Mondo 2000 - The Hacker Crackdown - Bruce Sterling

Hacker Crackdown

(Book Review)

by Patrick K. Kroupa

The secret history of Cyberspace has been written, re-invented, deleted, lost, and retrieved countless times. Events that never even happened are now universal reference points. Jokes and pranks have become campaigns waged with military precision by groups of twisted geniuses. And a bunch of dudes who were, well, sorta bored and just hangin’ out. …have become, like, the icons of Cyberspace.

Into this chaos strides Bruce Sterling, leather jacketed, toting a heavy-duty bullshit-detector, asking the eternal question, “Well… do ya think it’s accurate?”


Bruce asked this question of a helluva lot of people, enough times, to come up with a pretty remarkable book called Hacker Crackdown. Crackdown scans a searchlight upon the perpetually morphing landscape and players list of the underground and freezes a few frames for posterity.

Hacker Crackdown is about one series of witch hunts called Operation Sundevil.

Sundevil was supposed to send the message to the denizens of Cyberspace that Uncle Sam knows all about them. Sundevil took place some two years ago, realtime — a generation ago in Cyberspace. Although it set no clear precedents, made no remarkable arrests, and maybe accomplished nothing tangible, it was one of the most important events that ever happened to the underground. Sundevil put the fear of Big Brother into a lot of people who had thought they were just playing games in their backyard.

Bruce breaks Crackdown into four sections, each of which covers one basic series of events and the players who enacted them. He does an excellent job of unravelling this seething mess and delineating the key players — the good, the bad, and the confused. It’s all there.


Bruce Sterling - Hacker Crackdown

Now you can witness Craig Neidorf’s surprise to learn that he was the lucky winner holding twelve pieces of bureaucratic nonsense worth a cool $79,449 to Bellsouth. …although Craig’s joy was short-lived, as they immediately re-evaluated their papers to a mere $24,639.05. If that wasn’t enough to ruin anyone’s day, Craig’s own defense later proved that the paperwork was in actuality worth, well… pretty much nothing, just as Craig had always suspected. However, Craig did manage to rack up $100k in legal fees, which he’s still trying to pay off.

But Craig doesn’t compare to Len Rose, who won one year’s free lodging at Seymour Johnson AFB, courtesy of the United States government. The People vs. Len deemed that his possession of a program called “login.c” — a piece of code so arcane that free copies of it are scattered on public domain sites all over the planet — was sufficient cause to take away every piece of equipment he owned, leave his wife and two children without support, and destroy his reputation in his profession.

Ah, but Steve Jackson was probably the most dazed of those who found the SS kicking in their doors and carting off their possessions. After all Steve thought he was a publisher of games… and not even computer games! Gosh, to go from being a writer and inventor of cool simulations to being a criminal worthy of Uncle Sam’s massively orchestrated ire!

The scope of the investigation was huge, and much of the fallout from Sundevil is still raining down today, with cases being prepared for trial as this is written. The fallout is not merely bureaucratic and legalistic. It has subtle but important ethical dimensions, which are just being sensed.

This book isn’t about sociopaths and the Schutz-Staffel. It’s about explorers and criminologists warily encountering each other for the first time and, oddly, trying to find a ground for co-existence.