Bruce Sterling. Gurps' labour lost
GURPS' LABOUR LOST
Some months ago, I wrote an article about the raid on Steve
Jackson Games, which appeared in my "Comment" column in the
British science fiction monthly, INTERZONE (#44, Feb 1991).
This updated version, specially re-written for dissemination by
EFF, reflects the somewhat greater knowledge I've gained to
date, in the course of research on an upcoming nonfiction book,
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: Law and Disorder on the Electronic
The bizarre events suffered by Mr. Jackson and his co-workers,
in my own home town of Austin, Texas, were directly responsible
for my decision to put science fiction aside and to tackle the
purportedly real world of computer crime and electronic
The national crackdown on computer hackers in 1990 was the
largest and best-coordinated attack on computer mischief in
American history. There was Arizona's "Operation Sundevil,"
the sweeping May 8 nationwide raid against outlaw bulletin
boards. The BellSouth E911 case (of which the Jackson raid was
a small and particularly egregious part) was coordinated out of
Chicago. The New York State Police were also very active in
All this vigorous law enforcement activity meant very little to
the narrow and intensely clannish world of science fiction.
All we knew -- and this misperception persisted, uncorrected,
for months -- was that Mr. Jackson had been raided because of
his intention to publish a gaming book about "cyberpunk"
science fiction. The Jackson raid received extensive coverage
in science fiction news magazines (yes, we have these) and
became notorious in the world of SF as "the Cyberpunk Bust."
My INTERZONE article attempted to make the Jackson case
intelligible to the British SF audience.
What possible reason could lead an American federal law
enforcement agency to raid the headquarters of a science-fiction
gaming company? Why did armed teams of city police, corporate
security men, and federal agents roust two Texan
computer-hackers from their beds at dawn, and then deliberately
confiscate thousands of dollars' worth of computer equipment,
including the hackers' common household telephones? Why was an
unpublished book called G.U.R.P.S. Cyberpunk seized by the US
Secret Service and declared "a manual for computer crime?"
These weird events were not parodies or fantasies; no, this was
The first order of business in untangling this bizarre drama is
to understand the players -- who come in entire teams.
PLAYER ONE: The Law Enforcement Agencies.
America's defense against the threat of computer crime is a
confusing hodgepodge of state, municipal, and federal agencies.
Ranked first, by size and power, are the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), large, potent and
secretive organizations who, luckily, play almost no role in the
The second rank of such agencies include the Internal Revenue
Service (IRS), the National Aeronatics and Space Administration
(NASA), the Justice Department, the Department of Labor, and
various branches of the defense establishment, especially the
Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). Premier
among these groups, however, is the highly-motivated US Secret
Service (USSS), best-known to Britons as the suited,
mirrorshades-toting, heavily-armed bodyguards of the President
of the United States.
Guarding high-ranking federal officials and foreign dignitaries
is a hazardous, challenging and eminently necessary task, which
has won USSS a high public profile. But Abraham Lincoln created
this oldest of federal law enforcement agencies in order to foil
counterfeiting. Due to the historical tribulations of the
Treasury Department (of which USSS is a part), the Secret
Service also guards historical documents, analyzes forgeries,
combats wire fraud, and battles "computer fraud and abuse."
These may seem unrelated assignments, but the Secret Service is
fiercely aware of its duties. It is also jealous of its
bureaucratic turf, especially in computer-crime, where it
formally shares jurisdiction with its traditional rival, the
As the use of plastic money has spread, and their
long-established role as protectors of the currency has faded in
importance, the Secret Service has moved aggressively into the
realm of electronic crime. Unlike the lordly NSA, CIA, and FBI,
which generally can't be bothered with domestic computer
mischief, the Secret Service is noted for its street-level
The third-rank of law enforcement are the local "dedicated
computer crime units." There are very few such groups,
pitifully undermanned. They struggle hard for their funding and
the vital light of publicity. It's difficult to make
white-collar computer crimes seem pressing, to an American
public that lives in terror of armed and violent street-crime.
