
another human being, someone you would generally know
and recognize. The real point was not what the machine
could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a
person and citizen, could do *through* the machine. This
decision on the part of the young Bell Company was
The first telephone networks went up around Boston -
- mostly among the technically curious and the well-to-do
(much the same segment of the American populace that,
a hundred years later, would be buying personal
computers). Entrenched backers of the telegraph
continued to scoff.
But in January 1878, a disaster made the telephone
famous. A train crashed in Tarriffville, Connecticut.
Forward-looking doctors in the nearby city of Hartford had
had Bell's "speaking telephone" installed. An alert local
druggist was able to telephone an entire community of
local doctors, who rushed to the site to give aid. The
disaster, as disasters do, aroused intense press coverage.
The phone had proven its usefulness in the real world.
After Tarriffville, the telephone network spread like
crabgrass. By 1890 it was all over New England. By '93,
to Chicago. By '97, into Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas.
By 1904 it was all over the continent.
The telephone had become a mature technology.
Professor Bell (now generally known as "Dr. Bell" despite
his lack of a formal degree) became quite wealthy. He
lost interest in the tedious day-to-day business muddle of
the booming telephone network, and gratefully returned
his attention to creatively hacking-around in his various
laboratories, which were now much larger, better-
ventilated, and gratifyingly better-equipped. Bell was
never to have another great inventive success, though his
speculations and prototypes anticipated fiber-optic
transmission, manned flight, sonar, hydrofoil ships,
tetrahedral construction, and Montessori education. The
"decibel," the standard scientific measure of sound
intensity, was named after Bell.
Not all Bell's vaporware notions were inspired. He
was fascinated by human eugenics. He also spent many
years developing a weird personal system of astrophysics
in which gravity did not exist.
Bell was a definite eccentric. He was something of a
hypochondriac, and throughout his life he habitually
stayed up until four A.M., refusing to rise before noon.
But Bell had accomplished a great feat; he was an idol of
millions and his influence, wealth, and great personal
charm, combined with his eccentricity, made him
something of a loose cannon on deck. Bell maintained a
thriving scientific salon in his winter mansion in
Washington, D.C., which gave him considerable
backstage influence in governmental and scientific
circles. He was a major financial backer of the the
magazines *Science* and *National Geographic,* both
still flourishing today as important organs of the American
Bell's companion Thomas Watson, similarly wealthy
and similarly odd, became the ardent political disciple of a
19th-century science-fiction writer and would-be social
reformer, Edward Bellamy. Watson also trod the boards
briefly as a Shakespearian actor.
There would never be another Alexander Graham
Bell, but in years to come there would be surprising
numbers of people like him. Bell was a prototype of the
high-tech entrepreneur. High-tech entrepreneurs will
play a very prominent role in this book: not merely as
technicians and businessmen, but as pioneers of the
technical frontier, who can carry the power and prestige
they derive from high-technology into the political and
Like later entrepreneurs, Bell was fierce in defense of
his own technological territory. As the telephone began to
flourish, Bell was soon involved in violent lawsuits in the
defense of his patents. Bell's Boston lawyers were
excellent, however, and Bell himself, as an elecution
teacher and gifted public speaker, was a devastatingly
effective legal witness. In the eighteen years of Bell's
patents, the Bell company was involved in six hundred
separate lawsuits. The legal records printed filled 149
volumes. The Bell Company won every single suit.
After Bell's exclusive patents expired, rival telephone
companies sprang up all over America. Bell's company,
American Bell Telephone, was soon in deep trouble. In
1907, American Bell Telephone fell into the hands of the
rather sinister J.P. Morgan financial cartel, robber-baron
speculators who dominated Wall Street.
At this point, history might have taken a different
turn. American might well have been served forever by a
patchwork of locally owned telephone companies. Many
state politicians and local businessmen considered this an
But the new Bell holding company, American
Telephone and Telegraph or AT&T, put in a new man at
the helm, a visionary industrialist named Theodore Vail.
Vail, a former Post Office manager, understood large
organizations and had an innate feeling for the nature of
large-scale communications. Vail quickly saw to it that
AT&T seized the technological edge once again. The
Pupin and Campbell "loading coil," and the deForest
"audion," are both extinct technology today, but in 1913
they gave Vail's company the best *long-distance* lines
ever built. By controlling long-distance -- the links
between, and over, and above the smaller local phone
companies -- AT&T swiftly gained the whip-hand over
them, and was soon devouring them right and left.
Vail plowed the profits back into research and
development, starting the Bell tradition of huge-scale and
brilliant industrial research.
Technically and financially, AT&T gradually
steamrollered the opposition. Independent telephone
companies never became entirely extinct, and hundreds
of them flourish today. But Vail's AT&T became the
supreme communications company. At one point, Vail's
AT&T bought Western Union itself, the very company
that had derided Bell's telephone as a "toy." Vail
thoroughly reformed Western Union's hidebound
business along his modern principles; but when the
federal government grew anxious at this centralization of
power, Vail politely gave Western Union back.
This centralizing process was not unique. Very
similar events had happened in American steel, oil, and
railroads. But AT&T, unlike the other companies, was to
remain supreme. The monopoly robber-barons of those
other industries were humbled and shattered by
Vail, the former Post Office official, was quite
to accommodate the US government; in fact he would
forge an active alliance with it. AT&T would become
almost a wing of the American government, almost
another Post Office -- though not quite. AT&T would
willingly submit to federal regulation, but in return, it
would use the government's regulators as its own police,
who would keep out competitors and assure the Bell
system's profits and preeminence.
This was the second birth -- the political birth -- of
American telephone system. Vail's arrangement was to
persist, with vast success, for many decades, until 1982.
His system was an odd kind of American industrial
socialism. It was born at about the same time as Leninist
Communism, and it lasted almost as long -- and, it must
be admitted, to considerably better effect.
Vail's system worked. Except perhaps for aerospace,
there has been no technology more thoroughly dominated
by Americans than the telephone. The telephone was
seen from the beginning as a quintessentially American
technology. Bell's policy, and the policy of Theodore
was a profoundly democratic policy of *universal access.*
Vail's famous corporate slogan, "One Policy, One System,
Universal Service," was a political slogan, with a very
American ring to it.
The American telephone was not to become the
specialized tool of government or business, but a general
public utility. At first, it was true, only the wealthy
afford private telephones, and Bell's company pursued
the business markets primarily. The American phone
system was a capitalist effort, meant to make money; it
was not a charity. But from the first, almost all
communities with telephone service had public
telephones. And many stores -- especially drugstores --
offered public use of their phones. You might not own a
telephone -- but you could always get into the system, if
you really needed to.
There was nothing inevitable about this decision to
make telephones "public" and "universal." Vail's system
involved a profound act of trust in the public. This
decision was a political one, informed by the basic values
of the American republic. The situation might have been
very different; and in other countries, under other
systems, it certainly was.
