himself in print that way. He did that. That was him there in black in
white, for all the world to see. He had outsmarted the world's best
known hacker-catcher, and he had smeared the insult across the front
page of the most prestigious newspaper in America.
And Markoff reported that he had been in Spaf's system too! Phoenix
glowed happily. Better still, Markoff had quoted `Dave' on the
subject: `The caller said ... "It used to be the security guys chasing
the hackers. Now it's the hackers chasing the security people."'
The article went on: `Among the institutions believed to have been
penetrated by the intruder are the Los Alamos National Laboratories,
Harvard, Digital Equipment Corporation, Boston University and the
University of Texas.' Yes, that list sounded about right. Well, for
the Australians as a group anyway. Even if Phoenix hadn't masterminded
or even penetrated some of those himself, he was happy to take the
credit in the Times.
This was a red-letter day for Phoenix.
Electron, however, was furious. How could Phoenix be so stupid? He
knew that Phoenix had an ego, that he talked too much, and that his
tendency to brag had grown worse over time, fed by the skyrocketing
success of the Australian hackers. Electron knew all of that, but he
still couldn't quite believe that Phoenix had gone so far as to strut
and preen like a show pony for the New York Times.
To think that he had associated with Phoenix. Electron was disgusted.
He had never trusted Phoenix--a caution now proved wise. But he had
spent hours with him on the phone, with most of the information
flowing in one direction. But not only did Phoenix show no discretion
at all in dealing with the paper, he bragged about doing things that
Electron had done! If Phoenix had to talk--and clearly he should have
kept his mouth shut--he should have at least been honest about the
systems for which he could claim credit.
Electron had tried with Phoenix. Electron had suggested that he stop
talking to the security guys. He had continually urged caution and
discretion. He had even subtly withdrawn each time Phoenix suggested
one of his hair-brained schemes to show off to a security bigwig.
Electron had done this in the hope that Phoenix might get the hint.
Maybe, if Phoenix couldn't hear someone shouting advice at him, he
might at least listen to someone whispering it. But no. Phoenix was
far too thick for that.
The Internet--indeed, all hacking--was out of bounds for weeks, if not
months. There was no chance the Australian authorities would let a
front-page story in the Times go by un-heeded. The Americans would be
all over them. In one selfish act of hubris, Phoenix had ruined the
party for everyone else.
Electron unplugged his modem and took it to his father. During exams,
he had often asked his father to hide it. He didn't have the
self-discipline needed to stay away on his own and there was no other
way Electron could keep himself from jacking in--plugging his modem
into the wall. His father had become an expert at hiding the device,
but Electron usually still managed to find it after a few days,
tearing the house apart until he emerged, triumphant, with the modem
held high above his head. Even when his father began hiding the modem
outside the family home it would only postpone the inevitable.
This time, however, Electron vowed he would stop hacking until the
fallout had cleared--he had to. So he handed the modem to his father,
with strict instructions, and then tried to distract himself by
cleaning up his hard drive and disks. His hacking files had to go too.
So much damning evidence of his activities. He deleted some files and
took others on disks to store at a friend's house. Deleting files
caused Electron considerable pain, but there was no other way. Phoenix
had backed him into a corner.
Brimming with excitement, Phoenix rang Electron on a sunny March
`Guess what?' Phoenix was jumping around like an eager puppy at the
other end of the line. `We made the nightly news right across the US!'
`Uhuh,' Electron responded, unimpressed.
`This is not a joke!' We were on cable news all day too. I called Erik
and he told me.'
`Mmm,' Electron said.
`You know, we did a lot of things right. Like Harvard. We got into
every system at Harvard. It was a good move. Harvard gave us the fame
Electron couldn't believe what he was hearing. He didn't need any
fame--and he certainly didn't need to be busted. The
conversation--like Phoenix himself--was really beginning to annoy him.
`Hey, and they know your name,' Phoenix said coyly.
That got a reaction. Electron gulped his anger.
`Haha! Just joshing!' Phoenix practically shouted. `Don't worry! They
didn't really mention anyone's name.'
`Good,' Electron answered curtly. His irritation stewed
Good grief! Didn't Phoenix ever give up? As if it wasn't enough to
appear on the 6 o'clock national news in a country crawling with
over-zealous law enforcement agencies. Or to make the New York Times.
He had to have the weeklies too.