These local groups are small -- often, one or two officers,
computer hobbyists, who have drifted into electronic
crimebusting because they alone are game to devote time and
effort to bringing law to the electronic frontier. California's
Silicon Valley has three computer-crime units. There are
others in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, Colorado,
and a formerly very active one in Arizona -- all told, though,
perhaps only fifty people nationwide.
The locals do have one great advantage, though. They all know
one another. Though scattered across the country, they are
linked by both public-sector and private-sector professional
societies, and have a commendable subcultural esprit-de-corps.
And in the well-manned Secret Service, they have willing
PLAYER TWO: The Telephone Companies.
In the early 80s, after years of bitter federal court battle,
America's telephone monopoly was pulverized. "Ma Bell," the
national phone company, became AT&T, AT&T Industries, and the
regional "Baby Bells," all purportedly independent companies,
who compete with new communications companies and other
long-distance providers. As a class, however, they are all
sorely harassed by fraudsters, phone phreaks, and computer
hackers, and they all maintain computer-security experts. In a
lot of cases these "corporate security divisions" consist of
just one or two guys, who drifted into the work from backgrounds
in traditional security or law enforcement. But, linked by
specialized security trade journals and private sector trade
groups, they all know one another.
PLAYER THREE: The Computer Hackers.
The American "hacker" elite consists of about a hundred people,
who all know one another. These are the people who know enough
about computer intrusion to baffle corporate security and alarm
police (and who, furthermore, are willing to put their intrusion
skills into actual practice). The somewhat older
subculture of "phone-phreaking," once native only to the phone
system, has blended into hackerdom as phones have become digital
and computers have been netted-together by telephones. "Phone
phreaks," always tarred with the stigma of rip-off artists, are
nowadays increasingly hacking PBX systems and cellular phones.
These practices, unlike computer-intrusion, offer direct and
easy profit to fraudsters.
There are legions of minor "hackers," such as the "kodez kidz,"
who purloin telephone access codes to make free (i.e., stolen)
phone calls. Code theft can be done with home computers, and
almost looks like real "hacking," though "kodez kidz" are
regarded with lordly contempt by the elite. "Warez d00dz," who
copy and pirate computer games and software, are a thriving
subspecies of "hacker," but they played no real role in the
crackdown of 1990 or the Jackson case. As for the dire minority
who create computer viruses, the less said the better.
The princes of hackerdom skate the phone-lines, and computer
networks, as a lifestyle. They hang out in loose,
modem-connected gangs like the "Legion of Doom" and the "Masters
of Destruction." The craft of hacking is taught through
"bulletin board systems," personal computers that carry
electronic mail and can be accessed by phone. Hacker bulletin
boards generally sport grim, scary, sci-fi heavy metal names
like BLACK ICE -- PRIVATE or SPEED DEMON ELITE. Hackers
themselves often adopt romantic and highly suspicious tough-guy
monickers like "Necron 99," "Prime Suspect," "Erik Bloodaxe,"
"Malefactor" and "Phase Jitter." This can be seen as a kind of
cyberpunk folk-poetry -- after all, baseball players also have
colorful nicknames. But so do the Mafia and the Medellin
PLAYER FOUR: The Simulation Gamers.
Wargames and role-playing adventures are an old and honored
pastime, much favored by professional military strategists and
H.G. Wells, and now played by hundreds of thousands of
enthusiasts throughout North America, Europe and Japan. In
today's market, many simulation games are computerized, making
simulation gaming a favorite pastime of hackers, who dote on
arcane intellectual challenges and the thrill of doing simulated
Modern simulation games frequently have a heavily
science-fictional cast. Over the past decade or so, fueled by
very respectable royalties, the world of simulation gaming has
increasingly permeated the world of science-fiction publishing.
TSR, Inc., proprietors of the best-known role-playing game,
"Dungeons and Dragons," own the venerable science-fiction
magazine "Amazing." Gaming-books, once restricted to hobby
outlets, now commonly appear in chain-stores like B. Dalton's
and Waldenbooks, and sell vigorously.
Steve Jackson Games, Inc., of Austin, Texas, is a games company
of the middle rank. In early 1990, it employed fifteen people.
