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COLUMN ONE : The Pirates of the Internet : As the global computer network grows so do the rings of thieves who use it to steal software. Frustrated security experts say they may have to resort to bounty hunters.

November 03, 1994|ADAM S. BAUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the early hours of July 6, Jenny, head of a software piracy ring based in the Pacific Northwest, paced impatiently in front of a rack of high-speed personal computers, waiting for the phone call that would make her a superstar in the pirate underground.

It would come from an employee of LucasArts Entertainment Co. in San Rafael, who for $300 would supply Jenny's pirate group with one of the most anticipated games of summer: "TIE Fighter," based on the "Star Wars" movie trilogy and priced at about $60 per copy.

At LucasArts, the employee attached a small cellular modem to the back of his PC--a technique that would keep any record of the call off the company telephone bill--and dialed. Within a few minutes, the program had arrived in Jenny's computer, lacking only the code keys that would make it possible to play the game without an owner's manual.

Jenny then dialed into the Internet, the global computer network, and after taking several deliberate electronic detours she connected with a small computer in Moscow. There, a programming whiz who goes by the name "Skipjack" quickly cracked the codes and sent the program back across the Internet to "Waves of Warez," a Seattle bulletin board popular with software pirates.

Within 24 hours, "TIE Fighter" would be available to thousands of software pirates in major cities around the world--days before its official release date of July 20.

Welcome to the underside of the Internet, where stealing software has become highly sophisticated and hotly competitive--pursued more for thrills than for money. It's a world where pirate groups build alliances, undertake mergers and sometimes launch all-out battles against rivals.

And, contrary to common stereotypes, it is populated not only by nerdy teen-age misfits, but by a curious cross-section of computer enthusiasts looking for some dangerous fun.

Jenny, for example, is a woman whose hobbies include motorcycles and collecting rare birds. The head of a big East Coast-based ring is a commercial airline pilot. Another group leader is a junior studying chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. Yet another is a grandmother, leader of an elite group called Nokturnal Trading Alliance.

Their activities are, of course, illegal, potential felonies in many cases. And to most denizens of cyberspace, who use the Internet for scientific research, legitimate commerce and legal forms of entertainment, the pirates are common vandals at best.

Still, a number of pirates agreed to allow a reporter to observe their operations--both in person and via computer techniques that make it possible to monitor computer activities remotely--on the condition that their real names not be used.

The economic impact of the pirates' activities is difficult to measure. Electronic software theft via the Internet and other on-line services accounts for about one-third of the $2.2 billion lost in the United States last year as a result of piracy, according to the Business Software Alliance, a trade group. Pirates who mass-produce CD-ROM and floppy disks with stolen software pose a much bigger problem.

But Internet software theft is growing rapidly, along with the global network itself. Even major, mainstream software programs--like the new version of IBM's OS/2 operating system--are now routinely obtainable for free on the Internet.

And the pirates' activities have other consequences as well. They sometimes invade and effectively disable computers being used for scientific research, for example. And many in the information technology industries fear that software theft and other illegal activities are giving the Internet a bad name just when it is gaining unprecedented popularity.

Yet stopping the pirates turns out to be a very difficult task. Law enforcement agencies, software companies and even indignant individuals are stepping up efforts to hunt down electronic lawbreakers, but new methods of stealing and distributing stolen software are developed every day.

By design, the Internet lacks any central administrative authority, and security procedures aimed at thwarting pirates could interfere with the philosophy of free and open communications that is integral to the network. Some suggest the thievery won't be stopped until "bounty hunters" are recruited from the pirates' ranks and paid to hunt their former cohorts.

It may be small comfort to the victims, but most of the pirates interviewed for this story insisted they were not in it for the money.

"It was just for the thrill of getting free software or logging onto pirate bulletin boards that normal people don't know about," said Mike from Seattle, who says he has never earned a dime in his role as a "courier" for a pirate group.

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