Kevin: The Dark-Side Hacker
The Roscoe Gang
It was partnership, if not exactly friendship, that kept the group together. Each member possessed a special strength considered essential for what needed to be done. Roscoe was the best computer programmer and a natural leader. Susan Thunder prided herself on her knowledge of military computers and a remarkable ability to manipulate people, especially men. Steven Rhoades was especially good with telephone equipment. And aside from his sheer persistence, Kevin Mitnick had an extraordinary talent for talking his way into anything. For a while, during its early days in 1980, the group was untouchable.
Susan was infatuated with Roscoe, but she never cared much for his constant companion, Kevin Mitnick. For his part, Kevin barely gave Susan the time of day. They learned to tolerate one another because of Roscoe. But for all their mutual hostility, Susan and Kevin shared a fascination with telephones and the telephone network; it was a fascination that came to dominate their lives. Susan, Kevin, Roscoe and Steven were "phone phreaks." By their own definition, phreaks were telephone hobbyists more expert at understanding the workings of the Bell System than most Bell employees.
The illegality of exploring the nooks and crannies of the phone system added a sense of adventure to phreaking. But the mechanical components of telephone networks were rapidly being replaced by computers that switched calls electronically, opening a new and far more captivating world for the telephone underground. By 1980, the members of this high-tech Los Angeles gang weren't just phone phreaks who talked to each other on party lines and made free telephone calls. Kevin and Roscoe, in particular, were taking phone phreaking into the growing realm of computers. By the time they had learned how to manipulate the very computers that controlled the phone system, they were calling themselves computer hackers.
Kevin was the only one of the original group to go even deeper, to take an adolescent diversion to the point of obsession. Susan, Roscoe and Steve liked the control and the thrill, and they enjoyed seeing their pranks replayed for them in the newspapers. But almost a decade later it would be Kevin, the one who hid from publicity, who would come to personify the public's nightmare vision of the malevolent computer hacker.
Born in Altona, Illinois, in 1959, Susan was still an infant when her parents, struggling with an unhappy marriage, moved to Tujunga, California, northeast of the San Fernando Valley. Even after the move to paradise, with the implicit promise of a chance to start afresh, Susan's family continued to unravel. Susan was a gawky, buck-toothed little girl. Rejected and abused, at age eight she found solace in the telephone, a place where perfect strangers seemed happy to offer a kind word or two. She made friends with operators, and began calling random numbers in the telephone book, striking up a conversation with whomever she happened to catch. Sometimes she called radio disc jockeys.
After her parents divorced, Susan dropped out of the eighth grade, ran away to the streets of Hollywood and adopted the name Susy Thunder. Susan didn't make many friends, but she did know how to feed herself. Before long, she was walking Sunset Boulevard, looking for men in cars who would pay her for sex. She cut a conspicuous figure next to some of the more diminutive women on the street. Barely out of puberty, Susan was already approaching six feet.
When she wasn't walking the streets, she was living in a hazy, drug-filtered world as a hanger-on in the L.A. music scene, a rock-star groupie. Susan was a bruised child developing into a bruised adult. Quaalude was her medium of choice for spiriting her away from reality, and when Quaalude was scarce, she switched to alcohol and heroin. Her mother finally put her into a nine-month rehabilitation program; she was abruptly thrown out midcourse. Conflicting stories of Susan's ouster were in keeping with the blurry line between fact and myth that described her life. As Susan was to tell it, the adulation of power she developed as a groupie compelled her to single out the most powerful male staff member at the treatment center and seduce him. Another story, circulated by Susan's detractors, is that the male staff member for whom she left the program "sold" her services to a brothel.
Susan found an apartment in Van Nuys and retreated once again to the telephone, taking comfort in knowing that with the telephone she could gain access to a world of her own conjuring and shut it out whenever she chose. She began calling the telephone conference lines that were springing up all over Los Angeles in the late 1970s. By dialing a conference-line number, Susan could connect herself to what sounded like cross talk, except that she was heard by the others and could join in the conversation. Some conference-line callers were teenagers who dialed up after school; others were housewives who stayed on all day, tuning in and out between household chores but never actually hanging up the phone. By nightfall, many of the conference lines turned into telephonic sex parlors, the talk switching from undirected chitchat to explicit propositions.
One day in early 1980 Susan discovered HOBO-UFO, one of the first "legitimate" conference lines in Los Angeles in that its owners used their own conferencing equipment instead of piggybacking on the phone company's facilities. Drawing hundreds of people every day, HOBO-UFO was run from the Hollywood apartment of a young college student who called himself Roscoe. A friend of Roscoe's named Barney financed the setup, putting up the money for the multiple phone lines and other equipment while Roscoe provided the technical wherewithal. Susan decided she couldn't rest until she had met Roscoe, the power behind it all. But to achieve that goal, Susan knew she would have to abandon her disembodied telephone persona. She liked describing herself to men over the telephone. She knew from experience that all she had to do was mention that she was a six-foot-two blond and she wouldn't have to wait long for a knock at the door. She was right. No sooner did she deliver the description than Roscoe came calling.
The woman who greeted Roscoe was exactly as she had described herself. Susan had dressed up and made her face up carefully for the big date. But she could not conceal certain physical oddities. Her long face displayed a set of teeth so protrusive as to produce a slight speech impediment. And there was something incongruous about her large frame: her upper torso was narrow and delicate, but it descended to a disproportionate outcropping of hips and heavy thighs. Roscoe, for his part, was thin and pale. His brown-framed glasses met Susan's chin. But if either Susan or Roscoe was disappointed in the other's looks, neither showed it. They went to dinner, and when Roscoe asked Susan about her line of work she told him she was a therapist and then quickly changed the subject.
A business student at the University of Southern California, Roscoe was one of the best-known phone phreaks around Los Angeles. When a reporter from a local newspaper began researching a story about conference lines, he told a few HOBO-UFO regulars that he wanted to meet Roscoe. The next day a caller greeted him by reeling off the billing name on his unlisted phone number, his home address, the year and make of his car, and his driver's license number. Then the caller announced himself: "This is Roscoe."
When Susan and Roscoe met in 1980, phone phreaking was by no means a new phenomenon. Phone phreaks had been cheating the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for years. They started out with "blue boxes" as their primary tool. Named for the color of the original device, blue boxes were rectangular gadgets that came in a variety of sizes. Sometimes they were built by electronic hobbyists, at other times by underground entrepreneurs. Occasionally they were even used by the Mafia. One of Silicon Valley's legendary companies even has its roots in blue box manufacturing. Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer in 1976, got their start in the consumer electronics business several years earlier, peddling blue boxes in college dormitories.
A blue box was universally useful because it could exploit a quirk in the design of the nation's long-distance telephone system. The device emitted a high-pitched squeal, the 2600-hertz tone that, in the heyday of the blue boxers, controlled the AT&T long-distance switching system. When phone company equipment detected the tone, it readied itself for a new call. A series of special tones from the box allowed the blue box user to dial anywhere in the world. Using these clever devices, phone phreaks navigated through the Bell System from the palms of their hands. Tales abounded of blue boxers who routed calls to nearby pay phones through the long-distance lines of as many as fifteen countries, just for the satisfaction of hearing the long series of clicks and kerchunks made by numerous phone companies releasing their circuits. Blue boxes were soon joined by succeeding generations of boxes in all colors, each serving a separate function, but all designed to skirt the computerized record-keeping and switching equipment that the phone company uses for billing calls.
The phone phreaking movement reached its zenith in the early 1970s. One folk hero among phreaks was John Draper, whose alias, "Captain Crunch," derived from a happy coincidence: he discovered that the toy whistle buried in the Cap'n Crunch cereal box matched the phone company's 2600-hertz tone perfectly.
Tending to be as socially maladroit as they were technically proficient, phone phreaks were a bizarre group, driven by a compulsive need to learn all they could about the object of their obsession. One famous blind phreak named Joe Engressia discovered the telephone as a small child; at age eight he could whistle in perfect pitch, easily imitating the 2600-hertz AT&T signal. Joe's lips were his blue box. After graduating from college, in tireless pursuit of knowledge about the phone company, Joe crisscrossed the country by bus, visiting local phone company offices for guided tours. As he was escorted around, he would touch the equipment and learn new aspects of the phone system. Joe's ambition was not to steal revenue from the telephone company but to get a job there. But he had made a name for himself as a phreak, and despite his vast store of knowledge, the phone company could not be moved to hire him. Eventually, Mountain Bell in Denver did give him a job as a troubleshooter in its network service center and his whistling stopped. All that he had wanted was to be part of the system.
The Bell System needed people like Joe on its side. By the mid-1970s, AT&T estimated it was losing $30 million a year to telephone fraud. A good percentage of the illegal calls, it turned out, were being placed by professional white-collar criminals, and even by small businesses trying to cut their long-distance phone bills. But unable to redesign its entire signaling scheme overnight, AT&T decided to ferret out the bandits. Using monitoring equipment in various fraud "hot spots" throughout the telephone network, AT&T spent years scanning tens of millions of toll calls. By the early 1980s automated scanning had become routine and Bell Laboratories, AT&T's research arm, had devised computer programs that could detect and locate blue box calls. Relying on increasingly sophisticated scanning equipment, detection programs embedded in its electronic switches and a growing network of informants, AT&T caught hundreds of blue boxers.
In 1971, phone phreaking ventured briefly into the sphere of politics. The activist Abbie Hoffman, joined by a phone phreak who called himself Al Bell, started a newsletter called Youth International Party Line -- or YIPL for short. With its office at the Yippie headquarters on Bleecker Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, YIPL was meant to be the technical offshoot of the Yippies. Hoffman's theory was that communications were the nerve center of any revolution; liberating communications would be the most important phase of a mass revolt. But Al Bell's outlook was at odds with Hoffman's; Al saw no place for politics in what was essentially a technical journal. In 1973, Al abandoned YIPL and Hoffman and moved uptown to set up shop as TAP, the Technological Assistance Program.
Much of the information contained in TAP was culled from AT&T's various in-house technical journals. It was information that AT&T would rather have kept to itself. And that was the point. Whereas the original phreaks like Captain Crunch got their kicks making free phone calls, TAP's leaders, while steering clear of a hard political line, believed that the newsletter's mission was to disseminate as much information about Ma Bell as it could. By 1975, more than thirteen hundred people around the world subscribed to the four-page leaflet. For the most part, they were loners by their own admission, steeped in private technical worlds. TAP was their ultimate handbook. Written in relentlessly technical language, TAP contained tips on such topics as lock picking, the manipulation of vending machines, do-it-yourself pay phone slugs and free electricity. TAP routinely published obscure telephone numbers; those of the White House and Buckingham Palace were especially popular. And in 1979, during the hostage crisis in Iran, TAP published the phone number of the American embassy in Tehran. Every Friday evening, a dozen or so TAP people held a meeting at a Manhattan restaurant, many still cloaked in the ties and jackets that betrayed daytime lives spent toiling away at white-collar jobs. After work, and inside the pages of TAP, they adopted such names as The Professor, The Wizard and Dr. Atomic.
In the late 1970s, a phone phreak who called himself Tom Edison took over TAP, bringing in another telephone network enthusiast, Cheshire Catalyst, a self-styled "techie-loner-weirdo science fiction fanatic," as one of TAP's primary contributors. Tall and dark with the concave, hollow-cheeked look of someone rarely exposed to sunlight, Cheshire had been phreaking since the sixties. He discovered the telephone at age twelve, and learned to clip the speaker leads of the family stereo onto a telephone plug so that he could put the handset to his ear and listen to the radio while doing his homework. If his mother entered the room, he just had to hang up the receiver. By the time he was nineteen, Cheshire had become a telex maven, having programmed his home computer to simulate a telex machine. Before long he was sending telex pen-pal messages around the world. In his twenties, already a veteran TAP reader, Cheshire moved to Manhattan, got a job at a bank in computer support and joined the TAP inner circle.
