March 2, 2012
Steve Jackson Games, AT&T, and the EFF
Today in Cyberpunk History (March 1, 1990): Early morning at Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas saw an invasion of US Secret Service agents seizing any system used for GURPS Cyberpunk RPG book. They were looking for “evidence” to convict one of SJ Games’s employees: One Loyd Blankenship, whose home was also raided. It wouldn’t be until October when SJ Games learned why they were raided as the warrant was sealed (You can view the warrant here).
Guilt by Association. The primary target of the raid was Loyd Blankenship, who was known in hacker circles as +++The Mentor+++, member of Legion of Doom. He also ran a BBS that distributed the hacker journal Phrack, that published the contents of a text file from Bell South that dealt with the 911 emergency response system in 1989. The file contained no schematics, no codes, no technical anything… it was only an administrative book that Bell South would sell to the public for $13 US. Yet it was feared that the file would be used by hackers to disrupt the 911 system, and Bell South claimed the posting caused 80 thousand dollars in damage.
GURPS Cyberpunk was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. The agents saw it and thought it was a real book about hacking. And with the rest of Operation Sundevil going on nationwide, why not make Steve Jackson Games an example?
The System Eats Itself. On the afternoon of January 15, 1990, AT&T’s long distance network began a downward spiral that lead to a near shutdown. The cause was a simple programming error what would cause a software crash when it got messages from switching stations coming back online. The crash required an automatic reboot of the switching station, which lead to the transmission of “back online” messages to its neighbors. But those messages would knock those switches offline, and generate more messages that would knock more switches offline…
An investigation did show that it was a programming error that caused the crash. The problem was nobody wanted to believe it. For a company and computers to make such a FUBAR is unheard of, and everyone from the government to the media to the clueless sheeple on the street wanted to believe it was deliberate act by someone. Who could possibly have the ability to cause such calamity?
Hackers. They’ve shown they could get into most any system and do… things. Why not crash a major infrastructure? In May 1990 Garry M. Jenkins, Assistant Director of the US Secret Service, made the following comment in a press release:
Thus began the shitstorm that was Sundevil.
Revenge of The Geeks. Mid-1990 saw the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the organization that fights for freedom of the Internet. Operation Sundevil itself was seen as just a publicity stunt since, as a “law-enforcement tool,” it failed to produce any convictions. The saga can be read about via Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown.
As for SJ Games, they finally had their day in court in 1993. They were acquitted on two of the three counts against them. Their story can be read, along with the relevant documents, on their website.