In 1989, SJG grossed about half a million dollars. SJG's Austin
headquarters is a modest two-story brick office-suite, cluttered
with phones, photocopiers, fax machines and computers. A
publisher's digs, it bustles with semi-organized activity and is
littered with glossy promotional brochures and dog-eared SF
novels. Attached to the offices is a large tin-roofed warehouse
piled twenty feet high with cardboard boxes of games and books.
This building was the site of the "Cyberpunk Bust."
A look at the company's wares, neatly stacked on endless rows of
cheap shelving, quickly shows SJG's long involvement with the
Science Fiction community. SJG's main product, the Generic
Universal Role-Playing System or G.U.R.P.S., features licensed
and adapted works from many genre writers. There is GURPS Witch
World, GURPS Conan, GURPS Riverworld, GURPS Horseclans, many
names eminently familiar to SF fans. (GURPS Difference Engine
is currently in the works.) GURPS Cyberpunk, however, was to
be another story entirely.
PLAYER FIVE: The Science Fiction Writers.
The "cyberpunk" SF writers are a small group of mostly
college-educated white litterateurs, without conspicuous
criminal records, scattered through the US and Canada. Only
one, Rudy Rucker, a professor of computer science in Silicon
Valley, would rank with even the humblest computer hacker.
However, these writers all own computers and take an intense,
public, and somewhat morbid interest in the social ramifications
of the information industry. Despite their small numbers, they
all know one another, and are linked by antique print-medium
publications with unlikely names like SCIENCE FICTION EYE, ISAAC
ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, OMNI and INTERZONE.
PLAYER SIX: The Civil Libertarians.
This small but rapidly growing group consists of heavily
politicized computer enthusiasts and heavily cyberneticized
political activists: a mix of wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs,
veteran West Coast troublemaking hippies, touchy journalists,
and toney East Coast civil rights lawyers. They are all getting
to know one another.
We now return to our story. By 1988, law enforcement
officials, led by contrite teenage informants, had thoroughly
permeated the world of underground bulletin boards, and were
alertly prowling the nets compiling dossiers on wrongdoers.
While most bulletin board systems are utterly harmless, some few
had matured into alarming reservoirs of forbidden knowledge.
One such was BLACK ICE -- PRIVATE, located "somewhere in the 607
area code," frequented by members of the "Legion of Doom" and
notorious even among hackers for the violence of its rhetoric,
which discussed sabotage of phone-lines, drug-manufacturing
techniques, and the assembly of home-made bombs, as well as a
plethora of rules-of-thumb for penetrating computer security.
Of course, the mere discussion of these notions is not illegal
-- many cyberpunk SF stories positively dote on such ideas, as
do hundreds of spy epics, techno-thrillers and adventure novels.
It was no coincidence that "ICE," or "Intrusion Countermeasures
Electronics," was a term invented by cyberpunk writer Tom
Maddox, and "BLACK ICE," or a computer-defense that fries the
brain of the unwary trespasser, was a coinage of William Gibson.
A reference manual from the US National Institute of Justice,
"Dedicated Computer Crime Units" by J. Thomas McEwen, suggests
that federal attitudes toward bulletin-board systems are
ambivalent at best:
"There are several examples of how bulletin boards have been
used in support of criminal activities.... (B)ulletin boards
were used to relay illegally obtained access codes into computer
service companies. Pedophiles have been known to leave
suggestive messages on bulletin boards, and other sexually
oriented messages have been found on bulletin boards. Members
of cults and sects have also communicated through bulletin
boards. While the storing of information on bulletin boards may
not be illegal, the use of bulletin boards has certainly
advanced many illegal activities."
Here is a troubling concept indeed: invisible electronic
pornography, to be printed out at home and read by sects and
cults. It makes a mockery of the traditional law-enforcement
techniques concerning the publication and prosecution of smut.
In fact, the prospect of large numbers of antisocial
conspirators, congregating in the limbo of cyberspace without
official oversight of any kind, is enough to trouble the sleep
of anyone charged with maintaining public order.
