Phreaks and l33ts: Inside the early ‘90s tech scene that created L0pht, the legendary hackerspace 

Shortly after I left Boston University in the spring of 1991 and was working as a rent-a-cop at the Lafayette Place Mall, I called up a new online bulletin board, or BBS, for the first time. I think it was simply called “M.” They requested that users create a unique username, something totally new, that had not been used on any other system. The goal was to foster open communication without the baggage an existing identity would bring with it. I thought anonymity was an intriguing idea — no one would know who anyone else was. Elite or lamer, old timer or newbie, it wouldn’t matter; everyone on this new BBS would start out at the same level. I thought really hard about a new handle.

This is an edited excerpt from “Space Rogue: How the Hackers Known as LOpht Changed the World.”

Your handle became your identity. It was the only unique item you took with you online. Your handle was linked to your reputation, your hacking capabilities and your previous exploits. It was essentially a full resume summed up in one word or phrase. BBSs were all text all the time — no graphics, no icons, or avatars to go along with your posts and musings. The only thing that set your messages apart from everyone else’s was your username. Your status was based on what you wrote, and it was all attached to your handle. Early systems could only accommodate eight-character usernames, often not enough for a full first or last name, so people started to get creative, and handles became the norm.

I wanted something cool for this new BBS. When the only thing separating your electronic bytes from someone else’s bytes was your name or handle, that moniker takes on a greater significance. I started looking around my bedroom for inspiration, and I hit upon the book I was reading: “Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier” by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. The book was over the top, full of exaggeration and inaccuracies, but still enthralling. While I didn’t know it at the time, the book had a significant influence on me.

I began freely associating with the title, especially the cyber part. Even at that point I knew using any handle with the word “cyber” in it would not be a wise choice (In these early days of the Internet, “cyber” was considered an almost dirty word.) But “cyber” led me to “cyberspace,” so I started working with “space” instead and somehow hit on “Space Rogue.” I spent maybe all of 10 minutes coming up with it. There was a new BBS that I wanted to get into; I didn’t have time to stand around trying to pick the perfect handle. I just needed something new that was good enough for right now. I thought it would be a throwaway, one-time use; I would use it on this board and that would be it. I had no idea that “Space Rogue” would stick so well that I would still be using it nearly 30 years later.

One thing about the BBS and early internet scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s that many people like to wax poetic about today was the so-called meritocracy that governed the hierarchy of people within that social group. The more tech you knew, the higher in the hierarchy you would get, and the more elite you would become. It kind of felt that way. The hackers at the head of our social structures seemed like smart people, and I at least assumed that the reason they got there and became leet was because they knew a lot.

Today, people like to reminisce about the inclusivity of that day’s hacker culture and social order. And in some ways, it was. Mostly we were all social outcasts, kids who had been picked on in high school and somehow found refuge in technology and online conversations that separated the individual from the face-to-face reality of interpersonal relationships. Something in those shared experiences drew us together and kept us there.

At the same time, the culture was extremely exclusionary. For the most part, we were all upper-middle-class, white males. There was little tolerance for newbs or noobs or newbies who hadn’t achieved the same level of knowledge of those who were leet. Asking a simple question would often result in a brash reply of RTFM, or “read the f—ing manual” if the question wasn’t outright ignored. While we were all outsiders, so to speak, if you were too far outside, you weren’t welcome. People would get ignored, or worse, harassed, both online and in person. Some would give up and find some other social group to be a part of.

Mostly we were all social outcasts, kids who had been picked on in high school and somehow found refuge in technology and online conversations that separated the individual from the face-to-face reality of interpersonal relationships.

This exclusionary aspect of the culture has been hard to change. Even now, some of the old guard thinks things were just fine the way they were. They still believe that things should be run by a strict meritocracy without mentioning which merits should be considered important. This mold has been difficult to change. Although things are getting better, we still have a long way to go.

The central point of community for all the hackers in the 617 area code was an online collective gathering place known as The Works. In 1991 or ’92, the message board started having what they called “Works Gatherings,” which sounds exactly like what it was. People would physically gather to meet each other and talk face to face. I had never met anyone that I knew online before, so there was definitely a bit of nervousness the first time I ventured out to the landmark Au Bon Pain café in Harvard Square. I would saunter up to the counter and order my large iced Americano and then find a spot to hang around outside near the cement chess tables where Harvard students would try to win against old men. When the weather was bad, we would gather in the far corner of the pizza restaurant on the second floor of The Garage, a mall built out of an old parking garage, until the owner realized we were just taking up space and not actually buying anything. He kicked us out.

