Hunting Computer Hackers

Article excerpt

TWO years ago, the United States Secret Service declared war on the computer-hacker underground. In a series of well-coordinated raids around the country, law-enforcement agents broke into suburban homes - guns drawn - and presented unsuspecting parents with search warrants for their teenagers' computers. When it was over, "Operation Sundevil" had seized more than 40 computer systems and 23,000 floppy disks.

Although most of the computers seized were never returned, few of the seizures actually resulted in arrests and prosecutions. The purpose of Operation Sundevil, asserts noted science-fiction author Bruce Sterling in his first nonfiction work, "The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier," was to send a message to computer hackers everywhere.

The message: Law enforcement would no longer stand by while high-school students rerouted calls in the nation's phone system and stole reports from credit databanks. As an added benefit, Sundevil seized the instruments of these minors' crimes without forcing the federal bureaucracy to go through the formalities of trials and convictions.

What nobody in the law-enforcement community expected, Sterling writes, was that an organized group of well-financed adults would come to the rescue of these computer criminals.

An assembly of civil libertarians, founded by Lotus millionaire Mitch Kapor and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, is now known as the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. It is but one of many organizations whose birth and growth is chronicled by "The Hacker Crackdown."

In writing about the events leading up to Operation Sundevil and their aftermath, Sterling also tells interesting, although somewhat spotty, histories of the US telephone system, the US Secret Service, and a variety of state and federal agents who have devoted their careers to the prosecution of computer crime. With access that is rarely granted to journalists, Sterling takes readers on a tour of the US government's 1,500-acre Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. …