Phoenix was revelling in his own publicity. He felt like he was on top
of the world, and he wanted to shout about it. Electron had felt the
same wave of excitement from hacking many high-profile targets and
matching wits with the best, but he was happy to stand on the peak by
himself, or with people like Pad and Gandalf, and enjoy the view
quietly. He was happy to know he had been the best on the frontier of
a computer underground which was fresh, experimental and, most of all,
international. He didn't need to call up newspaper reporters or gloat
about it in Clifford Stoll's face.
`Well, what do you reckon?' Phoenix asked impatiently.
`No,' Electron answered.
`No? You don't think we will?' Phoenix sounded disappointed.
cover of Newsweek, nothing less.' Then, more seriously, `I'm trying to
work out what really big target would clinch it for us.'
`Yeah, OK, whatever,' Electron replied, distancing himself again.
But Electron was thinking, Phoenix, you are a fool. Didn't he see the
warning signs? Pad's warning, all the busts in the US, reports that
the Americans were hunting down the Brits. As a result of these news
reports of which Phoenix was so proud, bosses across the world would
be calling their computer managers into their offices and breathing
down their necks about their own computer security.
The brazen hackers had deeply offended the computer security industry,
spurring it into action. In the process, some in the industry had also
seen an opportunity to raise its own public profile. The security
experts had talked to the law enforcement agencies, who were now
clearly sharing information across national borders and closing in
fast. The conspirators in
the global electronic village were at the point of maximum
`We could hack Spaf again,' Phoenix volunteered.
`The general public couldn't give a fuck about Eugene Spafford,'
Electron said, trying to dampen Phoenix's bizarre enthusiasm. He was
all for thumbing one's nose at authority, but this was not the way to
`It'd be so funny in court, though. The lawyer would call Spaf and
computer security expert?" When he said, "Yes" I'd jump up and go, "I
object, your honour, this guy doesn't know jackshit, 'cause I hacked
his machine and it was a breeze!"'
`Hey, if we don't get busted in the next two weeks, it will be a
`I hope not.'
`This is a lot of fun!' Phoenix shouted sarcastically. `We're gonna
get busted! We're gonna get busted!'
Electron's jaw fell to the ground. Phoenix was mad. Only a lunatic
would behave this way. Mumbling something about how tired he was,
Electron said goodbye and hung up.
At 5.50 a.m. on 2 April 1990, Electron dragged himself out of bed and
made his way to the bathroom. Part way through his visit, the light
suddenly went out.
How strange. Electron opened his eyes wide in the early morning
dimness. He returned to his bedroom and began putting on some jeans
before going to investigate the problem.
Suddenly, two men in street clothes yanked his window open and jumped
through into the room shouting, `GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR!'
Who were these people? Half-naked, Electron stood in the middle of his
room, stunned and immobile. He had suspected the police might pay him
a visit, but didn't they normally wear uniforms? Didn't they announce
The two men grabbed Electron, threw him face down onto the floor and
pulled his arms behind his back. They jammed handcuffs on his
wrists--hard--cutting his skin. Then someone kicked him in the
Electron couldn't answer because he couldn't breathe. The kick had
winded him. He felt someone pull him up from the floor and prop him in
a chair. Lights went on everywhere and he could see six or seven
people moving around in the hallway. They must have come into the
house another way. The ones in the hallway were all wearing bibs with
three large letters emblazoned across the front: AFP.
As Electron slowly gathered his wits, he realised why the cops had
asked about firearms. He had once joked to Phoenix on the phone about
how he was practising with his dad's .22 for when the feds came
around. Obviously the feds had been tapping his phone.
While his father talked with one of the officers in the other room and
read the warrant, Electron saw the police pack up his computer
gear--worth some $3000--and carry it out of the house. The only thing
they didn't discover was the modem. His father had become so expert at
hiding it that not even the Australian Federal Police could find it.
Several other officers began searching Electron's bedroom, which was
no small feat, given the state it was in. The floor was covered in a
thick layer of junk. Half crumpled music band posters, lots of
scribbled notes with passwords and NUAs, pens, T-shirts both clean and
dirty, jeans, sneakers, accounting books, cassettes, magazines, the
occasional dirty cup. By the time the police had sifted through it all
the room was tidier than when they started.
As they moved into another room at the end of the raid, Electron bent
down to pick up one of his posters which had fallen onto the floor. It
was a Police Drug Identification Chart--a gift from a friend's
father--and there, smack dab in the middle, was a genuine AFP
footprint. Now it was a collector's item. Electron smiled to himself
and carefully tucked the poster away.