TAP wasn't exactly a movement. It was an attitude, perhaps best described as playful contempt for the Bell System. One elderly woman from the Midwest sent her subscription check along with a letter to Tom Edison saying that although she would never do any of the things described in TAP, she wanted to support those people who were getting back at the phone company.
As one responsible for keeping TAP unassailable, Cheshire didn't sully his hands with blue boxes, and he paid his telephone bills scrupulously. Out of corporate garb, he and his friends stayed busy irking Ma Bell through their constant wanderings inside the phone system. As Cheshire and his friends would explain to outsiders, they loved the telephone network -- it was the bureaucracy behind it they hated.
People like Cheshire lived not so much to defraud corporate behemoths as to home in on their most vulnerable flaws and take full playful advantage of them. Beating the system was a way of life. Flying from New York to St. Louis, for instance, was not a simple matter of seeking an inexpensive fare; it meant hours of research to find the cheapest route, even if it meant taking advantage of a special promotional flight from New York to Los Angeles and disembarking when the flight made a stop in St. Louis. And getting the best of AT&T, the most blindly bureaucratic monopoly of all, embodied a strike against everything worth detesting in a large corporation.
As private computer networks proliferated in the late 1970s, there came a generation of increasingly computer literate young phreaks like Roscoe and Kevin Mitnick. If the global telephone network could hold a phone phreak entranced, imagine the fascination presented by the proliferating networks that began to link the computers of the largest corporations. Using a modem, a device that converts a computer's digital data into audible tones that can be transmitted over phone lines, any clever interloper could hook into a computer network. The first requirement was a valid user identification -- the name of an authorized user of the network. The next step was to produce a corresponding password. And in the early days, anyone could root out one valid password or another.
The rising computer consciousness of the phone phreaks was inevitable as technology advanced. Electromechanical telephone switches were rapidly giving way to computerized equivalents all over the world, suddenly transforming the ground rules for riding the telephone networks. The arrival of computerized telephone switches dramatically increased the risks and the sense of danger, as well as the potential payoff. The phone company's automatic surveillance powers grew by orders of magnitude, served by silent digital sentinels that sensed the telltale signals of the electronic phone phreaks' microelectronic armory. As the peril grew, so did the sense of adventure. Whenever an outsider gained control of a central office switch or its associated billing and maintenance computers, by evading often inadequate security barriers, the control was absolute. Thus the new generation of phone phreaks could go far beyond placing free telephone calls. Anything was possible: eavesdropping, altering telephone bills, turning off an unsuspecting victim's phone service, or even changing the class of service. In one legendary hack a phone phreak had the computer reclassify someone's home phone as a pay phone. When the victim picked up the telephone, he was startled to hear a computerized voice asking him to deposit ten cents. For phone phreaks, the temptation to step up from the simpler technology of the telephone to the more complicated and powerful technology of computers was irresistible.
In 1983, just as TAP was coming to symbolize the unification of computers and telephones, the journal came to an untimely end. Tom Edison's two-story condominium in suburban New Jersey went up in flames, the object of simultaneous burglary and arson. The burglary was professional: Tom's computer and disks -- all the tools for publishing TAP -- were taken. But the arson job was downright amateurish. Gasoline was poured haphazardly and the arsonist failed to open the windows to feed the fire. For years, Tom and Cheshire speculated that the phone company had engineered the fire, but proving it was another matter. Tom had a real-world name, a respectable job and a reputation to maintain. Cheshire rented a truck and hauled what remained of the operation -- including hundreds of back issues of TAP, all of which escaped unsinged -- over to his place in Manhattan. But in the end, TAP didn't survive the blow. A few months after the fire, Cheshire printed its final issue.
Meanwhile, the Southern California phreaks had been holding their equivalent of TAP meetings. Once a month or so, a group of phreaks, including Roscoe and occasionally Kevin, would get together informally at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Hollywood to talk and exchange information. But the L.A. phreaks weren't a particularly sociable bunch to begin with, and their meetings were far less organized than those on the East Coast, with fewer political overtones.
Though an avid TAP reader, Roscoe shunned blue boxes and most of the other electronic crutches of phone phreaking. They were just too easy to trace, he thought. Roscoe preferred to exploit flukes, or holes, that he and his friends found in the newly computerized telephone system. Modesty was not one of Roscoe's virtues. He claimed that he had acquired as much knowledge about the telephone system and the computers that controlled it as anyone else in the country. He kept notebooks filled with the numbers of private lines to corporations like Exxon and Ralston Purina, along with access codes to scores of computers operated by everything from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to major airlines. He boasted that he could order prepaid airline tickets, search car registrations and even get access to the Department of Motor of Vehicles' computer system to enter or delete police warrants. Whereas most pure phreaks viewed their art as a clever means of bypassing the phone company, Roscoe saw it as a potential weapon. With access to phone company computers, he could change numbers, disconnect phones or send someone a bill for thousands of dollars. Most of the numbers in his extensive log came from hours of patient exploration on a computer terminal at school. And many of the special tricks he learned from Kevin Mitnick.
Roscoe met Kevin in 1978, over the amateur radio network. When Roscoe was tuned in one day, he was startled to hear a nasty fight in progress between two hams. The control operator of the machine was accusing a fellow ham named Kevin Mitnick of making illegal long-distance telephone calls over the radio using stolen MCI codes. At the time, Roscoe knew nothing of telephones or computers. But given the vituperative tone of the angry ham, either Kevin Mitnick had done something truly terrible or he was being unjustly accused. Suspecting the latter, Roscoe switched on his tape recorder and recorded the invectives as they flew through the air. Then he got on the radio to tell Kevin that he had a tape recording of the accusations if Kevin wanted it. Sensing a potential ally, Kevin gave Roscoe a telephone number to call so that they could speak privately. As Roscoe was to find out later, Kevin had given him the number of a telephone company loop line, a number hidden in the electronic crevices of the telephone network and reserved for maintenance workers in the field who are testing circuits. Roscoe was immediately taken with this teenager, a good three years his junior, who evidently knew so much about telephones. He drove out to the San Fernando Valley to meet Kevin, gave him the tape and cemented a new friendship. Sometimes Kevin called Roscoe directly at his home in Hollywood, a toll call from the San Fernando Valley, and they talked for hours. When Roscoe asked him how a high schooler could afford it, Kevin just laughed.
When Susan met Roscoe in 1980, he had been phreaking for about a year. She fell in love with him almost at once. He was the first man she had met who displayed some intelligence and whose life didn't revolve around drugs and the drug scene. She found Roscoe's interest in computers charming, even fascinating. Roscoe was taking phone phreaking to a new level, combining his knowledge of the phone system with his growing knowledge of computers. Susan saw this as a brilliant next step for someone with a phone obsession. What was more, they were both talented at employing their voices to desired ends. They shared a faith in how much could be accomplished with a simple phone call. As a teenager, Susan had employed the technique she called psychological subversion, otherwise known as social engineering, to talk her way into backstage passes at dozens of concerts. Posing as a secretary in the office of the head of the concert production company, she could get her name added to any guest list. Susan prided herself on those skills. If she and Roscoe had anything in common, both lacked the mechanism that compels most people to tell the truth.
Roscoe and Susan started to date each other. Roscoe was attending the University of Southern California and his schedule there, he told her, let him see her only on certain nights. But that was fine with Susan, as she was holding down two jobs. One was as a switchboard operator at a telephone answering service. The more lucrative job was something she knew how to make a lot of money at: she worked for a small bordello in Van Nuys. Her counselor story didn't last long. Roscoe made it his business to learn all he could about people, and Susan was no exception. When the truth emerged about Susan's profession, Roscoe found it more amusing than scandalous.
In her head, Susan was living out a romance of her own quirky invention. In fact, the relationship between Susan and Roscoe was oddly businesslike, hardly distracted by passion. Often their dates consisted of an excursion to the USC computer center, where Roscoe would set Susan up with a computer terminal and keep her occupied with computer games while he "worked." Susan soon realized that he was using accounts at the university's computer center to log on to different computers around the country. Susan lost interest in the games and turned her attention to what Roscoe was doing. Before long, she became his protegée.
Susan developed her own talent for finessing her way into forbidden computer systems. She began to specialize in military computer systems. The information that resides in the nation's military computers isn't just any data. It represents the nation's premier power base -- the Pentagon. And in digging for military data, as Susan saw it, she, a high school dropout and teenage runaway, was just a silo away from the sort of control that truly mattered. Still, she was a beginner, far short of mastering the Defense Department's complex of computers and communications networks. What she couldn't supply in technical knowledge she compensated for with other skills. One of her methods was to go out to a military base and hang around in the officers' club, or, if she was asked to leave, in bars near the base. She would get friendly with a high-ranking officer, then act flirtatiously with him. Deploying her womanly charms, and implying that sexual favors might be granted, she persuaded these men to give her access to their systems. She would report each new success to Roscoe, who praised her profusely while making careful note of the specifics.
From her job at the bordello, Susan was taking home about $1,200 a week, and all of it came in handy. She invested every spare cent in computer and phone equipment. She installed a phone line for data transmission, and an "opinion line" she named "instant relay." Whoever dialed the "instant relay" number got Susan's commentary on topics of her own choosing. At the same time, she taught herself to use RSTS, Resource Sharing Time Sharing, the standard operating system for Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-11 minicomputers. (Operating systems are programs that control a computer's tasks the way an orchestra conductor controls musicians. Operating systems start and stop programs and find and store files.) For computer intruders the fascination with a computer's operating system is obvious: it is not only the master controller but also the computer's gatekeeper, regulating access and limiting the capabilities of users.
Roscoe often employed Susan's Van Nuys apartment as a base of operations. He was usually accompanied by his younger cohort, the plump and bespectacled Kevin Mitnick. Kevin was the kind of kid who would be picked last for a school team. His oversize plaid shirts were seldom tucked in, and his pear-shaped body was so irregular that any blue jeans would be an imperfect fit. His seventeen years hadn't been easy. When Kevin was three, his parents separated. His mother, Shelly, got a job as a waitress at a local delicatessen and embarked on a series of new relationships. Every time Kevin started to get close to a new father, the man disappeared. Kevin's real father was seldom in touch; he remarried and had another son, athletic and good-looking. During Kevin's junior high school years, just as he was getting settled into a new school, the family moved. It wasn't surprising that Kevin looked to the telephone for solace.
Susan and Kevin didn't get along from the start. Kevin had no use for Susan, and Susan saw him as a hulking menace with none of Roscoe's charm. What was more, he seemed to have a malicious streak that she didn't see in Roscoe. This curiously oafish friend of Roscoe's always seemed to be busy carrying out revenge of one sort or another, cutting off someone's phone service or harassing people over the amateur radio. At the same time, Kevin was a master of the soothing voice who aimed at inspiring trust, then cooperation. Kevin used his silken entreaties to win over even the most skeptical keepers of passwords. And he seemed to know even more about the phone system than Roscoe. Kevin's most striking talent was his photographic memory. Presented with a long list of computer passwords for a minute or two, an hour later Kevin could recite the list verbatim.
Roscoe and Kevin prided themselves on their social engineering skills; they assumed respect would come if they sounded knowledgeable and authoritative, even in subject areas they knew nothing about. Roscoe or Kevin would call the telecommunications department of a company and pose as an angry superior, demanding brusquely to know why a number for dialing out wasn't working properly. Sufficiently cowed, the recipient of the call would be more than glad to explain how to use the number in question.
