The Last Days of the Wild, Wired West
Chris Lamprecht's story is a familiar one. In the mid-1980s,
a boy from a broken family gets a computer and modem. He
begins hacking private networks for kicks and writes software
designed to scan telephone exchanges and ferret out vulnerable
networks. He dabbles with computer-facilitated crime -- mostly
stealing long-distance service. Then, older and bolder,
he begins stealing and re-selling telephony equipment, pocketing
a cool six figures with a couple friends. Finally, boy gets
nailed for money laundering, is sentenced to 70 months in
a federal prison. Same old.
But in Lamprecht's case, there's a twist. When Lamprecht
gets out of prison, he will be restrained -- by law -- from
using a modem. This limitation on his future behavior is
based solely on his reputation as a hacker, though neither
a computer nor modem were directly used in committing the
crime for which he was convicted. In fact, in an unprecedented
ruling, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks declared that Lamprecht
is not only not allowed to use his modem, but to participate
on the Internet or any other computer network, or hold any
job which involves computers, either as a programmer or
user, for three years after his release.
Considering how quickly network technology is evolving and
becoming an integral appliance of modern life, such a restriction
may prove socially and professionally crippling when Lamprecht
is released from prison in February, 2000. He's trying to
build the case that his First Amendment right to free speech
has been violated. So far, no one's listening.
Some might argue that Lamprecht deserved what he got. If
you want an example, ask any stockbroker caught insider
trading how many tears he'd shed for some computer geek
kept from his rig. But Lamprecht isn't a licensed professional;
and with no privilege granted, it stands to reason there
shouldn't be one to take away. The Internet is neither a
public utility nor a federally-regulated body (sponsored,
yes, even funded; but at this time, it is not, strictly
speaking, federally regulated.) To those who consider the
Internet an indispensible communications medium, the Lamprecht
restriction is analogous to barring an individual from writing
letters after a mail-fraud conviction.
Today, to gain access to the Internet, one simply needs
the right hardware and software. With Internet Service Provider
(ISP) fees dropping each month in telecom's version of the
airfare wars, a typical month of service isn't much more
expensive than a premium cable channel. Manufacturers of
products such as Web TV are reporting brisk sales to those
without a home computer -- with one of these Internet-in-a-box
kits, anyone can access the Internet using their existing
TV set. And for those people without the means to buy the
appliance or pay the monthly fees -- or for those in sparse
geographical areas, where dial-up service might involve
restrictive long distance charges -- public access is increasingly
common, with email accounts, Usenet and web access offered
at public libraries and after-hours classrooms nationwide.
We're on a very steep learning curve.
For most, the Internet is a brave new world, an exhilarating,
foreign experience. It was only six years ago that the Village
Voice featured the world "cyberspace" on their front
cover, causing academic Internet enthusiasts in the tri-state
area to exclaim: "The public knows -- we're doomed." And
the spate of glossy cover stories about the Internet was
a mere four years ago. Hell, the World Wide Web is only
three years old, yet for the average user, the Web is synonymous
with the Internet.
Three years. That's how long the World Wide Web has existed,
yet it's already revolutionized marketing and communications
in the public and private sectors. Countless new businesses
owe their very existence to the World Wide Web. HTML programmers,
multimedia designers, webmasters -- they would still be writing
code for accountants or programming macros for secretaries
if the Web hadn't rescued them from their lives of computer
obscurity. Now, they're corporate heroes, commanding a cache
and status previously unheard of. Computer jockeys are similar
to physicists in the 50's -- before the A-bomb, they were
academics, obscured from and ignored by the public. Now,
they're cocktail-party resources, hassled for free Internet
advice like a pediatrician in a roomful of new mothers.
Things are changing. Quickly. The
once-sluggish, mammoth telecommunications industry is especially
susceptible to this sudden, revolutionary change. Take Internet
telephony. Though in its infancy, the Internet-phone will
become ubiquitous. Using nothing more than a cheap microphone
-- standard with most desktop computers these days -- and
an Internet connection, I-phone users can talk to anyone
with a similar configuration, anywhere in the world, free
of long distance charges. It's a single-parity parlor trick
right now -- acting more like a CB-radio, allowing one person
to speak at a time. But if it weren't a viable threat to
the phone companies, they wouldn't be begging Congress for
You will be making phone
calls from your computer. You will watch cable
TV at your desk. Anything even tangentially related to telecommunications
will be tied into your computer. And, by association, the
So imagine your life in three years.
