November 10th, 2004 Zach Dundas | Special Section Stories
 

SPACE INVADER

Phantom Dialer, computer hacker

     
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In 1991, an enigmatic Portland hacked called the Phantom Dialer pulled off the biggest Internet breach ever.
The hacker broke into Portland State's computer system for the first time in March 1991. The school's technical guardians raised their eyebrows but didn't panic. Such invasions were hardly rare even then, back when the Internet was the preserve of pioneers--a sort of digital Wild West populated by pasty-faced nerds.

A few, inevitably, went bad, showing off their chops by cracking into systems. For the most part, though, they posed more annoyance than threat.

"Most of these guys are creatures of the night," says Janaka Jayawardena, who then as now ran Portland State's computer-support department. "You shine a light on them, and they scurry away."

Not the Phantom Dialer--who single-handedly pulled off the biggest Internet invasion ever.

"Phantom Dialer was easily the most persistent hacker we'd ever seen," Jayawardena says. "He had no qualms about doing what he did right out in the open."

That was unusual. What was alarming was what Phantom Dialer did after he broke in.

The hacker proved highly adept at "getting root," or subverting systems' most vital security safeguards to establish total control over them. A geek slogan of the time held that "God = Root"--a user holding root access could do just about anything he or she wanted. Destroy files. Read mail. Change an F grade to an A. Add a few zeroes to a bank-account balance.

Phantom Dialer's relentlessness and guile spelled trouble for Jayawardena. But he was not alone.

Sun Microsystems. MIT. NASA. The Naval Research Laboratory.

Before long, Phantom Dialer started leapfrogging from Portland State's systems into bigger, badder systems, vaulting some of the Internet's most fearsome iron-spike-topped walls. The hacker got in, and got root access again and again.

The specter of some pseudonymous cyber-burglar seizing control over, say, Sun's latest operating system or weapons-systems specs transformed the case from a PSU housekeeping puzzle to a precedent-busting FBI probe. True, Phantom Dialer never seemed to do any of the nasty things his hacking exploits made possible. But surely, such an intrepid intruder must be connected--must be working for someone.

Phantom Dialer's exploits caught the FBI napping. Many Bureau higher-ups were only dimly aware of the Internet's existence.

"It was like, if someone in a narcotics case was carrying a laptop, they called that a computer crime," says Jim Settle, who at the time was fighting a bureaucratic war to set up the Bureau's first true cyber-crime unit. "There was no focus on the telecom networks and the crimes you needed a computer to commit."

Settle convinced the FBI to foist a cyber-crime unit on its D.C. field office, over the office's objections. Soon after, Phantom Dialer hit the radar screen, and it became clear that his rampage was the biggest hack ever.

"This guy was really sort of a leader," Settle recalls. "He was getting into higher levels than your average Boo-Boo Bear. The more places he went, the more intense we got."

Two days before Christmas 1992, FBI agents knocked on the door of a 2,000-square-foot bungalow in Southeast Portland. They didn't find a criminal mastermind.

Instead they discovered Timothy Bach, a socially unplugged 20-year-old with fingers gnarled by day-and-night keyboard marathons. Bach, later diagnosed as schizophrenic, lived in squalor in his bedroom at his parents' house, surrounded by rotting food and dirty clothes. He broke into computers, it seemed, for the same reason taggers scrawl their cryptic marks on walls.

"When you met this guy, he was withdrawn," says PSU's Jayawardena. "But online he was somebody, and I think that kept him going. He gained a position of respect in the hacker world."

Bach was never prosecuted. Instead, he was counseled and, for a time, forbidden to go near a computer. But today--though WW was unable to track him down--it seems he still has an appetite for mischief.

Arbitration records show Bach has been embroiled in a number of disputes over "cybersquatting" in recent years. For instance, he registered "prudentialmotors.com," a web domain name similar to many used by Prudential Insurance, and linked it to a porn site. He pulled a similar stunt with a site connected to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who, ironically, has worked on anti-cybersquatting legislation.

If Bach's instincts haven't changed, the world he inhabits has. With the World Wide Web bringing everyone and their mother online, the Internet is a far less lonely, less romantic place. Today, Jayawardena's department faces fewer hacker-geniuses like Tim Bach. Instead, today's computer malefactors unleash swarms of automated viruses and email worms.

"You rarely see the person behind the threat," Jayawardena says. "Now we just try to hold the line against all these robot probes. And I don't think any hacker has ever been as openly prolific as Tim Bach."

All the same, Settle--now retired from the FBI and working as a computer-security consultant in Virginia--says Phantom Dialer was a landmark in cyber-crime's history.

"It helped give us a base for where we are today," Settle says. "People said, 'Well, what was the big deal about what he did--not like he hurt anyone.' That's like saying you should just pick someone off the street and give 'em total control over the phone system. That was not unlike what he had the potential to do."


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Intro | Tonya's Mob: Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly & Shawn Eckardt | The Crusader: Gordon Shadburne | The Meteor: Billy Ray Bates | Satan's Pilgrim: Rex Diabolos Church | The Firebrand: Ron Herndon | The Bad Boy: Frank Peters | The Broken Halo: Michael Stoops | The Crack Mother: Anita Nichols | The Veejay: Kennedy | The Girl from Electra: Treva Throneberry | The Perfect Victim: Azalea Cooley | The Grappler: Dutch Savage | Wonder Boy: Pat Gillis | The Ex-Files: Marcia & Steve Moskowitz | The Witness: Dave Mazzella | The Prankster: Igor Vamos | The Intern: Monica Lewinsky | The Runaways: Diane Walden & Peter | Top Cop: Mark Kroeker | Sprawl Kitten: Kate Schiele | Authority Figure: Rocky Balada | The Hulk: Dry Dock 4 | The Candidate: Gail Shibley | The Super: Ben Canada | The Organ Grinder: Dr. William J. Brady | Pillars of the Community: The Lovejoy Columns | The Survivor: Giles Thompson | The Contender: Andy Minsker | Space Invader: The Phantom Dialer | The Red Menace: Ma Anand Sheela

 
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