While Kevin's approach was more improvisational, Roscoe made something of a science out of his talent for talking to people. He kept a separate notebook in which he listed the names and workplaces of various telephone operators and their supervisors. He noted whether they were new or experienced, well informed or ignorant, friendly and cooperative or slow and unhelpful. He kept an exhaustive list of personal information obtained from hours of chatting: their hobbies, their children's names, their ages and favorite sports and where they had just vacationed.
Roscoe and Kevin didn't phreak or break into computers for money. Secret information, anything at all that was hidden, was what they prized most highly. They seldom if ever tried to sell the information they obtained. Yet some of what they had was eminently marketable. Roscoe's notebooks, filled with computer logins and passwords, would have fetched a tidy sum from any industrial spy. But phreaking to them was a form of high art that money would only cheapen. Roscoe especially thrived on the sense of power he derived from his phreaking. Presenting a stranger with a litany of personal facts and watching him or her come unhinged gave Roscoe his greatest pleasure.
Another frequent visitor to Susan's apartment was Steve Rhoades, a puckish fifteen-year-old from Pasadena with straight brown hair that cascaded down to the middle of his back. His timid intelligence and easy manner had a way of catching people off guard. He was an expert phreak who had earned a grudging respect from the Pacific Bell security force -- the very people he loved to taunt. So adept was he at manipulating his telephone service from the terminal box on the telephone pole outside his house that the phone company removed the footholds. Like Kevin and Roscoe, Steve was an amateur radio buff. Two-way radios, in fact, often figured in their phreaking. When foraging through phone company trash for manuals, discarded papers containing passwords and whatever else might help them in their phreaking endeavors -- a method they called trashing -- they communicated by two-way radio.
Whatever the personality differences in the L.A. gang, their various talents brought results. Working together, they were able to get the numbers of lost or stolen telephone credit cards using highly imaginative methods: for instance, they would divert cardholders' toll-free calls to report lost cards to a pay phone of their choosing and answer with, "Pacific Bell, may I help you?" Their vast store of knowledge came from months of diligent research: they obtained manuals however they could get them and joined as many company tours as they could, mostly to familiarize themselves with building layouts. The group routinely got credit information from the computer at TRW's credit bureau. Sometimes it was a matter of talking an unsuspecting employee out of a password; sometimes a job required "physical research," such as a late-night excavation of TRW's Dumpsters.
By brainstorming together, the group would be inspired to ever more audacious stunts. On one occasion, Steve Rhoades figured out a way to override directory assistance for Providence, Rhode Island, so that when people dialed for information, they got one of the gang instead. "Is that person white or black, sir?" was a favorite line. "You see, we have separate directories." Or: "Yes, that number is eight-seven-five-zero and a half. Do you know how to dial the half, ma'am?"
A few months into her infatuation with Roscoe, Susan noticed unhappily that he was spending less time with her. Then someone let her in on the reason: she had been deceived. Roscoe, it turned out, was all but engaged to someone else, a law student as prim and straight in her ways as Susan was errant in hers. The other girlfriend apparently provided Roscoe's tie to respectable society. Susan despaired. He had been displaying affection for Susan when what he really wanted to do was exploit her eagerness to hack. When she confronted him, he just laughed. So she tried a veiled threat: she told him it was quite likely that FBI agents would come knocking on her door, and she would have to talk to them. Roscoe feigned puzzlement. Susan refused to believe that he wasn't at least torn between the two women. She decided to ask him, once and for all, for the truth. "Don't you feel anything for me at all?" He just smiled and said she had been misled. What Roscoe had failed to take into account was that the person he had just crushed was a woman who had been bruised once too often. By rejecting her so heartlessly, Roscoe was inviting trouble. He had yet to experience Susan's dark side.
Eddie Rivera, a free-lance writer in Los Angeles, wasn't sure what he had stumbled into. As he was getting out of his car one day on Sunset Boulevard in late April of 1980, he saw a flyer that simply read: "UFO CONFERENCE CALL NOW." His curiosity stirred, the young reporter dialed HOBO-UFO and heard three people chatting idly, engaged in what seemed to be an interminable telephone conversation. A television murmured in the background. After listening to five more minutes of prattle, Eddie sensed the possibility of a story far different from what he usually produced as a rock-and-roll critic. Like Susan Thunder before him, Eddie focused on meeting the person running the conference. "Excuse me," he interrupted. "If you guys on this line know who runs it, have him call me." The line went silent; he felt as if he had switched on the kitchen light late at night and seen dozens of cockroaches running for cover. But it worked. Within a day of putting the word out that he wanted to meet Roscoe, Eddie received his first call. Eddie got a story assignment from the L.A. Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and went to work.
Their first meeting took place at an electronics store on Santa Monica Boulevard owned by Barney, Roscoe's pudgy, disheveled benefactor. When not in school or overseeing the HOBO-UFO line from his home, Roscoe was often at Barney's place. With not a customer in sight, the store was littered with old televisions in various stages of disrepair. For his part, Barney derived no small amount of pleasure from the venture he was financing; he used the conference line to meet adolescent girls.
Eddie hadn't known quite what to expect. Roscoe's appearance was surprisingly neat, but there was something amiss: his pale blue polyester pants with a slight flare at the bottom, and his dark polyester print shirt with an oversize collar, were already at least five years out of date. The twenty-year-old Roscoe seemed more to resemble an electrical engineering student than a telephone outlaw.
For the first interview, Barney put a "closed" sign in the shop window and, in what would become a routine preamble to the interviews, the three went out for doughnuts. Roscoe lived on junk food, as did, it seemed, all his fellow phreaks. A patina of doughnut glaze frequently rested on Roscoe's lips. In the afternoons, Roscoe moved on to Doritos and cheeseburgers. And Barney's store was strewn with Winchell's Donuts coffee cups whose contents suggested that Barney might be using them as petri dishes.
Roscoe made it clear from the start that he would be in complete control of the nature and quantity of information he imparted to Eddie. He enjoyed telling Eddie just how much he knew about telephones -- far beyond the body of information known to the average telephone company employee.
There was something oddly mechanized about Roscoe's language. Eddie was struck by the young man's formal, almost bureaucratic way of speaking. In response to a question, Roscoe usually answered as indirectly as possible. He had a curious affection for the passive construction. Roscoe didn't simply make phone calls. Instead, telephone conversations were initiated. Perhaps, Eddie thought, Roscoe's tangled locution resulted from reading too many of those phone company manuals he kept talking about. In any case, his manner of speech distanced him from whatever he was talking about. Perhaps it made him feel more important.
Roscoe told Eddie that he had a friend at the phone company who could get him into the switching room that housed the powerful computer controlling all the telephones in Hollywood. During one recent late-night visit there, Roscoe told Eddie, he had walked over to a wall that was blanketed with telephone company switching equipment and watched as his friend flicked a switch. At the sound of a female voice, the friend announced proudly, "That's Farrah Fawcett." Bored telephone company employees, Roscoe's friend claimed, monitored people's calls all the time. Roscoe told the story in such precise detail that Eddie had no doubt about its truth.
In the early reporting stages of Eddie's article, Roscoe was highly secretive about his whereabouts, guarding his daily comings and goings like a fugitive. If Eddie wanted to speak with him, he would have to wait for him to call. After a few weeks, Roscoe gave him a number where he could leave a message. It was a month before Roscoe invited the reporter to his home, one of ten units in a plain two-story white stucco building located in a shabby neighborhood on the southern edge of Hollywood that was cluttered with similar apartment buildings. Roscoe lived with his mother in a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment. Adult bookstores dominated the neighborhood.
There seemed to be little in Roscoe's life besides school and telephones. Eddie heard that Roscoe had a girlfriend, but he never saw any sign of her. Roscoe had once introduced Eddie to someone named Susan, a bizarre and cranky young woman, eccentrically tall and with unusually wide hips, but she and Roscoe appeared to be just friends. His world was the telephone, and from his small bedroom in the back he operated his HOBO-UFO conference. His phone rang constantly as people called the line. Roscoe continuously monitored the conference through a speakerphone, which created a constant low level of conversation in the room, and he could pick up his telephone any time and interrupt. Another line attached to an answering machine rang frequently as well. Many of those calls came from giggling teenage girls to whom Roscoe had given his private number.
There was something about the way Roscoe reacted to telephone tones that made Eddie suspect he had a musical ear. He could recite a phone number just by hearing it dialed. Spying an upright piano and a large stereo in the modest quarters, Eddie decided he was right. Scholastic awards from Belmont High School lined Roscoe's bedroom wall; now he was attending USC on a scholarship. And from what Eddie could see of Roscoe's interaction with his mother, an immigrant from Argentina who appeared to speak no English, Roscoe was a model son. Eddie was taken aback to hear Roscoe's perfect Spanish, spoken with the unselfconscious ease of a native. Roscoe's complexion was so pale and his English so flatly American that Eddie would have put his roots far north of Argentina, possibly in Iowa.
If Roscoe had a side that was less restrained and formal, he displayed it to Eddie just once. On a drive through Hollywood, down a section of Western Avenue elevated above the freeway, Eddie and Roscoe were stopped at a red light a few doors away from a storefront church, where a small congregation of Hispanics lingered outside. "Slow down!" Roscoe blurted out suddenly from the passenger's seat. "I'm going to freak these people out!" He rolled down his window and leaned his torso out the window. "Ay Dios mio!" he screamed in perfect Spanish, in the evangelical wail of a recent convert. As they accelerated away from the horrified 'worshipers, Roscoe was beside himself with laughter. "That gets 'em every time!" he cried.
For the most part, the people who called Roscoe's conference lived for their telephonic encounters. Many were blind, Roscoe told Eddie, or otherwise handicapped. Others were housewives or single mothers. The majority were overweight. Their names -- Rick the Trip, Regina Watts Towers, Dan Dual-Phase, Mike Montage -- suggested to Eddie a group of shy folk making sad attempts to add mystery and intrigue to their lives. Eddie's suspicions were confirmed when, several weeks into his reporting, he attended a phreak party at Dan Dual-Phase's house. For many members of the group, it couldn't be a simple drop-in affair. So few of the conference line callers could drive that the transportation logistics alone had lent an unusual air to the party. At the event itself, the conference line callers sat in scattered clutches of embarrassed silence, too shy to speak to one another in person.
As part of the education process, Roscoe presented Eddie with literature. He gave the reporter several back issues of TAP, referring to it as if its circulation matched that of Newsweek. After a mystifying perusal of TAP's pages, with its proclamations that no code can be completely secure, Eddie could only conclude that it carried the voice of true outlaws. Roscoe also showed him a legendary Esquire magazine story about phone phreaks. One of the featured phone phreaks in the story was Captain Crunch. Roscoe angrily denounced Crunch as an idiot whose blue box was a crutch. Phone phreaks should be like Houdinis, able to cruise the telephone network as if by magic, without the visible aid of tools. Roscoe did have one hardware crutch -- a Touch-Tone dialer, a square, gray plastic box small enough to fit in one's palm. On the front was a dialing pad with ten numbers; batteries were taped to the back. The dialer was elegantly simple yet indispensable. Its function was to send Touch-Tones into the mouthpiece of a rotary-dial phone. These were precisely the tones that he needed to get access to corporate phone networks for his free telephone calls. Once he reached a company's private telephone system, a friendly digitized voice asked for a code. After receiving a correct code punched into the dialer, the phone system stood open for dialing anywhere at all.
