Masters of Deception Book Review

12 Oct 2010

Masters of Deception

Michelle Slatalla, Masters of Deception: The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace (New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers, 1995). Pp. 225

The thirst for more knowledge and understanding is a human concept. For some, it is about exploring the stars and galaxies. For others, it might be to learn molecular biology. However, for three New York City teenagers in 1987, it was the telephone system. Their names were Mark, Eli, and Paul–or Phiber Optik, Acid Phreak, and Scorpion respectively. Michelle Slatalla, a New York Times reporter and author, details in her book, The Masters of Deception: The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace, the lives and pinnacle events of these individuals who formed the notorious hacking group MoD. The Masters of Deception were seemingly unstoppable. They used their modems to hack into the New York Telephone Company in their never-ending quest for a new ‘challenge’. Their intrusions steadily escalated over time, which inevitably led to run-ins with the law. Arrogance, ignorance, and youthful immaturity developed rivalries and enemies within the underground world of hacking. The implications of MoD’s escapades for the law, hacker ethics, and information policy were significant. The theme of ‘hacking for educational value only’ is prevalent throughout the book. The author’s message serves as a cautionary tail for those who find themselves in places they ought not to be. The following report summarizes the content of the book and provides analysis on the various information policy aspects that arise.</div>

The hackers in the 1980s communicated with each other through what is known as the Bulletin Board System, or BBS for short. It consisted of one person setting up the Bulletin Board from their home or an outside server that other people would ‘call-in’ to connect. A BBS is analogous to a modern day forum, where people chat and leave messages. Each hacking group had several Bulletin Boards, both open to the public as well as their own private system. Hackers would leave ‘philes’ on these BBSes. Philes are simply documentation or advice on how to hack various computers or phone systems. Other philes contain calling card numbers or stolen credit cards. The hacker underground lived in these Bulletin Boards. People would not use their real names, and instead used handles. An important aspect to note is that Bulletin Boards were often locally based. Since people accessed the Internet via the phone lines, it would be too costly to make out-of-date, long distance connections. However, it was not uncommon for individuals who were friends on a BBS and lived in close proximity to each other, to never know their real name–let alone meet face to face. The hackers soon learned how to make free long distance phone calls.
Mark Abene, also known as Phiber Optik, was a seventeen year old who grew up in Queens, NY. Mark had an innate capacity to understand computer programming, beginning at the the age of ten, and it was not long before he started cracking into games. Eventually, cracking games became too simple. Mark searched for a more inspiring challenge. As he became acquainted with some popular Bulletin Boards in the local area, Mark’s attention focused on the New York Telephone Company. Mark was especially interested in the philes regarding how to hack the telephone system. He spent countless hours absorbing how the phone system worked, and wrote extensive philes on terms, definitions, and methods of hacking. Soon, Phiber Optik became one of the most renowned ‘Phreakers’ (someone who hacks telephones) in the hacker underground.However, Mark still did not belong to any specific hacking group. In a world where laws were more regarded as guidelines, he saw the importance of aligning himself with the best hackers. He started posting philes for hacking the phone system on the BBS for “Legions of Doom”, one of the most popular hacking groups at the time. The LoD members were impressed with Phiber Optik’s knowledge about the telephone networks and quickly inducted him. Phiber Optik was known for having an arrogant reputation. He would repeatedly raid other BBSes and criticize their philes as being incorrect or outdated. He would ‘crush’ other hackers whom he determined as weak or posers, and who did not possess the knowledge that he had. Eventually things went south with LoD as Mark became embroiled in a feud with the leader of LoD, Chris, over the exchange of some access codes. LoD felt that Mark failed to live up to his end of the deal, and was subsequently voted out of LoD–unanimously. </p>

Mark, and his two friends Eli and Paul, set out to create their own hacking group–the Masters of Deception. The acronym, MoD, was a jab at LoD, since M is one letter up from L in the alphabet. The MoD ranks grew quickly. The three teenagers recruited hackers who each had their own specialty, but the phone system remained their primary objective. They accessed local switching nodes, which let them create their own phone numbers, add features to their subscriptions, change pay phones into free phones and home phones into pay phones. They became experts. The more they learned, the more cavalier they became. One hacker by the name of Zod became a target of MoD. Apparently, Phiber Optik disliked their BBS and their philes, which disseminated poor information. MoD found out that Zod’s phone subscription was accessible through one of the local switches they hacked into previously. They set up call-forwarding on Zod’s phone number. Whenever someone tried to call into Zod’s BBS, they were rerouted to Eli’s house. Eli answered the phone, pretending to be Zod, and asked for the caller’s username and password because ‘the BBS was down and he needed everyone’s credentials to reboot’. Zod found out, called his own house while visiting his grandmother in New Jersey. Eli answered the phone and Zod asked him who he was and why he was in his house. He had not known that they rerouted all the calls. Eli responded, “This is the FBI. You’ve been raided.”