Despite meeting in person, most people still used their online identities and handles. So Count Zero simply became Zero in person, or Kingpin would get shortened to KP. Although most people already knew each other online, there was still a small level of mistrust between individuals within the group. Sharing a real name with someone was considered a high form of trust. (This may be related to an early cyberpunk novella by Vernor Vinge, “True Names.”) Thirty years later, I still keep in touch with some of these people and yet still do not know their real name, just their handle.

These occasional Works gatherings eventually morphed into “2600 Meetings” and occurred regularly on the first Friday of the month. 2600 is a print magazine that covers hacker topics and is named after the long-distance telephone signaling frequency of 2600 hertz. The magazine has endorsed hacker meetups in large cities around the world for decades. As the Boston 2600 meeting grew larger, sometimes as many as forty people showed up. After the Harvard Square pizza joint kicked us out, we ended up moving to the food court at the Prudential Center. It was a good mix of people, from preppy to grunge, from high school students to people in their late twenties, but most of the group was male. There were a few women who would attend regularly, but they were vastly outnumbered. We would hang out on the patio in the summer and in the corner of the food court away from everyone else during the winter. The Boston 2600 meetings still happen on the first Friday of the month. Last I checked, 2600 meetings were back in Harvard Square at The Garage (now in the new food court instead of the pizza place).

The online world of the late ’80s and early ’90s was one of exploration and learning. But it was also one of not damaging things, of following the outdoor explorer mantra of “leave no trace.” The norm was that if you gained access to the system, it was OK to look around, to explore, but it was not OK to cause damage or even a disruption in service. You were there to learn. Inadvertently causing a system to crash or reboot was mildly OK if you took steps to minimize that possibility. It was not OK to delete files, change information, lock out accounts, or in any way prevent the legitimate users of the system from using their system.

None of these norms were written down anywhere. There wasn’t a guide with a list of dos and don’ts for new people to follow. There was no handbook of what was acceptable and what was taboo. It was just community knowledge and culture passed from one to another. You were exploring and learning, and that was it. Anything malicious was definitely verboten.

In his book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” Steven Levy called this need to explore and learn a “hands-on-imperative,” an unrelenting curiosity, a drive, a compunction, a need to push the boundaries and discover new things or acquire new knowledge. To learn by doing, by typing and entering commands. An imperative that compelled you, required you, to seek out computer access to fulfill this hunger. Any barrier — physical, legal or electronic — became an annoyance, a challenge to bypass. The motivation at the time was seldom profit, or power, or to further your career, or even anything to do with security; that all came later. The motivation then was mostly intellectual curiosity and the ability to participate within the community.

Sharing was considered an important part of that community, also known as “the scene,” as well, but the sharing only went so far. Often, sharing meant that a resource would get overused and eventually lost as the owner realized his or her resource was being abused and locked everyone out. While sharing might have been seen as a way to help someone it was often done as a way to prove “eliteness” to others within the social group — sort of as an electronic “look what I can do” exclamation, like a toddler seeking attention. In many cases this information exchange went beyond simple sharing and advanced into trading and bartering: a long-distance code in exchange for a special dial-up number or a password to a certain system in exchange for yet another email system exploit.

Sharing, helping or teaching was a double-edged sword. On the one side you wanted others to know what you had discovered, what knowledge you had gained, just how “leet” you had become. To be considered elite, or leet, or l33t or 31337 was considered the highest honor. On the other hand, if you shared too much, you might enable someone else to become more elite than yourself. It was always a game of one-upmanship, of constantly trying to find that next bit of knowledge, the next system no one else has gotten into. The next thing you could wave in the air and say “look what I can do.”

The online world of the late ’80s and early ’90s was one of exploration and learning. But it was also one of not damaging things, of following the outdoor explorer mantra of “leave no trace.” The norm was that if you gained access to the system, it was OK to look around, to explore, but it was not OK to cause damage or even a disruption in service.

At an early 2600 meeting during one of the warm months in 1991, LOpht cofounder Brian Oblivion was sitting next to me wearing his standard brimless hat over shoulder-length balding hair, his black bike messenger bag draped over the back of his chair. He leaned in close and whispered, “Hey, you wanna go to the loft after?” I said sure, trying to sound nonchalant and cool like it was no big deal, but getting an invitation to the artists-workshop-turned-hackerspace in South Boston was a major deal, at least for me. I had been there a few times before, but each time was unique.