One day during Eddie's reporting assignment, Roscoe had with him a slightly younger friend named Kevin. Eddie had already heard about Kevin from Roscoe. If Eddie found Roscoe's knowledge of telephones impressive, Roscoe had told him in a reverential tone, he should meet Kevin. Kevin lived about forty-five minutes away from Roscoe in the San Fernando Valley, and until Kevin got his driver's license, Roscoe regularly retrieved him and then took him home.
Kevin was overweight and exceedingly shy. Roscoe, in fact, was downright garrulous compared with his laconic friend, who assiduously avoided eye contact. Where Eddie had seen glimpses of normalcy in Roscoe, in Kevin he saw nothing but a life steeped in telephones and computers. When he joined Roscoe and Kevin for an afternoon of phreaking, Eddie noticed that Roscoe frequently deferred to Kevin, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the telephone company's computerized control switches was well beyond his own. And where Roscoe was clearly taken with the idea of a reporter trailing after him for weeks on end, Kevin was altogether uninterested in Eddie. In fact, Roscoe too seemed temporarily to lose interest in the reporter when Kevin was around, so deep was his concentration on the business of phreaking with Kevin.
Eddie was struck by the patience and perseverance the two youths displayed when seated before a computer screen. Eddie had seen Roscoe spend an hour at a time simply scanning for dialing codes, but the display of endurance when Roscoe and Kevin joined forces was in another league. For five hours on One occasion, they sat in front of a computer terminal that was connected to a phone company computer, watching a series of numbers scroll by. Roscoe and Kevin grew increasingly excited over the hieroglyphics on the screen, but their excitement passed right over Eddie. If the reporter asked them to explain what they were seeing, he received a sidelong glance of amused condescension. If these two phreaks were breaking the law, Eddie couldn't tell. Before long he stopped trying to understand what they were doing and found himself struggling to stay awake.
Eddie had an inkling that Kevin might be even more important than Roscoe for his story. Not only did Kevin seem to know more than Roscoe about telephones, but Eddie got the impression that Kevin had taught Roscoe much of what he knew. Eddie figured he should probably take the kid out for a cheeseburger, but he decided he wanted nothing to do with him. As he felt himself pulled further into this strange world, he realized that the phreaks were beginning to make him nervous. In reality, Roscoe's life wasn't much richer than the lives of the lonely souls who hung on his conference line. Yet Roscoe regarded the others with a mixture of delight and disdain: delight at their obvious respect for him, and disdain for the emptiness in their lives. But they just depressed Eddie. Between the desperate conference-line callers and the sinkhole of technical language, clouded further by Roscoe's impossibly stilted speech, Eddie was beginning to regret that he had tackled such a difficult story. He began to yearn for an easy, more familiar assignment, perhaps a backstage interview with Joey and the Pizzas. At the least, his stint as an honorary member of the gang had come to an end. It was time to write his story.
Eddie's cover story in the L.A. Weekly in the summer of 1980 left a lasting impression on those who saw it. Mostly it was a profile of Roscoe, a phone phreak who could do anything with a telephone. Shortly after the story appeared, Eddie was at a party and overheard a conversation about it. When he mentioned that he had written it, people said they wanted to meet this Roscoe and learn a few of his tricks.
Meanwhile, Susan was obsessed by her desire to get something on Roscoe, something she could hold over him and something other people would believe. It wouldn't be difficult, she figured, since his forays often led him into dubious territory. And she wouldn't mind getting Kevin as well. Kevin and Roscoe' had a long-standing agreement to share information with each other, usually to the exclusion of Susan. No, she wouldn't mind one bit if Kevin got pulled into the undertow.
The first opportunity for revenge came with the U.S. Leasing breakin. With a little programming flourish, Roscoe had given himself system privileges on a computer at U.S. Leasing, a San Francisco company with subsidiaries specializing in leasing electronic equipment, railcars and computers. In most large multiuser computers there is a hierarchy of privilege meted out to users. The system manager has the highest level of privilege, acting as de facto God in the computer system, while ordinary users have their capabilities more stringently curtailed. Such a pecking order works only if the lesser users cannot find ways to masquerade as the system manager.
Because its network address circulated widely throughout the phreak community in 1980, U.S. Leasing had one of the most popular computers for phreaks to play on. Both Roscoe and Susan, in fact, enjoyed posting the computer's network address on electronic bulletin boards, offering guided tours of the system to phreaking neophytes. U.S. Leasing used nothing' but Digital Equipment PDP-11 computers. All the computers ran RSTS, a notoriously insecure operating system. RSTS had been designed in the 1970s as the ultimate in user-friendliness. Ask the system for a password and it would assign you one automatically. Ask for a system status report and you were provided with the name of every user on the system. More often than not, people chose their names as their passwords. To make things easier for its customers, Digital even supplied sample passwords, such as field and test for field technicians. And the field technicians often had highly privileged accounts.
Getting to computers such as the one at U.S. Leasing was deliciously easy. The first step was to dial into the Telenet network. Telenet was the first commercial network designed solely to link together computers. Computer networks differ from telephone networks in that instead of each conversation getting its own circuit, many computer-to-computer conversations on a single network can share a single circuit. Because the information being transmitted is digitized, strings of ones and zeros, it can be broken up into small packets. Each packet contains an address that tells the network where it's going. This is known as packet-switching.
Telenet was structured in such a way that you could choose to communicate with any computer within the network simply by typing a sequence of numbers, whereupon you were automatically connected to the computer you chose. The computers, each with an assigned number sequence, formed a mesh. Any system connected to Telenet, be it a computer at Bank of America or one at General Foods, could be reached with one local phone call.
Gathering some physical evidence was Susan's first task. She knew how difficult it was to track down people who broke into computers: the only fingerprints they left were electronic, and those were nearly impossible to attach beyond a reasonable doubt to an individual. Reams of printouts logging an intruder's electronic joyride through a computer or a network of computers were worthless unless there was stronger evidence linking the specific person to the incident. Susan's first step was to get something in Roscoe's handwriting. When he jotted the number of the U.S. Leasing computer and several company passwords on a sheet of paper, Susan asked to keep it so she could learn RSTS.
The computer staff at U.S. Leasing were baffled when, one day in December 1980, the computers that ran their business began acting strangely. The company's computers were behaving in an unusually sluggish manner. So it was a relief to the computer operator on duty late one afternoon when someone called to say that he was a software troubleshooter working for Digital Equipment Corporation. The slowdown problem, he told the operator, was affecting all of Digital's sites. The situation was so widespread, he said, he wouldn't be able to come in person to fix it; he would have to walk someone through the procedure over the phone. The cheerful technician asked for a phone number for the computers, a login and a password. He said he would then insert a "fix" into the system. The computer operator at U.S. Leasing was only too happy to oblige -- it was a procedure he had gone through before with Digital. He thanked the Digital technician, who assured him that everything would be back to normal in the morning.
But the next morning, the computers were as phlegmatic as ever. If anything, the problem was worse. The computer operator called John Whipple, U.S. Leasing's vice-president for data processing, who called the local Digital office in San Francisco and asked for the helpful technician who had called the previous day. There was no employee by that name in San Francisco. So Whipple called Digital headquarters in Massachusetts. Not only was there no such employee on record, but Digital had no plans to make a universal repair. Whipple went straight to the computer room to find the operator. "Someone has been in," he told him.
Whipple's only choice, he decided, was to find and destroy any unauthorized accounts, to call everyone who used the U.S. Leasing computers and have them change their passwords. Later in the day, the computer operator had a second call from the "technician." He was as friendly as ever, explaining that the fix hadn't taken. "I can't seem to get into your machine," he said in a concerned voice.
This time, the operator played dumb. "Give me your number and I'll call you back."
"I'm not really reachable," came the response. "Let me call you back."
When Whipple got to work the next morning, the computer operator was beside himself. The printer connected to one of the computers had been disgorging printouts all night. The floor was papered with them. And every page of every printout was densely covered with type. Covering each printout, repeated hundreds of times was a spiteful message: "THE PHANTOM, THE SYSTEM CRACKER, STRIKES AGAIN. SOON I WILL CRASH YOUR DISKS AND BACKUPS ON SYSTEM A. I HAVE ALREADY CRASHED YOUR SYSTEM B. HAVE FUN TRYING TO RESTORE IT, YOU ASSHOLE."
Another read: "REVENGE IS OURS!"
And finally, in neat rows of type, marching across the page: "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!"
Interspersed among the vulgarities were names. Roscoe was one. Mitnick was another. Mitnick? MITnick? Could that mean that MIT students had done it?
People who were attracted to the computer profession in the 1960s and 1970s could hardly be considered flamboyant. By and large, they were technical loners. Those who entered the field before the computer industry mushroomed, beckoning thousands of ambitious self-starters with the promise of fortunes to be made, were mostly men like John Whipple. They went to schools like MIT and the California Institute of Technology, and they latched onto computers as an extension of an adolescent compulsion to sit in their rooms and pull radios apart. Others had a simple fascination with math, and computers were just the logical next step.
Whipple had been in the computer industry for twenty years, long enough to have witnessed many a harmless prank. MIT students were famous for harmless pranks. But this was no practical joke. These electronic vandals might as well have broken into the room itself, sprayed graffiti all over the walls and taken a hatchet to the computers. Not only had they plastered printer paper with their malicious messages, they had gone into the files in system B themselves, deleted every scrap of information on inventory and customers and billing notices and replaced everything with their invective. They had, that is, destroyed the computer's entire data base. Whipple ordered both of U.S. Leasing's computers to be cut off from any telephone lines and sealed from outsider access. His chief worry wasn't so much over the lost data, because he also had the information on backup tapes. His main fear was that somehow the intruders had devised a program that would let them back into U.S. Leasing even after all the passwords had been changed, a software contrivance called a trapdoor. That day, the company's computer operations remained shut down while the computer staff loaded the backups, reconstructed the data and restored it on the machines. The entire restoration process took twenty-four hours. After a day, the computers went back on line.
Although all the passwords had been changed, and the system seemed as secure as it was going to get, Whipple decided he wasn't going to rest until arrests had been made. His first call was to Digital headquarters. All he wanted was some idea of how the intruders might have broken in at all, and some assurance that it wouldn't happen again. Anyone at Digital, he figured, would sympathize immediately with what Whipple was going through. At the least he expected a sympathetic ear, and he wouldn't have been surprised if the company dispatched some eager young security expert to San Francisco to take care of everything. But the response he got was tepid if not cool. Within a few minutes, he was mired in a bureaucratic procedure. In order to have Digital even consider the matter, Whipple would have to fill out a purchase order, then have his supervisor authorize the expense. A purchase order? Some invisible creeps were erasing his data, writing "FUCK YOU" all over the place, threatening his other computer, and Digital wanted him to fill out a purchase order?
This wasn't the reaction Whipple had expected from Digital, of all companies. Digital was founded in 1957 by Ken Olsen, an individualistic and outspoken MIT engineer. Just as the International Business Machines Corporation was passing the billion-dollar mark in sales of machines that sat behind glass enclosures and processed information in huge batches, Olsen set out with $70,000 in venture capital to build a smaller computer that interacted directly with the user. The idea of an interactive computer had come from a pioneering generation of computer researchers at MIT, and one of their early machines became the model for Digital's first computer, the PDP-1. When Digital delivered one of its first computers to MIT, it was installed in a room one floor above an IBM machine. The IBM computer was locked behind two layers of glass; problems were submitted on batches of IBM cards and results didn't come until the next morning. The Digital computer was accessible to students any time of the day or night; commands were typed on the keyboard and the computer responded in a few seconds. A love affair began. Students gathered around and worked on the new computer until 3:00, 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning. The MIT administration even considered removing the Digital computer because people were so obsessed with it they stopped washing, eating and studying for their classes. And from the beginning, Digital designed its computers to be used in networks.
