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 restrictive legislation.
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 Internet.
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 skills.
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 of equipment.
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 days.
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 ( and Usenet newsgroups dedicated in his honor ( (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 fugitive.)
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 from him.
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 stuff."
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 distant."
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 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 of prosecution.
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 him off.
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 him well.
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 by precedent.
"We're not nuts about this being a kind of penalty," Steele admitted.
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 and unrealistic.
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 years.