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The Computer Underground: Twenty Years Later

In 1989 I concluded a multi-year sociological research project about how hackers, phone phreaks, and software pirates--collectively known as "the computer underground"--organized themselves. That is, how they identified each other, collaborated, and mutually participated in their activities.

I studied this closed culture by using the tools of participant observation. That is, I became a member of their society, albeit solely as an academic. But I wasn't the only one interested in the computer underground, towards the end of my research period the U.S. Secret Service, and career-minded district attorneys had begun their own covert investigations. None of us knew it at the time, but the feds even went so far as rigging up a St Louis hotel room to secretly video tape a hacker meet-up called SummerCon. (To this day I sometimes glance suspiciously at hotel room mirrors, wondering if this one, too, hides a watching agent in the next room.)

Shortly after I published my master's thesis, the hacker crackdown generally known as Operation Sundevil began. The aftermath was incredibly damaging to several of my friends, and the case so mishandled by the government that the Electronic Frontier Foundation was created in response. It also inspired me, together with Jim Thomas, to create Computer underground Digest (CuD), one of the earliest, large circulation electronic newsletters before the age of the Internet.

Yes, it's true. Before the Internet existed (at least as we know it today), swapping hacking techniques, warez, or gossip required dialing into basement bulletin board systems, arranging voice chats on "borrowed" telecom bridges, and swapping printed issues of TAP or YIPL via snail mail.

In recognition of those halcyon days of only 20 years ago, I've created an anniversary edition of The Social Organization of the Computer Underground, and added a new introduction with background and commentary. The first edition is widely available, in ASCII, across the Internet. This new edition is reformatted for easier reading and is a free download in PDF. You can also purchase a printed or Kindle edition from Amazon, and I'm donating all proceeds from these to the EFF. For more information visit The Social Organization of the Computer Underground website.


Very cool! Really looking forward to reading this.

I love reading about this time period. I can't wait to read this, especially since it's from the point of view of one of the participants. Those are the most interesting pieces, and I'll buy it as soon as it comes out!

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