Joseph Stalin, for instance, vetoed plans for a Soviet
phone system soon after the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin
was certain that publicly accessible telephones would
become instruments of anti-Soviet counterrevolution and
conspiracy. (He was probably right.) When telephones
did arrive in the Soviet Union, they would be instruments
of Party authority, and always heavily tapped. (Alexander
Solzhenitsyn's prison-camp novel *The First Circle*
describes efforts to develop a phone system more suited
to Stalinist purposes.)
France, with its tradition of rational centralized
government, had fought bitterly even against the electric
telegraph, which seemed to the French entirely too
anarchical and frivolous. For decades, nineteenth-
century France communicated via the "visual telegraph,"
a nation-spanning, government-owned semaphore
system of huge stone towers that signalled from hilltops,
across vast distances, with big windmill-like arms. In
one Dr. Barbay, a semaphore enthusiast, memorably
uttered an early version of what might be called "the
security expert's argument" against the open media.
"No, the electric telegraph is not a sound invention.
It will always be at the mercy of the slightest disruption,
wild youths, drunkards, bums, etc.... The electric
meets those destructive elements with only a few meters
of wire over which supervision is impossible. A single man
could, without being seen, cut the telegraph wires leading
to Paris, and in twenty-four hours cut in ten different
places the wires of the same line, without being arrested.
The visual telegraph, on the contrary, has its towers, its
high walls, its gates well-guarded from inside by strong
armed men. Yes, I declare, substitution of the electric
telegraph for the visual one is a dreadful measure, a truly
Dr. Barbay and his high-security stone machines
were eventually unsuccessful, but his argument -- that
communication exists for the safety and convenience of
the state, and must be carefully protected from the wild
boys and the gutter rabble who might want to crash the
system -- would be heard again and again.
When the French telephone system finally did arrive,
its snarled inadequacy was to be notorious. Devotees of
the American Bell System often recommended a trip to
France, for skeptics.
In Edwardian Britain, issues of class and privacy were
a ball-and-chain for telephonic progress. It was
considered outrageous that anyone -- any wild fool off the
street -- could simply barge bellowing into one's office or
home, preceded only by the ringing of a telephone bell.
In Britain, phones were tolerated for the use of business,
but private phones tended be stuffed away into closets,
smoking rooms, or servants' quarters. Telephone
operators were resented in Britain because they did not
seem to "know their place." And no one of breeding
would print a telephone number on a business card; this
seemed a crass attempt to make the acquaintance of
But phone access in America was to become a
popular right; something like universal suffrage, only
more so. American women could not yet vote when the
phone system came through; yet from the beginning
American women doted on the telephone. This
"feminization" of the American telephone was often
commented on by foreigners. Phones in America were
not censored or stiff or formalized; they were social,
private, intimate, and domestic. In America, Mother's
Day is by far the busiest day of the year for the phone
The early telephone companies, and especially
AT&T, were among the foremost employers of American
women. They employed the daughters of the American
middle-class in great armies: in 1891, eight thousand
women; by 1946, almost a quarter of a million. Women
seemed to enjoy telephone work; it was respectable, it was
steady, it paid fairly well as women's work went, and -- not
least -- it seemed a genuine contribution to the social good
of the community. Women found Vail's ideal of public
service attractive. This was especially true in rural
where women operators, running extensive rural party-
lines, enjoyed considerable social power. The operator
knew everyone on the party-line, and everyone knew her.
Although Bell himself was an ardent suffragist, the
telephone company did not employ women for the sake of
advancing female liberation. AT&T did this for sound
commercial reasons. The first telephone operators of the
Bell system were not women, but teenage American boys.
They were telegraphic messenger boys (a group about to
be rendered technically obsolescent), who swept up
around the phone office, dunned customers for bills, and
made phone connections on the switchboard, all on the
Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell's
company learned a sharp lesson about combining
teenage boys and telephone switchboards. Putting
teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift
and consistent disaster. Bell's chief engineer described
them as "Wild Indians." The boys were openly rude to
customers. They talked back to subscribers, saucing off,
uttering facetious remarks, and generally giving lip. The
rascals took Saint Patrick's Day off without permission.
And worst of all they played clever tricks with the
switchboard plugs: disconnecting calls, crossing lines so
that customers found themselves talking to strangers, and
This combination of power, technical mastery, and
effective anonymity seemed to act like catnip on teenage
This wild-kid-on-the-wires phenomenon was not
confined to the USA; from the beginning, the same was
true of the British phone system. An early British
commentator kindly remarked: "No doubt boys in their
teens found the work not a little irksome, and it is also
highly probable that under the early conditions of
employment the adventurous and inquisitive spirits of
which the average healthy boy of that age is possessed,
were not always conducive to the best attention being
given to the wants of the telephone subscribers."
So the boys were flung off the system -- or at least,
deprived of control of the switchboard. But the
"adventurous and inquisitive spirits" of the teenage boys
would be heard from in the world of telephony, again and
The fourth stage in the technological life-cycle is
death: "the Dog," dead tech. The telephone has so far
avoided this fate. On the contrary, it is thriving, still
spreading, still evolving, and at increasing speed.
The telephone has achieved a rare and exalted state
for a technological artifact: it has become a *household
object.* The telephone, like the clock, like pen and
paper, like kitchen utensils and running water, has
become a technology that is visible only by its absence.
The telephone is technologically transparent. The global
telephone system is the largest and most complex
machine in the world, yet it is easy to use. More
remarkable yet, the telephone is almost entirely
physically safe for the user.
For the average citizen in the 1870s, the telephone
was weirder, more shocking, more "high-tech" and harder
to comprehend, than the most outrageous stunts of
advanced computing for us Americans in the 1990s. In
trying to understand what is happening to us today, with
our bulletin-board systems, direct overseas dialling, fiber-
optic transmissions, computer viruses, hacking stunts, and
a vivid tangle of new laws and new crimes, it is important
to realize that our society has been through a similar
challenge before -- and that, all in all, we did rather well
Bell's stage telephone seemed bizarre at first. But
the sensations of weirdness vanished quickly, once people
began to hear the familiar voices of relatives and friends,
in their own homes on their own telephones. The
telephone changed from a fearsome high-tech totem to
an everyday pillar of human community.
This has also happened, and is still happening, to
computer networks. Computer networks such as
NSFnet, BITnet, USENET, JANET, are technically
advanced, intimidating, and much harder to use than
telephones. Even the popular, commercial computer
networks, such as GEnie, Prodigy, and CompuServe,
cause much head-scratching and have been described as
"user-hateful." Nevertheless they too are changing from
fancy high-tech items into everyday sources of human
The words "community" and "communication" have
the same root. Wherever you put a communications
network, you put a community as well. And whenever you
*take away* that network -- confiscate it, outlaw it,
raise its price beyond affordability -- then you hurt that
Communities will fight to defend themselves. People
will fight harder and more bitterly to defend their
communities, than they will fight to defend their own
individual selves. And this is very true of the
community" that arose around computer networks in the
1980s -- or rather, the *various* electronic communities,
telephony, law enforcement, computing, and the digital
underground that, by the year 1990, were raiding, rallying,
arresting, suing, jailing, fining and issuing angry
None of the events of 1990 were entirely new.
