Kevin: The Dark-Side Hacker
The Roscoe Gang
It was partnership, if not exactly friendship, that kept the group together. Each member possessed a special strength considered essential for what needed to be done. Roscoe was the best computer programmer and a natural leader. Susan Thunder prided herself on her knowledge of military computers and a remarkable ability to manipulate people, especially men. Steven Rhoades was especially good with telephone equipment. And aside from his sheer persistence, Kevin Mitnick had an extraordinary talent for talking his way into anything. For a while, during its early days in 1980, the group was untouchable.
Susan was infatuated with Roscoe, but she never cared much for his constant companion, Kevin Mitnick. For his part, Kevin barely gave Susan the time of day. They learned to tolerate one another because of Roscoe. But for all their mutual hostility, Susan and Kevin shared a fascination with telephones and the telephone network; it was a fascination that came to dominate their lives. Susan, Kevin, Roscoe and Steven were "phone phreaks." By their own definition, phreaks were telephone hobbyists more expert at understanding the workings of the Bell System than most Bell employees.
The illegality of exploring the nooks and crannies of the phone system added a sense of adventure to phreaking. But the mechanical components of telephone networks were rapidly being replaced by computers that switched calls electronically, opening a new and far more captivating world for the telephone underground. By 1980, the members of this high-tech Los Angeles gang weren't just phone phreaks who talked to each other on party lines and made free telephone calls. Kevin and Roscoe, in particular, were taking phone phreaking into the growing realm of computers. By the time they had learned how to manipulate the very computers that controlled the phone system, they were calling themselves computer hackers.
Kevin was the only one of the original group to go even deeper, to take an adolescent diversion to the point of obsession. Susan, Roscoe and Steve liked the control and the thrill, and they enjoyed seeing their pranks replayed for them in the newspapers. But almost a decade later it would be Kevin, the one who hid from publicity, who would come to personify the public's nightmare vision of the malevolent computer hacker.
Born in Altona, Illinois, in 1959, Susan was still an infant when her parents, struggling with an unhappy marriage, moved to Tujunga, California, northeast of the San Fernando Valley. Even after the move to paradise, with the implicit promise of a chance to start afresh, Susan's family continued to unravel. Susan was a gawky, buck-toothed little girl. Rejected and abused, at age eight she found solace in the telephone, a place where perfect strangers seemed happy to offer a kind word or two. She made friends with operators, and began calling random numbers in the telephone book, striking up a conversation with whomever she happened to catch. Sometimes she called radio disc jockeys.
After her parents divorced, Susan dropped out of the eighth grade, ran away to the streets of Hollywood and adopted the name Susy Thunder. Susan didn't make many friends, but she did know how to feed herself. Before long, she was walking Sunset Boulevard, looking for men in cars who would pay her for sex. She cut a conspicuous figure next to some of the more diminutive women on the street. Barely out of puberty, Susan was already approaching six feet.
When she wasn't walking the streets, she was living in a hazy, drug-filtered world as a hanger-on in the L.A. music scene, a rock-star groupie. Susan was a bruised child developing into a bruised adult. Quaalude was her medium of choice for spiriting her away from reality, and when Quaalude was scarce, she switched to alcohol and heroin. Her mother finally put her into a nine-month rehabilitation program; she was abruptly thrown out midcourse. Conflicting stories of Susan's ouster were in keeping with the blurry line between fact and myth that described her life. As Susan was to tell it, the adulation of power she developed as a groupie compelled her to single out the most powerful male staff member at the treatment center and seduce him. Another story, circulated by Susan's detractors, is that the male staff member for whom she left the program "sold" her services to a brothel.
Susan found an apartment in Van Nuys and retreated once again to the telephone, taking comfort in knowing that with the telephone she could gain access to a world of her own conjuring and shut it out whenever she chose. She began calling the telephone conference lines that were springing up all over Los Angeles in the late 1970s. By dialing a conference-line number, Susan could connect herself to what sounded like cross talk, except that she was heard by the others and could join in the conversation. Some conference-line callers were teenagers who dialed up after school; others were housewives who stayed on all day, tuning in and out between household chores but never actually hanging up the phone. By nightfall, many of the conference lines turned into telephonic sex parlors, the talk switching from undirected chitchat to explicit propositions.
One day in early 1980 Susan discovered HOBO-UFO, one of the first "legitimate" conference lines in Los Angeles in that its owners used their own conferencing equipment instead of piggybacking on the phone company's facilities. Drawing hundreds of people every day, HOBO-UFO was run from the Hollywood apartment of a young college student who called himself Roscoe. A friend of Roscoe's named Barney financed the setup, putting up the money for the multiple phone lines and other equipment while Roscoe provided the technical wherewithal. Susan decided she couldn't rest until she had met Roscoe, the power behind it all. But to achieve that goal, Susan knew she would have to abandon her disembodied telephone persona. She liked describing herself to men over the telephone. She knew from experience that all she had to do was mention that she was a six-foot-two blond and she wouldn't have to wait long for a knock at the door. She was right. No sooner did she deliver the description than Roscoe came calling.
