Less than two weeks after Pad and Gandalf were sentenced, Electron was
back in the Victorian County Court to discover his own fate.
As he stood in the dock on 3 June 1993 he felt numb, as emotionally
removed from the scene as Meursault in Camus' L'etranger. He believed
he was handling the stress pretty well until he experienced tunnel
vision while watching the judge read his penalty. He perused the room
but saw neither Phoenix nor Nom.
When Judge Anthony Smith summarised the charges, he seemed to have a
special interest in count number 13--the Zardoz charge. A few minutes
into reading the sentence, the judge said, `In my view, a custodial
sentence is appropriate for each of the offences constituted by the
12th, 13th and 14th counts'. They were the `knowingly concerned'
charges, with Phoenix, involving NASA, LLNL and CSIRO. Electron looked
around the courtroom. People turned back to stare at him. Their eyes
said, `You are going to prison'.
`I formed the view that a custodial sentence is appropriate in respect
of each of these offences because of the seriousness of them,' Judge
Smith noted, `and having regard to the need to demonstrate that the
community will not tolerate this type of offence.
`Our society today is ... increasingly ... dependent upon the use of
computer technology. Conduct of the kind in which you engaged poses a
threat to the usefulness of that technology ... It is incumbent upon
the courts ... to see to it that the sentences they impose reflect the
gravity of this kind of criminality.
`On each of Counts 12, 13 and 14, you are convicted and you are
sentenced to a term of imprisonment of six months ... each ... to be
The judge paused, then continued, `And ... I direct, by order, that
you be released forthwith upon your giving security by recognisance
... in the sum of $500 ... You will not be required to serve the terms
of imprisonment imposed, provided you are of good behaviour for the
ensuing six months.' He then ordered Electron to complete 300 hours of
community service, and to submit to psychiatric assessment and
Electron breathed a sigh of relief.
When outlining the mitigating circumstances which led to suspension of
the jail sentence, Judge Smith described Electron as being addicted to
using his computer `in much the same way as an alcoholic becomes
addicted to the bottle'. Boris Kayser had used the analogy in the
sentencing hearing, perhaps for the
benefit of the media, but the judge had obviously been swayed by his
lawyers. After three years, he was almost free of his court problems.
There was only one possible reason he might need to return to court.
If Phoenix fought out his case in a full criminal trial, the DPP would
put Electron on the stand to testify against him. It would be an ugly
near Preston, had heard all about Pad and Gandalf by the time they
arrived. They greeted the hackers by name. They'd seen the reports on
telly, especially about how Gandalf had hacked NASA--complete with
footage of the space shuttle taking off. Some TV reporter's idea of
subtle irony--`Two hackers were sent down today' as the space shuttle
Kirkham was far better than Brixton, where the hackers had spent the
first days of their sentence while awaiting transfer. Brixton was what
Pad always envisioned prison would look like, with floors of barred
cells facing onto an open centre and prisoners only allowed out of
their cells for scheduled events such as time in the yard. It was a
place where hard-core criminals lived. Fortunately, Pad and Gandalf
had been placed in the same cell while they waited to be assigned to
their final destination.
After ten days inside Brixton Pad and Gandalf were led from their
cell, handcuffed and put in a coach heading toward the windy west
steel to Gandalf's hand, then he looked back up again at his fellow
hacker. Clearing his throat and turning away from Gandalf's difficult
grin--his friend now on the edge of laughing himself--Pad struggled.
He tried to hold down the muscles of his face, to pull them back from
A minimum security prison holding up to 632 prisoners, Kirkham looked
vaguely like a World War II RAF base with a large collection of
free-standing buildings around the grounds. There were no real walls,
just a small wire fence which Pad soon learned prisoners routinely
jumped when the place started to get to them.
For a prison, Kirkham was pretty good. There was a duck pond, a
bowling green, a sort of mini-cinema which showed films in the early
evenings, eight pay phones, a football field, a cricket pavilion and,
best of all, lots of fields. Prisoners could have visits on weekday
afternoons between 1.10 and 3.40, or on the weekend.
Luck smiled on the two hackers. They were assigned to the same billet
and, since none of the other prisoners objected, they became
room-mates. Since they were sentenced in May, they would serve their
time during summer. If they were `of good behaviour' and didn't get
into trouble with other prisoners, they would be out in three months.
Like any prison, Kirkham had its share of prisoners who didn't get
along with each other. Mostly, prisoners wanted to know what you were
in for and, more particularly, if you had been convicted of a sex
crime. They didn't like sex crime offenders and Pad heard about a pack
of Kirkham prisoners who dragged one of their own, screaming, to a
tree, where they tried to hang him for being a suspected rapist. In
fact, the prisoner hadn't been convicted of anything like rape. He had
simply refused to pay his poll tax.
