Hack Mentality

At 28, Spuds has become a cybersage for the young and the reckless. Now he's gone straight.

In its first issue, Phrack magazine published articles on how to build an acetylene bomb, pick locks and dial into university computer systems. But the U.S. Secret Service showed no interest in the controversial publication until early 1990, well after the online periodical had printed BellSouth's 911 emergency-switching programs. In a nationwide crackdown dubbed Operation Sundevil, federal agents arrested Prophet and Leftist, two members of the Atlanta branch of the Legion of Doom, an infamous gang of computer hackers.

Prophet passed the purloined telephone data to Phrack editor Craig Neidorf of Chesterfield, then a 20-year-old political-science student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Neidorf, a.k.a. Knight Lightning, and his buddy Taran King disseminated the sensitive information on electronic bulletin-board systems (BBSs) across the country, including Metal Shop BBS in St. Louis.

In an e-mail message to the Riverfront Times, Robert Holloway, a.k.a. Spuds, recounts what he says happened next: "The Secret Service came to Mizzou and sequestered (Neidorf and Taran King) for questioning. The hard drive that had the BBS on it was given to me and Grim (one of my friends) for safekeeping, because it contained evidence that could have probably ... put them in prison. Over the course of the next few months, strange things kept happening. It was an interesting experience."

Spuds is the dean of the St. Louis chapter of 2600.
John Montre
Spuds is the dean of the St. Louis chapter of 2600.
Spuds, Emmanuel and Jello Biafra at the Hope 2000 conference in New York City.
Spuds, Emmanuel and Jello Biafra at the Hope 2000 conference in New York City.

Ultimately the feds dropped the charges of wire fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property pending against Neidorf, after it was revealed in his trial that the 911 documents, which BellSouth valued at nearly $80,000, could be purchased by the public in hard-copy form for a mere $13. Operation Sundevil had another unexpected outcome: It spurred the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog organization seeking to protect First Amendment rights on the fledgling Internet.

During this time, Spuds -- then a North County high-school student -- co-founded the local branch of 2600, a computer-hacker club devoted to a quarterly magazine of the same name. At 28, Spuds may now be considered the dean of the St. Louis chapter, which continues to hold its monthly meetings in the basement food court of the St. Louis Galleria.

It's a Friday evening, and the December meeting is in full session. The youngest 2600 enthusiast is barely old enough to drive a car; the oldest is the father of teenage children. The 10 of them, nine men and one woman, huddle at a couple of tables in the far corner of the food court, surrounded on two sides by a profusion of pink and red poinsettias. The mirrored walls reflect an otherwise frenetic scene -- harried husbands, dazed moms, squealing kids. In the background, a brass band plays "Joy to the World."

But the conspicuous absence of parcels indicates that the bunch hunkered down in the smoking section didn't come to the mall to go Christmas shopping. Their conversation likewise sets them apart from the rest of the crowd. Arcane talk flows from one technical subject to the next, crossing and recrossing the invisible frontier between reality and science fiction. In the flash of a nerve synapse, the discussion may jump from routers to ports, molecular mutations to genetic programming, neural networks to electromagnetic pulsation, artificial intelligence to the encryption of DNA for espionage purposes.

An older guy, clad in a karate sweatshirt and sporting a flattop, boasts of having his entire house wired for T-1 access. As he jabbers, his hands move quickly, as if he's talking in sign language. He is an Air Force lifer, down from Iowa to attend reserve meetings over the weekend at Scott Air Force Base. Since retiring from active military service, Flattop has gone to work for a computer-security firm. He claims that he received an invitation to the White House to attend an anti-virus summit meeting organized by the National Security Council. A teenager seated next to him nods his head in admiration, his face half-eclipsed by the long, curved bill of a baseball cap.

Other young men in attendance aren't so impressed by Flattop's braggadocio. They are softly talking among themselves, casting wary glances in his direction. Two of them are high-school students; the other says he is a freshman in college. Freshman sarcastically remarks that he doesn't believe most of what Flattop says and tries to ignore the rest. The kibitzing then turns to the filters used by high schools to censor the Internet. The students complain that the devices block Web sites that express opinions on just about any issue, from guns to abortion rights.

Spuds sits Buddha-like, listening calmly as Flattop raves on about the computer lab he installed in his basement. An occasional puckish grin creeps across Spud's face. He wears a frayed white T-shirt and sandals, sips from a giant soft-drink cup. His girlfriend occasionally cradles her head on his shoulder. During the course of the evening, younger members gravitate toward his end of the table, seeking counsel.

So goes another meeting of the local chapter of 2600. The periodical, which began publishing out of New York in 1984, takes its title from the frequency that phone "phreaks" once used to place free long-distance calls. Phone phreaks are seen as the progenitors of today's hackers, who by now have a lengthy history of their own.

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