Nothing happened in 1990 that did not have some kind of
earlier and more understandable precedent. What gave
the Hacker Crackdown its new sense of gravity and
importance was the feeling -- the *community* feeling --
that the political stakes had been raised; that trouble in
cyberspace was no longer mere mischief or inconclusive
skirmishing, but a genuine fight over genuine issues, a
fight for community survival and the shape of the future.
These electronic communities, having flourished
throughout the 1980s, were becoming aware of
themselves, and increasingly, becoming aware of other,
rival communities. Worries were sprouting up right and
left, with complaints, rumors, uneasy speculations. But it
would take a catalyst, a shock, to make the new world
evident. Like Bell's great publicity break, the
Rail Disaster of January 1878, it would take a cause
That cause was the AT&T Crash of January 15, 1990.
After the Crash, the wounded and anxious telephone
community would come out fighting hard.
The community of telephone technicians, engineers,
operators and researchers is the oldest community in
cyberspace. These are the veterans, the most developed
group, the richest, the most respectable, in most ways the
most powerful. Whole generations have come and gone
since Alexander Graham Bell's day, but the community he
founded survives; people work for the phone system today
whose great-grandparents worked for the phone system.
Its specialty magazines, such as *Telephony,* *AT&T
Technical Journal,* *Telephone Engineer and
Management,* are decades old; they make computer
publications like *Macworld* and *PC Week* look like
And the phone companies take no back seat in high-
technology, either. Other companies' industrial
researchers may have won new markets; but the
researchers of Bell Labs have won *seven Nobel Prizes.*
One potent device that Bell Labs originated, the transistor,
has created entire *groups* of industries. Bell Labs are
world-famous for generating "a patent a day," and have
even made vital discoveries in astronomy, physics and
Throughout its seventy-year history, "Ma Bell" was
not so much a company as a way of life. Until the
cataclysmic divestiture of the 1980s, Ma Bell was perhaps
the ultimate maternalist mega-employer. The AT&T
corporate image was the "gentle giant," "the voice with a
smile," a vaguely socialist-realist world of cleanshaven
linemen in shiny helmets and blandly pretty phone-girls
in headsets and nylons. Bell System employees were
famous as rock-ribbed Kiwanis and Rotary members,
Little-League enthusiasts, school-board people.
During the long heyday of Ma Bell, the Bell
employee corps were nurtured top-to-botton on a
corporate ethos of public service. There was good money
in Bell, but Bell was not *about* money; Bell used public
relations, but never mere marketeering. People went into
the Bell System for a good life, and they had a good life.
But it was not mere money that led Bell people out in the
midst of storms and earthquakes to fight with toppled
phone-poles, to wade in flooded manholes, to pull the red-
eyed graveyard-shift over collapsing switching-systems.
The Bell ethic was the electrical equivalent of the
postman's: neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night
would stop these couriers.
It is easy to be cynical about this, as it is easy to
cynical about any political or social system; but cynicism
does not change the fact that thousands of people took
these ideals very seriously. And some still do.
The Bell ethos was about public service; and that was
gratifying; but it was also about private *power,* and that
was gratifying too. As a corporation, Bell was very
Bell was privileged. Bell had snuggled up close to the
state. In fact, Bell was as close to government as you
get in America and still make a whole lot of legitimate
But unlike other companies, Bell was above and
beyond the vulgar commercial fray. Through its regional
operating companies, Bell was omnipresent, local, and
intimate, all over America; but the central ivory towers at
its corporate heart were the tallest and the ivoriest
There were other phone companies in America, to be
sure; the so-called independents. Rural cooperatives,
mostly; small fry, mostly tolerated, sometimes warred
upon. For many decades, "independent" American phone
companies lived in fear and loathing of the official Bell
monopoly (or the "Bell Octopus," as Ma Bell's nineteenth-
century enemies described her in many angry newspaper
manifestos). Some few of these independent
entrepreneurs, while legally in the wrong, fought so
bitterly against the Octopus that their illegal phone
networks were cast into the street by Bell agents and
The pure technical sweetness of the Bell System gave
its operators, inventors and engineers a deeply satisfying
sense of power and mastery. They had devoted their lives
to improving this vast nation-spanning machine; over
years, whole human lives, they had watched it improve
and grow. It was like a great technological temple. They
were an elite, and they knew it -- even if others did not;
fact, they felt even more powerful *because* others did
The deep attraction of this sensation of elite
technical power should never be underestimated.
"Technical power" is not for everybody; for many people it
simply has no charm at all. But for some people, it
becomes the core of their lives. For a few, it is
overwhelming, obsessive; it becomes something close to
an addiction. People -- especially clever teenage boys
whose lives are otherwise mostly powerless and put-upon -
- love this sensation of secret power, and are willing to
all sorts of amazing things to achieve it. The technical
*power* of electronics has motivated many strange acts
detailed in this book, which would otherwise be
So Bell had power beyond mere capitalism. The Bell
service ethos worked, and was often propagandized, in a
rather saccharine fashion. Over the decades, people
slowly grew tired of this. And then, openly impatient with
it. By the early 1980s, Ma Bell was to find herself with
scarcely a real friend in the world. Vail's industrial
socialism had become hopelessly out-of-fashion
politically. Bell would be punished for that. And that
punishment would fall harshly upon the people of the
In 1983, Ma Bell was dismantled by federal court
action. The pieces of Bell are now separate corporate
entities. The core of the company became AT&T
Communications, and also AT&T Industries (formerly
Western Electric, Bell's manufacturing arm). AT&T Bell
Labs become Bell Communications Research, Bellcore.
Then there are the Regional Bell Operating Companies,
or RBOCs, pronounced "arbocks."
Bell was a titan and even these regional chunks are
gigantic enterprises: Fortune 50 companies with plenty of
wealth and power behind them. But the clean lines of
"One Policy, One System, Universal Service" have been
shattered, apparently forever.
The "One Policy" of the early Reagan Administration
was to shatter a system that smacked of noncompetitive
socialism. Since that time, there has been no real
telephone "policy" on the federal level. Despite the
breakup, the remnants of Bell have never been set free to
compete in the open marketplace.
The RBOCs are still very heavily regulated, but not
from the top. Instead, they struggle politically,
economically and legally, in what seems an endless
turmoil, in a patchwork of overlapping federal and state
jurisdictions. Increasingly, like other major American
corporations, the RBOCs are becoming multinational,
acquiring important commercial interests in Europe, Latin
America, and the Pacific Rim. But this, too, adds to their
legal and political predicament.
The people of what used to be Ma Bell are not happy
about their fate. They feel ill-used. They might have been
grudgingly willing to make a full transition to the free
market; to become just companies amid other companies.
But this never happened. Instead, AT&T and the RBOCS
("the Baby Bells") feel themselves wrenched from side to
side by state regulators, by Congress, by the FCC, and
especially by the federal court of Judge Harold Greene,
the magistrate who ordered the Bell breakup and who has
been the de facto czar of American telecommunications
ever since 1983.
