Suelette dreyfus julian assange

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time, Australians had lost their cultural cringe, a unique type of

insecurity alien to can-do cultures such as that found in the US.

Exploration and experimentation require confidence and, in 1988,

confidence was something Australia had finally attained.

Yet this new-found confidence and optimism did not subdue Australia's

tradition of cynicism toward large institutions. The two coexisted,

suspended in a strange paradox. Australian humour, deeply rooted in a

scepticism of all things serious and sacred, continued to poke fun at

upright institutions with a depth of irreverence surprising to many

foreigners. This cynicism of large, respected institutions coursed

through the newly formed Australian computer underground without

dampening its excitement or optimism for the brave new world of

computers in the least.

In 1988, the Australian computer underground thrived like a vibrant

Asian street bazaar. In that year it was still a realm of place not

space. Customers visited their regular stalls, haggled over goods with

vendors, bumped into friends and waved across crowded paths to

acquaintances. The market was as much a place to socialise as it was

to shop. People ducked into tiny coffee houses or corner bars for

intimate chats. The latest imported goods, laid out on tables like

reams of bright Chinese silks, served as conversation starters. And,

like every street market, many of the best items were tucked away,

hidden in anticipation of the appearance of that one customer or

friend most favoured by the trader. The currency of the underground

was not money; it was information. People didn't share and exchange

information to accumulate monetary wealth; they did it to win

respect--and to buy a thrill.

The members of the Australian computer underground met on bulletin

board systems, known as BBSes. Simple things by today's standards,

BBSes were often composed of a souped-up Apple II computer, a single

modem and a lone telephone line. But they drew people from all walks

of life. Teenagers from working-class neighbourhoods and those from

the exclusive private schools. University students. People in their

twenties groping their way through first jobs. Even some professional

people in their thirties and forties who spent weekends poring over

computer manuals and building primitive computers in spare rooms. Most

regular BBS users were male. Sometimes a user's sister would find her

way into the BBS world, often in search of a boyfriend. Mission

accomplished, she might disappear from the scene for weeks, perhaps

months, presumably until she required another visit.

The BBS users had a few things in common. They were generally of above

average intelligence--usually with a strong technical slant--and they

were obsessed with their chosen hobby. They had to be. It often took

45 minutes of attack dialling a busy BBS's lone phone line just to

visit the computer system for perhaps half an hour. Most serious BBS

hobbyists went through this routine several times each day.

As the name suggests, a BBS had what amounted to an electronic version

of a normal bulletin board. The owner of the BBS would have divided

the board into different areas, as a school teacher crisscrosses

coloured ribbon across the surface of a corkboard to divide it into

sections. A single BBS might have 30 or more electronic discussion


As a user to the board, you might visit the politics section, tacking

up a `note' on your views of ALP or Liberal policies for anyone

passing by to read. Alternatively, you might fancy yourself a bit of a

poet and work up the courage to post an original piece of work in the

Poet's Corner. The corner was often filled with dark, misanthropic

works inspired by the miseries of adolescence. Perhaps you preferred

to discuss music. On many BBSes you could find postings on virtually

any type of music. The most popular groups included bands like Pink

Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Midnight Oil. Midnight Oil's

anti-establishment message struck a particular chord within the new

BBS community.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the golden age of the BBS culture across

Australia. It was an age of innocence and community, an open-air

bazaar full of vitality and the sharing of ideas. For the most part,

people trusted their peers within the community and the BBS operators,

who were often revered as demigods. It was a happy place. And, in

general, it was a safe place, which is perhaps one reason why its

visitors felt secure in their explorations of new ideas. It was a

place in which the creator of the WANK worm could sculpt and hone his

creative computer skills.

The capital of this spirited new Australian electronic civilisation

was Melbourne. It is difficult to say why this southern city became

the cultural centre of the BBS world, and its darker side, the

Australian computer underground. Maybe the city's history as

Australia's intellectual centre created a breeding ground for the many

young people who built their systems with little more than curiosity

and salvaged computer bits discarded by others. Maybe Melbourne's

personality as a city of suburban homebodies and backyard tinkerers

produced a culture conducive to BBSes. Or maybe it was just

Melbourne's dreary beaches and often miserable weather. As one

Melbourne hacker explained it, `What else is there to do here all

winter but hibernate inside with your computer and modem?'

In 1988, Melbourne had some 60 to 100 operating BBSes. The numbers are

vague because it is difficult to count a collection of moving objects.

The amateur nature of the systems, often a jumbled tangle of wires and

second-hand electronics parts soldered together in someone's garage,

meant that the life of any one system was frequently as short as a

teenager's attention span. BBSes popped up, ran for two weeks, and

then vanished again.