The woman who greeted Roscoe was exactly as she had described herself. Susan had dressed up and made her face up carefully for the big date. But she could not conceal certain physical oddities. Her long face displayed a set of teeth so protrusive as to produce a slight speech impediment. And there was something incongruous about her large frame: her upper torso was narrow and delicate, but it descended to a disproportionate outcropping of hips and heavy thighs. Roscoe, for his part, was thin and pale. His brown-framed glasses met Susan's chin. But if either Susan or Roscoe was disappointed in the other's looks, neither showed it. They went to dinner, and when Roscoe asked Susan about her line of work she told him she was a therapist and then quickly changed the subject.
A business student at the University of Southern California, Roscoe was one of the best-known phone phreaks around Los Angeles. When a reporter from a local newspaper began researching a story about conference lines, he told a few HOBO-UFO regulars that he wanted to meet Roscoe. The next day a caller greeted him by reeling off the billing name on his unlisted phone number, his home address, the year and make of his car, and his driver's license number. Then the caller announced himself: "This is Roscoe."
When Susan and Roscoe met in 1980, phone phreaking was by no means a new phenomenon. Phone phreaks had been cheating the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for years. They started out with "blue boxes" as their primary tool. Named for the color of the original device, blue boxes were rectangular gadgets that came in a variety of sizes. Sometimes they were built by electronic hobbyists, at other times by underground entrepreneurs. Occasionally they were even used by the Mafia. One of Silicon Valley's legendary companies even has its roots in blue box manufacturing. Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer in 1976, got their start in the consumer electronics business several years earlier, peddling blue boxes in college dormitories.
A blue box was universally useful because it could exploit a quirk in the design of the nation's long-distance telephone system. The device emitted a high-pitched squeal, the 2600-hertz tone that, in the heyday of the blue boxers, controlled the AT&T long-distance switching system. When phone company equipment detected the tone, it readied itself for a new call. A series of special tones from the box allowed the blue box user to dial anywhere in the world. Using these clever devices, phone phreaks navigated through the Bell System from the palms of their hands. Tales abounded of blue boxers who routed calls to nearby pay phones through the long-distance lines of as many as fifteen countries, just for the satisfaction of hearing the long series of clicks and kerchunks made by numerous phone companies releasing their circuits. Blue boxes were soon joined by succeeding generations of boxes in all colors, each serving a separate function, but all designed to skirt the computerized record-keeping and switching equipment that the phone company uses for billing calls.
The phone phreaking movement reached its zenith in the early 1970s. One folk hero among phreaks was John Draper, whose alias, "Captain Crunch," derived from a happy coincidence: he discovered that the toy whistle buried in the Cap'n Crunch cereal box matched the phone company's 2600-hertz tone perfectly.
Tending to be as socially maladroit as they were technically proficient, phone phreaks were a bizarre group, driven by a compulsive need to learn all they could about the object of their obsession. One famous blind phreak named Joe Engressia discovered the telephone as a small child; at age eight he could whistle in perfect pitch, easily imitating the 2600-hertz AT&T signal. Joe's lips were his blue box. After graduating from college, in tireless pursuit of knowledge about the phone company, Joe crisscrossed the country by bus, visiting local phone company offices for guided tours. As he was escorted around, he would touch the equipment and learn new aspects of the phone system. Joe's ambition was not to steal revenue from the telephone company but to get a job there. But he had made a name for himself as a phreak, and despite his vast store of knowledge, the phone company could not be moved to hire him. Eventually, Mountain Bell in Denver did give him a job as a troubleshooter in its network service center and his whistling stopped. All that he had wanted was to be part of the system.
The Bell System needed people like Joe on its side. By the mid-1970s, AT&T estimated it was losing $30 million a year to telephone fraud. A good percentage of the illegal calls, it turned out, were being placed by professional white-collar criminals, and even by small businesses trying to cut their long-distance phone bills. But unable to redesign its entire signaling scheme overnight, AT&T decided to ferret out the bandits. Using monitoring equipment in various fraud "hot spots" throughout the telephone network, AT&T spent years scanning tens of millions of toll calls. By the early 1980s automated scanning had become routine and Bell Laboratories, AT&T's research arm, had devised computer programs that could detect and locate blue box calls. Relying on increasingly sophisticated scanning equipment, detection programs embedded in its electronic switches and a growing network of informants, AT&T caught hundreds of blue boxers.
In 1971, phone phreaking ventured briefly into the sphere of politics. The activist Abbie Hoffman, joined by a phone phreak who called himself Al Bell, started a newsletter called Youth International Party Line -- or YIPL for short. With its office at the Yippie headquarters on Bleecker Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, YIPL was meant to be the technical offshoot of the Yippies. Hoffman's theory was that communications were the nerve center of any revolution; liberating communications would be the most important phase of a mass revolt. But Al Bell's outlook was at odds with Hoffman's; Al saw no place for politics in what was essentially a technical journal. In 1973, Al abandoned YIPL and Hoffman and moved uptown to set up shop as TAP, the Technological Assistance Program.