Even the sternest free-speech advocate will likely do some
headscratching at the prospect of digitized "anarchy files"
teaching lock-picking, pipe-bombing, martial arts techniques,
and highly unorthodox uses for shotgun shells, especially when
these neat-o temptations are distributed freely to any teen (or
pre-teen) with a modem.
These may be largely conjectural problems at present, but the
use of bulletin boards to foment hacker mischief is real. Worse
yet, the bulletin boards themselves are linked, sharing their
audience and spreading the wicked knowledge of security flaws in
the phone network, and in a wide variety of academic, corporate
and governmental computer systems.
This strength of the hackers is also a weakness, however. If
the boards are monitored by alert informants and/or officers,
the whole wicked tangle can be seized all along its extended
electronic vine, rather like harvesting pumpkins.
The war against hackers, including the "Cyberpunk Bust," was
primarily a war against hacker bulletin boards. It was, first
and foremost, an attack against the enemy's means of
This basic strategic insight supplied the tactics for the
crackdown of 1990. The variant groups in the national
subculture of cyber-law would be kept apprised, persuaded to
action, and diplomatically martialled into effective strike
position. Then, in a burst of energy and a glorious blaze of
publicity, the whole nest of scofflaws would be wrenched up root
and branch. Hopefully, the damage would be permanent; if not,
the swarming wretches would at least keep their heads down.
"Operation Sundevil," the Phoenix-inspired crackdown of May
8,1990, concentrated on telephone code-fraud and credit-card
abuse, and followed this seizure plan with some success. Boards
went down all over America, terrifying the underground and
swiftly depriving them of at least some of their criminal
instruments. It also saddled analysts with some 24,000 floppy
disks, and confronted harried Justice Department prosecutors
with the daunting challenge of a gigantic nationwide hacker
show-trial involving highly technical issues in dozens of
jurisdictions. As of July 1991, it must be questioned whether
the climate is right for an action of this sort, especially
since several of the most promising prosecutees have already
been jailed on other charges.
"Sundevil" aroused many dicey legal and constitutional
questions, but at least its organizers were spared the spectacle
of seizure victims loudly proclaiming their innocence -- (if one
excepts Bruce Esquibel, sysop of "Dr. Ripco," an anarchist board
The activities of March 1, 1990, however, including the Jackson
case, were the inspiration of the Chicago-based Computer Fraud
and Abuse Task Force. At telco urging, the Chicago group were
pursuing the purportedly vital "E911 document" with headlong
energy. As legal evidence, this proprietary Bell South
document was to prove a very weak reed in the Craig Neidorf
trial, which ended in a humiliating dismissal and a triumph for
Neidorf. As of March 1990, however, this purloined data-file
seemed a red-hot chunk of contraband, and the decision was made
to track it down wherever it might have gone, and to shut down
any board that had touched it -- or even come close to it.
In the meantime, however -- early 1990 -- Mr. Loyd Blankenship,
an employee of Steve Jackson Games, an accomplished hacker, and
a sometime member and file-writer for the Legion of Doom, was
contemplating a "cyberpunk" simulation-module for the
flourishing GURPS gaming-system.
The time seemed ripe for such a product, which had already been
proven in the marketplace. The first games-company out of the
gate, with a product boldly called "Cyberpunk" in defiance of
possible infringement-of-copyright suits, had been an upstart
group called R. Talsorian. Talsorian's "Cyberpunk" was a fairly
decent game, but the mechanics of the simulation system sucked,
and the nerds who wrote the manual were the kimd of half-hip
twits who wrote their own fake rock lyrics and, worse yet,
published them. The game sold like crazy, though.
The next "cyberpunk" game had been the even more successful
"Shadowrun" by FASA Corporation. The mechanics of this game
were fine, but the scenario was rendered moronic by lame
fantasy elements like orcs, dwarves, trolls, magicians, and
dragons -- all highly ideologically-incorrect, according to the
hard-edged, high-tech standards of cyberpunk science fiction.
No true cyberpunk fan could play this game without vomiting,
despite FASA's nifty T-shirts and street-samurai lead figurines.