Some of them operated only during certain hours, say between 10 p.m.

and 8 a.m. When the owner went to bed, he or she would plug the home

phone line into the BBS and leave it there until morning. Others ran

24 hours a day, but the busiest times were always at night.

Of course it wasn't just intellectual stimulation some users were

after. Visitors often sought identity as much as ideas. On an

electronic bulletin board, you could create a personality, mould it

into shape and make it your own. Age and appearance did not matter.

Technical aptitude did. Any spotty, gawky teenage boy could instantly

transform himself into a suave, graceful BBS character. The

transformation began with the choice of name. In real life, you might

be stuck with the name Elliot Dingle--an appellation chosen by your

mother to honour a long-dead great uncle. But on a BBS, well, you

could be Blade Runner, Ned Kelly or Mad Max. Small wonder that, given

the choice, many teenage boys chose to spend their time in the world

of the BBS.

Generally, once a user chose a handle, as the on-line names are known,

he stuck with it. All his electronic mail came to an account with that

name on it. Postings to bulletin boards were signed with it. Others

dwelling in the system world knew him by that name and no other. A

handle evolved into a name laden with innate meaning, though the

personality reflected in it might well have been an alter ego. And so

it was that characters like The Wizard, Conan and Iceman came to pass

their time on BBSes like the Crystal Palace, Megaworks, The Real

Connection and Electric Dreams.

What such visitors valued about the BBS varied greatly. Some wanted to

participate in its social life. They wanted to meet people like

themselves--bright but geeky or misanthropic people who shared an

interest in the finer technical points of computers. Many lived as

outcasts in real life, never quite making it into the `normal' groups

of friends at school or uni. Though some had started their first jobs,

they hadn't managed to shake the daggy awkwardness which pursued them

throughout their teen years. On the surface, they were just not the

sort of people one asked out to the pub for a cold one after the


But that was all right. In general, they weren't much interested in

footy anyway.

Each BBS had its own style. Some were completely legitimate, with

their wares--all legal goods--laid out in the open. Others, like The

Real Connection, had once housed Australia's earliest hackers but had

gone straight. They closed up the hacking parts of the board before

the first Commonwealth government hacking laws were enacted in June

1989. Perhaps ten or twelve of Melbourne's BBSes at the time had the

secret, smoky flavour of the computer underground. A handful of these

were invitation-only boards, places like Greyhawk and The Realm. You

couldn't simply ring up the board, create a new account and login. You

had to be invited by the board's owner. Members of the general

modeming public need not apply.

The two most important hubs in the Australian underground between 1987

and 1989 were named Pacific Island and Zen. A 23-year-old who called

himself Craig Bowen ran both systems from his bedroom.

Also known as Thunderbird1, Bowen started up Pacific Island in 1987

because he wanted a hub for hackers. The fledgling hacking community

was dispersed after AHUBBS, possibly Melbourne's earliest hacking

board, faded away. Bowen decided to create a home for it, a sort of

dark, womb-like cafe bar amid the bustle of the BBS bazaar where

Melbourne's hackers could gather and share information.

His bedroom was a simple, boyish place. Built-in cupboards, a bed, a

wallpaper design of vintage cars running across one side of the room.

A window overlooking the neighbours' leafy suburban yard. A collection

of PC magazines with titles like Nibble and Byte. A few volumes on

computer programming. VAX/VMS manuals. Not many books, but a handful

of science fiction works by Arthur C. Clarke. The Hitchhiker's Guide

to the Galaxy. A Chinese-language dictionary used during his high

school Mandarin classes, and after, as he continued to study the

language on his own while he held down his first job.

The Apple IIe, modem and telephone line rested on the drop-down

drawing table and fold-up card table at the foot of his bed. Bowen put

his TV next to the computer so he could sit in bed, watch TV and use

Pacific Island all at the same time. Later, when he started Zen, it

sat next to Pacific Island. It was the perfect set-up.

Pacific Island was hardly fancy by today's standards of Unix Internet

machines, but in 1987 it was an impressive computer. PI, pronounced

`pie' by the local users, had a 20 megabyte hard drive--gargantuan for

a personal computer at the time. Bowen spent about $5000 setting up PI

alone. He loved both systems and spent many hours each week nurturing


There was no charge for computer accounts on PI or ZEN, like most

BBSes. This gentle-faced youth, a half-boy, half-man who would

eventually play host on his humble BBS to many of Australia's

cleverest computer and telephone hackers, could afford to pay for his

computers for two reasons: he lived at home with his mum and dad, and

he had a full-time job at Telecom--then the only domestic telephone

carrier in Australia.