Much of the information contained in TAP was culled from AT&T's various in-house technical journals. It was information that AT&T would rather have kept to itself. And that was the point. Whereas the original phreaks like Captain Crunch got their kicks making free phone calls, TAP's leaders, while steering clear of a hard political line, believed that the newsletter's mission was to disseminate as much information about Ma Bell as it could. By 1975, more than thirteen hundred people around the world subscribed to the four-page leaflet. For the most part, they were loners by their own admission, steeped in private technical worlds. TAP was their ultimate handbook. Written in relentlessly technical language, TAP contained tips on such topics as lock picking, the manipulation of vending machines, do-it-yourself pay phone slugs and free electricity. TAP routinely published obscure telephone numbers; those of the White House and Buckingham Palace were especially popular. And in 1979, during the hostage crisis in Iran, TAP published the phone number of the American embassy in Tehran. Every Friday evening, a dozen or so TAP people held a meeting at a Manhattan restaurant, many still cloaked in the ties and jackets that betrayed daytime lives spent toiling away at white-collar jobs. After work, and inside the pages of TAP, they adopted such names as The Professor, The Wizard and Dr. Atomic.
In the late 1970s, a phone phreak who called himself Tom Edison took over TAP, bringing in another telephone network enthusiast, Cheshire Catalyst, a self-styled "techie-loner-weirdo science fiction fanatic," as one of TAP's primary contributors. Tall and dark with the concave, hollow-cheeked look of someone rarely exposed to sunlight, Cheshire had been phreaking since the sixties. He discovered the telephone at age twelve, and learned to clip the speaker leads of the family stereo onto a telephone plug so that he could put the handset to his ear and listen to the radio while doing his homework. If his mother entered the room, he just had to hang up the receiver. By the time he was nineteen, Cheshire had become a telex maven, having programmed his home computer to simulate a telex machine. Before long he was sending telex pen-pal messages around the world. In his twenties, already a veteran TAP reader, Cheshire moved to Manhattan, got a job at a bank in computer support and joined the TAP inner circle.
TAP wasn't exactly a movement. It was an attitude, perhaps best described as playful contempt for the Bell System. One elderly woman from the Midwest sent her subscription check along with a letter to Tom Edison saying that although she would never do any of the things described in TAP, she wanted to support those people who were getting back at the phone company.
As one responsible for keeping TAP unassailable, Cheshire didn't sully his hands with blue boxes, and he paid his telephone bills scrupulously. Out of corporate garb, he and his friends stayed busy irking Ma Bell through their constant wanderings inside the phone system. As Cheshire and his friends would explain to outsiders, they loved the telephone network -- it was the bureaucracy behind it they hated.
People like Cheshire lived not so much to defraud corporate behemoths as to home in on their most vulnerable flaws and take full playful advantage of them. Beating the system was a way of life. Flying from New York to St. Louis, for instance, was not a simple matter of seeking an inexpensive fare; it meant hours of research to find the cheapest route, even if it meant taking advantage of a special promotional flight from New York to Los Angeles and disembarking when the flight made a stop in St. Louis. And getting the best of AT&T, the most blindly bureaucratic monopoly of all, embodied a strike against everything worth detesting in a large corporation.
As private computer networks proliferated in the late 1970s, there came a generation of increasingly computer literate young phreaks like Roscoe and Kevin Mitnick. If the global telephone network could hold a phone phreak entranced, imagine the fascination presented by the proliferating networks that began to link the computers of the largest corporations. Using a modem, a device that converts a computer's digital data into audible tones that can be transmitted over phone lines, any clever interloper could hook into a computer network. The first requirement was a valid user identification -- the name of an authorized user of the network. The next step was to produce a corresponding password. And in the early days, anyone could root out one valid password or another.
The rising computer consciousness of the phone phreaks was inevitable as technology advanced. Electromechanical telephone switches were rapidly giving way to computerized equivalents all over the world, suddenly transforming the ground rules for riding the telephone networks. The arrival of computerized telephone switches dramatically increased the risks and the sense of danger, as well as the potential payoff. The phone company's automatic surveillance powers grew by orders of magnitude, served by silent digital sentinels that sensed the telltale signals of the electronic phone phreaks' microelectronic armory. As the peril grew, so did the sense of adventure. Whenever an outsider gained control of a central office switch or its associated billing and maintenance computers, by evading often inadequate security barriers, the control was absolute. Thus the new generation of phone phreaks could go far beyond placing free telephone calls. Anything was possible: eavesdropping, altering telephone bills, turning off an unsuspecting victim's phone service, or even changing the class of service. In one legendary hack a phone phreak had the computer reclassify someone's home phone as a pay phone. When the victim picked up the telephone, he was startled to hear a computerized voice asking him to deposit ten cents. For phone phreaks, the temptation to step up from the simpler technology of the telephone to the more complicated and powerful technology of computers was irresistible.