Lured by the scent of money, other game companies were champing
at the bit. Blankenship reasoned that the time had come for a
real "Cyberpunk" gaming-book -- one that the princes of
computer-mischief in the Legion of Doom could play without
laughing themselves sick. This book, GURPS Cyberpunk, would
reek of culturally on-line authenticity.
Hot discussion soon raged on the Steve Jackson Games electronic
bulletin board, the "Illuminati BBS." This board was named
after a bestselling SJG card-game, involving antisocial sects
and cults who war covertly for the domination of the world.
Gamers and hackers alike loved this board, with its meticulously
detailed discussions of pastimes like SJG's "Car Wars," in which
souped-up armored hot-rods with rocket-launchers and heavy
machine-guns do battle on the American highways of the future.
While working, with considerable creative success, for SJG,
Blankenship himself was running his own computer bulletin board,
"The Phoenix Project," from his house. It had been ages --
months, anyway -- since Blankenship, an increasingly sedate
husband and author, had last entered a public phone-booth
without a supply of pocket-change. However, his intellectual
interest in computer-security remained intense. He was pleased
to notice the presence on "Phoenix" of Henry Kluepfel, a
phone-company security professional for Bellcore. Such
contacts were risky for telco employees; at least one such
gentleman who reached out to the hacker underground had been
accused of divided loyalties and summarily fired. Kluepfel, on
the other hand, was bravely engaging in friendly banter with
heavy-dude hackers and eager telephone-wannabes. Blankenship
did nothing to spook him away, and Kluepfel, for his part,
passed dark warnings about "Phoenix Project" to the Chicago
group. "Phoenix Project" glowed with the radioactive presence
of the E911 document, passed there in a copy of Craig Neidorf's
electronic hacker fan-magazine, Phrack.
"Illuminati" was prominently mentioned on the Phoenix Project.
Phoenix users were urged to visit Illuminati, to discuss the
upcoming "cyberpunk" game and possibly lend their expertise.
It was also frankly hoped that they would spend some money on
Illuminati and Phoenix had become two ripe pumpkins on the
Hacker busts were nothing new. They had always been somewhat
problematic for the authorities. The offenders were generally
high-IQ white juveniles with no criminal record. Public
sympathy for the phone companies was limited at best. Trials
often ended in puzzled dismissals or a slap on the wrist. But
the harassment suffered by "the business community" -- always
the best friend of law enforcement -- was real, and highly
annoying both financially and in its sheer irritation to the
Through long experience, law enforcement had come up with an
unorthodox but workable tactic. This was to avoid any trial at
all, or even an arrest. Instead, somber teams of grim police
would swoop upon the teenage suspect's home and box up his
computer as "evidence." If he was a good boy, and promised
contritely to stay out of trouble forthwith, the highly
expensive equipment might be returned to him in short order. If
he was a hard-case, though, too bad. His toys could stay
boxed-up and locked away for a couple of years.
The busts in Austin were an intensification of this
tried-and-true technique. There were adults involved in this
case, though, reeking of a hardened bad-attitude. The supposed
threat to the 911 system, apparently posed by the E911 document,
had nerved law enforcement to extraordinary effort. The 911
system is, of course, the emergency dialling system used by the
police themselves. Any threat to it was a direct and insolent
hacker menace to the electronic home-turf of American law
Had Steve Jackson been arrested and directly accused of a plot
to destroy the 911 system, the resultant embarrassment would
likely have been sharp, but brief. The Chicago group, instead,
chose total operational security. They may have suspected that
their search for E911, once publicized, would cause that
"dangerous" document to spread like wildfire throughout the
underground. Instead, they allowed the misapprehension to
spread that they had raided Steve Jackson to stop the
publication of a book: GURPS Cyberpunk. This was a grave
public-relations blunder which caused the darkest fears and
suspicions to spread -- not in the hacker underground, but
among the general public.
On March 1, 1990, 21-year-old hacker Chris Goggans (aka "Erik
Bloodaxe") was wakened by a police revolver levelled at his
head. He watched, jittery, as Secret Service agents
appropriated his 300 baud terminal and, rifling his files,
discovered his treasured source-code for the notorious Internet
Worm. Goggans, a co-sysop of "Phoenix Project" and a wily
operator, had suspected that something of the like might be
coming. All his best equipment had been hidden away elsewhere.