MoD, however, was not invincible. The telephone company was aware that there were intruders in their networks and were closely monitoring their activities, logging every action, and every command a hacker would carry out. One of the men responsible for monitoring the hackers was named Tom Kaiser. Tom was in a very precarious position. He had to risk that the hackers would not make a mistake, and accidentally tear down the entire phone system for the northeast. He was resolved to gather as much evidence and data of their activities, hoping to find some clue as to who may be behind this surreptitious enterprise. Tom had no idea that the people cruising through his networks were teenagers. As far as he was concerned, they could be terrorists or an espionage operation. Tom contacts the FBI for their assistance, who were largely unresponsive, due to the fact that nothing was being damaged or destroyed. Tom was not deterred, in fact he became more relentless, working as much as sixteen hour days to track the intruders.

Phiber Optik’s hacker ethics was, “search, not destroy”. This motto was challenged when someone in MoD denied service to the Learning Link system, a PBS supported network that assisted teachers in exchanging materials. Now that a large system has been compromised, the FBI finally accorded more time and resources to find the hackers. Tom provided them with all evidence he has collected, and the FBI raided the homes of Mark, Eli, and Paul. They seized all their computers, disks, and other hardware that these three have collected over the years. Mark pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge, but Eli and Paul are never charged. Even though they were not charged, the FBI never returned their belongings. This spooked Paul, who halted his hacking activities. But for Mark and Eli, they were just getting started. The FBI raid brought them ‘street cred’. Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak were larger than life.

Fans of the Grateful Dead, also known as Deadheads, used the BBS system to distribute information, set-lists, and concert information about the Grateful Dead. John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, learned of the BBS system. He explored it for himself and subsequently became fascinated with the hacker underground. Barlow hosted a ‘gathering of minds’ on a BBS in San Francisco to discuss the ethics of hacking. Mark and Eli, joined the discussion, uninvited. Barlow and the MoD members fought furiously over what is morally justifiable for what hackers could do. Eli argued that if anyone leaves their system unsecured, they deserve to get hacked. Eli has adopted a ‘blame the victim’ perspective. Barlow, on the other hand, said that if someone leaves their door to their home open, that does not give someone the right to walk inside. Mark decided to post Barlow’s credit history, social security address, and private information on the Bulletin Board System. The National Enquirer reported on the story. The teenagers were famous, and now nationally known.

MoD’s exploits only became more nefarious. “Search, not destroy”, still held by Phiber Optik, was disregarded by the rest of the members. The MoD member, John Lee, had hacked into the Tymnet system which connected the networks of the NSA, Information America, various Bell Telephone switches, credit card companies, and countless other large scale companies. One member of LoD used a racial slur to describe John Lee, and a war ensued. Chris of LoD had retreated from his hacking activities and created a computer security firm. However, John Lee still held him accountable, and wrote programs to repeatedly call Chris 24 hours a day. This drove Chris to his breaking point and he called the Secret Service. John did not stop there. He was able to eavesdrop on Chris’s phone conversations and proceeded to harass Chris.

MoD’s downfall occurred in 1994 when John Lee sold access to Information America accounts for $700. Mark, Eli, John Lee, Julio, and even Paul (who had not been hacking for two years at this point), were arrested. They each plead guilty to a variety of crimes, including wire-tapping, fraud, and invasion of privacy, for leniency in exchange. Mark and John Lee each served one year prison terms, while the others served six months or probation.

The FBI and Secret Service competed over jurisdiction for the case. These types of crimes were quite new, and there was doubt and confusion as to whether the current laws would allow for prosecution. Each agency argued that they were the frontier for defending the nation against technological threats. The case cost millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to investigate. Acquiring phone taps were simple, but they also wanted a ‘data tap’ to monitor the data that went through each hacker’s connections. These were new concepts at the time–expanding a rapidly growing trend of computer related crimes. At the dawn of the World Wide Web, it was clear that the implications for information policy were extensive. Jurisdiction had to be established, rules, regulations, and laws needed to catch up to the new forms of communication. Something had to be done about seizing the property and computers without charging the individual. New processes had to be implemented to protect the civil rights of the citizens.

The general public also became more aware of computers’ vulnerabilities. People realized that their private information could be stolen relatively easily, and began to institute new policies to protect their data. Companies banned the use of simple passwords, or required passwords to be changed every 60 days. The public was more alarmed than ever about their security and privacy. John Barlow’s fear is adequately represented here as stated by the author, “I’ve been in redneck bars wearing shoulder-length curls, police custody while on acid, and Harlem after midnight, but no one has ever put the spook in me quite as Phiber Optik did…” (Slatalla, 103).

As the World Wide Web erupted, the Bulletin Board System was no longer needed. With a brand new concept, comes new and exciting challenges for hackers. As the Internet grew, so did the laws that attempted to regulate it. There is a constant battle between hackers and the law. We are living in the Information Age and hackers like MoD and LoD still exist, just in different forms. As a society, we must continue to evolve, improve, and perfect how we approach computer crimes and the policies designed to protect us.