In 1983, just as TAP was coming to symbolize the unification of computers and telephones, the journal came to an untimely end. Tom Edison's two-story condominium in suburban New Jersey went up in flames, the object of simultaneous burglary and arson. The burglary was professional: Tom's computer and disks -- all the tools for publishing TAP -- were taken. But the arson job was downright amateurish. Gasoline was poured haphazardly and the arsonist failed to open the windows to feed the fire. For years, Tom and Cheshire speculated that the phone company had engineered the fire, but proving it was another matter. Tom had a real-world name, a respectable job and a reputation to maintain. Cheshire rented a truck and hauled what remained of the operation -- including hundreds of back issues of TAP, all of which escaped unsinged -- over to his place in Manhattan. But in the end, TAP didn't survive the blow. A few months after the fire, Cheshire printed its final issue.
Meanwhile, the Southern California phreaks had been holding their equivalent of TAP meetings. Once a month or so, a group of phreaks, including Roscoe and occasionally Kevin, would get together informally at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Hollywood to talk and exchange information. But the L.A. phreaks weren't a particularly sociable bunch to begin with, and their meetings were far less organized than those on the East Coast, with fewer political overtones.
Though an avid TAP reader, Roscoe shunned blue boxes and most of the other electronic crutches of phone phreaking. They were just too easy to trace, he thought. Roscoe preferred to exploit flukes, or holes, that he and his friends found in the newly computerized telephone system. Modesty was not one of Roscoe's virtues. He claimed that he had acquired as much knowledge about the telephone system and the computers that controlled it as anyone else in the country. He kept notebooks filled with the numbers of private lines to corporations like Exxon and Ralston Purina, along with access codes to scores of computers operated by everything from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to major airlines. He boasted that he could order prepaid airline tickets, search car registrations and even get access to the Department of Motor of Vehicles' computer system to enter or delete police warrants. Whereas most pure phreaks viewed their art as a clever means of bypassing the phone company, Roscoe saw it as a potential weapon. With access to phone company computers, he could change numbers, disconnect phones or send someone a bill for thousands of dollars. Most of the numbers in his extensive log came from hours of patient exploration on a computer terminal at school. And many of the special tricks he learned from Kevin Mitnick.
Roscoe met Kevin in 1978, over the amateur radio network. When Roscoe was tuned in one day, he was startled to hear a nasty fight in progress between two hams. The control operator of the machine was accusing a fellow ham named Kevin Mitnick of making illegal long-distance telephone calls over the radio using stolen MCI codes. At the time, Roscoe knew nothing of telephones or computers. But given the vituperative tone of the angry ham, either Kevin Mitnick had done something truly terrible or he was being unjustly accused. Suspecting the latter, Roscoe switched on his tape recorder and recorded the invectives as they flew through the air. Then he got on the radio to tell Kevin that he had a tape recording of the accusations if Kevin wanted it. Sensing a potential ally, Kevin gave Roscoe a telephone number to call so that they could speak privately. As Roscoe was to find out later, Kevin had given him the number of a telephone company loop line, a number hidden in the electronic crevices of the telephone network and reserved for maintenance workers in the field who are testing circuits. Roscoe was immediately taken with this teenager, a good three years his junior, who evidently knew so much about telephones. He drove out to the San Fernando Valley to meet Kevin, gave him the tape and cemented a new friendship. Sometimes Kevin called Roscoe directly at his home in Hollywood, a toll call from the San Fernando Valley, and they talked for hours. When Roscoe asked him how a high schooler could afford it, Kevin just laughed.
When Susan met Roscoe in 1980, he had been phreaking for about a year. She fell in love with him almost at once. He was the first man she had met who displayed some intelligence and whose life didn't revolve around drugs and the drug scene. She found Roscoe's interest in computers charming, even fascinating. Roscoe was taking phone phreaking to a new level, combining his knowledge of the phone system with his growing knowledge of computers. Susan saw this as a brilliant next step for someone with a phone obsession. What was more, they were both talented at employing their voices to desired ends. They shared a faith in how much could be accomplished with a simple phone call. As a teenager, Susan had employed the technique she called psychological subversion, otherwise known as social engineering, to talk her way into backstage passes at dozens of concerts. Posing as a secretary in the office of the head of the concert production company, she could get her name added to any guest list. Susan prided herself on those skills. If she and Roscoe had anything in common, both lacked the mechanism that compels most people to tell the truth.
Roscoe and Susan started to date each other. Roscoe was attending the University of Southern California and his schedule there, he told her, let him see her only on certain nights. But that was fine with Susan, as she was holding down two jobs. One was as a switchboard operator at a telephone answering service. The more lucrative job was something she knew how to make a lot of money at: she worked for a small bordello in Van Nuys. Her counselor story didn't last long. Roscoe made it his business to learn all he could about people, and Susan was no exception. When the truth emerged about Susan's profession, Roscoe found it more amusing than scandalous.
In her head, Susan was living out a romance of her own quirky invention. In fact, the relationship between Susan and Roscoe was oddly businesslike, hardly distracted by passion. Often their dates consisted of an excursion to the USC computer center, where Roscoe would set Susan up with a computer terminal and keep her occupied with computer games while he "worked." Susan soon realized that he was using accounts at the university's computer center to log on to different computers around the country. Susan lost interest in the games and turned her attention to what Roscoe was doing. Before long, she became his protegée.