Everything has converged. Your grandparents are still intimidated
by the VCR, but your parents actually have email -- they
inherited your PC when you upgraded to the latest machine.
You haven't handwritten a letter in two years -- everyone
you know has email. The Baby Bells were unable to prevent
the distribution of I-phone software, so they changed gears
by asking Congress to allow per-minute connection charges;
it sailed through. But that doesn't matter anyway -- the
cable industry kicked their asses by making high-speed cable
modems the standard, further facilitating the convergence
of the Internet and television.
Since you don't need to dial up NYNEX,
your Internet connection is now full-time. The supermarket
has a website -- they know what you need each week, so with
a simple keystroke, you confirm your order each Monday morning.
The groceries arrive before the day's junkmail. The fact
is, you don't need to use your computer for everything --
you can still go shopping on foot; your television works
just fine without the PC hooked up. But way back when, you
didn't need cable, but you had it. You company didn't need
that fax machine, but they had one. You could certainly
sit down and write a letter to your college buddies, but
why bother? It's modern life. It's the way it works.
When Chris Lamprecht gets out of prison, he can't own a
modem. Sure, he can have as many computers as he wants,
just no modems. He can't go over to a friend's house and
use his modem. He is not allowed on the Internet nor any
other computer networks. He cannot get a job using computers -- the
only skill and pleasure he's ever had. Technically speaking,
he won't be allowed to own a fax machine, since they're
really just modems attached to a printer.
He's been castrated, in spite of the fact that his crime
did not involve the Internet, a modem nor his programming
Chris Lamprecht is
a computer hacker. He'll tell you that himself; he wears
the title as a badge of honor. His press packet, distributed
in a grass-roots effort to generate publicity for his case,
is subtitled "First Hacker Banned from the Internet by Federal
Judge." And the Web site dedicated to his case isn't titled
"Chris Lamprecht's Web Page." It's "Minor Threat's Web Page."
"Minor Threat" is Lamprecht's hacking nom de cyberguerre.
But his case still smacks of civil-liberty fuckery, of a
legal system unable to understand the judicial futility
and practical implications of such an arbitrary restriction
on modern life. He is not a drunk driver seeing his license
suspended. He is not a stock broker seeing his licensure
revoked. He's more like a bank thief who coordinated with
his buddies over the phone -- when he got caught, he served
his time, only to have his phone privileges taken away afterwards,
like a naughty boy sent to his room without TV.
Writing in his press packet, Lamprecht can seem at times
arrogant, and at other times sincere. He has the startled
voice of an accidental victim of the system. Which is ironic,
considering how openly he details his life of crime. Excepting
long-distance theft, widely regarded by hackers as less
a crime than a rite of passage, Lamprecht's first serious
crimes date back to March, 1992. With the help of his roommate,
Jason Copson, who was at that time already a federal fugitive,
Lamprecht began stealing circuit boards from Southwestern
Bell Telephone (SWBT).
With the help of at least one other person, the roommates
re-sold these high-end components to various telephony equipment
suppliers nationwide, washing the checks through a series
of falsified bank accounts and voice-mail business fronts.
According to court records, this little operation took in
over $165,000. (Okay, that's not retire-in-the-Bahamas money,
but it's still a small fortune for a few 20-year old guys
in Austin, TX, where the two were living.) Some of the circuit
boards were even stolen twice -- once from SWBT, then sold
to a legitimate third party vendor who, in turn, sold the
parts back to SWBT, where Lamprecht and Copson stole them
again. In the final tally, it was more than a million dollars
As with many thieves who find themselves in a successful,
comfortable routine, the roommates weren't careful enough
and, eventually, fucked up. Copson made the mistake of breaking
routine and stealing some chips and hardware. When he and
Lamprecht attempted to sell these to a local computer merchant,
they were arrested.