Digital found its first large customer base at universities and other research institutions. For the same reasons of accessibility and speed, it didn't take long for Digital computers to gain acceptance among commercial customers, too. The complexity that came with buying an IBM mainframe was often overwhelming for people outside of university computer science departments. Digital computers provided a package that was as professional as IBM's, but not nearly as complex.
Whipple had believed Digital to be a company driven by its customers' requirements. He was surprised and dismayed by the company's response to his request for help. Evidently, the bureaucratic tangle served to mask the true situation: the people at Digital headquarters in Massachusetts wanted nothing to do with the event.
So Whipple called the FBI. Three agents arrived at his office the next day. They showed far more concern than anyone at Digital had. But their questions were geared toward trying to figure out whether this was a federal case. There was no doubt that a crime had been committed. There were no federal laws governing computer crime at the time, but if this case fell under federal jurisdiction, it could be prosecuted under federal wire fraud statutes. At the same time, the state of California had a year-old law on the books prohibiting unauthorized access to computer systems. After some deliberation, the FBI decided that, since the break-in didn't appear to have involved interstate telephone calls, it should be handled by local authorities.
Whipple's next call was to the telephone company. He asked Pacific Bell to place traps on the lines. The phone company agreed to do the traces. But that presumed that whoever had committed this act would call again. Whipple had the feeling, even the hope, that these intruders would be arrogant enough to do so. And they were. The call came in the afternoon. This time, the computer operator's object was to keep the "technician" on the line while a trace was completed. "I don't know what's going on here," he moaned into the phone, "but everyone is upset." The operator kept a dialogue going for as long as he could. He cursed U.S. Leasing, saying it had taken away his password, so he couldn't log on to the computers even if he wanted to. Oddly, the friendly technician seemed in no hurry to hang up. With an eerily professional knowledge of the system, he told the operator exactly what to do to bring the computers back on line. Whipple and a phone company employee were listening on another line, and when the operator put the hacker on hold, Whipple could hear two people talking in the background. "I think they're on to us," one said to the other.
The trace went only as far back as an outbound Sprint port in San Francisco -- the electronic doorway of GTE Sprint, then a fledgling long-distance telecommunications company. Using several different long-distance accounts to cover their tracks was one of the phone phreaks' favorite tricks. Someone wishing to break into a computer could make himself more difficult to trace by first dialing through the equipment of one or even several long-distance carriers before finally calling his target. In every case false credit card numbers were used. Such a ruse made the phone company's task of completing a trace considerably more difficult. Crossing company boundaries made it easy for phreaks to hide behind layers of bureaucracy that slowed law-enforcement officials.
It took Whipple several phone calls before he finally reached Sprint's security department, such as it was. The security people gave him a number he could call around the clock. If the intruder called again, they told him, he should call the number at once so that they could start their own trace. A few hours later, the intruder did call. Again the unhappy operator kept him chatting, and again the phone company traced the call to the same Sprint telephone number. With the glee of an angler Whose hook is securely lodged in the mouth of a prizewinning marlin, Whipple called the number the Sprint security officials had given him. There was no answer.
Whipple had never been much of a candidate for confrontation. He was easygoing and low-key. But now he was on the warpath. To arrive at work one morning and see his printer spewing out obscenities and all of the information on one of his computers obliterated was something Whipple had never imagined. He wanted to find out if other Digital customers in the San Francisco area had been hit. Or did these miscreants have a particular reason for wanting to attack U.S. Leasing? That afternoon, he began calling other large Digital installations. At least a half-dozen others told him they too had had troublemakers in their systems. One large hospital that had just bought its Digital system didn't even have it fully installed, yet had already been getting repeated phone calls from a "Digital technician" demanding the computer dial-up number and passwords. When the hospital computer manager explained to the caller that the computer wasn't even up and running, the indignant caller demanded to speak with the hospital's chief administrator. Whipple asked the hospital administrator if he would be willing to join him in pressing charges. No, came the answer. After all, the hospital had been spared any damage, and the negative publicity, he told Whipple, would far outweigh the satisfaction of seeing justice done.
Whipple realized that if anyone was going to take up a crusade against these electronic foes, it would have to be U.S. Leasing alone. He took the systems down for another day to change everyone's password a second time. He set up the computers to monitor all unsuccessful log-in attempts. The following day, the computers were back on line. By four o'clock that afternoon the intruders were back, too, trying without success to break in again. Like insects smacking themselves senseless against a screen at night to get to the light inside, they kept flying at the system, trying password after password. Once again, U.S. Leasing immediately shut down all its outside lines.
By this time, the company was buzzing with talk of the intrusions. Whipple was stunned when he met a senior executive in the hallway who chuckled and said, "Maybe we should hire this kid." Whoever was doing this certainly seemed to have more than a passing familiarity with the computer's operating system. In fact, from the commands he was typing, he seemed to know more about exploring its nooks and crannies than Whipple and his staff. But hire such a meanspirited person? That would be like giving the Boston Strangler a maintenance job in a nursing-school dormitory. Whipple's reply to the executive was curt: "How many people will we have to hire to watch him?"
As incredulous as he was disappointed, Whipple began to resign himself to writing this off as a colossal, embarrassing waste of energy and time. There wasn't much left to do but count up the losses and try to forget about it. In the end, he figured, the break-in had cost the company a quarter of a million dollars in lost time and business. The chances of ever catching the creeps who had caused all the headaches were slim at best. A few weeks later, Whipple dropped the matter entirely.
Years later, Roscoe and Kevin would claim they had been framed by Susan Thunder, that she had plastered their names all over the U.S. Leasing computer in order to pin the break-in on them, while Susan would hold firm to her claim that Kevin and Roscoe had done it.
Continuing her quest for revenge, Susan decided on a frontal assault. She started out slowly, even harmlessly. She began compiling a fact book on Kevin, Roscoe and Steve Rhoades. She talked her way into the telephone billing office, got copies of their phone bills and devised complex frequency charts on the numbers they called. She was also able to get a customer name and address report on each number called. By keeping close tabs on the phone bill of Jo Marie, Roscoe's fiancée, she could track him closely.
It didn't take Roscoe long to figure out that Susan had turned on him. She called him at strange hours and left spiteful messages on his answering machine. One day she called Ernst & Whinney, where he worked in the data processing department, to inform the personnel office that one of the staff members was using the company's computer terminals after hours. As a result of Susan's call, Roscoe was fired. To elude her, he began changing more than just his phone number; he also changed his "cable and pair," a specific set of wires assigned to his apartment by the phone company switching office that ordinarily would have stayed the same when his number changed. But Susan's solution to that was simply to get Jo Marie's bill.
There were other ways of getting phone numbers. When Kevin Mitnick changed his number, as he often did, Susan would drive out to his apartment in Panorama City, clip a test set to the phone line and call a standard number the maintenance people used to find out which number belonged to which cable and pair.
It wasn't long before she realized that Kevin was someone to reckon with. He was even more familiar with the ins and outs of the phone company than Roscoe was. In fact, Kevin had outsmarted Susan by logging in to a phone company computer and disabling the automatic number identification test function for his telephone. If she stood outside his house and entered the code used to read back his number, all she got was a failure.
By then Kevin had begun listening to Susan's private telephone conversations, by attaching a hand-held ham radio and clipping it to Susan's phone lines in a phone terminal box under a carport a few yards from her apartment. Anyone else who wanted to listen just needed to tune in to a little-used frequency on an FM radio. Kevin and Roscoe began taping her calls, most of which were long late-night dialogues with another phone phreak she had started to date. Kevin and Roscoe tittered in the background as a languorous Susan described the tricks of the prostitute trade to her boyfriend in full detail. And they taped her own taped greeting from the Leather Castle, the bordello where she plied her trade. "Jeanine," unmistakably Susan but uncharacteristically sweet, gave out the current rates for each service: $45 for a half hour "if you're dominant," $40 "if you're submissive" and $60 "if you'd like to wrestle." For a while, Kevin and Roscoe followed her around in separate cars, communicating with each other over their radios like two cops on a trail.
When she discovered them, Susan escalated the war by bringing it into the public domain.
Bernard Klatt was one of the tens of thousands of technical workers in Silicon Valley, 350 miles north of Los Angeles. These intense engineers, predominantly men, populated the twenty square miles south of Stanford University in increasing numbers after World War II. They created a technological paradise that spawned first the semiconductor, then the microprocessor and finally the personal computer.
An electrical engineer, Klatt worked as a technician at Digital Equipment Santa Clara, servicing and troubleshooting the company's computers. For Klatt, a tall, dark-complexioned Canadian who was aloof and formal with strangers, as for many others in Silicon Valley, computing was part vocation and part passion.
He lived with his wife in a two-story apartment building in Santa Clara, several blocks off El Camino Real, Silicon Valley's main commercial thoroughfare. The building was one of thousands built as Silicon Valley exploded with new industry in the 1960s: a contemporary prefab structure with thin walls and a kitchen separated from the living room by a belly-high divider that served simultaneously as wall, counter and breakfast table.
Like many in Silicon Valley, Klatt had given over his spare bedroom to his computers. But while others tinkered with inexpensive personal computers, Klatt was busying himself with a surplus Digital Equipment minicomputer. One of the company's most successful computers in the 1960s, the machine, known as a PDP-8, was awkward to program by today's standards, but it was one of the first computers that didn't require an industrial-strength life-support system. Klatt was able to power it by simply plugging it into his apartment's wall outlet, an unusual feature for large computers of its time.
Klatt decided to make his computer useful to a wider audience. Working with a friend, he wrote a program in the version of the BASIC computer language used on the PDP-8 that would allow a caller with a modem to dial in and transmit and receive messages. The PDP-8 stored the messages and then waited to display them for the next caller. This turned it into a bulletin board system, or BBS for short.
Bulletin boards like Klatt's grew in popularity in the early 1980s, spreading around the United States as part of the personal computer explosion. They were a little like neighborhood bulletin boards found in laundromats or community centers, offering lawn cutting services and free kittens, but with more vitality. Since messages could be appended to other messages and categories could be organized to be scanned quickly by computer, the systems subdivided into special-interest categories. Most of the discussions were about computers, but subjects ran the gamut from science fiction to odd sexual practices. Private messages could be left for a particular user, while public messages were accessible to anyone who logged in. Callers could check in every day to see what had been added and to append their own comments. A kind of electronic stream of consciousness emerged as BBSs became the digital substitute for a neighborhood chat on the front stoop. By 1980 there were well over a thousand BBSs around the country. Today there are at least ten times as many.
They covered a remarkable variety of features. Some permitted callers to store and retrieve software. This in turn gave rise to the world of free software and "shareware." Some programmers made substantial sums of money by giving their software away on approval, requesting that the users send a payment only if they found it valuable.
Inevitably, by the early 1980s, pirate BBSs had emerged as well. Legendary boards like Pirate's Cove in Boston permitted callers to down-load (using modems to transfer it to their own computers) commercial software without paying for it, and shared advice on how to break software copy-protection schemes. Some of the pirate boards were well known, their telephone numbers posted widely. Other boards were more secretive, accessible only to a limited membership.
Klatt's bulletin board, called 8BBS, was one of the nation's first bulletin boards for phone phreaks. Bernard Klatt had a fanatical commitment to freedom of speech. After putting his system on line in March of 1980 and publishing its number on several other systems, he insisted that his board be a free haven for its users. The ground rules, which were set out for new callers in an introductory computer message, were simple:
Notice: Uncontrolled message content. Proceed at your own risk.
