Other texts by Julian Dibbell

The Prisoner: Phiber Optik Goes Directly to Jail

By Julian Dibbell


(First published in The Village Voice, January 12, 1994)

Phiber Optik is going to prison this week and if you ask me and a whole lot of other people, that's just a goddamn shame.

To some folks, of course, it's just deserts. Talk to phone-company executives, most computer-security experts, any number of U.S. attorneys and law-enforcement agents, or Justice Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York (who handed Phiber his year-and-a-day in the federal joint at Minorsville, Pennsylvania), and they'll tell you the sentence is nothing more than what the young hacker had coming to him. They'll tell you Phiber Optik is a remorseless, malicious invader of other people's computers, a drain on the economic lifeblood of our national telecommunications infrastructure, and/or a dangerous role model for the technoliterate youth of today.

The rest of us will tell you he's some kind of hero. Just ask. Ask the journalists like me who have come to know this 21-year-old high-school dropout from Queens over the course of his legal travails. We'll describe a principled and gruffly plain-talking spokesdude whose bravado, street-smart style, and remarkably unmanipulative accessibility have made him the object of more media attention than any hacker since Robert Morris nearly brought down the Internet. Or ask the on-line civil libertarians who felt that Phiber's commitment to nondestructive hacking and to dialogue with the straight world made him an ideal poster boy for their campaign against the repressive excesses of the government's war on hackers. You might even ask the small subset of government warriors who have arrived at a grudging respect for Phiber's expertise and the purity of his obsession with the workings of the modern computerized phone system (a respect that has at times bordered on parental concern as it grew clear that a 1991 conviction on state charges of computer trespass had failed to curb Phiber's reckless explorations of the system).

But for a truly convincing glimpse of the high regard in which Phiber Optik is held in some quarters, you'd have to pay an on-line visit to ECHO, the liberal-minded but hardly cyberpunk New York bulletin-board system where Phiber has worked as resident technical maven since last spring. Forsaking the glories of phonephreaking for the workaday pleasures of hooking the system up to the Internet and helping users navigate its intricacies, he moved swiftly into the heart of ECHO's virtual community (which took to referring to him by the name his mother gave him -- Mark -- as often as by his nom de hack). So that when he was indicted again, this time on federal charges of unauthorized access to phone-company computers and conspiracy to commit further computer crimes, ECHO too was drawn into the nerve-racking drama of his case.

As the "coconspirators" named in the indictment (a group of Phiber's friends and government-friendly ex-friends) pleaded guilty one by one, there remained brave smiles and high hopes for Phiber's jury trial in July. By the time the trial date arrived, however, Phiber had made an agonizing calculus of risks and decided to plead guilty to one count each of computer intrusion and conspiracy. ECHO was left on tenterhooks waiting for the day of the sentencing. Given Mark's newfound enthusiasm for more legitimate means of working with computers and his undisputed insistence at the time of his plea that he had never damaged or intended to damage any of the systems he broke into, it seemed reasonable to wish for something lenient. A long probation, maybe, or at worst a couple months' jail time. After all, the infamous Morris had done considerably greater harm, and he got off with no jail time at all.

When the news arrived, therefore, of Phiber's 12-month prison sentence (plus three years' probation and 600 hours of service), it hit like a slap in the face, and ECHO responded with a massive outburst of dismay and sympathy. ECHO's director, Stacy Horn, posted the information at 3 p.m. on November 3 in the system's main conference area, and within 24 hours the place was flooded with over 100 messages offering condolences, advice on penitentiary life, and curses on Judge Stanton. Not all the messages were what you'd want to call articulate ("shit," read the first one in its entirety; quoth another: "fuckfuckfuck-fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck"), nor was all the advice exactly comforting ("Try not to get killed," a sincere and apparently quite prison-savvy Echoid suggested; "Skip the country," proposed one user who connects from abroad, inviting Phiber to join him in sunny South Africa). But the sentiment throughout was unmistakably heartfelt, and when Phiber Optik finally checked in, his brief response was even more so:

"I just finished reading all this and...I'm speechless. I couldn't say enough to thank all of you."

He didn't have to thank anybody, of course. Motivated by genuine fellow feeling as this electronic lovefest was, it was also the last step in the long-running canonization of Phiber Optik as the digital age's first full-fledged outlaw hero, and making somebody else a hero is not necessarily the most generous of acts. For one thing, we tend to get more from our heroes than they get from us, and for another, we tend to be heedless of (when not morbidly fascinated by) the very high psychic overhead often involved in becoming a hero -- especially the outlaw kind. To their credit, though, the Echoids proved themselves sensitive to the weight of the burden Phiber had been asked to take on. As one of them put it: "Sorry Mark. You've obviously been made a martyr for our generation."

There was some melodrama in that statement, to be sure, but not too much exaggeration. For ironically enough, Judge Stanton himself seemed to have endorsed its basic premise in his remarks upon passing sentence. Not unmoved by the stacks of letters sent him in support of Phiber Optik's character and motivations, the judge allowed as how a less celebrated Phiber Optik convicted of the same crimes might not deserve the severity of the discipline he was about to prescribe (and in Phiber's case it could be argued that 12 months locked up without a computer is severe enough to rate as cruel and unusual). But since Phiber had made of himself a very public advertisement for the ethic of the digital underground, the judge insisted he would have to make of the sentence an equally public countermessage. "The defendant...stands as a symbol here today," said Stanton, making it clear that the defendant would therefore be punished as one too.

The judge did not make it clear when exactly it was that the judicial system had abandoned the principle that the punishment fits the crime and not the status of the criminal, though I suppose that happened too long ago to be of much interest. More frustratingly, he also didn't go into much detail as to what it was that Phiber Optik was to stand as a symbol of. In at least one of his remarks, however, he did provide an ample enough clue:

"Hacking crimes," said Judge Stanton, "constitute a real threat to the expanding information highway."

That "real threat" bit was a nice dramatic touch, but anyone well-versed in the issues of the case could see that at this point the judge was speaking symbolically. For one thing, even as practiced by the least scrupulous joyriders among Phiber Optik's subcultural peers, hacking represents about as much of a threat to the newly rampant telecommunications juggernaut as shoplifting does to the future of world capitalism. But more to the point, everybody recognizes by now that all references to information highways, super or otherwise, are increasingly just code for the corporate wet dream of a pay-as-you-go telecom turnpike, owned by the same megabusinesses that own our phone and cable systems today and off-limits to anyone with a slender wallet or a bad credit rating. And that, symbolically speaking, is what Phiber Optik's transgressions threaten.

For what did his crimes consist of after all? He picked the locks on computers owned by large corporations, and he shared the knowledge of how to do it with his friends (they had given themselves the meaningless name MOD, more for the thrill of sounding like a conspiracy than for the purpose of actually acting like one). In themselves the offenses are trivial, but raised to the level of a social principle, they do spell doom for the locks some people want to put on our cyberspatial future. And I'm tempted, therefore, to close with a rousing celebration of Phiber Optik as the symbol of a spirit of anarchic resistance to the corporate Haussmannization of our increasingly information-based lives, and to cheer Phiber's hero status in places like ECHO as a sign that that spirit is thriving.

But I think I'll pass for now. Phiber Optik has suffered enough for having become a symbol, and in any case his symbolic power will always be available to us, no matter where he is. Right now, though, the man himself is going away for far too long, and like I said, that's nothing but a goddamn shame.