Copson went to federal prison, where he will remain for
at least 10 years, owing to his prior, unfulfilled conviction
for interstate transportation of stolen property. Lamprecht
served four months before being released on probation.
When he got out, Lamprecht continued stealing and selling
the SWBT equipment until, in October, 1993, he had enough
to pay Copson's legal fees and buy a new Nissan 300 ZX.
(Lamprecht is proud of the car, going so far as to publish
a photo of it on the Web site. Of course, it's long gone -- surrendered
during the investigation.) In November, 1993, Lamprecht
claims, he committed his last burglary.
Over the next year, the hacker began
classes at the University of Texas and held down a programming
job in Austin. In his own words, he "was going completely
straight" and "was even paying for long-distance calls."
And if he had found a nice girl, settled down and stayed
to himself, he might still be free. Instead, in February,
1994, he moved in with David Querin, an active hacker already
under surveillance for breaking into several systems. (Choice
of roommates is perhaps Lamprecht's tragic flaw.) One day,
Querin hacked his way into a log of ongoing criminal investigations;
his own residence was scheduled for a police raid in two
Again, Lamprecht wasn't careful. .
While he and Querin had ample time to remove all incriminating
evidence from the apartment, astonishingly, they didn't.
And, according to an article in Texas Monthly,
Querin drove up to the apartment while the raid was in progress
-- his jeep was filled with the very computer equipment
and files the police were seeking! Querin, the target of
the raid, ran from the scene on foot and has not been found.
And Lamprecht, caught at home, had failed to destroy the
paper trail that outlined his whole SWBT circuit-board crime
spree. The sales and deposit receipts, travel records and
instructions from Copson to Lamprecht outlining the laundering
process -- these were to prove his downfall.
No matter that he had been living the quiet life of a student
and programmer for the past year. No matter that he claimed
to have been clean for 12 months. In January, 1995, Lamprecht
was indicted on charges of money laundering. He surrendered
without incident. That May he was convicted of money laundering
conspiracy and sentenced to a near-maximum 70 months. The
Internet restriction was handed down at sentencing.
As far as hackers go,
Lamprecht is small time. There are bigger fish to fry, and
more important figures to watch. That may well explain why
he has received little or no support in the hacker community
or the press, indie or mainstream. A well-known hacker such
as Kevin Mitnick has books written about him, Web sites
providing timely updates on his life (www.kevinmitnick.com)
and Usenet newsgroups dedicated in his honor (alt.fan.kevin-mitnick).
(Mitnick was widely known in the media as "Cyberspace's
Most Wanted," after demonstrating an uncanny ability to
manipulate phone networks with an almost artlike skill.
He was eventually apprehended after a tenacious security
administrator tracked him down after several years as a
Or consider Ed Cummings (aka Bernie S), a hacker and writer
put in jail for possessing a tone dialer (available at Radio
Shack) and a laptop that could conceivably be used to modify
cellular phones for illegal use. After countless runarounds
in court, Cummings was ultimately deemed dangerous to the
community, based on a handful of Loompanics books and hacking
articles found in his apartment, and found his probation
rescinded. Then, though sentenced to serve his time at a
Bucks County minimum-security facility, Cummings was inexplicably
transferred to a Lehigh County maximum security prison,
where he was placed in "protective custody." Two
days later, Cummings was beaten so badly by a fellow inmate
that his jaw was wired shut, emergency surgery was needed
for his arm, and his face may be permanently disfigured.
His crime: owning some telecom equipment. Hackers love him.
In the eyes of the press and the cyberfan community, Mitnick
is one kind of hero, based on his derring-do. Cummings is
another kind, exemplifying an injustice served up by a callous
and ignorant judicial system. Lamprecht, though, is just
another thief, and hackers are quick to disassociate themselves
Mike Lea (aka Hippykill), who maintains the alt.hackers
FAQ, for example: "I know nothing about the case. However,
I can tell you that [Lamprecht] is not a hacker -- hackers
don't break stuff and they don't screw up other people's
With the dismissal, Lea is referring to the recent differentiation
between "hackers" and "crackers." Lea
is a self-described hacker, struggling for legitimacy and,
possibly, corporate payroll as a trouble-shooter and security-tester.