Bell people feel that they exist in a kind of paralegal
limbo today. They don't understand what's demanded of
them. If it's "service," why aren't they treated like a
service? And if it's money, then why aren't they free to
compete for it? No one seems to know, really. Those who
claim to know keep changing their minds. Nobody in
authority seems willing to grasp the nettle for once and
Telephone people from other countries are amazed
by the American telephone system today. Not that it
works so well; for nowadays even the French telephone
system works, more or less. They are amazed that the
American telephone system *still* works *at all,* under
these strange conditions.
Bell's "One System" of long-distance service is now
only about eighty percent of a system, with the remainder
held by Sprint, MCI, and the midget long-distance
companies. Ugly wars over dubious corporate practices
such as "slamming" (an underhanded method of snitching
clients from rivals) break out with some regularity in the
realm of long-distance service. The battle to break Bell's
long-distance monopoly was long and ugly, and since the
breakup the battlefield has not become much prettier.
AT&T's famous shame-and-blame advertisements, which
emphasized the shoddy work and purported ethical
shadiness of their competitors, were much remarked on
for their studied psychological cruelty.
There is much bad blood in this industry, and much
long-treasured resentment. AT&T's post-breakup
corporate logo, a striped sphere, is known in the industry
as the "Death Star" (a reference from the movie *Star
Wars,* in which the "Death Star" was the spherical high-
tech fortress of the harsh-breathing imperial ultra-baddie,
Darth Vader.) Even AT&T employees are less than
thrilled by the Death Star. A popular (though banned) T-
shirt among AT&T employees bears the old-fashioned
Bell logo of the Bell System, plus the newfangled striped
sphere, with the before-and-after comments: "This is your
brain -- This is your brain on drugs!" AT&T made a very
well-financed and determined effort to break into the
personal computer market; it was disastrous, and telco
computer experts are derisively known by their
competitors as "the pole-climbers." AT&T and the Baby
Bell arbocks still seem to have few friends.
Under conditions of sharp commercial competition, a
crash like that of January 15, 1990 was a major
embarrassment to AT&T. It was a direct blow against their
much-treasured reputation for reliability. Within days of
the crash AT&T's Chief Executive Officer, Bob Allen,
officially apologized, in terms of deeply pained humility:
"AT&T had a major service disruption last Monday.
We didn't live up to our own standards of quality, and we
didn't live up to yours. It's as simple as that. And that's
acceptable to us. Or to you.... We understand how much
people have come to depend upon AT&T service, so our
AT&T Bell Laboratories scientists and our network
engineers are doing everything possible to guard against a
recurrence.... We know there's no way to make up for the
inconvenience this problem may have caused you."
Mr Allen's "open letter to customers" was printed in
lavish ads all over the country: in the *Wall Street
Journal,* *USA Today,* *New York Times,*
*Los Angeles Times,* *Chicago Tribune,* *Philadelphia
Inquirer,* *San Francisco Chronicle Examiner,* *Boston
Globe,* *Dallas Morning News,* *Detroit Free Press,*
*Washington Post,* *Houston Chronicle,* *Cleveland
Plain Dealer,* *Atlanta Journal Constitution,*
*Minneapolis Star Tribune,* *St. Paul Pioneer Press
Dispatch,* *Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer,*
*Tacoma News Tribune,* *Miami Herald,* *Pittsburgh
Press,* *St. Louis Post Dispatch,* *Denver Post,* *Phoenix
Republic Gazette* and *Tampa Tribune.*
In another press release, AT&T went to some pains to
suggest that this "software glitch" *might* have happened
just as easily to MCI, although, in fact, it hadn't. (MCI's
switching software was quite different from AT&T's --
though not necessarily any safer.) AT&T also announced
their plans to offer a rebate of service on Valentine's Day
to make up for the loss during the Crash.
"Every technical resource available, including Bell
Labs scientists and engineers, has been devoted to
assuring it will not occur again," the public was told.
were further assured that "The chances of a recurrence
are small--a problem of this magnitude never occurred
In the meantime, however, police and corporate
security maintained their own suspicions about "the
chances of recurrence" and the real reason why a
"problem of this magnitude" had appeared, seemingly out
of nowhere. Police and security knew for a fact that
hackers of unprecedented sophistication were illegally
entering, and reprogramming, certain digital switching
stations. Rumors of hidden "viruses" and secret "logic
bombs" in the switches ran rampant in the underground,
with much chortling over AT&T's predicament, and idle
speculation over what unsung hacker genius was
responsible for it. Some hackers, including police
informants, were trying hard to finger one another as the
true culprits of the Crash.
Telco people found little comfort in objectivity when
they contemplated these possibilities. It was just too
to the bone for them; it was embarrassing; it hurt so much,
it was hard even to talk about.
There has always been thieving and misbehavior in
the phone system. There has always been trouble with the
rival independents, and in the local loops. But to have
such trouble in the core of the system, the long-distance
switching stations, is a horrifying affair. To telco
this is all the difference between finding roaches in your
kitchen and big horrid sewer-rats in your bedroom.
From the outside, to the average citizen, the telcos
still seem gigantic and impersonal. The American public
seems to regard them as something akin to Soviet
apparats. Even when the telcos do their best corporate-
citizen routine, subsidizing magnet high-schools and
sponsoring news-shows on public television, they seem to
win little except public suspicion.
But from the inside, all this looks very different.
There's harsh competition. A legal and political system
that seems baffled and bored, when not actively hostile to
telco interests. There's a loss of morale, a deep sensation
of having somehow lost the upper hand. Technological
change has caused a loss of data and revenue to other,
newer forms of transmission. There's theft, and new
forms of theft, of growing scale and boldness and
sophistication. With all these factors, it was no surprise
see the telcos, large and small, break out in a litany of
In late '88 and throughout 1989, telco representatives
grew shrill in their complaints to those few American law
enforcement officials who make it their business to try to
understand what telephone people are talking about.
Telco security officials had discovered the computer-
hacker underground, infiltrated it thoroughly, and
become deeply alarmed at its growing expertise. Here
they had found a target that was not only loathsome on its
face, but clearly ripe for counterattack.
Those bitter rivals: AT&T, MCI and Sprint -- and a
crowd of Baby Bells: PacBell, Bell South, Southwestern
Bell, NYNEX, USWest, as well as the Bell research
consortium Bellcore, and the independent long-distance
carrier Mid-American -- all were to have their role in the
great hacker dragnet of 1990. After years of being
battered and pushed around, the telcos had, at least in a
small way, seized the initiative again. After years of
turmoil, telcos and government officials were once again
to work smoothly in concert in defense of the System.
Optimism blossomed; enthusiasm grew on all sides; the
prospective taste of vengeance was sweet.
From the beginning -- even before the crackdown
had a name -- secrecy was a big problem. There were
many good reasons for secrecy in the hacker crackdown.
Hackers and code-thieves were wily prey, slinking back to
their bedrooms and basements and destroying vital
incriminating evidence at the first hint of trouble.
Furthermore, the crimes themselves were heavily
technical and difficult to describe, even to police -- much
less to the general public.