Fortunately for Pad and Gandalf, everyone else in Kirkham knew why
they were there. At the end of their first week they returned to their
room one afternoon to find a sign painted above their door. It said,
The other minimum security prisoners understood hacking--and they had
all sorts of ideas about how you could make money from it. Most of the
prisoners in Kirkham were in for petty theft, credit card fraud, and
other small-time crimes. There was also a phreaker, who arrived the
same day as Pad and Gandalf. He landed eight months in prison--two
more than the 8lgm hackers--and Pad wondered what kind of message that
sent the underground.
Despite their best efforts, the 8lgm twosome didn't fit quite the
prison mould. In the evenings, other prisoners spent their free time
shooting pool or taking drugs. In the bedroom down the hall, Gandalf
lounged on his bed studying a book on VMS internals. Pad read a
computer magazine and listened to some indie music--often his `Babes
in Toyland' tape. In a parody of prison movies, the two hackers marked
off their days inside the prison with cross-hatched lines on their
bedroom wall--four marks, then a diagonal line through them. They
wrote other things on the walls too.
The long, light-filled days of summer flowed one into the other, as
Pad and Gandalf fell into the rhythm of the prison. The morning
check-in at 8.30 to make sure none of the prisoners had gone
walkabout. The dash across the bowling green for a breakfast of beans,
bacon, eggs, toast and sausage. The walk to the greenhouses where the
two hackers had been assigned for work detail.
The work wasn't hard. A little digging in the pots. Weeding around the
baby lettuce heads, watering the green peppers and transplanting
tomato seedlings. When the greenhouses became too warm by late
morning, Pad and Gandalf wandered outside for a bit of air. They often
talked about girls, cracking crude, boyish jokes about women and
occasionally discussing their girlfriends more seriously. As the heat
settled in, they sat down, lounging against the side of the
After lunch, followed by more time in the greenhouse, Pad and Gandalf
sometimes went off for walks in the fields surrounding the prison.
First the football field, then the paddocks dotted with cows beyond
Pad was a likeable fellow, largely because of his easygoing style and
him, and the humour often deflected deeper probing into his
personality. But Gandalf knew him, understood him. Everything was so
easy with Gandalf. During the long, sunny walks, the conversation
flowed as easily as the light breeze through the grass.
As they wandered in the fields, Pad often wore his denim jacket. Most
of the clothes on offer from the prison clothing office were drab
blue, but Pad had lucked onto this wonderful, cool denim jacket which
he took to wearing all the time.
Walking for hours on end along the perimeters of the prison grounds,
Pad saw how easy it would be to escape, but in the end there didn't
seem to be much point. They way he saw it, the police would just catch
you and put you back in again. Then you'd have to serve extra time.
Once a week, Pad's parents came to visit him, but the few precious
hours of visiting time were more for his parents' benefit than his
own. He reassured them that he was OK, and when they looked him in the
face and saw it was true, they stopped worrying quite so much. They
brought him news from home, including the fact that his computer
equipment had been returned by one of the police who had been in the
The officer asked Pad's mother how the hacker was doing in prison.
`Very well indeed,' she told him. `Prison's not nearly so bad as he
thought.' The officer's face crumpled into a disappointed frown. He
seemed to be looking for news that Pad was suffering nothing but
At the end of almost three months, with faces well tanned from walking
To the casual witness sitting nearby in the courtroom, the tension
between Phoenix's mother and father was almost palpable. They were not
sitting near each other but that didn't mitigate the silent hostility
which rose through the air like steam. Phoenix's divorced parents
provided a stark contrast to Nom's adopted parents, an older, suburban
couple who were very much married.
On Wednesday, 25 August 1993 Phoenix and Nom pleaded guilty to fifteen
and two charges respectively. The combined weight of the prosecution's
evidence, the risk and cost of running a full trial and the need to
get on with their lives had pushed them over the edge. Electron didn't
need to come to court to give evidence.
At the plea hearing, which ran over to the next day, Phoenix's lawyer,
Dyson Hore-Lacy, spent considerable time sketching the messy divorce
of his client's parents for the benefit of the judge. Suggesting
Phoenix retreated into his computer during the bitter separation and
divorce was the best chance of getting him off a prison term. Most of
all, the defence presented Phoenix as a young man who had strayed off
the correct path in life but was now back on track--holding down a job
and having a life.
