Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Mark Abene (born 1972), better known by his pseudonym Phiber Optik, is a self-described hacker from New York City. Phiber Optik was once a member of the hacker groups Legion of Doom and Masters of Deception. In 1994, he served a one-year prison sentence for conspiracy and unauthorized access to computer and telephone systems.
Phiber Optik was one of the highest-profile hackers ever in the early 1990s, appearing in The New York Times, Harper's, Esquire, in debates and on television. Phiber Optik is an important character in the reality-based novel Masters of Deception — The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace .
A hacker is formed
Mark Abene's first contact with computers was at 10 or 11 years of age. After getting a modem, he got on CompuServe and shortly after came in contact with various BBSs. In desire to explore, he connected to various computers.
He became affiliated with the Legion of Doom (LOD), a loosely-knit group of BBS users interested in computers, in the late eighties. Abene and other people in the LOD exchanged information about accessing others' computer systems.
At some point in 1989 or 1990, Phiber Optik's affiliations changed from the Legion of Doom to the rival group Masters of Deception as a result of a feud with LOD member Erik Bloodaxe . According to some sources (TLC, 2004), Phiber Optik was one of the founding members of MOD. However, according to the group's own history-writing (available in the form of 5 text files, see links), Phiber was not one of the initial members. Phiber joining up with Masters of Deception marked the beginning of the Great Hacker War, several years of rivalry between the MOD and the LOD.
In conjunction with the nation-wide AT&T telephone system crash in 1990, Abene's home was raided by the Secret Service on January 24. Secret Service agents permanently confiscated a lot of computer equipment and other belongings. According to some reports [references], Phiber Optik and fellow MOD members Elias Ladopoulos ("Acid Phreak") and Paul Stira ("Scorpion"), were interrogated under the suspicion of causing the AT&T crash. Ultimately, no charges were filed along this line. AT&T also denied that hackers had anything to do with the crash, blaming a software error. However, the myth that the crash in reality was caused by MOD and LOD members was reflected in Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla's Masters of Deception, and has lived on into the 21st century (Scott, 2002).
In February 1991, Abene was finally arrested and charged with Computer Tampering and Computer Trespass of the first degree, New York state offenses. He was also charged with a misdemeanor theft-of-service for a free-call scam to a 900 number. Mark Abene, who was a minor at the time, pleaded "not guilty" to the first two offenses an guilty to the misdemeanor and was sentenced to 35 hours of community service. (Sterling, 1994)
Second arrest and indictment
Abene and four other members of the Masters of Deception were arrested again in December 1991 and indicted by a Manhattan federal grand jury on July 8, 1992 on a 11-count charge. At first, Abene — still a minor by a month — pleaded "not guilty", but later changed his plea to guilty on two felony counts.
The indictment relied heavily on evidence collected by court-approved wire tapping of telephone conversations between MOD members. According to a quote by district attorney Obermaier, related by Newsbytes, it was the "first investigative use of court-authorized wiretaps to obtain conversations and data transmissions of computer hackers."
The two counts that Abene plead guilty to, were conspiracy and unauthorized access to computers of federal interest. A number of "overt acts" were described to support the counts. On count one (conspiracy), they claimed Abene responsible for receiving login information for a computer system ("overt acts" k and r, s), and giving another member information on "how to call forward telephone numbers on a certain type of phone switching computer" (p). The first overt act was attributed to all five of the defendants, and accused them of causing damage to a computer system operated by Educational Broadcasting Company , leaving a message on the screen: "Happy Thanksgiving you turkeys from all of us at MOD". Count two (Unauthorized Access to Computers) was supported by claiming that MOD had accessed federal interest computers, destroying information in the process. It also covered illegitimately accessing Southwestern Bell computer systems. MOD and "others whom they aided and abetted" allegedly performed actions causing losses of approximately $370,000. (Grand jury indictment, 1992).
Trial and sentencing
According to a July 9, 1992 newsletter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the defendants could face a maximum term of 50 years in prison and fines of $2.5 million, if found guilty on all counts. While Abene was a minor at the time the crimes were allegedly committed, was only involved in a small fraction of the sub-charges, and often in a passive way, the jury trial eventually resulted in by far the hardest sentence: 12 months imprisonment, three years probation and 600 hours of community service.
Hacker community protests
Many people inside and outside of the hacker world felt that "Phiber's" was made an example of, and not judged according to earlier court standards. Mark Abene had gotten himself quite a name in the hacker sub-culture, for example appearing on the radio show Off the Hook , led by Eric Corley (a.k.a. Emmanuel Goldstein). At the time of the indictment and following trial, he was working at ECHO, a New York bulletin board system and pioneering ISP.
ECHO users, ECHO themselves and hackers around the nation expected Abene to get off with probation or at most a few months of jail time. Co-defendants and previous offendors charged with "hacking" offences had received rather lenient punishments, and given his new-found enthusiasm for using his knowledge to do good the general feeling was optimistic prior to the sentencing.
