Technology & Health

Group to Defend Civil Rights of Hackers Founded by Computer Industry Pioneer

By G. Pascal Zachary
The Wall Street Journal

July 11, 1990

A computer pioneer has formed a group to defend the civil rights of hackers, computer users who are at the center of a controversy over how best to crack down on electronic crime.

Mitchell Kapor, creator of the single most popular program for PCs, 1-2-3, and founder of Lotus Development Corp., yesterday unveiled the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is being underwritten by Mr. Kapor and Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer Inc. The group will assist in the legal defense of hackers accused of crimes and will research legal issues involving computer communications.

Mr. Kapor began his campaign on behalf of hackers in late May, but with the exception of Mr. Wozniak, who no longer has an active role in the industry, he has been unable to gain broad support in the computer world. So far, many of the industry's biggest names have decided against wading into the controversy, including wealthy ex-hacker William Gates, now chairman of Microsoft Corp. He considers the legal issues too murky.

Mr. Kapor's defense of hackers -- who use their knowledge of the intricacies of computer networks to enter, or "hack," forbidden databases -- comes in the wake of a series of investigations into computer crime this year by the Secret Service, which enforces federal laws in this area. The biggest investigation, dubbed Operation Sun Devil, led to a May 8 raid that resulted in five arrests and the seizure of 40 computers and 23,000 data-storage disks in 14 cities.

Mr. Kapor contends that the government's crackdown threatens the rights of computer users and may stifle creativity, saying that some teen hackers are going to become "the technological innovators of tomorrow." Some prosecutors disagree. Mr. Kapor's attitude is that "there's something holy and sacred about computers that exempts those who use them from ordinary rules," said Gail Thackeray, an attorney with the state of Arizona.

Far from oppressing the inquisitive, the Secret Service says it is simply cracking down on people who exploit loopholes in computer security to steal credit card numbers and charge thousands of dollars of goods and telephone services. "These people are not the Lewis and Clarks of the 21st century," said Dale Boll, who runs the Secret Service's fraud division.

Mr. Boll said that, among other things, the Secret Service uncovered a plot to disrupt emergency telephone service in nine states through the introduction of a virus, or disruptive software program, into the computer system of BellSouth Corp.

On Monday, three men -- said to be members of the Legion of Doom, a loose association of about two dozen hackers from around the country -- pleaded guilty in Atlanta to stealing software and access codes from BellSouth. Ironically, the men gained entry into BellSouth's sophisticated computer network using an old-fashioned method: they found a telephone number for a central computer in a company trash bin.

Despite the guilty pleas, the government is coming under fire for failing to bring its cases to court more quickly. Mr. Boll says it will be months before the government even seeks indictments stemming from its May raids because the Secret Service still must sift through huge amounts of electronic evidence.

The delays frustrate people caught up in the May 8 raids, some of whom vigorously protest their innocence. Steve Jackson, who runs a games company in Austin, Texas, saw Secret Service agents seize several personal computers and business information on May 8, including the manuscript for a fantasy game called "cyberpunk," in which hackers wield power through computers. It was six weeks before Mr. Jackson got his equipment back, but by then the disruption had forced him to lay off eight of his 17 employees, he said.

Mr. Jackson said he has never received an adequate explanation of why his company was searched. The Secret Service said the company was targeted because one of Mr. Jackson's employees was being investigated.

Also troubling to Mr. Kapor is the closure of a computerized bulletin board run by a University of Missouri student, who was indicted in February on several counts of interstate wire fraud and transportation of stolen property.

Mr. Kapor contends the closure of the bulletin board amounts to a restraint on free speech, but the government asserts that the student knowingly distributed stolen information using the bulletin board.


John R. Wilke in Boston contributed to this article.

Copyright (c) 1990, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.