Lamprecht, in his view, would run with crackers: renegades
who give well-meaning "code warriors" and "freedom
fighters" a bad name.
Others were more generous. Frosty, who bills himself as
ilKhan of Spur of the Moment Elite Social Club (SotMESC),
a smaller, more-personal version of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation (EFF) or ACLU, elaborated: "A hacker, phreaker,
and crackers are similar in that they involve technology
and electronics, but are different in their aspects. Hackers
get into computer systems, phreakers get into the phone
systems, and crackers get into programs."
According to those definitions, Lamprecht a hacker. Whether
or not he was malicious is irrelevant -- treading on private
virtual property is the rite, period. As far as the support
Lamprecht has not received, Frosty explained: "The
Internet [hacker] society is very open, very friendly online.
But, if it feels threatened it can become defensive, and
Perhaps there is an internal dialogue circulating about
Lamprecht, among those already familiar with each other,
but no one is talking.
Regardless -- and this is undeniable -- Lamprecht is more than
just a hacker sent up by the Feds. He is a money-laundering
thief. And for that, he deserves no sympathy.
If Chris Lamprecht would stick to his First Amendment guns,
perhaps he could gain more public support. Unfortunately,
he's also crying about his conviction and sentence. He claims
that he was handed the near-maximum sentence (the longest
would've been 71 months) because he refused to cooperate
with prosecutors by naming his co-conspirators. And in a
letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission on behalf of Families
Against Mandatory Minimums, he also implies that the very
decision to prosecute him for money laundering was malicious:
"[M]oney laundering was a side effect of...interstate
transport of stolen property...I believe my case may be...an
example of a prosecutor charging someone with money laundering
to get a higher sentence when the real crime would have
brought an a lesser sentence. If I had been charged with
interstate commerce, I would have received a sentence of
36-45 months or less."
So he's upset that his thievery wasn't
properly classified. That the prosecutors maybe should've
consulted with him before pressing charges for laundering.
I didn't know defendants had the right to pick their methods
And anyway, it turns out that Lamprecht
was just begging for this brand of preferential treatment.
Back in 1995, after his residence the Querin raid, Lamprecht
spoke with Copson -- at the time in a Federal prison --
of ways to "ruin" Paul Brick, chief investigator for the
Austin police department's high-tech unit. They discussed
ways of distributing Brick's social security number and,
basically, attacking his digital existence. Of course, these
calls were monitored and recorded -- a standard practice
that inmates are well-aware of. When confronted with this
threat, the two claimed it was a joke, citing their knowledge
of the phone monitoring. If that's the truth, then they
can be held accountable for obstructing an investigation
by throwing a false threat in the path of officers. And
if it's not true -- that they really were planning to fuck
Brick -- then they were just plain stupid.
That little threat features prominently in court documents
submitted for sentencing. Lamprecht is described as having
lied in court, lied to the probation officer and not having
debriefed truthfully during the investigation. He is also
identified as someone capable -- likely, even -- to use his
computer knowledge to hurt others upon release, either as
a continuation of his criminal activities or as revenge.
And according to the court documents, in an article for
the hacker zine Phrack, Lamprecht had already distributed
the name and social security number of someone who had pissed
He certainly didn't make friends with the prosecution. But
he didn't stop there. In his press packet, he attacks his
own lawyers, describing his first attorney as a liar who
"ignored me the six weeks before my sentencing."
His second attorneys fared no better, described as two "not
very helpful" guys who "simply sat there and let
the judge ream me and give me these crazy restrictions."
David Lewis, half of the second team of lawyers, told me
that they still accept Lamprecht's collect calls and are
currently representing his sister on a case. On the record,
they called him a "nice young man" and wished
Frankly, Lamprecht should just shut
up about his lawyers, the prosecutors, the judge and the
money laundering. It would seem that he's got a good case
with the Internet restriction. After all -- Miranda was
a scumbag, but no one denies that he should have known his
right to legal representation.
"If there had been no nexus
between what [Lamprecht] had and done and using the computer,
there [would be] a real shot on First Amendment grounds.
But here...the crime itself was facilitated through the
use of the computer."
