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The Last Hacker : He Called Himself Dark Dante. His Compulsion Led Him to Secret Files and, Eventually, the Bar of Justice

September 12, 1993|Jonathan Littman | Jonathan Littman is the author of "Once Upon a Time in Computerland." Cyberpunks can reach him on the Internet at jlittman@well.sf.ca.us

Today is the day!" squealed disc jockey Rick Dees. "This is song number one, 'Escapade,' by Janet Jackson. If it is followed by 'Love Shack' by the B-52's and 'Kiss' by Prince, you could be caller number 102 and win a brand new $50,000 Porsche!"

KIIS-FM called it "Win a Porsche by Friday": eight Porsches--about $400,000 worth of steel, leather and status--given away, one a week. You could hardly live or work in Los Angeles without being caught up in the frenzy. It seemed that the gleaming, candy-red convertibles were plastered on nearly every billboard and bus in town. Listeners were glued to KIIS, hoping to make the 102nd call after Dees spun the third song in the magical series.

Housewives, businessmen, students and contest freaks jammed the lines with their car phones and auto-dialers. They all had hopes, but one 24-year-old high school dropout had a plan. America's most wanted hacker and his associates sat by their computers and waited. On the morning of June 1, 1990, KIIS played "Escapade," "Love Shack" and then, yes, "Kiss." "We blew out the phone lines," every line was ringing, says Karen Tobin, the station's promotional director. "We picked up the calls and counted."

The hacker was counting, too. At the precise moment Prince's "Kiss" hit the air, he seized control of the station's 25 phone lines, blocking out all calls but his own. Then the man, who identified himself as Michael B. Peters, calmly dialed the 102nd call and won a Porsche 944 S2.

It was child's play. Especially for Kevin Lee Poulsen. Computer hacking had once seemed an innocent obsession to Poulsen, a native of Pasadena, but now it was his life, and it had taken him over the line. This October, Poulsen will face the first of two trials, one in San Jose and another in Los Angeles, that federal prosecutors say are critical to the government. Because of the seriousness of his alleged breaches of national security, they intend to use the cases as an example to the hacker underground.

As a teen-ager, Poulsen had burrowed deep into the giant switching networks of Pacific Bell, exploring and exploiting nearly every element of its powerful computers, from the common systems responsible for creating, changing and maintaining phone service to the shadow systems that guard secrets of national security, according to accusations in a federal indictment. The U.S. attorney in San Jose says that Poulsen had wiretapped the intimate phone calls of a Hollywood starlet, allegedly conspired to steal classified military orders, and reportedly uncovered unpublished telephone numbers for the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco.

That much the federal government knew even before charging him in the KIIS scam. And evidence was emerging that the hacker had the capacity to compromise undercover wiretaps and front businesses of the FBI itself.

Even as Poulsen honed his craft, the computer subculture he belonged to was spreading its electronic roots. Hackers were evolving into cyberpunks: a hybrid of cybernetics, the science of machines controlling brain and body, and common punks. Coined by science-fiction master William Gibson, the word signified the emergence of a new, rebel culture tripping on high-tech tools and thumbing its nose at the system. There was a time when hacker meant nothing more than joy riding a computer or phone system out of curiosity. But Poulsen, accused of cracking systems for profit and power, gave the word a new and notorious definition.

To many admirers, Kevin Poulsen was simply a particularly uppity cyberpunk creatively "surfing the edges" of the cyberspace envelope and unjustly receiving the wrath of the Data Cops. Poulsen, his supporters said, was the True Disciple of the first commandment of cyberpunk: "Information wants to be free," and, like his predecessors, he bent the limits imposed by Ma Bell and the law.

To the feds, that image didn't match reality. Kevin Poulsen's obsessive assaults on the hidden secrets of computers took him further than any hacker had gone before. Poulsen was proof of the dark side of cyberspace, and the authorities made him one of the first hackers to be charged with espionage. Cyberspace was put on notice. Indicted in November, 1989, by a San Jose federal grand jury on charges of penetrating government and phone company computers, Poulsen faces charges that could land him 37 years in jail. And the 19-count Los Angeles indictment accuses him of conspiracy, fraud, wiretapping and money laundering in connection with the KIIS scam. "Kevin didn't just defraud radio stations, compromise Pacific Bell and listen to other people's conversations," says Assistant U.S. Atty. David Schindler, referring to the second case, in Los Angeles. "He compromised law enforcement operations and systems which have a tremendous risk. That's something we take very seriously."

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