When he went out to the living room, he saw a policemen holding a
couple of shovels and he wanted to laugh again. Electron had also once
told Phoenix that all his sensitive hacking disks were buried in the
backyard. Now the police were going to dig it up in search of
something which had been destroyed a few days before. It was too
The police found little evidence of Electron's hacking at his house,
unmarked car and drove him to the AFP's imposing-looking headquarters
at 383 Latrobe Street for questioning.
In the afternoon, when Electron had a break from the endless
questions, he walked out to the hallway. The boyish-faced Phoenix,
aged eighteen, and fellow Realm member Nom, 21, were walking with
police at the other end of the hall. They were too far apart to talk,
but Electron smiled. Nom looked worried. Phoenix looked annoyed.
Electron was too intimidated to insist on having a lawyer. What was
the point in asking for one anyway? It was clear the police had
information they could only have obtained from
tapping his phone. They also showed him logs taken from Melbourne
University, which had been traced back to his phone. Electron figured
the game was up, so he might as well tell them the whole story--or at
least as much of it as he had told Phoenix on the phone.
Two officers conducted the interview. The lead interviewer was
Detective Constable Glenn Proebstl, which seemed to be pronounced
`probe stool'--an unfortunate name, Electron thought. Proebstl was
accompanied by Constable Natasha Elliott, who occasionally added a few
questions at the end of various interview topics but otherwise kept to
herself. Although he had decided to answer their questions truthfully,
Electron thought that neither of them knew much about computers and
found himself struggling to understand what they were trying to ask.
Electron had to begin with the basics. He explained what the FINGER
command was--how you could type `finger' followed by a username, and
then the computer would provide basic information about the user's
name and other details.
`So, what is the methodology behind it ... finger ... then, it's
normally ... what is the normal command after that to try and get the
password out?' Constable Elliott finally completed her convoluted
attempt at a question.
The only problem was that Electron had no idea what she was talking
`Well, um, I mean there is none. I mean you don't use finger like that
`Right. OK,' Constable Elliott got down to business. `Well, have you
ever used that system before?'
`Uhm, which system?' Electron had been explaining commands for so long
he had forgotten if they were still talking about how he hacked the
Lawrence Livermore computer or some other site.
`The finger ... The finger system?'
Huh? Electron wasn't quite sure how to answer that question. There was
no such thing. Finger was a command, not a computer.
`Uh, yes,' he said.
The interview went the same way, jolting awkwardly through computer
technology which he understood far better than either officer.
Finally, at the end of a long day, Detective Constable Proebstl asked
`In your own words, tell me what fascination you find with accessing
`Well, basically, it's not for any kind of personal gain or anything,'
Electron said slowly. It was a surprisingly difficult question to
answer. Not because he didn't know the answer, but because it was a
difficult answer to describe to someone who had never hacked a
computer. `It's just the kick of getting in to a system. I mean, once
you are in, you very often get bored and even though you can still
access the system, you may never call back.
`Because once you've gotten in, it's a challenge over and you don't
really care much about it,' Electron continued, struggling. `It's a
hot challenge thing, trying to do things that other people are also
trying to do but can't.
`So, I mean, I guess it is a sort of ego thing. It's knowing that you
can do stuff that other people cannot, and well, it is the
challenge and the ego boost you get from doing something well ...
where other people try and fail.'
A few more questions and the day-long interview finally
finished. The police then took Electron to the Fitzroy police
station. He guessed it was the nearest location with a JP they could
find willing to process a bail application at that hour.
In front of the ugly brick building, Electron noticed a small group of
people gathered on the footpath in the dusky light. As the police car
pulled up, the group swung into a frenzy of activity, fidgeting in
over-the-shoulder briefcases, pulling out notebooks and pens, scooping
up big microphones with fuzzy shag covers, turning on TV camera
Oh NO! Electron wasn't prepared for this at all.
in the glare of photographers' camera flashes and TV camera
searchlights. The hacker tried to ignore them, walking as briskly as
his captors would allow. Sound recordists and reporters tagged beside
him, keeping pace, while the TV cameramen and photographers weaved in
front of him. Finally he escaped into the safety of the watchhouse.
First there was paperwork, followed by the visit to the JP. While
shuffling through his papers, the JP gave Electron a big speech about
how defendants often claimed to have been beaten by the police.