PI had about 800 computer users, up to 200 of whom were `core' users

accessing the system regularly. PI had its own dedicated phone line,

separate from the house phone so Bowen's parents wouldn't get upset the

line was always tied up. Later, he put in four additional phone lines

for Zen, which had about 2000 users. Using his Telecom training, he

installed a number of non-standard, but legal, features to his

house. Junction boxes, master switches. Bowen's house was a

telecommunications hot-rod.

Bowen had decided early on that if he wanted to keep his job, he had

better not do anything illegal when it came to Telecom. However, the

Australian national telecommunications carrier was a handy source of

technical information. For example, he had an account on a Telecom

computer system--for work--from which he could learn about Telecom's

exchanges. But he never used that account for hacking. Most

respectable hackers followed a similar philosophy. Some had legitimate

university computer accounts for their courses, but they kept those

accounts clean. A basic rule of the underground, in the words of one

hacker, was `Don't foul your own nest'.

PI contained a public section and a private one. The public area was

like an old-time pub. Anyone could wander in, plop down at the bar and

start up a conversation with a group of locals. Just ring up the

system with your modem and type in your details--real name, your

chosen handle, phone number and other basic information.

Many BBS users gave false information in order to hide their true

identities, and many operators didn't really care. Bowen, however,

did. Running a hacker's board carried some risk, even before the

federal computer crime laws came into force. Pirated software was

illegal. Storing data copied from hacking adventures in foreign

computers might also be considered illegal. In an effort to exclude

police and media spies, Bowen tried to verify the personal details of

every user on PI by ringing them at home or work. Often he was

successful. Sometimes he wasn't.

The public section of PI housed discussion groups on the major PC

brands--IBM, Commodore, Amiga, Apple and Atari--next to the popular

Lonely Hearts group. Lonely Hearts had about twenty regulars, most of

whom agonised under the weight of pubescent hormonal changes. A boy

pining for the affections of the girl who dumped him or, worse, didn't

even know he existed. Teenagers who contemplated suicide. The messages

were completely anonymous, readers didn't even know the authors'

handles, and that anonymous setting allowed heart-felt messages and

genuine responses.

Zen was PI's sophisticated younger sister. Within two years of PI

making its debut, Bowen opened up Zen, one of the first Australian

BBSes with more than one telephone line. The main reason he set up Zen

was to stop his computer users from bothering him all the time. When

someone logged into PI, one of the first things he or she did was

request an on-line chat with the system operator. PI's Apple IIe was

such a basic machine by today's standards, Bowen couldn't multi-task

on it. He could not do anything with the machine, such as check his

own mail, while a visitor was logged into PI.

Zen was a watershed in the Australian BBS community. Zen multi-tasked.

Up to four people could ring up and login to the machine at any one

time, and Bowen could do his own thing while his users were on-line.

Better still, his users could talk request each other instead of

hassling him all the time. Having users on a multi-tasking machine

with multiple phone lines was like having a gaggle of children. For

the most part, they amused each other.

Mainstream and respectful of authority on the surface, Bowen possessed

the same streak of anti-establishment views harboured by many in the

underground. His choice of name for Zen underlined this. Zen came from

the futuristic British TV science fiction series `Blake 7', in which a

bunch of underfunded rebels attempted to overthrow an evil

totalitarian government. Zen was the computer on the rebels' ship. The

rebels banded together after meeting on a prison ship; they were all

being transported to a penal settlement on another planet. It was a

story people in the Australian underground could relate to. One of the

lead characters, a sort of heroic anti-hero, had been sentenced to

prison for computer hacking. His big mistake, he told fellow rebels,

was that he had relied on other people. He trusted them. He should

have worked alone.

Craig Bowen had no idea of how true that sentiment would ring in a

matter of months.

Bowen's place was a hub of current and future lights in the computer

underground. The Wizard. The Force. Powerspike. Phoenix. Electron.

Nom. Prime Suspect. Mendax. Train Trax. Some, such as Prime Suspect,

merely passed through, occasionally stopping in to check out the

action and greet friends. Others, such as Nom, were part of the

close-knit PI family. Nom helped Bowen set up PI. Like many early

members of the underground, they met through AUSOM, an Apple users'

society in Melbourne. Bowen wanted to run ASCII Express, a program

which allowed people to transfer files between their own computers and

PI. But, as usual, he and everyone he knew only had a pirated copy of

the program. No manuals. So Nom and Bowen spent one weekend picking

apart the program by themselves. They were each at home, on their own

machines, with copies. They sat on the phone for hours working through

how the program worked. They wrote their own manual for other people

in the underground suffering under the same lack of documentation.