Susan developed her own talent for finessing her way into forbidden computer systems. She began to specialize in military computer systems. The information that resides in the nation's military computers isn't just any data. It represents the nation's premier power base -- the Pentagon. And in digging for military data, as Susan saw it, she, a high school dropout and teenage runaway, was just a silo away from the sort of control that truly mattered. Still, she was a beginner, far short of mastering the Defense Department's complex of computers and communications networks. What she couldn't supply in technical knowledge she compensated for with other skills. One of her methods was to go out to a military base and hang around in the officers' club, or, if she was asked to leave, in bars near the base. She would get friendly with a high-ranking officer, then act flirtatiously with him. Deploying her womanly charms, and implying that sexual favors might be granted, she persuaded these men to give her access to their systems. She would report each new success to Roscoe, who praised her profusely while making careful note of the specifics.
From her job at the bordello, Susan was taking home about $1,200 a week, and all of it came in handy. She invested every spare cent in computer and phone equipment. She installed a phone line for data transmission, and an "opinion line" she named "instant relay." Whoever dialed the "instant relay" number got Susan's commentary on topics of her own choosing. At the same time, she taught herself to use RSTS, Resource Sharing Time Sharing, the standard operating system for Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-11 minicomputers. (Operating systems are programs that control a computer's tasks the way an orchestra conductor controls musicians. Operating systems start and stop programs and find and store files.) For computer intruders the fascination with a computer's operating system is obvious: it is not only the master controller but also the computer's gatekeeper, regulating access and limiting the capabilities of users.
Roscoe often employed Susan's Van Nuys apartment as a base of operations. He was usually accompanied by his younger cohort, the plump and bespectacled Kevin Mitnick. Kevin was the kind of kid who would be picked last for a school team. His oversize plaid shirts were seldom tucked in, and his pear-shaped body was so irregular that any blue jeans would be an imperfect fit. His seventeen years hadn't been easy. When Kevin was three, his parents separated. His mother, Shelly, got a job as a waitress at a local delicatessen and embarked on a series of new relationships. Every time Kevin started to get close to a new father, the man disappeared. Kevin's real father was seldom in touch; he remarried and had another son, athletic and good-looking. During Kevin's junior high school years, just as he was getting settled into a new school, the family moved. It wasn't surprising that Kevin looked to the telephone for solace.
Susan and Kevin didn't get along from the start. Kevin had no use for Susan, and Susan saw him as a hulking menace with none of Roscoe's charm. What was more, he seemed to have a malicious streak that she didn't see in Roscoe. This curiously oafish friend of Roscoe's always seemed to be busy carrying out revenge of one sort or another, cutting off someone's phone service or harassing people over the amateur radio. At the same time, Kevin was a master of the soothing voice who aimed at inspiring trust, then cooperation. Kevin used his silken entreaties to win over even the most skeptical keepers of passwords. And he seemed to know even more about the phone system than Roscoe. Kevin's most striking talent was his photographic memory. Presented with a long list of computer passwords for a minute or two, an hour later Kevin could recite the list verbatim.
Roscoe and Kevin prided themselves on their social engineering skills; they assumed respect would come if they sounded knowledgeable and authoritative, even in subject areas they knew nothing about. Roscoe or Kevin would call the telecommunications department of a company and pose as an angry superior, demanding brusquely to know why a number for dialing out wasn't working properly. Sufficiently cowed, the recipient of the call would be more than glad to explain how to use the number in question.
While Kevin's approach was more improvisational, Roscoe made something of a science out of his talent for talking to people. He kept a separate notebook in which he listed the names and workplaces of various telephone operators and their supervisors. He noted whether they were new or experienced, well informed or ignorant, friendly and cooperative or slow and unhelpful. He kept an exhaustive list of personal information obtained from hours of chatting: their hobbies, their children's names, their ages and favorite sports and where they had just vacationed.
Roscoe and Kevin didn't phreak or break into computers for money. Secret information, anything at all that was hidden, was what they prized most highly. They seldom if ever tried to sell the information they obtained. Yet some of what they had was eminently marketable. Roscoe's notebooks, filled with computer logins and passwords, would have fetched a tidy sum from any industrial spy. But phreaking to them was a form of high art that money would only cheapen. Roscoe especially thrived on the sense of power he derived from his phreaking. Presenting a stranger with a litany of personal facts and watching him or her come unhinged gave Roscoe his greatest pleasure.
Another frequent visitor to Susan's apartment was Steve Rhoades, a puckish fifteen-year-old from Pasadena with straight brown hair that cascaded down to the middle of his back. His timid intelligence and easy manner had a way of catching people off guard. He was an expert phreak who had earned a grudging respect from the Pacific Bell security force -- the very people he loved to taunt. So adept was he at manipulating his telephone service from the terminal box on the telephone pole outside his house that the phone company removed the footholds. Like Kevin and Roscoe, Steve was an amateur radio buff. Two-way radios, in fact, often figured in their phreaking. When foraging through phone company trash for manuals, discarded papers containing passwords and whatever else might help them in their phreaking endeavors -- a method they called trashing -- they communicated by two-way radio.