The DPP had gone in hard against Phoenix. They seemed to want a jail
term badly and they doggedly presented Phoenix as an arrogant
braggart. The court heard a tape-recording of Phoenix ringing up
security guru Edward DeHart of the Computer Emergency Response Team at
Carnegie Mellon University to brag about a security exploit. Phoenix
told DeHart to get onto his computer and then proceeded to walk him
step by step through the `passwd -f' security bug. Ironically, it was
Electron who had discovered that security hole and taught it to
Phoenix--a fact Phoenix didn't seem to want to mention to DeHart.
The head of the AFP's Southern Region Computer Crimes Unit, Detective
Sergeant Ken Day was in court that day. There was no way he was going
to miss this. The same witness noting the tension between Phoenix's
parents might also have perceived an undercurrent of hostility between
Day and Phoenix--an undercurrent which did not seem to exist between
Day and either of the other Realm hackers.
Day, a short, careful man who gave off an air of bottled intensity,
seemed to have an acute dislike for Phoenix. By all observations the
feeling was mutual. A cool-headed professional, Day would never say
anything in public to express the dislike--that was not his style. His
dislike was only indicated by a slight tightness in the muscles of an
otherwise unreadable face.
On 6 October 1993, Phoenix and Nom stood side by side in the dock for
sentencing. Wearing a stern expression, Judge Smith began by detailing
both the hackers' charges and the origin of The Realm. But after the
summary, the judge saved his harshest rebuke for Phoenix.
`There is nothing ... to admire about your conduct and every reason
why it should be roundly condemned. You pointed out [weaknesses] to
some of the system administrators ... [but] this was more a display of
arrogance and a demonstration of what you thought was your superiority
rather than an act of altruism on your part.
`You ... bragged about what you had done or were going to do ... Your
conduct revealed ... arrogance on your part, open defiance, and an
intention to the beat the system. [You] did cause havoc for a time
within the various targeted systems.'
Although the judge appeared firm in his views while passing sentence,
behind the scenes he had agonised greatly over his decision. He had
attempted to balance what he saw as the need for deterrence, the
creation of a precedence for sentencing hacking cases in Australia,
and the individual aspects of this case. Finally, after sifting
through the arguments again and again, he had reached a decision.
`I have no doubt that some sections of our community would regard
anything than a custodial sentence as less than appropriate. I share
that view. But after much reflection ... I have concluded that an
immediate term of imprisonment is unnecessary.'
Relief rolled across the faces of the hackers' friends and relatives
as the judge ordered Phoenix to complete 500 hours of community
service work over two years and assigned him a $1000 twelve-month good
behaviour bond. He gave Nom 200 hours, and a $500, six-month bond for
As Phoenix was leaving the courtroom, a tall, skinny young man, loped
down the aisle towards him.
`Congratulations,' the stranger said, his long hair dangling in
delicate curls around his shoulders.
`Thanks,' Phoenix answered, combing his memory for the boyish face
which couldn't be any older than his own. `Do I know you?'
`Sort of,' the stranger answered. `I'm Mendax. I'm about to go through
what you did, but worse.'
an eerie sound
-- from `Maralinga', on 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 by Midnight Oil
Prime Suspect rang Mendax, offering an adventure. He had discovered a
strange system called NMELH1 (pronounced N-Melly-H-1) and it was time
to go exploring. He read off the dial-up numbers, found in a list of
modem phone numbers on another hacked system.
Mendax looked at the scrap of paper in his hand, thinking about the
name of the computer system.
The `N' stood for Northern Telecom, a Canadian company with annual
sales of $8 billion. NorTel, as the company was known, sold thousands
of highly sophisticated switches and other telephone exchange
equipment to some of the world's largest phone companies. The `Melly'
undoubtedly referred to the fact that the system was in Melbourne. As
for the `H-1', well, that was anyone's guess, but Mendax figured it
probably stood for `host-1'--meaning computer site number one.
Prime Suspect had stirred Mendax's interest. Mendax had spent hours
experimenting with commands inside the computers which controlled
telephone exchanges. In the end, those forays were all just
guesswork--trial and error learning, at considerable risk of
discovery. Unlike making a mistake inside a single computer,
mis-guessing a command inside a telephone exchange in downtown Sydney
or Melbourne could take down a whole prefix--10000 or more phone
lines--and cause instant havoc.
This was exactly what the International Subversives didn't want to do.
The three IS hackers--Mendax, Prime Suspect and Trax--had seen what
happened to the visible members of the computer underground in England
and in Australia. The IS hackers had three very good reasons to keep
their activities quiet.
