Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier

Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier

by Katie Hafner, John Markoff

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Using the exploits of three international hackers, Cyberpunk explores the world of high-tech computer rebels and the subculture they've created. In a book as exciting as any Ludlum novel, the authors show how these young outlaws have learned to penetrate the most sensitive computer networks and how difficult it is to stop them.


Using the exploits of three international hackers, Cyberpunk explores the world of high-tech computer rebels and the subculture they've created. In a book as exciting as any Ludlum novel, the authors show how these young outlaws have learned to penetrate the most sensitive computer networks and how difficult it is to stop them.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The spirit of cyberpunk only flickers in these three more-or-less able pieces of journalism about headline hacker cases that shook the computer industry. The authors' straightforward style serves the topic well, and portraits of the hackers' personalities are tantalizingly good. But the programming jargon invoked suggests little of the ``outlaw'' mentality that converts programming talent into hacking. The only case that really earns the title is ``Pengo and the Project Equalizer,'' the story of a West Berlin punk turned hacker, which contains enough exotic characters to cast a miniseries. Hafner is a computer reporter for the New York Times ; Markoff is a former Business Week reporter. (July)
Library Journal
In these three portraits of contemporary computer ``outlaws,'' Hafner and Markoff have done an outstanding job of explaining the technology misused, as well as writing a true account that is as exciting to read as any Ludlum novel. From Kevin Mitnick, the former Southern California ``phone phreak'' who hacked his way into Digital Equipment's inner sanctum to the West German quartet who tapped into Lawrence Berkeley Lab and sold software to the KGB to Robert Mathis, the former Cornell graduate student who loosed a virus that brought the mighty Internet to its knees, the authors intelligently analyze the social and technical considerations involved in these episodes. This book can be read solely for entertainment--it's that engrossing. But there are also many very important issues and questions raised as well. Highly recommended.-- Hilary D. Burton, Lawrence Liver more National Lab., Livermore, Cal.
From the Publisher
Cliff Stoll Author of The Cuckoo's Egg An astonishing story [whose] trail leads across well as police blotters in America and Germany. This is the computing underground, our high-tech counterculture.

Los Angeles Times Book Review An engrossing, valuable work.

PC Magazine important chronicle of what is happening on the edge of the information age.

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt


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 eachother 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

Meet the Author

Katie Hafner is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where she covers technology. She has also written for Business Week, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Wired. She is currently working on a history of the Internet.

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