Whatever the personality differences in the L.A. gang, their various talents brought results. Working together, they were able to get the numbers of lost or stolen telephone credit cards using highly imaginative methods: for instance, they would divert cardholders' toll-free calls to report lost cards to a pay phone of their choosing and answer with, "Pacific Bell, may I help you?" Their vast store of knowledge came from months of diligent research: they obtained manuals however they could get them and joined as many company tours as they could, mostly to familiarize themselves with building layouts. The group routinely got credit information from the computer at TRW's credit bureau. Sometimes it was a matter of talking an unsuspecting employee out of a password; sometimes a job required "physical research," such as a late-night excavation of TRW's Dumpsters.
By brainstorming together, the group would be inspired to ever more audacious stunts. On one occasion, Steve Rhoades figured out a way to override directory assistance for Providence, Rhode Island, so that when people dialed for information, they got one of the gang instead. "Is that person white or black, sir?" was a favorite line. "You see, we have separate directories." Or: "Yes, that number is eight-seven-five-zero and a half. Do you know how to dial the half, ma'am?"
A few months into her infatuation with Roscoe, Susan noticed unhappily that he was spending less time with her. Then someone let her in on the reason: she had been deceived. Roscoe, it turned out, was all but engaged to someone else, a law student as prim and straight in her ways as Susan was errant in hers. The other girlfriend apparently provided Roscoe's tie to respectable society. Susan despaired. He had been displaying affection for Susan when what he really wanted to do was exploit her eagerness to hack. When she confronted him, he just laughed. So she tried a veiled threat: she told him it was quite likely that FBI agents would come knocking on her door, and she would have to talk to them. Roscoe feigned puzzlement. Susan refused to believe that he wasn't at least torn between the two women. She decided to ask him, once and for all, for the truth. "Don't you feel anything for me at all?" He just smiled and said she had been misled. What Roscoe had failed to take into account was that the person he had just crushed was a woman who had been bruised once too often. By rejecting her so heartlessly, Roscoe was inviting trouble. He had yet to experience Susan's dark side.
Eddie Rivera, a free-lance writer in Los Angeles, wasn't sure what he had stumbled into. As he was getting out of his car one day on Sunset Boulevard in late April of 1980, he saw a flyer that simply read: "UFO CONFERENCE CALL NOW." His curiosity stirred, the young reporter dialed HOBO-UFO and heard three people chatting idly, engaged in what seemed to be an interminable telephone conversation. A television murmured in the background. After listening to five more minutes of prattle, Eddie sensed the possibility of a story far different from what he usually produced as a rock-and-roll critic. Like Susan Thunder before him, Eddie focused on meeting the person running the conference. "Excuse me," he interrupted. "If you guys on this line know who runs it, have him call me." The line went silent; he felt as if he had switched on the kitchen light late at night and seen dozens of cockroaches running for cover. But it worked. Within a day of putting the word out that he wanted to meet Roscoe, Eddie received his first call. Eddie got a story assignment from the L.A. Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and went to work.
Their first meeting took place at an electronics store on Santa Monica Boulevard owned by Barney, Roscoe's pudgy, disheveled benefactor. When not in school or overseeing the HOBO-UFO line from his home, Roscoe was often at Barney's place. With not a customer in sight, the store was littered with old televisions in various stages of disrepair. For his part, Barney derived no small amount of pleasure from the venture he was financing; he used the conference line to meet adolescent girls.
Eddie hadn't known quite what to expect. Roscoe's appearance was surprisingly neat, but there was something amiss: his pale blue polyester pants with a slight flare at the bottom, and his dark polyester print shirt with an oversize collar, were already at least five years out of date. The twenty-year-old Roscoe seemed more to resemble an electrical engineering student than a telephone outlaw.
For the first interview, Barney put a "closed" sign in the shop window and, in what would become a routine preamble to the interviews, the three went out for doughnuts. Roscoe lived on junk food, as did, it seemed, all his fellow phreaks. A patina of doughnut glaze frequently rested on Roscoe's lips. In the afternoons, Roscoe moved on to Doritos and cheeseburgers. And Barney's store was strewn with Winchell's Donuts coffee cups whose contents suggested that Barney might be using them as petri dishes.
Roscoe made it clear from the start that he would be in complete control of the nature and quantity of information he imparted to Eddie. He enjoyed telling Eddie just how much he knew about telephones -- far beyond the body of information known to the average telephone company employee.
There was something oddly mechanized about Roscoe's language. Eddie was struck by the young man's formal, almost bureaucratic way of speaking. In response to a question, Roscoe usually answered as indirectly as possible. He had a curious affection for the passive construction. Roscoe didn't simply make phone calls. Instead, telephone conversations were initiated. Perhaps, Eddie thought, Roscoe's tangled locution resulted from reading too many of those phone company manuals he kept talking about. In any case, his manner of speech distanced him from whatever he was talking about. Perhaps it made him feel more important.