8BBS management specifically disclaims any responsibility or liability for the contents of any message on this system. Ho representations are made concerning accuracy or appropriateness of message content Ho responsibility is assumed in conjunction with message 'privacy'. 8BBS acts in the capacity of a 'common' carrier and cannot and does not control the content of messages entered.
As a result, within months after 8BBS first began operation, a ragtag collection of phone phreaks and computer aficionados had discovered it and established it as one of the nation's premier clandestine electronic meeting places. Anyone dialing in was immediately struck by the dedication that the community of several hundred regular callers had to the subculture of phone phreaking. They were attracted by the notion that they were participating in some kind of high-technology avant-garde. Others called just to browse or "lurk," reading posted comments without making their presence known. 8BBS was frequently busy around the clock.
Soon the board had national scope. Callers dialed in from as far away as Philadelphia. Some would place their calls using purloined telephone credit card numbers to avoid long-distance charges. Others would exchange illegal information. Credit card numbers, computer passwords and technical information on telephone networks and computers were all stored and read on 8BBS. It was impossible to tell whether the person sitting at the other end of a message was a skilled professional systems programmer or a teenager in the family den perched in front of a Commodore 64.
It was in December of 1980 that both Roscoe and Susan, already locked in a bitter war, found their way to 8BBS. For several months they became regular callers, leaving general tips and trading information, while at the same time, as many phreaks are prone to do, flaunting their particular skills.
Even their first messages were revealing. Susan was ever the seducer:
Message number 4375 is 14 lines from Susan Thunder
To ALL at 04:38:02 on 04-Dec-80
Subject: COMPUTER PHREAKING
I am new in computer phreaking and don't know that much about systems and access. I have however, been a phone phreak for quite awhile and know alot about the subject of telephones...(I think)...anyway, I would very much like to chat with anyone interested in sharing information, especially about computers. By the way, I am a 6 ft. 2 inch blonde female with hazel eyes, weight 140, and I enjoy travelling alot. If anyone can suggest any neat places to go on weekends, let me know...
Roscoe was the cocky self-styled techno-wizard, breathless in his first private message to Bernard Klatt:
Message number 4480 is 20 lines from ROSCOE [RP] to SYSOP at 18:38:27 on 06-Dec-80.
MUST CONSERVE SPACE. I AM ROSCOE, FAMOUS IN L.A., CA AND IN THE PAPERS OF L.A. FOR MY PHONE-COMPTR PHREAKING, FREE ACCESS TO ALL, AIRLINE TICKTS, ETC. VER IMPRSED WITH YR SYSTM. NOT HAD CHANCE TO REVIEW ALL MSGS YET. I WILL BE LEAVING YOU MORE DETAIL MSG WITHIN 7 DAYS BECAUSE I CAN BE OF GREAT ASSIST TO YOU AND ALL USRS. BASICALLY: TELL ME WHAT INFO TO WHAT YOU NEED, I CAN GET...ANYTHING. FREE AIRLINE. FREE HOTEL, FREE CALLS...BEST PHONE PHREAK IN L.A.! (I HAVE REPUTATION) AND ANN KNOWN BY MANY, WAS ON THAT'S INCREDIBLE, T.V. SHOW IN L.A., AND AM MOST POWERFUL IN LA.A. HAVE DEC SYSTEM 1,2 PASWR & DIAL-UPS IN ALL 48 STATES, HAVE MANY PRIVED ACCTS, CAN CRASH SYSTEMS WITHIN 20 DAYS OF REQUEST TO DO SO, CAN GET ANY PHONE NO TO ANYTHING!!! (MORE THAN JUST NON-PUB...CAN RUN DMV VIA TERMINAL...CAN RUN INTERPOL VIA TERMINAL...CAN RUN AIRLINE TICKET VIA TERMINAL...CAN RUN PHONE COMPANY VIA TERMINAL...FREE PHONE SERVICE, FRE CUSTOM CALLING, ETC. CAN DO MUCH MORE...I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY THAT CAN'T FIGURE OUT WHAT TO SAY FIRST...EXUSE POOR REAIBILITY OF THIS LETTER...PLEASE CALL ME AT (213)469-....VOICE AND LEAVE MSG ON HOW TO CALL YOU, OF IF YOU DON'T MIND, I WILL GET YOUR NUMBER, BUT ONLY IF YOU DON'T MIND. I ALSO WIT WANT TO KNOW ON HOW TO GET THAT PHONE-PHUN BOOK?
THANK YOU FOR THE XCLNT SYSTEM ROSCOE.
With the arrival of the Southern California phone phreaks on 8BBS in late 1980, the board took a disturbing twist. The anonymity that once was a source of comfort now led to rising paranoia. Susan and Roscoe's war spilled out in bitter public messages, and the ominous possibility that not only the computer underground but law-enforcement agencies were reading 8BBS became a concern.
Susan, who was growing more and more computer literate, was often antagonistic and haughty in her public postings. In February 1981, she claimed that Roscoe was collaborating with the enemy:
Message number 6706 is 16 lines from Susan Thunder
To **>ALL<** at 00:44:18 on 27-Feb-81
Subject: GOING ON VACATION...
I AM GOING ON A CRUISE OF THE CARIBBEAN AND BAHAMAS AND WILL BE BACK IN ABOUT A WEEK OR SO...DON'T EXPECT ANY REPLIES FROM ME DURING THAT TIME.
THERE IS A VERY GOOD CHANCE THAT ROSCOE IS COLLABORATING WITH THE FBI TO TRAP PHREAKS: GIVEN THE TROUBLE HE HAS RECENTLY HAD, I KNOW THAT SOMETHING'S AMISS WHEN HE STARTS LEAVING PUBLIC MESSAGES, ESPECIALLY TO ANTON, SEEING AS HOW HE AND ANTON TALK ON THE PHONE FOR SEVERAL HOURS EACH DAY...WHY WOULD HE LEAVE THE MESSAGES IN A PUBLIC SYSTEM ANYHOW? DON'T CALL THE SYSTEMS HE LEAVES: IT'S EITHER A TRAP, OR HE WANTS YOU ALL TO DO HIS REVENGE WORK FOR HIM!! HAVE FUN!
Outside of his spat with Susan, Roscoe was a good citizen on the BBS. Out of concern for the well-being of the board, he told other callers he believed the phone company had installed a line monitor on 8BBS. If telephone numbers were being recorded then everyone was potentially in trouble, regardless of their aliases. The news cast a pall over the BBS. The rising paranoia also affected Roscoe. He began to contemplate getting out of the underground.
WELL IT SEEMS THAT I, ROSCOE, AM GETTING TOO OLD TO KEEP UP WITH SO MUCH PHREAKING. MY INFORMATION GATHERING IS TAKING UP ABOUT 4 TO 5 HOURS OF MY TIME EVERY DAY, AND THAT'S TOO MUCH CONSIDERING THE FACT THAT I WORK FULL TIME AND ATTEND SCHOOL FULL TIME.
SOON TO RETIRE...ROSCOE.
Then, as if to help Roscoe out the door, Susan attacked him more viciously than ever, adding statutory rape to the list of crimes she wanted the others to believe Roscoe had committed:
YOU ARE GOING TO JAIL FOR A LONG TIME FOR CRASHING AND ZEROING THE U.S. LEASING RSTS/E. THEY WILL GET A CONVICTION. DID YOUR CHILD-MOLESTING CASE EVER GET RESOLVED? 16 COMPLAINTS FROM AS MANY DIFFERENT 11-15 YEAR OLD GIRLS IS PRETTY SICK. THEY SHOULD HAVE PUT YOU AWAY A LONG TIME AGO.
In mid-1981 the private war that Susan had taken public began to wane -- at least on 8BBS. After Roscoe and Susan were gone, 8BBS continued to operate for almost another year. The board had lost some of its computer underground edge and shifted back in the direction of less controversial computer hobbyist concerns.
But its phone phreak roots brought 8BBS crashing down. In early 1982 Bernard Klatt received a faster modem in the mail, a gift from some Philadelphia phone phreaks wishing to improve the speed of 8BBS. He didn't know that it was stolen, purchased by mail using a false credit card. In April of 1982, while he was on vacation in Canada, a team of law-enforcement officials from the Santa Clara County sheriff's office and telephone company security agents came to his apartment with a search warrant. A fire ax shattered his front door and the agents confiscated all of the 8BBS disks and backup tapes.
When he returned, Bernard Klatt wasn't prosecuted, as he hadn't known that the gift modem was stolen property. But when his employer found out about the search of his home and the nature of the computer hobby, he lost his job. The 8BBS era had ended.
Perhaps, Susan said years later, if Roscoe hadn't filed a civil harassment complaint against her, dragging her into the ugly legal arena first, she wouldn't have used the evidence. It was early 1981 and the warring had been going on for several months when Susan was summoned to the Los Angeles city attorney's office for a hearing regarding Roscoe's complaint that she was disrupting his life with obscene and threatening telephone calls to him and to his mother. Susan nodded when the hearing officer admonished her to cease this behavior. Her opportunity for decisive revenge finally came later that year, after the COSMOS incident.
It was at the Shakey's Pizza Parlor during Memorial Day weekend in 1981 that Kevin and Roscoe decided to break into Pacific Bell's COSMOS center in downtown L.A. Understanding COSMOS was essential for efficient phreaking. COSMOS (the acronym stands for "Computer System for Mainframe Operations") is a large data-base program used by local telephone companies throughout the nation for everything from maintaining telephone Cables to keeping records and carrying out service orders. In 1981, most of the hundreds of COSMOS systems installed around the country were running on Digital Equipment computers. In order to manipulate COSMOS, it was necessary to know a dozen or so routine commands, all of which were outlined in telephone company manuals. A thirty-minute foraging session in the trash bins behind the COSMOS center could yield considerable booty: discarded printouts, notes passed between employees and scraps of paper containing passwords.
Though most trashing was done late at night, even those who preferred to trash at midday were seldom spotted. If they were, they usually had a plausible enough reason for being found knee-deep in the garbage. Susan's favorite method of sneaking manuals and printouts out of dumpsters was to bring along a bag of aluminum cans and hide the booty among the cans. Roscoe claimed he was hunting for recyclable material.
Roscoe, Kevin and Mark Ross, a friend and occasional phreak, set out from Shakey's late one night in a caravan of three cars. When they arrived at the phone company parking lot, it was a short walk through an open chain-link fence -- why, after all, should the phone company bother locking up its trash? -- into an area containing several Dumpsters. They clambered in and started wading through old coffee grounds, discarded Styrofoam cups and other garbage in search of the occasional gem.
Kevin and Roscoe already knew quite a bit about COSMOS, but they wanted to get a firm grip on the password setup. Certain passwords were needed for certain levels of privilege in the COSMOS system. The password to the most privileged account of all, called the root account, still eluded them. The root account was the master key to all the other accounts on the computer system; its password would give them the power to do anything in COSMOS.
The trash cans' offerings were paltry that night. Perhaps another phreak had been there earlier in the evening. Kevin found a handbook to a computer called the "frame" that would probably be useful, but otherwise the pickings were thin. After taking what they had found in the trash to their respective cars, the three phreaks huddled briefly to discuss whether to go into the COSMOS center itself. Kevin wanted to find room 108, the office that he knew contained the COSMOS computer itself, a guaranteed lode of information.
At first, Roscoe wanted Kevin to approach the guard by himself. Kevin would impersonate a Pacific Bell employee, tell the guard that two friends would be arriving in a few minutes for a tour of the facility and, if the guard bought it, Kevin would use his hand-held walkie-talkie to transmit a Touch-Tone signal to Roscoe's walkie-talkie telling him that the plan had worked.