That, according to Jay Jacobson, Executive Director of the
ACLU of Texas. The Internet restriction is not analogous
to writing a letter, according to the ACLU's legal department.
Rather, they consider it a professional tool, a trick-of-the-trade
which would facilitate contact between hackers and amplify
the potential for undetectable criminal activity.
"Once you get on the Internet," Jacobson said,
"you can't be traced."
Lamprecht has been treated like an accountant convicted
of embezzling -- he will be not be allowed to access and exercise
the tools of his criminal profession. Nothing more than
that. To the ACLU, the restriction is entirely constitutional
and not a likely candidate for appeal. Which is why they
declined to take his case.
Problem is, that analogy doesn't hold
water when you consider the Internet as a telecommunications
media, like a phone, and not as privilege, such as a driver's
license. The government never told him he could get on the
Internet, so how can they say he's got to stay off?
Surprisingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, considered
by many to be the online counterpart -- successor, even -- to
the ACLU, wasn't terribly interested in the Lamprecht restriction.
Shari Steele, Legal Council for the EFF: "We're noticing
it, but to be honest with you, we are not really heavily
working on the issue. Right now we're seeing it just sporadically,
not a big problem that we're seeing lots and lots of. It's
usually, in the worst case, hackers, and it's often being
done by judges who have a limited understanding of computers."
Which, one would think, argues precisely for an appeal on
Lamprecht's behalf. And especially now -- when there are few
cases, before it becomes a judicial plague, further strengthened
"We're not nuts about this being a kind of penalty,"
Stanton McClandish, Program Director for the EFF, suggested
that this might be more an extension of a judicial gag rule
than a repeal of rights. "Judges are damned-near exempt
from the First Amendment." he said. "They can
issue pretty forceful gag rules about just about anything...There's
been at least two cases that I know of where a judge has
ruled that parties in a case may not talk about the case
in e-mail." He agrees with Steele: "I don't think
either thing is like some kind of sweeping problem. It's
just like a couple isolated cases of gag rules and Internet
restrictions being part of sentencing or parole restrictions."
But the Lamprecht case
should be raising more eyebrows. Admittedly, no one should
care about his 70-month sentence. Do the crime, do the time.
And keep your mouth shut. But there should be a dialogue
about unjust and unrealistic parole riders. Was Judge Sparks
naive? Ignorant? Was he urged along by vindictive prosecutors?
That doesn't matter. Fact is, taking Lamprecht's modem,
Internet access and livelihood away won't help anyone. If
he wants to steal more circuit boards and re-sell them for
$165,000, he'll do it -- the first time, all he needed was
a phone to make the sales and some fake IDs to open the
bank accounts. Computer be damned -- no one needs the Internet
to be a thief.
The question is whether the Judge
overstepped his authority. Can a person be restricted from,
essentially, recreational behavior that might possibly lead
to a criminal activity? Then no one should be driving. No
one should be hunting. Ask Mike Diana about this kind of
thing. A year or two ago, he was arrested for distributing
obscene material in the form of his comic-zine, Boiled
Angel. It seemed a laughable charge at the time, but
a jury of his Floridian peers found him guilty. Part of
sentence dictates that he cannot draw -- even for personal
use. Here's a case even more ridiculous than Lamprecht's,
but it recently held up under appeal. Diana has been rightly
fucked -- his First Amendment rights have been trampled.
But at least his case was visible; the comic book and zine
world came to his side, all for naught.
Lamprecht, the thief, does not deserve
sympathy. But his case should be examined by those self-declared
Freedom Fighters in our society, namely the ACLU and EFF.
Even though they didn't take up the case, it should be setting
off some alarms. For the EFF Legal Council to justify their
lack of interest with the relative rarity of similar instances
is preposterous. But, then again, in the words of Frosty
of the SotMESC: "The ACLU [and] EFF seem more concerned
with bigger prizes, and legislation instead of individual
cases that originally got them both started. I believe this
is rooted somewhere in politics and budgets." His group
will be making a donation to help Minor Threat out, solely
on the principle that the Internet restriction is harsh
Lamprecht's is not an uncommon story. Just an uncommon ending.
More to the point, though, it's uncommon at this time. Wait
and see how many more people face similar fates in the coming