Roscoe told Eddie that he had a friend at the phone company who could get him into the switching room that housed the powerful computer controlling all the telephones in Hollywood. During one recent late-night visit there, Roscoe told Eddie, he had walked over to a wall that was blanketed with telephone company switching equipment and watched as his friend flicked a switch. At the sound of a female voice, the friend announced proudly, "That's Farrah Fawcett." Bored telephone company employees, Roscoe's friend claimed, monitored people's calls all the time. Roscoe told the story in such precise detail that Eddie had no doubt about its truth.
In the early reporting stages of Eddie's article, Roscoe was highly secretive about his whereabouts, guarding his daily comings and goings like a fugitive. If Eddie wanted to speak with him, he would have to wait for him to call. After a few weeks, Roscoe gave him a number where he could leave a message. It was a month before Roscoe invited the reporter to his home, one of ten units in a plain two-story white stucco building located in a shabby neighborhood on the southern edge of Hollywood that was cluttered with similar apartment buildings. Roscoe lived with his mother in a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment. Adult bookstores dominated the neighborhood.
There seemed to be little in Roscoe's life besides school and telephones. Eddie heard that Roscoe had a girlfriend, but he never saw any sign of her. Roscoe had once introduced Eddie to someone named Susan, a bizarre and cranky young woman, eccentrically tall and with unusually wide hips, but she and Roscoe appeared to be just friends. His world was the telephone, and from his small bedroom in the back he operated his HOBO-UFO conference. His phone rang constantly as people called the line. Roscoe continuously monitored the conference through a speakerphone, which created a constant low level of conversation in the room, and he could pick up his telephone any time and interrupt. Another line attached to an answering machine rang frequently as well. Many of those calls came from giggling teenage girls to whom Roscoe had given his private number.
There was something about the way Roscoe reacted to telephone tones that made Eddie suspect he had a musical ear. He could recite a phone number just by hearing it dialed. Spying an upright piano and a large stereo in the modest quarters, Eddie decided he was right. Scholastic awards from Belmont High School lined Roscoe's bedroom wall; now he was attending USC on a scholarship. And from what Eddie could see of Roscoe's interaction with his mother, an immigrant from Argentina who appeared to speak no English, Roscoe was a model son. Eddie was taken aback to hear Roscoe's perfect Spanish, spoken with the unselfconscious ease of a native. Roscoe's complexion was so pale and his English so flatly American that Eddie would have put his roots far north of Argentina, possibly in Iowa.
If Roscoe had a side that was less restrained and formal, he displayed it to Eddie just once. On a drive through Hollywood, down a section of Western Avenue elevated above the freeway, Eddie and Roscoe were stopped at a red light a few doors away from a storefront church, where a small congregation of Hispanics lingered outside. "Slow down!" Roscoe blurted out suddenly from the passenger's seat. "I'm going to freak these people out!" He rolled down his window and leaned his torso out the window. "Ay Dios mio!" he screamed in perfect Spanish, in the evangelical wail of a recent convert. As they accelerated away from the horrified 'worshipers, Roscoe was beside himself with laughter. "That gets 'em every time!" he cried.
For the most part, the people who called Roscoe's conference lived for their telephonic encounters. Many were blind, Roscoe told Eddie, or otherwise handicapped. Others were housewives or single mothers. The majority were overweight. Their names -- Rick the Trip, Regina Watts Towers, Dan Dual-Phase, Mike Montage -- suggested to Eddie a group of shy folk making sad attempts to add mystery and intrigue to their lives. Eddie's suspicions were confirmed when, several weeks into his reporting, he attended a phreak party at Dan Dual-Phase's house. For many members of the group, it couldn't be a simple drop-in affair. So few of the conference line callers could drive that the transportation logistics alone had lent an unusual air to the party. At the event itself, the conference line callers sat in scattered clutches of embarrassed silence, too shy to speak to one another in person.
As part of the education process, Roscoe presented Eddie with literature. He gave the reporter several back issues of TAP, referring to it as if its circulation matched that of Newsweek. After a mystifying perusal of TAP's pages, with its proclamations that no code can be completely secure, Eddie could only conclude that it carried the voice of true outlaws. Roscoe also showed him a legendary Esquire magazine story about phone phreaks. One of the featured phone phreaks in the story was Captain Crunch. Roscoe angrily denounced Crunch as an idiot whose blue box was a crutch. Phone phreaks should be like Houdinis, able to cruise the telephone network as if by magic, without the visible aid of tools. Roscoe did have one hardware crutch -- a Touch-Tone dialer, a square, gray plastic box small enough to fit in one's palm. On the front was a dialing pad with ten numbers; batteries were taped to the back. The dialer was elegantly simple yet indispensable. Its function was to send Touch-Tones into the mouthpiece of a rotary-dial phone. These were precisely the tones that he needed to get access to corporate phone networks for his free telephone calls. Once he reached a company's private telephone system, a friendly digitized voice asked for a code. After receiving a correct code punched into the dialer, the phone system stood open for dialing anywhere at all.
