Mindvox, Long a Haven
For Hackers, Signs Off
July 13, 1996
By Katherine Cavanaugh
At a time when countless anti-hacker and security software programs are being promoted with a great deal of fanfare, a one-time notorious hacker haven has quietly and discreetly signed off.
This month, Mindvox — an Internet service provider that was once home to some of New York’s most gifted and controversial hackers — pulled the plug on its modems and ceased to provide Internet access to its customers.
Aside from its distinctive subscriber base, the company was also notable for having been been among the very first services in Manhattan to provide dial-up access to the Internet.
It is the second community-based New York Internet service to fall this year to competitive pressures in the access provider industry as large telecommunications companies like AT&T, MCI and Pacific Telesis have entered the market with aggressive pricing plans and razor-thin margins. On July 2, PSINet announced that it was selling the Pipeline service, another New York Internet pioneer, to MindSpring Enterprises Inc., a regional access provider based in Atlanta, Ga., for about $23 million.
But whereas Pipeline had been established to encourage novices to take to the Net, Mindvox had from the start been a haven for hackers.
Founded in February 1992 by two former members of the Legion of Doom hacker group, Bruce Fancher and Patrick Kroupa, Mindvox, a division of Phantom Access Technologies, Inc., was launched as both a bulletin board service and Internet access provider. At its peak in 1994 the service reported a subscriber list of about 3,000 members.
As of the first of June, the number of subscribers had dwindled to 550, and the founders decided to sell the firm’s pioneering Internet division to Interport Communications, a competing, Manhattan-based service located in the same building on lower Broadway. The financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
Under the sale agreement, Mindvox subscribers will be offered accounts at Interport where they will receive uninterrupted e-mail service and home page hosting and will retain their current Mindvox “phantom.com” domain addresses.
Early on, the Mindvox Internet and bulletin board service became known for its distinctive cultural mix of cyberpunks, Gen-X slacker types, cutting-edge hackers (including Len Rose who spent 14 months in prison after he was charged with stealing an AT&T proprietary source code — a charge he denies to this day), sci-fi fanatics, cyberspace philosophers and a diverse gathering of artists, writers and musicians.
“When I started looking for local New York City Internet access, the only companies that existed were Panix and Mindvox,” said Tom Higgins, a former rock band member and longtime Mindvox subscriber. “To me, Mindvox seemed like a lot more fun. Most of the other services in New York established regulations and had thought-police monitoring their forums, but on Mindvox you could always say what you wanted.”
Fancher recalled: “We started during the pre-Wired magazine days, and our members were people who were sophisticated about computer technology and were interested in speculating on where all of this was going.” Phantom Access Technologies took its name from a hacker program called Phantom Access, Fancher explained.
Indeed, the service was also notable for the Round Table, an on-line forum created to discuss the impact of Operation Sun Devil, a nationwide roundup of computer hackers in 1990 that resulted in the arrests and convictions of several members of the Legion of Doom.
The Round Table, hosted by a former Treasury agent, became a gathering place for hackers, system administrators and law enforcement officials to debate computer theft and security.
Other Mindvox members and enthusiasts have included the actor Wil Wheaton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and several rock musicians, including Dee-Lite, Billy Idol and Kurt Larson, lead singer and lyricist for the group Information Society.
Fancher said that he and his partners would focus their future efforts on software development, network integration and computer consulting through another company he has formed, Evolution Online Systems. He said he also planned to continue to develop on-line content concerning cyberspace and its ongoing impact on society and culture, reflecting the distinctive flavor of the Mindvox community.
“We’ll be dealing with the abstract rather than the concrete implications of cyberspace and topics relating to identity, community and shared virtual spaces,” Fancher said.
He said the decision to sell the service reflected the recognition that the state of the Internet access provider business in New York had become highly unstable and that the entry of AT&T into the business and the launch of its low pricing model presented a formidable challenge to the small independents. And Fancher predicted that an ongoing shake-out was inevitable.
“We started to arrange financing to buy new equipment for the service,” he said. “But then we asked ourselves, why should we go and get financing for something that will ultimately be taken over by NYNEX, AT&T and Time Warner?”
Interport Communications now claims about 7,500 customers in the New York area and is planning to expand to other areas. It recently began providing service to Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, Nassau County and Westchester and in Putnam, Rockland and Southern Orange counties. By the end of the third quarter 96, the company plans to offer Internet access to Suffolk county and northern New Jersey as well.
“Our target is to become a major player in the Northeast,” said John Riordon, executive vice president of Interport.