When such crimes *had* been described intelligibly
to the public, in the past, that very publicity had tended
*increase* the crimes enormously. Telco officials, while
painfully aware of the vulnerabilities of their systems,
anxious not to publicize those weaknesses. Experience
showed them that those weaknesses, once discovered,
would be pitilessly exploited by tens of thousands of
people -- not only by professional grifters and by
underground hackers and phone phreaks, but by many
otherwise more-or-less honest everyday folks, who
regarded stealing service from the faceless, soulless
"Phone Company" as a kind of harmless indoor sport.
When it came to protecting their interests, telcos had long
since given up on general public sympathy for "the Voice
with a Smile." Nowadays the telco's "Voice" was very likely
to be a computer's; and the American public showed
much less of the proper respect and gratitude due the fine
public service bequeathed them by Dr. Bell and Mr. Vail.
The more efficient, high-tech, computerized, and
impersonal the telcos became, it seemed, the more they
were met by sullen public resentment and amoral greed.
Telco officials wanted to punish the phone-phreak
underground, in as public and exemplary a manner as
possible. They wanted to make dire examples of the worst
offenders, to seize the ringleaders and intimidate the
small fry, to discourage and frighten the wacky hobbyists,
and send the professional grifters to jail. To do all this,
publicity was vital.
Yet operational secrecy was even more so. If word got
out that a nationwide crackdown was coming, the hackers
might simply vanish; destroy the evidence, hide their
computers, go to earth, and wait for the campaign to blow
over. Even the young hackers were crafty and suspicious,
and as for the professional grifters, they tended to split
the nearest state-line at the first sign of trouble. For
crackdown to work well, they would all have to be caught
red-handed, swept upon suddenly, out of the blue, from
every corner of the compass.
And there was another strong motive for secrecy. In
the worst-case scenario, a blown campaign might leave
the telcos open to a devastating hacker counter-attack. If
there were indeed hackers loose in America who had
caused the January 15 Crash -- if there were truly gifted
hackers, loose in the nation's long-distance switching
systems, and enraged or frightened by the crackdown --
then they might react unpredictably to an attempt to
collar them. Even if caught, they might have talented and
vengeful friends still running around loose. Conceivably,
it could turn ugly. Very ugly. In fact, it was hard to
imagine just how ugly things might turn, given that
Counter-attack from hackers was a genuine concern
for the telcos. In point of fact, they would never suffer
such counter-attack. But in months to come, they would
be at some pains to publicize this notion and to utter grim
warnings about it.
Still, that risk seemed well worth running. Better to
run the risk of vengeful attacks, than to live at the mercy
potential crashers. Any cop would tell you that a
protection racket had no real future.
And publicity was such a useful thing. Corporate
security officers, including telco security, generally work
under conditions of great discretion. And corporate
security officials do not make money for their companies.
Their job is to *prevent the loss* of money, which is much
less glamorous than actually winning profits.
If you are a corporate security official, and you do
your job brilliantly, then nothing bad happens to your
company at all. Because of this, you appear completely
superfluous. This is one of the many unattractive aspects
of security work. It's rare that these folks have the
to draw some healthy attention to their own efforts.
Publicity also served the interest of their friends in
law enforcement. Public officials, including law
enforcement officials, thrive by attracting favorable
public interest. A brilliant prosecution in a matter of
public interest can make the career of a prosecuting
attorney. And for a police officer, good publicity opens
purses of the legislature; it may bring a citation, or a
promotion, or at least a rise in status and the respect of
But to have both publicity and secrecy is to have
one's cake and eat it too. In months to come, as we will
show, this impossible act was to cause great pain to the
agents of the crackdown. But early on, it seemed possible
-- maybe even likely -- that the crackdown could
successfully combine the best of both worlds. The
*arrest* of hackers would be heavily publicized. The
actual *deeds* of the hackers, which were technically hard
to explain and also a security risk, would be left decently
obscured. The *threat* hackers posed would be heavily
trumpeted; the likelihood of their actually committing
such fearsome crimes would be left to the public's
imagination. The spread of the computer underground,
and its growing technical sophistication, would be heavily
promoted; the actual hackers themselves, mostly
bespectacled middle-class white suburban teenagers,
would be denied any personal publicity.
It does not seem to have occurred to any telco official
that the hackers accused would demand a day in court;
that journalists would smile upon the hackers as "good
copy;" that wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs would offer
moral and financial support to crackdown victims; that
constitutional lawyers would show up with briefcases,
frowning mightily. This possibility does not seem to have
ever entered the game-plan.
And even if it had, it probably would not have slowed
the ferocious pursuit of a stolen phone-company
document, mellifluously known as "Control Office
Administration of Enhanced 911 Services for Special
Services and Major Account Centers."
In the chapters to follow, we will explore the worlds
police and the computer underground, and the large
shadowy area where they overlap. But first, we must
explore the battleground. Before we leave the world of the
telcos, we must understand what a switching system
actually is and how your telephone actually works.
To the average citizen, the idea of the telephone is
represented by, well, a *telephone:* a device that you
into. To a telco professional, however, the telephone
is known, in lordly fashion, as a "subset." The "subset"
your house is a mere adjunct, a distant nerve ending, of
the central switching stations, which are ranked in levels
heirarchy, up to the long-distance electronic switching
stations, which are some of the largest computers on
Let us imagine that it is, say, 1925, before the
introduction of computers, when the phone system was
simpler and somewhat easier to grasp. Let's further
imagine that you are Miss Leticia Luthor, a fictional
operator for Ma Bell in New York City of the 20s.
Basically, you, Miss Luthor, *are* the "switching
system." You are sitting in front of a large vertical
switchboard, known as a "cordboard," made of shiny
wooden panels, with ten thousand metal-rimmed holes
punched in them, known as jacks. The engineers would
have put more holes into your switchboard, but ten
thousand is as many as you can reach without actually
having to get up out of your chair.
Each of these ten thousand holes has its own little
electric lightbulb, known as a "lamp," and its own neatly
printed number code.
With the ease of long habit, you are scanning your
board for lit-up bulbs. This is what you do most of the
time, so you are used to it.
A lamp lights up. This means that the phone at the
end of that line has been taken off the hook. Whenever a
handset is taken off the hook, that closes a circuit inside
the phone which then signals the local office, i.e. you,
automatically. There might be somebody calling, or then
again the phone might be simply off the hook, but this
does not matter to you yet. The first thing you do, is
that number in your logbook, in your fine American
public-school handwriting. This comes first, naturally,
since it is done for billing purposes.
You now take the plug of your answering cord, which
goes directly to your headset, and plug it into the lit-up
hole. "Operator," you announce.
In operator's classes, before taking this job, you have
been issued a large pamphlet full of canned operator's
responses for all kinds of contingencies, which you had to
memorize. You have also been trained in a proper non-
regional, non-ethnic pronunciation and tone of voice. You
rarely have the occasion to make any spontaneous
remark to a customer, and in fact this is frowned upon
(except out on the rural lines where people have time on
their hands and get up to all kinds of mischief).
A tough-sounding user's voice at the end of the line
gives you a number. Immediately, you write that number
down in your logbook, next to the caller's number, which
you just wrote earlier. You then look and see if the
number this guy wants is in fact on your switchboard,
which it generally is, since it's generally a local call.
distance costs so much that people use it sparingly.
