PRINT October 1996


Laptop Cops

IN FEBRUARY 1996, hot on the heels of ill-conceived Hollywood artifacts The Net and Hackers, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick delivers a rambling, paranoid speech on the specter of computer hackers and “info warfare” to a closed session of the National Security in the Information Age conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Menacing her audience with an extended rap sheet of malicious hacking incidents (as well as bizarre digressions on alienation and loneliness in the Computer Age), Gorelick calls for “the equivalent of the Manhattan Project” to combat the mounting cyberthreat. On June 5, Richard Power of the Computer Security Institute testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, further reinforcing this climate of creeping fear (“There is a serious problem”) with statistics from the 1996 CSI/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey; using curious lingo, e.g., “data diddling (15.5% of attacks),” and “brute force password guessing (13.9% of attacks),” Power eventually extends the threat to private-sector security (“many organizations are unprepared”).

In September, the National Computer Security Association’s Fifth International Information Warfare Conference unites public- and private-sector paranoia under the Eisenhower-prophesied heading “The Convergence of the Commercial and the Military Sectors: Vulnerabilities, Capabilities, and Solutions.” Cosponsored in part by IBM and the ominous-sounding Norman Data Defense, the NCSA conference boasts alarmist overview literature that reads like a poster for a ’70s disaster film: “The power grid is the basis of most of modern society. . . . 95% of all ‘wealth’ is digital—what happens when it vaporizes? What happens to the thousands of airplanes in the air when air traffic control across an entire country goes down? No heat, no air conditioning, no food distribution, no light, no radio or TV, no Internet. Are we prepared?” The conference-session abstracts also foment unease in an exploitative manner worthy of erstwhile film reviewer Joe Bob Briggs: “One scary session! Forget about HERF guns and hackers, Mr. Eward will tell us how to wreak disaster with a few well-placed pick-axes,” promises one such description. “A team of cross-industry experts from the primary infrastructures will examine how industry and government can and should interact in the event of an Electronic Pearl Harbor,” threatens another. “How does anonymous international banking work? Is it merely a front for Criminal Central?” asks a third.

A new Manhattan Project? Electronic Pearl Harbor? Criminal Central? Things must be getting pretty slow at the Department of Applied Scapegoating. At a cultural moment when the Republican National Convention is designed as an extended infomercial, it’s no surprise that claims are manufactured and exaggerated in order to sell a dangerously intrusive bill of goods to an unsuspecting public, yet such “2-minute Hate” tactics have not been seen in this country since the hottest days of the cold war. With a new generation of Russians selling us Pepsi from space (no kidding) instead of threatening to bury us under a Red blanket, the old Evil Empire ain’t what it used to be. Enter the modern-day alchemist, the shadowy figure who makes us feel even stupider than we usually do, the diabolical master of an arcane discipline we barely understand: the malevolent computer hacker. Hacker demographics (mostly white, middle-class youth) makes him a perfect candidate for mass-media cross-burning without all the messy racism and classism usually associated with such campaigns. Granted, high-profile hackers have knowingly, even gleefully, fanned the flames of hysteria by adopting monikers such as the Legion of Doom, the Masters of Deception, the NuPrometheus League, Acid Phreak, and—perhaps most telling of all—Emmanuel Goldstein (editor of hacker quarterly 2600, who has cultivated a willfully ironic, yet strangely earnest persecution complex); but as stupid is as stupid does, their snotty, adolescent bravado has been mistaken for designs on world domination.

