Last Updated on July 4, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
I’ve written in the past about the Feds busting people using BBSs for nefarious purposes in the early 1990s. But the only stories I’ve ever heard were from the perspective of the people who got busted, often second or third hand.
Here’s a story from the side of someone who helped the Secret Service for three days in the 1980s.
The short version of the story: the Secret Service was busting the owner of a BBS who was using his board to collect and distribute credit card numbers and Sprint long-distance codes.
This particular bulletin board ran on an Atari 800 computer. An Atari 800 certainly would be up to the task, but Apple and Commodore computers were more common.
Jack Tramiel, the then-owner of Atari, had collected a favor from the Secret Service a few years earlier. Faced with an unfamiliar computer, the Feds called in the favor. So Tramiel loaned him one of his engineers: the author of the blog entry I linked.
It’s interesting to me that he said he wouldn’t help them again. He believed the Feds had a strong enough case without his help, and seizing computers didn’t really accomplish much.
Having spoken at length with people who got caught up in this kind of behavior, it got me thinking. I suspect the Feds took the computers not so much to collect evidence, but to keep the computers from being used for that purpose for a time at least, and to try to scare people away from that behavior.
The question is, did it work?
I can’t speak for anyone else in any other time or place, but in the 314 area code in the early 1990s, the intimidation tactics didn’t really seem to work all that well. People talked about it in hushed tones, but it wasn’t much of a deterrent. It seems to me that everyone thought they could get away with it, that they knew something the other guys didn’t. Or they thought they learned something afterward that they didn’t know before.
So they’d get out of juvenile detention or a behavioral hospital (in all the cases I’m personally aware of, the perpetrators were minors), and they might or might not keep out of trouble for a while, but the allure was strong, and in most cases they got back into the same things again.
This raises a personal question too. I knew what these folks were up to, at least to some extent. So why did I talk to them?
Curiosity, really. Growing up in the ’80s, I’d seen the Hollywood portrayal of hackers, and the news portrayal of hackers (which wasn’t very different). This was the closest thing to a real hacker I’d seen, and I wanted to know what the real story was like.
The reality wasn’t as glamorous as the media made it out to be. By and large these were bored teenagers who tried to use their computers to fill that emptiness in their lives. Some of them had some genuine talent, and are now using those skills to make a decent living. Some had very little talent but were willing to pull an all-nighter chipping away at whatever stood in the way of what they wanted.
And for the record, I never stole long-distance time or credit card numbers. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and this was clearly wrong. But besides that, pulling all-nighters would have killed my grade point average. I wanted to go to college, and I knew I would need my grades.
I guess to some people, this illegal activity was a way for them to get things they could never afford on their own. I figured I could go to college, get a good job, then buy whatever it was I wanted or needed.
I guess it’s ironic that I’m typing this on a computer I built, as best I can tell, in 2003 from parts that weren’t exactly new then. Oh well. My priorities have changed.
But the main thing that fascinated me about this account from the other side is that it confirms much of those decades-old rumors are true. Except now I know it was the Secret Service beating on the door, not the FBI.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.