A hackerspace was a physical location where hackers could work on projects in a communal setting. Today, many hackerspaces are set up as nonprofit organizations with official memberships, elected boards and other structure. The LOpht predated most of these spaces and was formed from a group of like-minded people who originally just needed a place to store equipment.

At this point, the loft had not yet become the “LOpht,” the famous (some would say infamous) hackerspace it would soon become. Of course, this was in the early ’90s, long before anyone knew what a hackerspace was. I knew it as a cool place where the elite hackers of the 617 area code could hang out. There was a ton of old computer equipment there, mostly in boxes, but some of it was up and running. The place had a certain vibe, a secrecy about it that made you feel in awe. I considered an invite to hang out there a pretty high honor.

Brian ran one of the elite bulletin board systems in the 617 area code called Black Crawling Systems. It was your basic hack/phreak/anarchy/virus or h/p/a/v system with heavy emphasis on radio and earlier wireless communications. He only gave access to people he had met in person or otherwise trusted. I had met him at a few Works gatherings and 2600 meetings before and had been lucky enough to get an invite to his board six months or so earlier.

Brian and Count Zero lived on the same block in South Boston. Their wives, Mary and Alicia, started a business together decorating and selling women’s hats. They rented a loft in an old factory building that had been converted into artists’ spaces. It was just around the corner from their apartments, and it quickly became a dumping ground for all the random computer equipment Brian and Zero had been storing in their apartments. But even with all that equipment, there was still a lot of space, so Golgo13 and White Knight, two other local Boston hackers, also stored their old computer equipment here.

Mary and Alicia’s hat business didn’t last long. Within a few months, they could no longer afford their share of the rent from the small amount of income generated by hat sales. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was why I had been asked to the loft that evening. I had been at the LOpht a few times before to hang out. Count Zero had moved his BBS out of his apartment and into the space. That BBS was called ATDT East and was one of the most elite underground BBSs on the East Coast. It was cool to monitor the computer screen and watch people as they logged into the system and poked around. There was a lot of interesting equipment in the place, equipment I didn’t get a chance to see anywhere else. Golgo13 had his original Apple Lisa, and Brian had soldering irons and other fun gadgets. There was even a huge VAX computer, which took up about four or five half-height filing-cabinet-sized metal boxes. It ran in a row just inside the main entrance, creating a short hallway. Not to mention the detritus of who-knows-how-many trashing runs around Boston, old PC parts, manuals, boxes of software, were piled haphazardly wherever there was space.

That particular evening, I was there with Kingpin and Weld Pond — two other people I had known of from BBSs, Works Gatherings, and 2600 meetings. Count Zero told us that the hat business was failing, and that Mary and Alicia were moving their stuff out. That’s when he asked Kingpin, Weld and me a question that would change our lives forever: Would we be interested in renting space with them there at the loft?

The offer surprised me immensely. I had no idea that it was coming. Obviously the four of them — Brian Oblivion, Count Zero, White Knight and Golgo13 — had all discussed this plan prior to inviting me over that evening. The four of them were pretty much “it” for the Boston 617 hacking scene, and for them to ask me to join them was amazing. I was told that my share of the rent would be something like $120 a month, way more than I could afford on my barely-above-minimum-wage security guard salary, but I didn’t care. I hadn’t collected very much computer equipment yet, but I didn’t care about that either. A big part of why I didn’t have stuff was because I didn’t have anywhere to put it and renting space at the loft would solve that problem.

I think what attracted me to joining a bunch of people I barely knew and sharing a working space was a sense of belonging and camaraderie. After being discharged from the Army, moving to Boston and having to leave school, I was feeling isolated. Yes, I had coworkers and even a girlfriend I had met at school, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t have much in the way of friends. Francyne, my girlfriend, had gone on to graduate school and wasn’t around much. Eventually my relationship with Francyne grew very strained, and we just grew apart. This situation left me with little else other than the routine of going to work so that I could make money to sleep and eat. So when Brian presented me with that offer, I considered it a pretty big deal, even if I didn’t consciously realize all the reasons why.

Cris Thomas, aka Space Rogue, has more than two decades experience in cybersecurity. He currently works as the global lead of policy and special initiatives for IBM X-Force.

The post Phreaks and l33ts: Inside the early ‘90s tech scene that created L0pht, the legendary hackerspace  appeared first on CyberScoop.

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