The Hacker Crackdown - Introduction
Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling

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This is a book about cops, and wild teenage whiz-kids, and lawyers, and hairy-eyed anarchists, and industrial technicians, and hippies, and high-tech millionaires, and game hobbyists, and computer security experts, and Secret Service agents, and grifters, and thieves. This book is about the electronic frontier of the 1990s. It concerns activities that take place inside computers and over telephone lines.

A science fiction writer coined the useful term "cyberspace" in 1982. But the territory in question, the electronic frontier, is about a hundred and thirty years old. Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. The indefinite place out there, where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.

Although it is not exactly "real," "cyberspace" is a genuine place. Things happen there that have very genuine consequences. This "place" is not "real," but it is serious, it is earnest. Tens of thousands of people have dedicated their lives to it, to the public service of public communication by wire and electronics.

People have worked on this "frontier" for generations now. Some people became rich and famous from their efforts there. Some just played in it, as hobbyists. Others soberly pondered it, and wrote about it, and regulated it, and negotiated over it in international forums, and sued one another about it, in gigantic, epic court battles that lasted for years. And almost since the beginning, some people have committed crimes in this place.

But in the past twenty years, this electrical "space," which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional - little more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone - has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-in-the-box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.

Because people live in it now. Not just a few people, not just a few technicians and eccentrics, but thousands of people, quite normal people. And not just for a little while, either, but for hours straight, over weeks, and months, and years. Cyberspace today is a "Net," a "Matrix," international in scope and growing swiftly and steadily. It's growing in size, and wealth, and political importance.

People are making entire careers in modern cyberspace. Scientists and technicians, of course; they've been there for twenty years now. But increasingly, cyberspace is filling with journalists and doctors and lawyers and artists and clerks. Civil servants make their careers there now, "on-line" in vast government databanks; and so do spies, industrial, political, and just plain snoops; and so do police, at least a few of them. And there are children living there now.

People have met there and been married there. There are entire living communities in cyberspace today; chattering, gossipping, planning, conferring and scheming, leaving one another voice-mail and electronic mail, giving one another big weightless chunks of valuable data, both legitimate and illegitimate. They busily pass one another computer software and the occasional festering computer virus.

We do not really understand how to live in cyberspace yet. We are feeling our way into it, blundering about. That is not surprising. Our lives in the physical world, the "real" world, are also far from perfect, despite a lot more practice. Human lives, real lives, are imperfect by their nature, and there are human beings in cyberspace. The way we live in cyberspace is a funhouse mirror of the way we live in the real world. We take both our advantages and our troubles with us.

This book is about trouble in cyberspace. Specifically, this book is about certain strange events in the year 1990, an unprecedented and startling year for the the growing world of computerized communications.

In 1990 there came a nationwide crackdown on illicit computer hackers, with arrests, criminal charges, one dramatic show-trial, several guilty pleas, and huge confiscations of data and equipment all over the USA.

The Hacker Crackdown of 1990 was larger, better organized, more deliberate, and more resolute than any previous effort in the brave new world of computer crime. The U.S. Secret Service, private telephone security, and state and local law enforcement groups across the country all joined forces in a determined attempt to break the back of America's electronic underground. It was a fascinating effort, with very mixed results.

The Hacker Crackdown had another unprecedented effect; it spurred the creation, within "the computer community," of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a new and very odd interest group, fiercely dedicated to the establishment and preservation of electronic civil liberties. The crackdown, remarkable in itself, has created a melee of debate over electronic crime, punishment, freedom of the press, and issues of search and seizure. Politics has entered cyberspace. Where people go, politics follow. This is the story of the people of cyberspace.

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