Then they got it up and running on PI.

Making your way into the various groups in a BBS such as PI or Zen had

benefits besides hacking information. If you wanted to drop your

mantle of anonymity, you could join a pre-packaged, close-knit circle

of friends. For example, one clique of PI people were fanatical

followers of the film The Blues Brothers. Every Friday night, this

group dressed up in Blues Brothers costumes of a dark suit, white

shirt, narrow tie, Rayban sunglasses and, of course, the snap-brimmed

hat. One couple brought their child, dressed as a mini-Blues Brother.

The group of Friday night regulars made their way at 11.30 to

Northcote's Valhalla Theatre (now the Westgarth). Its grand but

slightly tatty vintage atmosphere lent itself to this alternative

culture flourishing in late-night revelries. Leaping up on stage

mid-film, the PI groupies sent up the actors in key scenes. It was a

fun and, as importantly, a cheap evening. The Valhalla staff admitted

regulars who were dressed in appropriate costume for free. The only

thing the groupies had to pay for was drinks at the intermission.

Occasionally, Bowen arranged gatherings of other young PI and Zen

users. Usually, the group met in downtown Melbourne, sometimes at the

City Square. The group was mostly boys, but sometimes a few girls

would show up. Bowen's sister, who used the handle Syn, hung around a

bit. She went out with a few hackers from the BBS scene. And she

wasn't the only one. It was a tight group which interchanged

boyfriends and girlfriends with considerable regularity. The group

hung out in the City Square after watching a movie, usually a horror

film. Nightmare 2. House 3. Titles tended to be a noun followed by a

numeral. Once, for a bit of lively variation, they went bowling and

drove the other people at the alley nuts. After the early

entertainment, it was down to McDonald's for a cheap burger. They

joked and laughed and threw gherkins against the restaurant's wall.

This was followed by more hanging around on the stone steps of the

City Square before catching the last bus or train home.

The social sections of PI and Zen were more successful than the

technical ones, but the private hacking section was even more

successful than the others. The hacking section was hidden; would-be

members of the Melbourne underground knew there was something going

on, but they couldn't find out what is was.

Getting an invite to the private area required hacking skill or

information, and usually a recommendation to Bowen from someone who

was already inside. Within the Inner Sanctum, as the private hacking

area was called, people could comfortably share information such as

opinions of new computer products, techniques for hacking, details of

companies which had set up new sites to hack and the latest rumours on

what the law enforcement agencies were up to.

The Inner Sanctum was not, however, the only private room. Two hacking

groups, Elite and H.A.C.K., guarded entry to their yet more exclusive

back rooms. Even if you managed to get entry to the Inner Sanctum, you

might not even know that H.A.C.K. or Elite existed. You might know

there was a place even more selective than your area, but exactly how

many layers of the onion stood between you and the most exclusive

section was anyone's guess. Almost every hacker interviewed for this

book described a vague sense of being somehow outside the innermost

circle. They knew it was there, but wasn't sure just what it was.

Bowen fielded occasional phone calls on his voice line from wanna-be

hackers trying to pry open the door to the Inner Sanctum. `I want

access to your pirate system,' the voice would whine.

`What pirate system? Who told you my system was a pirate system?'

Bowen sussed out how much the caller knew, and who had told him. Then

he denied everything.

To avoid these requests, Bowen had tried to hide his address, real

name and phone number from most of the people who used his BBSes. But

he wasn't completely successful. He had been surprised by the sudden

appearance one day of Masked Avenger on his doorstep. How Masked

Avenger actually found his address was a mystery. The two had chatted

in a friendly fashion on-line, but Bowen didn't give out his details.

Nothing could have prepared him for the little kid in the big crash

helmet standing by his bike in front of Bowen's house. `Hi!' he

squeaked. `I'm the Masked Avenger!'

Masked Avenger--a boy perhaps fifteen years old--was quite resourceful

to have found out Bowen's details. Bowen invited him in and showed him

the system. They became friends. But after that incident, Bowen

decided to tighten security around his personal details even more. He

began, in his own words, `moving toward full anonymity'. He invented

the name Craig Bowen, and everyone in the underground came to know him

by that name or his handle, Thunderbird1. He even opened a false bank

account in the name of Bowen for the periodic voluntary donations

users sent into PI. It was never a lot of money, mostly $5 or $10,

because students don't tend to have much money. He ploughed it all

back into PI.

People had lots of reasons for wanting to get into the Inner Sanctum.

Directory: ~suelette -> underground

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