Only then do you pick up a calling-cord from a shelf
at the base of the switchboard. This is a long elastic cord
mounted on a kind of reel so that it will zip back in when
you unplug it. There are a lot of cords down there, and
when a bunch of them are out at once they look like a nest
of snakes. Some of the girls think there are bugs living in
those cable-holes. They're called "cable mites" and are
supposed to bite your hands and give you rashes. You
don't believe this, yourself.
Gripping the head of your calling-cord, you slip the
tip of it deftly into the sleeve of the jack for the called
person. Not all the way in, though. You just touch it. If
you hear a clicking sound, that means the line is busy and
you can't put the call through. If the line is busy, you
to stick the calling-cord into a "busy-tone jack," which
give the guy a busy-tone. This way you don't have to talk
him yourself and absorb his natural human frustration.
But the line isn't busy. So you pop the cord all the
way in. Relay circuits in your board make the distant
phone ring, and if somebody picks it up off the hook, then
a phone conversation starts. You can hear this
conversation on your answering cord, until you unplug it.
In fact you could listen to the whole conversation if you
wanted, but this is sternly frowned upon by management,
and frankly, when you've overheard one, you've pretty
much heard 'em all.
You can tell how long the conversation lasts by the
glow of the calling-cord's lamp, down on the calling-cord's
shelf. When it's over, you unplug and the calling-cord
zips back into place.
Having done this stuff a few hundred thousand times,
you become quite good at it. In fact you're plugging, and
connecting, and disconnecting, ten, twenty, forty cords at a
time. It's a manual handicraft, really, quite satisfying in
way, rather like weaving on an upright loom.
Should a long-distance call come up, it would be
different, but not all that different. Instead of
the call through your own local switchboard, you have to
go up the hierarchy, onto the long-distance lines, known as
"trunklines." Depending on how far the call goes, it may
have to work its way through a whole series of operators,
which can take quite a while. The caller doesn't wait on
the line while this complex process is negotiated across
the country by the gaggle of operators. Instead, the
hangs up, and you call him back yourself when the call has
finally worked its way through.
After four or five years of this work, you get married,
and you have to quit your job, this being the natural order
of womanhood in the American 1920s. The phone
company has to train somebody else -- maybe two people,
since the phone system has grown somewhat in the
meantime. And this costs money.
In fact, to use any kind of human being as a switching
system is a very expensive proposition. Eight thousand
Leticia Luthors would be bad enough, but a quarter of a
million of them is a military-scale proposition and makes
drastic measures in automation financially worthwhile.
Although the phone system continues to grow today,
the number of human beings employed by telcos has
been dropping steadily for years. Phone "operators" now
deal with nothing but unusual contingencies, all routine
operations having been shrugged off onto machines.
Consequently, telephone operators are considerably less
machine-like nowadays, and have been known to have
accents and actual character in their voices. When you
reach a human operator today, the operators are rather
more "human" than they were in Leticia's day -- but on the
other hand, human beings in the phone system are much
harder to reach in the first place.
Over the first half of the twentieth century,
"electromechanical" switching systems of growing
complexity were cautiously introduced into the phone
system. In certain backwaters, some of these hybrid
systems are still in use. But after 1965, the phone system
began to go completely electronic, and this is by far the
dominant mode today. Electromechanical systems have
"crossbars," and "brushes," and other large moving
mechanical parts, which, while faster and cheaper than
Leticia, are still slow, and tend to wear out fairly
But fully electronic systems are inscribed on silicon
chips, and are lightning-fast, very cheap, and quite
durable. They are much cheaper to maintain than even
the best electromechanical systems, and they fit into half
the space. And with every year, the silicon chip grows
smaller, faster, and cheaper yet. Best of all, automated
electronics work around the clock and don't have salaries
or health insurance.
There are, however, quite serious drawbacks to the
use of computer-chips. When they do break down, it is a
daunting challenge to figure out what the heck has gone
wrong with them. A broken cordboard generally had a
problem in it big enough to see. A broken chip has
invisible, microscopic faults. And the faults in bad
software can be so subtle as to be practically theological.
If you want a mechanical system to do something
new, then you must travel to where it is, and pull pieces
of it, and wire in new pieces. This costs money. However,
if you want a chip to do something new, all you have to do
is change its software, which is easy, fast and dirt-cheap.
You don't even have to see the chip to change its program.
Even if you did see the chip, it wouldn't look like much. A
chip with program X doesn't look one whit different from a
chip with program Y.
With the proper codes and sequences, and access to
specialized phone-lines, you can change electronic
switching systems all over America from anywhere you
And so can other people. If they know how, and if
they want to, they can sneak into a microchip via the
special phonelines and diddle with it, leaving no physical
trace at all. If they broke into the operator's station and
held Leticia at gunpoint, that would be very obvious. If
they broke into a telco building and went after an
electromechanical switch with a toolbelt, that would at
least leave many traces. But people can do all manner of
amazing things to computer switches just by typing on a
keyboard, and keyboards are everywhere today. The
extent of this vulnerability is deep, dark, broad, almost
mind-boggling, and yet this is a basic, primal fact of life
about any computer on a network.
Security experts over the past twenty years have
insisted, with growing urgency, that this basic
of computers represents an entirely new level of risk, of
unknown but obviously dire potential to society. And they
An electronic switching station does pretty much
everything Letitia did, except in nanoseconds and on a
much larger scale. Compared to Miss Luthor's ten
thousand jacks, even a primitive 1ESS switching computer,
60s vintage, has a 128,000 lines. And the current AT&T
system of choice is the monstrous fifth-generation 5ESS.
An Electronic Switching Station can scan every line
on its "board" in a tenth of a second, and it does this over
and over, tirelessly, around the clock. Instead of eyes, it
uses "ferrod scanners" to check the condition of local lines
and trunks. Instead of hands, it has "signal distributors,"
"central pulse distributors," "magnetic latching relays,"
and "reed switches," which complete and break the calls.
Instead of a brain, it has a "central processor." Instead
an instruction manual, it has a program. Instead of a
handwritten logbook for recording and billing calls, it has
magnetic tapes. And it never has to talk to anybody.
Everything a customer might say to it is done by punching
the direct-dial tone buttons on your subset.
Although an Electronic Switching Station can't talk, it
does need an interface, some way to relate to its, er,
employers. This interface is known as the "master control
center." (This interface might be better known simply as
"the interface," since it doesn't actually "control" phone
calls directly. However, a term like "Master Control
Center" is just the kind of rhetoric that telco maintenance
engineers -- and hackers -- find particularly satisfying.)
Using the master control center, a phone engineer
can test local and trunk lines for malfunctions. He (rarely
she) can check various alarm displays, measure traffic on
the lines, examine the records of telephone usage and the
charges for those calls, and change the programming.
And, of course, anybody else who gets into the master
control center by remote control can also do these things,
if he (rarely she) has managed to figure them out, or, more
likely, has somehow swiped the knowledge from people
who already know.