But Kevin was nervous; he didn't want to go in by himself. They would all go together or not at all, he said. The three argued about the matter for several minutes until finally the other two agreed to accompany Kevin to the back entrance, where a guard sat at a reception desk. They piled into Kevin's car and backed out of the trash area. In order to be conspicuous in arriving this time, Kevin drove around to the main parking lot in the back of the building and parked with his headlights beaming in through the glass door.
If the guard thought there was anything peculiar about a Pacific Bell employee arriving at 1:00 A.M. on a Sunday to give a guided tour to two friends, he didn't show it. Kevin appeared far older than his seventeen years, and he talked a convincing line. As Roscoe and Mark stood by, Kevin chatted up the guard. First came idle chitchat: Kevin had a report due on Monday, he said, and was upset that he had to come in to work on Memorial Day weekend. Apparently welcoming the distraction from his nighttime vigil, the guard didn't ask to see Kevin's company ID, nor did he ask which department the pudgy young man worked for. In a friendly and inquisitive manner, Kevin strolled over to a television monitor that wasn't working and asked the guard about it. They both shrugged. "Just on the blink, I guess," Kevin suggested. Then, as if he had done it a thousand times, he signed the name Fred Weiner in the logbook, and Sam Holliday for Roscoe. His imagination apparently spent, he entered M. Ross for Mark Ross.
Once inside, after a false start that led them into the mail room, the visitors dispersed through the halls. It didn't take long for them to find the COSMOS computer center in room 108. A metal basket attached to the wall held a list of dial-up numbers for calling the COSMOS computer from outside. Kevin removed the list and put it in his pocket. And in a paper tray on a desk they found a list of codes to the digital door locks at nine telephone central offices.
In the Rolodex files on several desks, the three young men planted cards printed with the names John Draper (the real name of the infamous Captain Crunch) and John Harris. Next to John Harris's name was the telephone number of the Prestige Coffee Shop in Van Nuys -- a number that phreaks routinely intercepted and rerouted to a loop line; next to Draper's name was the number of a nearby pay phone. The idea was to create instant credibility: if one of them called claiming to be John Draper, a Pacific Bell employee, and if as a security measure the recipient of the phone call consulted his Rolodex file to verify the name and number, he would find the information.
Next to room 108 was the COSMOS manager's office. The walls were lined with shelves holding six large manuals. A quick look through the books was all they needed to see that this was perhaps the most important thing they would find that night; they were the COSMOS manuals, which contained information on everything that could be done with the COSMOS computer. The group perused the shelves and set aside the books they wanted to take. Once they had gathered what they thought they could use, they piled it all on one desk and sorted it so as to reduce the bulk and appear less suspicious to the guard. Roscoe spotted a briefcase next to a desk; he picked it up and put the manuals inside. Then, each carrying as much as he could, they walked back out to the guard station, where Kevin signed out and exchanged hearty farewells with the guard. Just as casual as he was about letting them in, the guard seemed thoroughly unconcerned that these three young men had arrived empty-handed and were leaving laden with a briefcase and armloads of books. Kevin drove the others to their cars and the three drove in single file to the nearest Winchell's Donuts to divide their plunder. It had all taken less than two hours.
Unfortunately, they had been too greedy. When the COSMOS manager arrived on Monday morning, he couldn't help but notice that his shelves were nearly bare. He notified security immediately, and questioned the guard who had been there over the weekend. The guard mentioned the threesome from Sunday morning, and said he was sure he could recognize them again. Then the manager found two cards in his Rolodex with unfamiliar handwriting, which belonged to no one in the office. It was time to call corporate security.
Meanwhile, Susan was sitting on the evidence she had been gathering for nearly a year. She had intimations that the L.A. district attorney was preparing to indict her on a dozen or so felony charges, including unlawful entry into Pacific Bell headquarters and conspiring to commit computer fraud. So she decided it was time to visit Bob Ewen, an investigator in the district attorney's office, to blow the whistle on her erstwhile buddies. She told Ewen that she had come to him because she was concerned for her nation's security: Kevin knew she had some extremely sensitive information, and Susan was certain that he wanted to get his hands on it.
By way of example, Susan told Ewen that she had once spent several days locked in her apartment, and that when she emerged she told Roscoe and Kevin that she had been downloading and printing out missile firing parameters and maintenance schedules for intercontinental ballistic missiles. She boasted that she knew the schedules of the men who worked in the hole (the men authorized to turn the keys), and that she knew when the maintenance was done and what the backup systems were. Susan claimed that, given the right information, one pimply adolescent scrunched into a phone booth with a terminal and a modem -- and certainly Roscoe and Kevin -- could set off the necessary chain of commands to release hundreds of missiles from their silos and send them hurtling across the globe. She hadn't tested her theory, of course, but she claimed to have developed a method for fooling the computer, leading it to believe that the necessary sequence of actions preceding a first or retaliatory strike had already occurred. The real vulnerability, Susan believed, lay in the nation's communications system. The Pentagon's heavy dependence on the Bell System made it a sitting duck for the likes of Roscoe and Kevin. Susan asked for immunity from prosecution in exchange for doing her civic duty and testifying against Kevin and Roscoe.
Ewen knew enough to be leery of many of the "theories" that issued forth from this rara avis. For one thing, he recognized her as the same tall, buck-toothed blond whose face was familiar to guards at Pacific Bell offices throughout the county. She had been spotted in Pasadena with Mitnick and Rhoades, and in the San Fernando Valley with the one who called himself Roscoe. But Ewen wanted to see Roscoe and Mitnick convicted. He sent her to see the district attorney. As it happened, the district attorney felt exactly the same way. He offered to give her immunity in exchange for her full cooperation. Susan, of course, was fully prepared to take the witness stand and tell her version of everything.
When Bob Ewen came onto the COSMOS case in 1981, he had already been dealing with phone phreaks for some time. For years, he kept a collection of confiscated blue boxes and other electronic fraud gear in a box under his desk. Usually there wasn't much to fear from phone phreaks, but when he went out to serve a warrant on Mitnick, Ewen wasn't sure what he was dealing with. As Susan Thunder had described the suspect, he was potentially dangerous. Ewen went first to Mitnick's residence to carry out a search. Mitnick wasn't home, but his mother was. Reed-thin and wearing a skirt that struck Ewen as too short for a woman approaching forty, Shelly Jaffe, who bore some resemblance to Popeye's girl, Olive Oyl, seemed confused and flustered. As Ewen picked his way through her son's room, Shelly stood at the doorway and popped her gum nervously. She reminded him of a teenager who hadn't outgrown the habit of reading movie magazines and still harbored a dream of becoming a Hollywood discovery.
The search wasn't easy. Mitnick appeared to be something of a pack rat. He had apparently saved every scrap of paper and every printout he had ever obtained, and Ewen had to scrutinize all of it. He unearthed printouts filled with telephone company information, computer passwords and material from one of the computer centers at the University of California at Los Angeles. Shelly became increasingly flustered. She did not, she said, know anything of her son's illegal doings. She assured Ewen that Kevin could not be responsible for the things the police suspected. Kevin, she insisted, was an angelic son.
"Then what's this?" Ewen asked, holding up a printout of telephone company information.
"I've never seen that before," she responded.
"When is the last time you were in your son's room?"
"I don't remember."
Ewen got the impression that Shelly, who displayed no hint of malice herself, might be intimidated by her son. It was evident that she tried to maintain a decent home. Aside from Kevin's cluttered room, which was actually tidy compared with some Ewen had seen, Shelly kept a neat household. But she appeared to have no control over the boy she had raised or the situation at hand. She seldom saw Kevin. Her early hours as a deli waitress rarely coincided with her son's more nocturnal schedule. Clearly, she knew nothing about computers and had no desire to try to learn anything about them. It was Ewen's hunch that even telephones might overwhelm her.
Among all the evidence Ewen gathered in Kevin's bedroom, he found nothing linking the suspect to the COSMOS break-in. There were no manuals, directories or other signs that Kevin had been there. Still, on the strength of the guard's identification of Mitnick, Ewen had obtained an arrest warrant. Although the Mitnick family hadn't been particularly observant Jews, Kevin often went after school to the Stephen Wise Temple in the private community of Bel Air, where he worked part-time. Ewen drove to the synagogue with three other officers; the four men divided into two cars and waited in the parking lot for Mitnick to show up. When Mitnick began to pull into the lot, he apparently saw the men sitting in their unmarked cars, because he hesitated, then drove by. As soon as he took off, the police peeled after him, sirens ablare. Mitnick's car accelerated. Just as Mitnick pulled onto the 405 freeway headed north, his pursuers overtook him and forced him onto the shoulder.
At first, Ewen wasn't sure what he was up against. The suspect was very large, at least two hundred pounds, and possibly armed. Ewen feared Kevin and his buddies might have modified the COSMOS computers and planted a "logic bomb" -- a hidden computer program designed to destroy data at a given time. This made Ewen worry that he might even have a terrorist on his hands. So they handled him as roughly as they would a murder suspect: guns drawn, they pushed him onto the hood of his car and handcuffed his hands behind his back. It wasn't until the officers felt not muscle under his shirt but soft and pliable flab that they realized this young man was no physical threat and loosened their grip. Mitnick complained that he had to go to the bathroom immediately. Then he began to cry. "You scared me. I thought I was going to die."
"Why did you think you were going to die ?" Ewen asked.
"I thought they were after me."
"Who?" asked Ewen, bewildered.
"You know, there are a lot of people that don't like me." Kevin didn't mention it to Ewen, but a few months earlier he had been hunted down by an irate ham operator who was fed up with Kevin's high jinks. Ewen told Kevin he was sorry to hear that people didn't like him. He was just doing his job, he said, and would have to take the teenager to jail in handcuffs. In the car, Kevin began to talk. He admitted to knowing Roscoe and Susan and Steve Rhoades. Then, as if he suddenly realized he was talking to an officer, he stopped talking. When Ewen asked him if he had put a logic bomb in the phone company computers, Kevin looked as if he might start to cry again. No, he insisted, he would never do anything to hurt a computer.
Recovering the COSMOS manuals proved more difficult than finding the suspects. Once Kevin had been taken into custody and his mother and grandmother had hired a lawyer for him, Ewen began to press the lawyer for the missing manuals. Ewen was particularly worried that the manuals would be copied and distributed throughout the phreaking community. He shuddered at the possibility. With passwords and dial-up numbers, phreaks could shut down much of the phone service in the greater Los Angeles area. Kevin's attorney insisted that Kevin didn't have them, but that he might know where to find them. A few days later, the lawyer delivered all of the stolen manuals.
The prosecutor decided to fold the cases against Kevin and Roscoe together. Both were charged with burglary and grand theft, and with conspiring to commit computer fraud -- felonies under California law. The charges would be for the U.S. Leasing incident, already more than a year old, and the COSMOS break-in. U.S. Leasing's John Whipple, who had long since dismissed the entire incident as a bad dream, was surprised to hear that the vandals who had crippled and defiled his company's computer had been apprehended and charged with having "maliciously accessed, altered, deleted, damaged and destroyed the U.S. Leasing system." Mark Ross was charged with burglary and conspiring to commit computer fraud in connection with the COSMOS break-in.
After Roscoe was arrested, his mother gave him a choice. He could either use her money to hire her lawyer, an old friend from Argentina who knew nothing about computers or computer crime, or draw on his own meager resources and hire whomever he pleased. Although he had found a good criminal lawyer who had experience in cases such as his and would charge less than his mother's friend, Roscoe could do nothing to persuade her to pay. He ended up with the computer-illiterate Argentine.