Phoenix. Nom. And Electron.
But, Mendax thought, what if you could learn about how to manipulate a
million-dollar telephone exchange by reading
the manufacturer's technical documentation? How high was
the chance that those documents, which weren't available to the
public, were stored inside NorTel's computer network?
Better still, what if he could find NorTel's original source code--the
software designed to control specific telephone switches, such as the
DMS-100 model. That code might be sitting on a computer hooked into
the worldwide NorTel network. A hacker with access could insert his
own backdoor--a hidden security flaw--before the company sent out
software to its customers.
With a good technical understanding of how NorTel's equipment worked,
combined with a backdoor installed in every piece of software shipped
with a particular product, you could have control over every new
NorTel DMS telephone switch installed from Boston to Bahrain. What
power! Mendax thought, what if you you could turn off 10000 phones in
Rio de Janeiro, or give 5000 New Yorkers free calls one afternoon, or
listen into private telephone conversations in Brisbane. The
telecommunications world would be your oyster.
Like their predecessors, the three IS hackers had started out in the
Melbourne BBS scene. Mendax met Trax on Electric Dreams in about 1988,
and Prime Suspect on Megaworks, where he used the handle Control
Reset, not long after that. When he set up his own BBS at his home in
Tecoma, a hilly suburb so far out of Melbourne that it was practically
in forest, he invited both hackers to visit `A Cute Paranoia' whenever
they could get through on the single phone line.
Visiting on Mendax's BBS suited both hackers, for it was more private
than other BBSes. Eventually they exchanged home telephone numbers,
but only to talk modem-to-modem. For months, they would ring each
other up and type on their computer screens to each other--never
having heard the sound of the other person's voice. Finally, late in
1990, the nineteen-year-old Mendax called up the 24-year-old Trax for
a voice chat. In early 1991, Mendax and Prime Suspect, aged seventeen,
also began speaking in voice on the phone.
Trax seemed slightly eccentric, and possibly suffered from some sort
of anxiety disorder. He refused to travel to the city, and he once
made reference to seeing a psychiatrist. But Mendax usually found the
most interesting people were a little unusual, and Trax was both.
Mendax and Trax discovered they had a few things in common. Both came
from poor but educated families, and both lived in the outer suburbs.
However, they had very different childhoods.
Trax's parents migrated to Australia from Europe. Both his father, a
retired computer technician, and his mother spoke with a German
accent. Trax's father was very much the head of the household, and
Trax was his only son.
By contrast, by the time he was fifteen Mendax had lived in a dozen
different places including Perth, Magnetic Island, Brisbane,
Townsville, Sydney, the Adelaide Hills, and a string of coastal towns
in northern New South Wales and Western Australia. In fifteen years he
had enrolled in at least as many different schools.
His mother had left her Queensland home at age seventeen, after saving
enough money from selling her paintings to buy a motorcycle, a tent
and a road map of Australia. Waving goodbye to her stunned parents,
both academics, she rode off into the sunset. Some 2000 kilometres
later, she arrived in Sydney and joined the thriving counter-culture
community. She worked as an artist and fell in love with a rebellious
young man she met at an anti-Vietnam demonstration.
Within a year of Mendax's birth, his mother's relationship with his
father had ended. When Mendax was two, she married a fellow artist.
What followed was many turbulent years, moving from town to town as
his parents explored the '70s left-wing, bohemian subculture. As a
boy, he was surrounded by artists. His stepfather staged and directed
plays and his mother did make-up, costume and set design.
One night in Adelaide, when Mendax was about four, his mother and a
friend were returning from a meeting of anti-nuclear protesters. The
friend claimed to have scientific evidence that the British had
conducted high-yield, above-ground nuclear tests at Maralinga, a
desert area in north-west South Australia.
A 1984 Royal Commission subsequently revealed that between 1953 and
1963 the British government had tested nuclear bombs at the site,
forcing more than 5000 Aborigines from their native lands. In December
1993, after years of stalling, the British government agreed to pay
[sterling]20 million toward cleaning up the more than 200 square
kilometres of contaminated lands. Back in 1968, however, the Menzies
government had signed away Britain's responsibility to clean up the
site. In the 1970s, the Australian government was still in denial
about exactly what had happened at Maralinga.
As Mendax's mother and her friend drove through an Adelaide suburb
carrying early evidence of the Maralinga tragedy, they noticed they
were being followed by an unmarked car. They tried to lose the tail,
without success. The friend, nervous, said he had to get the data to
an Adelaide journalist before the police could stop him. Mendax's