They took his phone, though, and considered hauling away his
hefty arcade-style Pac-Man game, before deciding that it was
simply too heavy. Goggans was not arrested. To date, he has
never been charged with a crime. The police still have what
they took, though.
Blankenship was less wary. He had shut down "Phoenix" as rumors
reached him of a crackdown coming. Still, a dawn raid rousted
him and his wife from bed in their underwear, and six Secret
Service agents, accompanied by a bemused Austin cop and a
corporate security agent from Bellcore, made a rich haul. Off
went the works, into the agents' white Chevrolet minivan: an
IBM PC-AT clone with 4 meg of RAM and a 120-meg hard disk; a
Hewlett-Packard LaserJet II printer; a completely legitimate and
highly expensive SCO-Xenix 286 operating system; Pagemaker disks
and documentation; the Microsoft Word word-processing program;
Mrs. Blankenship's incomplete academic thesis stored on disk;
and the couple's telephone. All this property remains in police
The agents then bundled Blankenship into a car and it was off
the Steve Jackson Games in the bleak light of dawn. The fact
that this was a business headquarters, and not a private
residence, did not deter the agents. It was still early; no one
was at work yet. The agents prepared to break down the door,
until Blankenship offered his key.
The exact details of the next events are unclear. The agents
would not let anyone else into the building. Their search
warrant, when produced, was unsigned. Apparently they
breakfasted from the local "Whataburger," as the litter from
hamburgers was later found inside. They also extensively
sampled a bag of jellybeans kept by an SJG employee. Someone
tore a "Dukakis for President" sticker from the wall.
SJG employees, diligently showing up for the day's work, were
met at the door. They watched in astonishment as agents
wielding crowbars and screwdrivers emerged with captive
machines. The agents wore blue nylon windbreakers with "SECRET
SERVICE" stencilled across the back, with running-shoes and
jeans. Confiscating computers can be heavy physical work.
No one at Steve Jackson Games was arrested. No one was accused
of any crime. There were no charges filed. Everything
appropriated was officially kept as "evidence" of crimes never
specified. Steve Jackson will not face a conspiracy trial over
the contents of his science-fiction gaming book. On the
contrary, the raid's organizers have been accused of grave
misdeeds in a civil suit filed by EFF, and if there is any trial
over GURPS Cyberpunk it seems likely to be theirs.
The day after the raid, Steve Jackson visited the local Secret
Service headquarters with a lawyer in tow. There was trouble
over GURPS Cyberpunk, which had been discovered on the
hard-disk of a seized machine. GURPS Cyberpunk, alleged a
Secret Service agent to astonished businessman Steve Jackson,
was "a manual for computer crime."
"It's science fiction," Jackson said.
"No, this is real." This statement was repeated several times,
by several agents. This is not a fantasy, no, this is real.
Jackson's ominously accurate game had passed from pure, obscure,
small-scale fantasy into the impure, highly publicized,
large-scale fantasy of the hacker crackdown. No mention was
made of the real reason for the search, the E911 document.
Indeed, this fact was not discovered until the Jackson
search-warrant was unsealed by his EFF lawyers, months later.
Jackson was left to believe that his board had been seized
because he intended to publish a science fiction book that law
enforcement considered too dangerous to see print. This
misconception was repeated again and again, for months, to an
ever-widening audience. The effect of this statement on the
science fiction community was, to say the least, striking.
GURPS Cyberpunk, now published and available from Steve Jackson
Games (Box 18957, Austin, Texas 78760), does discuss some of the
commonplaces of computer-hacking, such as searching through
trash for useful clues, or snitching passwords by boldly lying
to gullible users. Reading it won't make you a hacker, any
more than reading Spycatcher will make you an agent of MI5.
Still, this bold insistence by the Secret Service on its
authenticity has made GURPS Cyberpunk the Satanic Verses of
simulation gaming, and has made Steve Jackson the first
martyr-to-the-cause for the computer world's civil libertarians.