One day during Eddie's reporting assignment, Roscoe had with him a slightly younger friend named Kevin. Eddie had already heard about Kevin from Roscoe. If Eddie found Roscoe's knowledge of telephones impressive, Roscoe had told him in a reverential tone, he should meet Kevin. Kevin lived about forty-five minutes away from Roscoe in the San Fernando Valley, and until Kevin got his driver's license, Roscoe regularly retrieved him and then took him home.
Kevin was overweight and exceedingly shy. Roscoe, in fact, was downright garrulous compared with his laconic friend, who assiduously avoided eye contact. Where Eddie had seen glimpses of normalcy in Roscoe, in Kevin he saw nothing but a life steeped in telephones and computers. When he joined Roscoe and Kevin for an afternoon of phreaking, Eddie noticed that Roscoe frequently deferred to Kevin, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the telephone company's computerized control switches was well beyond his own. And where Roscoe was clearly taken with the idea of a reporter trailing after him for weeks on end, Kevin was altogether uninterested in Eddie. In fact, Roscoe too seemed temporarily to lose interest in the reporter when Kevin was around, so deep was his concentration on the business of phreaking with Kevin.
Eddie was struck by the patience and perseverance the two youths displayed when seated before a computer screen. Eddie had seen Roscoe spend an hour at a time simply scanning for dialing codes, but the display of endurance when Roscoe and Kevin joined forces was in another league. For five hours on One occasion, they sat in front of a computer terminal that was connected to a phone company computer, watching a series of numbers scroll by. Roscoe and Kevin grew increasingly excited over the hieroglyphics on the screen, but their excitement passed right over Eddie. If the reporter asked them to explain what they were seeing, he received a sidelong glance of amused condescension. If these two phreaks were breaking the law, Eddie couldn't tell. Before long he stopped trying to understand what they were doing and found himself struggling to stay awake.
Eddie had an inkling that Kevin might be even more important than Roscoe for his story. Not only did Kevin seem to know more than Roscoe about telephones, but Eddie got the impression that Kevin had taught Roscoe much of what he knew. Eddie figured he should probably take the kid out for a cheeseburger, but he decided he wanted nothing to do with him. As he felt himself pulled further into this strange world, he realized that the phreaks were beginning to make him nervous. In reality, Roscoe's life wasn't much richer than the lives of the lonely souls who hung on his conference line. Yet Roscoe regarded the others with a mixture of delight and disdain: delight at their obvious respect for him, and disdain for the emptiness in their lives. But they just depressed Eddie. Between the desperate conference-line callers and the sinkhole of technical language, clouded further by Roscoe's impossibly stilted speech, Eddie was beginning to regret that he had tackled such a difficult story. He began to yearn for an easy, more familiar assignment, perhaps a backstage interview with Joey and the Pizzas. At the least, his stint as an honorary member of the gang had come to an end. It was time to write his story.
Eddie's cover story in the L.A. Weekly in the summer of 1980 left a lasting impression on those who saw it. Mostly it was a profile of Roscoe, a phone phreak who could do anything with a telephone. Shortly after the story appeared, Eddie was at a party and overheard a conversation about it. When he mentioned that he had written it, people said they wanted to meet this Roscoe and learn a few of his tricks.
Meanwhile, Susan was obsessed by her desire to get something on Roscoe, something she could hold over him and something other people would believe. It wouldn't be difficult, she figured, since his forays often led him into dubious territory. And she wouldn't mind getting Kevin as well. Kevin and Roscoe' had a long-standing agreement to share information with each other, usually to the exclusion of Susan. No, she wouldn't mind one bit if Kevin got pulled into the undertow.
The first opportunity for revenge came with the U.S. Leasing breakin. With a little programming flourish, Roscoe had given himself system privileges on a computer at U.S. Leasing, a San Francisco company with subsidiaries specializing in leasing electronic equipment, railcars and computers. In most large multiuser computers there is a hierarchy of privilege meted out to users. The system manager has the highest level of privilege, acting as de facto God in the computer system, while ordinary users have their capabilities more stringently curtailed. Such a pecking order works only if the lesser users cannot find ways to masquerade as the system manager.
Because its network address circulated widely throughout the phreak community in 1980, U.S. Leasing had one of the most popular computers for phreaks to play on. Both Roscoe and Susan, in fact, enjoyed posting the computer's network address on electronic bulletin boards, offering guided tours of the system to phreaking neophytes. U.S. Leasing used nothing' but Digital Equipment PDP-11 computers. All the computers ran RSTS, a notoriously insecure operating system. RSTS had been designed in the 1970s as the ultimate in user-friendliness. Ask the system for a password and it would assign you one automatically. Ask for a system status report and you were provided with the name of every user on the system. More often than not, people chose their names as their passwords. To make things easier for its customers, Digital even supplied sample passwords, such as field and test for field technicians. And the field technicians often had highly privileged accounts.
Getting to computers such as the one at U.S. Leasing was deliciously easy. The first step was to dial into the Telenet network. Telenet was the first commercial network designed solely to link together computers. Computer networks differ from