In 1989 and 1990, one particular RBOC, BellSouth,
which felt particularly troubled, spent a purported $1.2
million on computer security. Some think it spent as
much as two million, if you count all the associated costs.
Two million dollars is still very little compared to the
cost-saving utility of telephonic computer systems.
Unfortunately, computers are also stupid. Unlike
human beings, computers possess the truly profound
stupidity of the inanimate.
In the 1960s, in the first shocks of spreading
computerization, there was much easy talk about the
stupidity of computers -- how they could "only follow the
program" and were rigidly required to do "only what they
were told." There has been rather less talk about the
stupidity of computers since they began to achieve
grandmaster status in chess tournaments, and to manifest
many other impressive forms of apparent cleverness.
Nevertheless, computers *still* are profoundly
brittle and stupid; they are simply vastly more subtle in
their stupidity and brittleness. The computers of the
1990s are much more reliable in their components than
earlier computer systems, but they are also called upon to
do far more complex things, under far more challenging
On a basic mathematical level, every single line of a
software program offers a chance for some possible
screwup. Software does not sit still when it works; it
it interacts with itself and with its own inputs and
By analogy, it stretches like putty into millions of
shapes and conditions, so many shapes that they can
never all be successfully tested, not even in the lifespan
the universe. Sometimes the putty snaps.
The stuff we call "software" is not like anything that
human society is used to thinking about. Software is
something like a machine, and something like
mathematics, and something like language, and
something like thought, and art, and information.... but
software is not in fact any of those other things. The
protean quality of software is one of the great sources of
fascination. It also makes software very powerful, very
subtle, very unpredictable, and very risky.
Some software is bad and buggy. Some is "robust,"
even "bulletproof." The best software is that which has
been tested by thousands of users under thousands of
different conditions, over years. It is then known as
"stable." This does *not* mean that the software is now
flawless, free of bugs. It generally means that there are
plenty of bugs in it, but the bugs are well-identified and
fairly well understood.
There is simply no way to assure that software is free
of flaws. Though software is mathematical in nature, it
cannot by "proven" like a mathematical theorem; software
is more like language, with inherent ambiguities, with
different definitions, different assumptions, different
levels of meaning that can conflict.
Human beings can manage, more or less, with
human language because we can catch the gist of it.
Computers, despite years of effort in "artificial
intelligence," have proven spectacularly bad in "catching
the gist" of anything at all. The tiniest bit of semantic
may still bring the mightiest computer tumbling down.
One of the most hazardous things you can do to a
computer program is try to improve it -- to try to make it
safer. Software "patches" represent new, untried un-
"stable" software, which is by definition riskier.
The modern telephone system has come to depend,
utterly and irretrievably, upon software. And the System
Crash of January 15, 1990, was caused by an
*improvement* in software. Or rather, an *attempted*
As it happened, the problem itself -- the problem per
se -- took this form. A piece of telco software had been
written in C language, a standard language of the telco
field. Within the C software was a long "do... while"
construct. The "do... while" construct contained a "switch"
statement. The "switch" statement contained an "if"
clause. The "if" clause contained a "break." The "break"
was *supposed* to "break" the "if clause." Instead, the
"break" broke the "switch" statement.
That was the problem, the actual reason why people
picking up phones on January 15, 1990, could not talk to
Or at least, that was the subtle, abstract,
seed of the problem. This is how the problem manifested
itself from the realm of programming into the realm of
The System 7 software for AT&T's 4ESS switching
station, the "Generic 44E14 Central Office Switch
Software," had been extensively tested, and was
considered very stable. By the end of 1989, eighty of
AT&T's switching systems nationwide had been
programmed with the new software. Cautiously, thirty-
four stations were left to run the slower, less-capable
System 6, because AT&T suspected there might be
shakedown problems with the new and unprecedently
sophisticated System 7 network.
The stations with System 7 were programmed to
switch over to a backup net in case of any problems. In
mid-December 1989, however, a new high-velocity, high-
security software patch was distributed to each of the 4ESS
switches that would enable them to switch over even more
quickly, making the System 7 network that much more
Unfortunately, every one of these 4ESS switches was
now in possession of a small but deadly flaw.
In order to maintain the network, switches must
monitor the condition of other switches -- whether they are
up and running, whether they have temporarily shut down,
whether they are overloaded and in need of assistance,
and so forth. The new software helped control this
bookkeeping function by monitoring the status calls from
It only takes four to six seconds for a troubled 4ESS
switch to rid itself of all its calls, drop everything
temporarily, and re-boot its software from scratch.
Starting over from scratch will generally rid the switch of
any software problems that may have developed in the
course of running the system. Bugs that arise will be
simply wiped out by this process. It is a clever idea.
process of automatically re-booting from scratch is known
as the "normal fault recovery routine." Since AT&T's
software is in fact exceptionally stable, systems rarely
to go into "fault recovery" in the first place; but AT&T
always boasted of its "real world" reliability, and this
is a belt-and-suspenders routine.
The 4ESS switch used its new software to monitor its
fellow switches as they recovered from faults. As other
switches came back on line after recovery, they would
send their "OK" signals to the switch. The switch would
make a little note to that effect in its "status map,"
recognizing that the fellow switch was back and ready to
go, and should be sent some calls and put back to regular
Unfortunately, while it was busy bookkeeping with
the status map, the tiny flaw in the brand-new software
came into play. The flaw caused the 4ESS switch to
interacted, subtly but drastically, with incoming telephone
calls from human users. If -- and only if -- two incoming
phone-calls happened to hit the switch within a hundredth
of a second, then a small patch of data would be garbled
by the flaw.
But the switch had been programmed to monitor
itself constantly for any possible damage to its data.
When the switch perceived that its data had been
somehow garbled, then it too would go down, for swift
repairs to its software. It would signal its fellow
not to send any more work. It would go into the fault-
recovery mode for four to six seconds. And then the switch
would be fine again, and would send out its "OK, ready for
However, the "OK, ready for work" signal was the
*very thing that had caused the switch to go down in the
first place.* And *all* the System 7 switches had the same
flaw in their status-map software. As soon as they stopped
to make the bookkeeping note that their fellow switch was
"OK," then they too would become vulnerable to the slight
chance that two phone-calls would hit them within a
hundredth of a second.
At approximately 2:25 p.m. EST on Monday, January
15, one of AT&T's 4ESS toll switching systems in New York
City had an actual, legitimate, minor problem. It went into
fault recovery routines, announced "I'm going down," then
announced, "I'm back, I'm OK." And this cheery message
then blasted throughout the network to many of its fellow
Many of the switches, at first, completely escaped
trouble. These lucky switches were not hit by the
coincidence of two phone calls within a hundredth of a
second. Their software did not fail -- at first. But
switches -- in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Detroit -- were
unlucky, and were caught with their hands full. And they
went down. And they came back up, almost immediately.
And they too began to broadcast the lethal message that
they, too, were "OK" again, activating the lurking software
bug in yet other switches.
As more and more switches did have that bit of bad
luck and collapsed, the call-traffic became more and more
densely packed in the remaining switches, which were
groaning to keep up with the load. And of course, as the
calls became more densely packed, the switches were
*much more likely* to be hit twice within a hundredth of a
It only took four seconds for a switch to get well.