A statement made by Obermeier in conjunction with the indiction, "The message that ought to be delivered with this indictment is that such conduct will not be tolerated, irrespective of the age of the particular accused or their ostensible purpose." (Newsbytes, 1992), was interpreted by Abene's supporters to mean that MOD was made an example of, to show that the authorities could handle the perceived "hacker threat". During sentencing, Judge Stanton said that "the defendant stands as a symbol here today," and that "hacking crimes constitute a real threat to the expanding information highway.", reinforcing the view that a relatively-harmless "teacher", was judged as a symbol for all hackers (Dibbel, 1994 and Goldstein, 1993, 2001).
Audio clip from radio program: Mark Abene post-trial interview.ogg This clip is from a recording from the November 10, 1993 edition of the radio program Off the Hook . Emmanuel Goldstein (Eric Corley) and Phiber Optik (Mark Abene) express their concerns over the recent sentencing hearing.
After serving the one-year sentence at a federal prison in Schuylkill Pennsylvania, Mark Abene was released in November 1994. After his return, a party called "Phiberphest '95" at a Manhattan nightclub was held in his honor. In TIME, Joshua Quittner called him "the first underground hero of the Information Age, the Robin Hood of cyberspace." For a brief time, he resumed his employment at ECHO, but later moved on to create his own business, Crossbar Security that went defunct in 2001. He continues to co-host the Off the Hook radio show occasionally.
In September 2000, Abene briefly caused some stir in the security community, when he was turned down for employment by security firm @stake . The firm, which had merged with a company called LØpht Heavy Industries known for its many hacker employees a year earlier, asked him to join their New York office, apparently unaware of his past as a hacker. At a late stage, Mark was informed by a company representative that the offer was no longer valid, saying: "We ran a background check." This caused some debate regarding the role of convicted hackers working in the security business. (Poulsen, 2000).
- Dibbel, Julian (January 12, 1994). Prisoner: Phiber Optik Goes Directly to Jail. The Village Voice
- Discovery TLC (2002). TLC :: Hackers' Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 4, 2004.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (July 9, 1992). Federal hacking indictments issued against five in New York City. Retrieved September 4, 2004
- Goldstein, Emmanuel (November 10, 1993). Interview with Phiber Optik. Off the Hook radio show. (Online archive)
- Goldstein, Emmanuel (2001). Freedom Downtime, opening sequence.
- Poulsen, Kevin (September 1, 2000). AtStake jilts Phiber Optik. Retrieved September 4, 2004.
- Newsbytes (July 9, 1992). New York Computer Crime Indictments. Retrieved September 11, 2004.
- Savage, Annaliza (September 1995). Notes from the underground — Phiber Optik goes directly to jail. .net Issue 10.
- Scott, Jason (May 2, 2002). (ISN) Confessions of an Error-Filled Tome.. Retrieved September 4, 2004.
- Sterling, Bruce (January 1994). The Hacker Crackdown — Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (Project Gutenberg edition ), lines 10034–10121. Project Gutenberg.
- Verton, Dan (2002). The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (1st ed.), p. 196. Portland: Osborne/McGraw-Hill
- Walker, Kevin (1993). Interview with Mark Abene.
- Quittner, Joshua (January 23, 1995). Hacker Homecoming. TIME.
- Grand jury, United States District Court Southern District of New York (1992). Indictment of Julio Fernandez, John Lee, Mark Abene, Elias Ladopoulos, Paul Stira. (Copy from Computer underground Digest, 4:31).
- Phreaking — Mark Abene is considered highly knowledgeable on the topic of "phreaking."
- Kevin Mitnick — Another person who has been referred to as a hacker martyr.
- The History of MOD
- modbook1.txt — "The History of MOD: Book One: The Originals"
- modbook2.txt — "The History of MOD: Book Two: Creative Mindz"
- modbook3.txt — "The Book of MOD: Part Three: A Kick in the Groin"
- modbook4.txt — "The Book of MOD: Part Four: End of '90-'1991"
- modbook5.txt — "The Book of MOD: Part 5: Who are They And Where Did They Come From? (Summer 1991)"
- No Time For Goodbyes — Phiber Optik's Journey to Prison — Emmanuel Goldstein's story of Abenes last day before the prison sentence.
- Phiber Optik Goes to Prison — Article in Wired Magazine by Julian Dibbel
- Crossbar Security web site — The former web site of defunct Crossbar Security. Domain still controlled by Abene as of September 2004.
- Off the Hook shows (available as MP3 files)
- 1991-03-13 , "Phiber Optik's" first appearance on the show. .
- 1993-11-03 , announcement of Mark Abene's sentence. No recording exists. .
- 1993-11-10 , the first show following the sentencing, Phiber Optik in the studio. .
- 1994-01-05 , last show before Phiber Optik's going to prison. . transcript.
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