From the beginning, Steve Jackson declared that he had committed
no crime, and had nothing to hide. Few believed him, for it
seemed incredible that such a tremendous effort by the
government would be spent on someone entirely innocent.
Surely there were a few stolen long-distance codes in
"Illuminati," a swiped credit-card number or two -- something.
Those who rallied to the defense of Jackson were publicly warned
that they would be caught with egg on their face when the real
truth came out, "later." But "later" came and went. The fact
is that Jackson was innocent of any crime. There was no case
against him; his activities were entirely legal. He had simply
been consorting with the wrong sort of people.
In fact he was the wrong sort of people. His attitude stank.
He showed no contrition; he scoffed at authority; he gave aid
and comfort to the enemy; he was trouble. Steve Jackson comes
from subcultures -- gaming, science fiction -- that have always
smelled to high heaven of troubling weirdness and deep-dyed
unorthodoxy. He was important enough to attract repression,
but not important enough, apparently, to deserve a straight
answer from those who had raided his property and destroyed his
The American law-enforcement community lacks the manpower and
resources to prosecute hackers successfully, one by one, on the
merits of the cases against them. The cyber-police to date
have settled instead for a cheap "hack" of the legal system: a
quasi-legal tactic of seizure and "deterrence." Humiliate and
harass a few ringleaders, the philosophy goes, and the rest will
fall into line. After all, most hackers are just kids. The few
grown-ups among them are sociopathic geeks, not real players in
the political and legal game. And in the final analysis, a
small company like Jackson's lacks the resources to make any
real trouble for the Secret Service.
But Jackson, with his conspiracy-soaked bulletin board and his
seedy SF-fan computer-freak employees, is not "just a kid." He
is a publisher, and he was battered by the police in the full
light of national publicity, under the shocked gaze of
journalists, gaming fans, libertarian activists and millionaire
computer entrepreneurs, many of whom were not "deterred," but
"What," reasons the author, "is to prevent the Secret Service
from carting off my word-processor as 'evidence' of some
"What would I do," thinks the small-press owner, "if someone
took my laser-printer?"
Even the computer magnate in his private jet remembers his
heroic days in Silicon Valley when he was soldering semi-legal
circuit boards in a small garage.
Hence the establishment of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The sherriff had shown up in Tombstone to clean up that outlaw
town, but the response of the citizens was swift and
Steve Jackson was provided with a high-powered lawyer
specializing in Constitutional freedom-of-the-press issues.
Faced with this, a markedly un-contrite Secret Service returned
Jackson's machinery, after months of delay -- some of it broken,
with valuable data lost. Jackson sustained many thousands of
dollars in business losses, from failure to meet deadlines and
loss of computer-assisted production.
Half the employees of Steve Jackson Games were sorrowfully
laid-off. Some had been with the company for years -- not
statistics, these people, not "hackers" of any stripe, but
bystanders, citizens, deprived of their livelihoods by the
zealousness of the March 1 seizure. Some have since been
re-hired -- perhaps all will be, if Jackson can pull his company
out of its persistent financial hole. Devastated by the raid,
the company would surely have collapsed in short order -- but
SJG's distributors, touched by the company's plight and feeling
some natural subcultural solidarity, advanced him money to
In retrospect, it is hard to see much good for anyone at all in
the activities of March 1. Perhaps the Jackson case has served
as a warning light for trouble in our legal system; but that's
not much recompense for Jackson himself. His own unsought fame
may be helpful, but it doesn't do much for his unemployed
co-workers. In the meantime, "hackers" have been vilified and
demonized as a national threat. "Cyberpunk," a literary term,
has become a synonym for computer criminal. The cyber-police
have leapt where angels fear to tread. And the phone companies
have badly overstated their case and deeply embarrassed their
But sixteen months later, Steve Jackson suspects he may yet pull
through. Illuminati is still on-line. GURPS Cyberpunk, while
it failed to match Satanic Verses, sold fairly briskly. And
SJG headquarters, the site of the raid, will soon be the site of
Cyberspace Weenie Roast to start an Austin chapter of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation. Bring your own beer.