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
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
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
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
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
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
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.