The first wave of hacker crackdowns began in 1990—an eternity on the cyber-event horizon—when the Secret Service began the above-ground phase of Operation Sun Devil, a two-year investigation into malicious hackers, who according to the SS’s misunderstood “evidence” had diddled with AT&T, Bell South, and the New York City 911 system. The ineptitude and ignorance displayed by the SS agents, the FBI, and the media during this operation has been well documented in Bruce Sterling’s 1992 Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, and many of the charges resulting from the series of arrests were dropped. Since that embarrassing debacle, little has been heard from the Feds on the so-called hacker menace, until now. Gorelick’s “Manhattan Project” speech, a thinly veiled call for an aggressive Internet surveillance policy, including expanded wiretap provisions and the criminalization of encryption schemes not sanctioned by the government, was a harbinger of things to come. In May, the General Accounting Office published the clumsily titled report “Information Security: Computer Attacks at Department of Defense Pose Increasing Risks,” which suggested that if the Pentagon’s computer system wasn’t safe from hackers, none are. GAO point man Jack Brock, obviously a fan of the early hacker film War Games, warned Congress that “terrorists and other adversaries now have the ability to launch untraceable attacks from anywhere in the world. They could infect critical systems with sophisticated computer viruses, potentially causing them to malfunction.” “Every node is a potential spy,” added GAO technical assistance director Keith Rhodes. The DOD has not taken such breaches of security lying down. In order to find the chinks in the Pentagon firewall, their Defense Information Systems Agency performs tellingly named “Red Teaming” attacks on the department’s computers using sophisticated hacker methods.

Since 1995, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center has been training so-called cybercops for upcoming battles with data plunderers. Conjuring real-life counterparts to the computer-augmented law-enforcement heroes of RoboCop and Virtuosity, FLETC director Charles Rinkevich predicted, “The day is coming very fast when every cop will be issued a badge, a gun, and a laptop.” In an effort to regain some of its lost relevance since the demise of the cold war, the CIA also seems to be getting into the act. In late June, director John Deutch announced the creation of a “cyberwar” division, with the high-concept blockbuster tag line “The electron is the ultimate precision-guided weapon.” Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Deutch warned that by the early part of the next century, “cyberwar” would be added to the existing triple threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Apparently a master of understatement, Deutch added, “I’m certainly prepared to predict some very, very large and uncomfortable incidents.”

Clearly abetted by the testimony of Deutch, Brock, and others, some “uncomfortable incidents” involving our civil liberties are currently being planned on the floor of Congress. In the wake of the TWA crash and the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the Clinton administration is pushing a massive expansion of FBI wiretap authority through both Houses without requisite public hearings. These provisions would include emergency authority under which the calls of a “suspected terrorist” could be tapped for 48 hours without a court order, and with roving multipoint wiretaps (over any line a suspect might use) instead of over a single telephone. This hastily drawn-up policy, besides being a blatant attempt to curry favor with voters who suspect Clinton may be “soft” on crime, looks like the opening salvo of an upcoming war on electronic civil liberties. In addition to the expanded wiretapping provisions, near-future proposals have included the criminalization of unbreakable encryption, the reintroduction of the infamous Clipper Chip (a government-sanctioned, NSA-sponsored encryption scheme that would contain a back door for law-enforcement decoding), publicly unaccountable funding for Digital Telephony (which would give the FBI authority over the design of telecom networks to ensure effective surveillance capabilities), and even a constitutional amendment to criminalize “bomb-making” information on the Internet (information that is both legal and available on the printed page).

For all its tepid attempts at suspense and its risible depiction of information technology, the 1995 film The Net may yet turn out to be more prophetic than any self-respecting filmgoer and online aficionado would like to admit. The film’s central conceit—a Bill Gates–coded software tycoon engineers a series of high-profile superhacks to foment hysteria over the threat of information terrorists, then exploits this fear to sell his Gatekeeper security software to banks, multinational corporations, and the government, allowing him unlimited back-door access to the system—resonates with the current “convergence of the commercial and the military sectors” in the war against data diddling. In a twist on the classic bait-and-switch—a Red bait-and-switch, if you will—that metaphorical authority known somewhat quaintly as “The Man” morphs into The Back Door Man. Why risk the messy PR quagmire of police raids and beat-downs when you can keep tabs on your “suspects” electronically, without so much as a court order? As for the “suspects,” remember, “Every node is a potential spy.”

Andrew Hultkrans is a frequent contributor to Artforum.