Sitting in the dingy meeting room, Electron felt somewhat confused by
the purpose of this tangential commentary. However, the JP's next
question cleared things up: `Have you had any problems with your
treatment by the police which you would like to record at this time?'
Electron thought about the brutal kick he had suffered while lying on
his bedroom floor, then he looked up and found Detective Constable
Proebstl staring him in the eye. A slight smile passed across the
The JP proceeded to launch into another speech which Electron found
even stranger. There was another defendant in the lock-up at the
moment, a dangerous criminal who had a disease the JP knew about, and
the JP could decide to lock Electron up with that criminal instead of
granting him bail.
Was this meant to be helpful warning, or just the gratification of
some kind of sadistic tendency? Electron was baffled but he didn't
have to consider the situation for long. The JP granted bail.
Electron's father came to the watchhouse, collected his son and signed
the papers for a $1000 surety--to be paid if Electron skipped town.
That night Electron watched as his name appeared on the late night
with the fact that he would have to give up hacking forever. He still
had his modem, but no computer. Even if he had a machine, he realised
it was far too dangerous to even contemplate hacking again.
So he took up drugs instead.
Electron's father waited until the very last days of his illness, in
March 1991, before he went into hospital. He knew that once he went
in, he would not be coming out again.
There was so much to do before that trip, so many things to organise.
The house, the life insurance paperwork, the will, the funeral, the
instructions for the family friend who promised to watch over both
children when he was gone. And, of course, the children themselves.
He looked at his two children and worried. Despite their ages of 21
and 19, they were in many ways still very sheltered. He realised that
Electron's anti-establishment attitude and his sister's emotional
remoteness would remain unresolved difficulties at the time of his
death. As the cancer progressed, Electron's father tried to tell both
children how much he cared for them. He might have been somewhat
emotionally remote himself in the past, but with so little time left,
he wanted to set the record straight.
On the issue of Electron's problems with the police, however,
Electron's father maintained a hands-off approach. Electron had only
talked to his father about his hacking exploits occasionally, usually
when he had achieved what he considered to be a very noteworthy hack.
His father's view was always the same. Hacking is illegal, he told his
son, and the police will probably eventually catch you. Then you will
have to deal with the problem yourself. He didn't lecture his son, or
forbid Electron from hacking. On this issue he considered his son old
enough to make his own choices and live with the consequences.
True to his word, Electron's father had shown little sympathy for his
son's legal predicament after the police raid. He remained neutral on
the subject, saying only, `I told you something like this would happen
and now it is your responsibility'.
Electron's hacking case progressed slowly over the year, as did his
university accounting studies. In March 1991, he faced committal
proceedings and had to decide whether to fight his committal.
He faced fifteen charges, most of which were for obtaining
unauthorised access to computers in the US and Australia. A few were
aggravated offences, for obtaining access to data of a commercial
nature. On one count each, the DPP (the Office of the Commonwealth
Director of Public Prosecutions) said he altered and erased data.
Those two counts were the result of his inserting backdoors for
himself, not because he did damage to any files. The evidence was
reasonably strong: telephone intercepts and datataps on Phoenix's
phone which showed him talking to Electron about hacking; logs of
Electron's own sessions in Melbourne University's systems which were
traced back to his home phone; and Electron's own confession to the
new legislation. It was a test case--the test case for computer
hacking in Australia--and the DPP was going in hard. The case had
generated seventeen volumes of evidence, totalling some 25000 pages,
and Crown prosecutor Lisa West planned to call up to twenty expert
witnesses from Australia, Europe and the US.
Those witnesses had some tales to tell about the Australian hackers,
who had caused havoc in systems around the world. Phoenix had
accidentally deleted a Texas-based company's inventory of assets--the
only copy in existence according to Execucom Systems Corporation. The
hackers had also baffled security personnel at the US Naval Research
Labs. They had bragged to the New York Times. And they forced NASA to
cut off its computer network for 24 hours.
AFP Detective Sergeant Ken Day had flown halfway around the world to
obtain a witness statement from none other than NASA Langley computer
manager Sharon Beskenis--the admin Phoenix had accidentally kicked off
her own system when he was trying to get Deszip. Beskenis had been
more than happy to oblige and on 24 July 1990 she signed a statement
in Virginia, witnessed by Day. Her statement said that, as a result of