There was no *physical* damage of any kind to the
switches, after all. Physically, they were working
This situation was "only" a software problem.
But the 4ESS switches were leaping up and down
every four to six seconds, in a virulent spreading wave all
over America, in utter, manic, mechanical stupidity. They
kept *knocking* one another down with their contagious
It took about ten minutes for the chain reaction to
cripple the network. Even then, switches would
periodically luck-out and manage to resume their normal
work. Many calls -- millions of them -- were managing to
get through. But millions weren't.
The switching stations that used System 6 were not
directly affected. Thanks to these old-fashioned switches,
AT&T's national system avoided complete collapse. This
fact also made it clear to engineers that System 7 was at
Bell Labs engineers, working feverishly in New
Jersey, Illinois, and Ohio, first tried their entire
of standard network remedies on the malfunctioning
System 7. None of the remedies worked, of course,
because nothing like this had ever happened to any
phone system before.
By cutting out the backup safety network entirely,
they were able to reduce the frenzy of "OK" messages by
about half. The system then began to recover, as the
chain reaction slowed. By 11:30 pm on Monday January
15, sweating engineers on the midnight shift breathed a
sigh of relief as the last switch cleared-up.
By Tuesday they were pulling all the brand-new 4ESS
software and replacing it with an earlier version of System
If these had been human operators, rather than
computers at work, someone would simply have
eventually stopped screaming. It would have been
*obvious* that the situation was not "OK," and common
sense would have kicked in. Humans possess common
sense -- at least to some extent. Computers simply don't.
On the other hand, computers can handle hundreds
of calls per second. Humans simply can't. If every single
human being in America worked for the phone company,
we couldn't match the performance of digital switches:
direct-dialling, three-way calling, speed-calling, call-
waiting, Caller ID, all the rest of the cornucopia of
bounty. Replacing computers with operators is simply not
an option any more.
And yet we still, anachronistically, expect humans to
be running our phone system. It is hard for us to
understand that we have sacrificed huge amounts of
initiative and control to senseless yet powerful machines.
When the phones fail, we want somebody to be
responsible. We want somebody to blame.
When the Crash of January 15 happened, the
American populace was simply not prepared to
understand that enormous landslides in cyberspace, like
the Crash itself, can happen, and can be nobody's fault in
particular. It was easier to believe, maybe even in some
odd way more reassuring to believe, that some evil person,
or evil group, had done this to us. "Hackers" had done it.
With a virus. A trojan horse. A software bomb. A dirty
plot of some kind. People believed this, responsible
people. In 1990, they were looking hard for evidence to
confirm their heartfelt suspicions.
And they would look in a lot of places.
Come 1991, however, the outlines of an apparent new
reality would begin to emerge from the fog.
On July 1 and 2, 1991, computer-software collapses in
telephone switching stations disrupted service in
Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San
Francisco. Once again, seemingly minor maintenance
problems had crippled the digital System 7. About twelve
million people were affected in the Crash of July 1, 1991.
Said the New York Times Service: "Telephone
company executives and federal regulators said they were
not ruling out the possibility of sabotage by computer
hackers, but most seemed to think the problems stemmed
from some unknown defect in the software running the
And sure enough, within the week, a red-faced
software company, DSC Communications Corporation of
Plano, Texas, owned up to "glitches" in the "signal transfer
point" software that DSC had designed for Bell Atlantic
and Pacific Bell. The immediate cause of the July 1 Crash
was a single mistyped character: one tiny typographical
flaw in one single line of the software. One mistyped
letter, in one single line, had deprived the nation's
of phone service. It was not particularly surprising that
this tiny flaw had escaped attention: a typical System 7
station requires *ten million* lines of code.
On Tuesday, September 17, 1991, came the most
spectacular outage yet. This case had nothing to do with
software failures -- at least, not directly. Instead, a
of AT&T's switching stations in New York City had simply
run out of electrical power and shut down cold. Their
back-up batteries had failed. Automatic warning systems
were supposed to warn of the loss of battery power, but
those automatic systems had failed as well.
This time, Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports
all had their voice and data communications cut. This
horrifying event was particularly ironic, as attacks on
airport computers by hackers had long been a standard
nightmare scenario, much trumpeted by computer-
security experts who feared the computer underground.
There had even been a Hollywood thriller about sinister
hackers ruining airport computers -- *Die Hard II.*
Now AT&T itself had crippled airports with computer
malfunctions -- not just one airport, but three at once,
some of the busiest in the world.
Air traffic came to a standstill throughout the Greater
New York area, causing more than 500 flights to be
cancelled, in a spreading wave all over America and even
into Europe. Another 500 or so flights were delayed,
affecting, all in all, about 85,000 passengers. (One of
passengers was the chairman of the Federal
Stranded passengers in New York and New Jersey
were further infuriated to discover that they could not
even manage to make a long distance phone call, to
explain their delay to loved ones or business associates.
Thanks to the crash, about four and a half million
domestic calls, and half a million international calls,
to get through.
The September 17 NYC Crash, unlike the previous
ones, involved not a whisper of "hacker" misdeeds. On the
contrary, by 1991, AT&T itself was suffering much of the
vilification that had formerly been directed at hackers.
Congressmen were grumbling. So were state and federal
regulators. And so was the press.
For their part, ancient rival MCI took out snide full-
page newspaper ads in New York, offering their own long-
distance services for the "next time that AT&T goes down."
"You wouldn't find a classy company like AT&T using
such advertising," protested AT&T Chairman Robert
Allen, unconvincingly. Once again, out came the full-page
AT&T apologies in newspapers, apologies for "an
inexcusable culmination of both human and mechanical
failure." (This time, however, AT&T offered no discount
on later calls. Unkind critics suggested that AT&T were
worried about setting any precedent for refunding the
financial losses caused by telephone crashes.)
Industry journals asked publicly if AT&T was "asleep
at the switch." The telephone network, America's
purported marvel of high-tech reliability, had gone down
three times in 18 months. *Fortune* magazine listed the
Crash of September 17 among the "Biggest Business
Goofs of 1991," cruelly parodying AT&T's ad campaign in
an article entitled "AT&T Wants You Back (Safely On the
Ground, God Willing)."
Why had those New York switching systems simply
run out of power? Because no human being had attended
to the alarm system. Why did the alarm systems blare
automatically, without any human being noticing?
Because the three telco technicians who *should* have
been listening were absent from their stations in the
power-room, on another floor of the building -- attending a
training class. A training class about the alarm systems
the power room!
"Crashing the System" was no longer
"unprecedented" by late 1991. On the contrary, it no
longer even seemed an oddity. By 1991, it was clear that
all the policemen in the world could no longer "protect"
the phone system from crashes. By far the worst crashes
the system had ever had, had been inflicted, by the
system, upon *itself.* And this time nobody was making
cocksure statements that this was an anomaly, something
that would never happen again. By 1991 the System's
defenders had met their nebulous Enemy, and the Enemy
was -- the System.