While the defendants were out on bail and the prosecution was preparing its case, Ewen decided it might be a good idea to eavesdrop on one of the Shakey's meetings. So one night before the trial, Ewen, the juvenile prosecutor, and Pacific Bell and GTE investigators dressed in the most casual clothing their closets could produce and convened at the Hollywood Shakey's. They seated themselves at a table about thirty feet away from the group. Neither Roscoe nor Mitnick was in attendance. Rhoades was also absent. Instead, seated at the phreaks' table, the center of attention, was Susan. The group of law enforcers sat in disbelief as their star witness took over the meeting, trading phone information with the others, oblivious to the presence of the men she was working for. When she and another phreak got up to leave, Ewen followed her to the parking lot and watched as she retrieved a printout from the other phreak's car. "Susan," Ewen called to her as she was returning to the restaurant, "what do you think you're doing?" It took Susan a few seconds to focus on Ewen; indulging her vanity, she seldom wore her glasses. When she recognized Ewen, she grew defensive. "Hey, I thought I could get some stuff you guys could use."
Ewen looked at her sternly.
"Okay," she conceded, "so I still like to do this stuff."
Shortly before the hearing, Kevin Mitnick pled guilty to one count of computer fraud and one burglary count. In exchange for the dismissal of two additional charges and in the hope of being sentenced to probation instead of a term in the California Youth Authority prison system, Kevin agreed to testify for the prosecution, even if it meant betraying Roscoe.
On December 16, 1981, a pretrial hearing was held. The prosecution's first witness was Susan, who cut an imposing figure as she strode to the witness stand and swore to truthfulness. Susan had been given immunity. Under assistant district attorney Clifton Garrott's gentle questioning, she recounted Roscoe's trespass into the U.S. Leasing system. He had arrived one evening the previous December to take her out on a date, and as she was getting ready he sat down at her computer terminal and dialed into U.S. Leasing. When she asked him what he was doing, Susan told the court, he said he was using a program called god to get into a privileged account, in order to run a program called MONEY to print out the passwords on the system. Susan went on to explain in detail how the MONEY program could only be called up using a certain account.
Unable to follow the exchange between Garrott and his witness, the judge interrupted. "Slow down a minute," he demanded. "This is a whole new education for me over here."
The proceeding digressed for a few minutes while Susan presented an introductory course in computer terminology for the uninitiated in the room. She explained passwords, logins and account numbers. When Roscoe got the MONEY program to run, she continued, she saw him start to write down passwords and account numbers. And when she looked at the screen a few minutes later, she recalled, the words delete and zeroed had appeared.
At that point, Garrott produced a ragged eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch sheet torn from a three-ring binder and held it up for the judge to see. It was the very piece of paper on which Roscoe had jotted down numbers and passwords on the evening in question. He was shocked to see this incriminating evidence in the prosecutor's hands.
Garrott continued his questioning. He asked Susan if she had asked Roscoe what he was doing at her terminal. "Yes," she answered. He said he was "taking care of business...getting even." Then, she said, he began, "laughing hysterically, crazylike." At the prosecutor's gentle prodding, she said she was upset by Roscoe's behavior that night. "The vibes weren't right. There was a lot of tension between us," she told the court. "I said, 'Why did you do that? You know it was destructive.'"
"What did he say?" asked Garrott.
"I got no response."
Jose Mariano Castillo, Roscoe's attorney, did his best to discredit Susan as a witness.
"When in December of 1980 did this incident take place?" he asked her.
"I believe it was the twelfth or thirteenth."
"What day of the week was that?"
"Thursday or Friday."
"Were you employed?"
"Where were you employed?"
"The Leather Castle."
"What was your occupation at the Leather Castle?"
Garrott leapt to his feet to object. The question was irrelevant and immaterial. "What is the relevance of the type of work that she was doing there?" the judge asked Castillo.
"Well, it goes to credibility, Your Honor."
"Well, let me ask her specifically," and he turned back to Susan. "Were you a prostitute?"
"No," Susan replied hotly, expressing indignation at the very suggestion.
Garrott objected to the question and the judge sustained his objection.
Castillo continued. "Have you ever been prosecuted for prostitution?"
This time, Garrott objected before Susan could answer.
Try as he might, Castillo could pursue no line of questioning that might help to impugn her testimony. Each time Castillo asked a question of Susan, Garrott objected to it as irrelevant. The judge sustained all but a few of the objections. When the prosecutor didn't object, Susan was coy with Castillo, often craning forward and asking him to repeat the question, as if she were hard of hearing, or confused.
Castillo asked her if She had been in love with Roscoe.
"Infatuated, perhaps," Susan responded. "In love? No."
Castillo asked if Roscoe had been rejecting her advances. "Yes" was Susan's reply.
"And you felt upset because of the rejection?"
"No. He wasn't the only man I was going out with."
"How many people were you going out with, dating, at that time?"
This time, the judge overruled Garrott's objection and instructed Susan to answer the question.
"Three or four."
When Castillo began to ask her about her drug problems, Garrott was quick to object again. Castillo persisted. Susan's drug problems, he claimed, had some effect on her emotional state. Moreover, he said, she had sexual problems. The judge rebuffed him and sustained Garrott's objection.
The hearing dragged on this way into the afternoon. Every time Castillo tried to impute vengeful motives to Susan, to sully her credibility or to introduce other names -- Kevin Mitnick, Steven Rhoades -- as possible suspects, Garrott leapt to his feet and the judge ruled in his favor. All told, Roscoe's prospects were beginning to look bleak. If this pretrial hearing was the legal equivalent of a movie's rough cut, Roscoe could easily imagine how the finished film would turn out.
At the end of the afternoon Kevin was called to testify. He began by explaining the term phone phreak to the court. While refraining from placing himself in any category in particular, Kevin described different "types" of phreaks. "One type is a person that likes to manipulate telephone lines and computers," he lectured. "Another one is the type that just likes talking with other people on conference lines. And stuff like that."
Kevin recounted the visit to the COSMOS center in precise detail. The Shakey's meeting. The trashing. The unsuspecting guard. The foraging through room 108. The stealing of the manuals. Garrott showed particular interest in what transpired later at Winchell's Donuts. Kevin told the prosecutor that the manuals were left in the cars but the door code list was brought inside, and that he later made a copy of the door codes for himself. Afterward, Kevin said, he and Roscoe divided up the manuals from behind Kevin's car.
Despite his best efforts, Roscoe's attorney wasn't making much headway in building up a convincing case for his client's innocence. Rather than take chances with a trial and risk fumbling the defense in court, Roscoe's attorney decided to work out a plea bargain with the prosecutor. On April 2, 1982, a day before his twenty-second birthday, Roscoe pled no contest to the conspiracy charge and to the charge of computer fraud against U.S. Leasing. Two months later, he was sentenced to 150 days of work furlough. Ross got thirty days. Kevin had considerably more luck than his confederates: after a ninety-day diagnostic study mandated by the juvenile court system, he got a year's probation.
While Roscoe served out his sentence, Susan dropped her alias and refined her new entrepreneurial persona. She became a security consultant. In April of 1982 she appeared on the television news show "20/20." Susan wore a purple blouse beneath a wide brown jumper. The outfit was set off by a pair of oversize star-shaped earrings that swung conspicuously amid limp, straight blond hair. Why, asked an inquisitive Geraldo Rivera, had she and her friends wrought such havoc with the phone company? "I was getting off on the power trip," she replied. "It was neat to think that I could screw up the Bell System." Hassling someone -- disconnecting his phone or canceling his car insurance -- was all standard practice. "Is there any system that can't be gotten into?" she queried herself. Then she answered her own question. "God, I live by an old saying: if there's a will, there's a way. There is always a way."
In the next two years, Susan became a peripatetic Cassandra, traveling around Los Angeles, painting doomsday scenarios for her clients. She developed a standard set of these grisly prognoses and trotted them out for reporters and lawmakers. A year after her "20/20" appearance, under the auspices of an FBI agent, she flew to Washington to expound her theories before the U.S. Senate. During her testimony, Susan explained about phreaking and trashing, or "garbology," as she put it. She recalled with some nostalgia the talents and feats of the L.A. gang. She talked about posing as repair personnel and altering credit ratings. She described the practice of using the U.S. Leasing computers.
William Cohen, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee holding the hearings, then asked, "There was no indication they felt there was anything wrong about going in and using U.S. Leasing's program? In other words, if you walked into somebody else's house and decided you wanted to watch television for a couple of weeks or a year and just walk in and turn on somebody's set, there would be nothing wrong with that?"
"I guess if people were stupid enough to leave their door unlocked," Susan replied. "Hey, if people are stupid enough to leave the system passwords around that way -- that's how the group felt."
Upon learning that Susan's formal education had stopped at the eighth grade, the incredulous senator remarked, "It seems it would be so easy for one of our major adversaries to secure the services of people like yourself who have no advanced degree or training."
"I agree," Susan responded. "It poses a very serious national concern, a very serious threat to national security. I wanted to find out how everything worked. I have got to admit to a certain interest in something that was supposedly classified as top secret."
"Journalists have the same fascination with classified information," Cohen remarked.
"I studied to be a journalist when I was in junior high school."
"I was afraid you were going to say that."
While in Washington, Susan got a chance to demonstrate her "social engineering" skills. As Susan later told the story, a team of military brass -- colonels and generals from three service branches -- sat at a long conference table with a computer terminal, a modem and a telephone. When Susan entered the room, they handed her a sealed envelope containing the name of a computer system and told her to use any abilities or resources that she had to get into that system. Without missing a beat, she logged on to an easily accessible military computer directory to find out where the computer system was. Once she found the system in the directory, she could see what operating system it ran and the name of the officer in charge of that machine. Next, she called the base and put her knowledge of military terminology to work to find out who the commanding officer was at the SCIF, a secret compartmentalized information facility. Oh, yes, Major Hastings. She was chatty, even kittenish. Casually, she told the person she was talking to that she couldn't think of Major Hastings's secretary's name. "Oh," came the reply. "You mean Specialist Buchanan." With that, she called the data center and, switching from nonchalant to authoritative, said, "This is Specialist Buchanan calling on behalf of Major Hastings. He's been trying to access his account on this system and hasn't been able to get through and he'd like to know why." When the data center operator balked and started reciting from the procedures manual, her temper flared and her voice dropped in pitch. "Okay, look, I'm not going to screw around here. What is your name, rank and serial number?" Within twenty minutes she had what she later claimed was classified data up on the screen of the computer on the table. A colonel rose from his seat, said, "That will be enough, thank you very much," and pulled the plug.
Computer security experts had been suspecting for years what Susan was proving time and again: the weakest link in any system is the human one. Susan liked to illustrate her belief with the following scenario: Take a computer and put it in a bank vault with ten-foot-thick walls. Power it up with an independent source, with a second independent source for backup. Install a combination lock on the door, along with an electronic beam security system. Give one person access to the vault. Then give one more person access to that system and security is cut in half. With a second person in the picture, Susan said, she could play the two against each other. She could call posing as the secretary of one person, or as a technician in for repair at the request of the other. She could conjure dozens of ruses for using one set of human foibles against another. And the more people with access the better. In the military, hundreds of people have access. At corporations, thousands do. "I don't care how many millions of dollars you spend on hardware," Susan would say. "If you don't have the people trained properly I'm going to get in if I want to get in."
Copyright © 1991 by Katherine Hafner and John Markoff
Epilogue copyright © 1995 by Katherine Hafner