T-Mobile's Hacker Fantasy
By Mark Frauenfelder, Fri Sep 05 14:00:00 GMT 2003

"God damn - phone companies used to persecute hackers, not romanticize them!" This is what my friend Steve Steinberg wrote on my weblog after he'd read an AdWeek article about T-Mobile's stylish animated commercials for the Color Sidekick.

The eight 20-second spots tell the story of Johnny Chase, an ex-hacker with Sonic Hedgehog hair who blithely taps out text messages while saving the planet from grunting bad guys who want to rub him out.

The anime-styled Chase - whose name brings to mind Jonny Quest and Neuromancer's drugged-out hacker-for-hire, is an astoundingly unlikely pitchman for a phone company. Steve ought to know. Currently, he's a trendspotter and developer with a New York-based hedge fund, but in the 80s and early 90s, he was a member of Legion of Doom, an infamous group of brilliant and mischievous hackers. When I first started corresponding with him (I was publishing a print zine called bOING bOING, and Steve had his own, called Intertek. Both of our zines covered the culture surrounding the rise of communications technology, so we swapped subscriptions) I had no idea that he was a member of Legion of Doom.

In 1992, science fiction author Bruce Sterling wrote a captivating non-fiction book called The Hacker Crackdown (You can download it from the EFF here). The book exposed the underground phone-phreak/hacker subculture, which regularly broke into telephone companies' computers to reroute calls, eavesdrop on conversations, and generate other forms of electronic mayhem. The Legion of Doom, which figured prominently in the book, was described by sterling as the "loudest and most flagrant of all underground groups."*

The irate phone companies and the US Justice Department descended upon the Doomsters and other hackers with furor, not bothering to discriminate between malicious vandals bent on causing as much damage as possible and curious kids who wanted to poke around inside the phone company's computer system. Federal prosecutors hated these hackers with a passion normally reserved for serial child killers. At the trials, lawyers were basically asking judges to toss the young troublemakers into a deep well and fill it with radioactive concrete. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and most of the hackers and phreaks got probation or suspended sentences in exchange for cooperating with investigators.

In 2003, the world is orders of magnitude more dependent on electronic communications, and for better or worse, hackers are on the mind of everyone who has ever been the victim of an email virus. In today's world, to be able to hack is to have power. Just ask the juvenile jerk who unleashed the Sobig worm that caused an email meltdown.

T-Mobile figures it'll get away with exploiting the street cache of the hacker underground for commercial gain. The viewers of MTV and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim - where the ads have been running - neatly fit Sidekick's target market. Unfortunately, that same viewership includes a minority of pubescent miscreants who get off on committing acts of digital vandalism. What happens if some impressionable pimpleface, inspired by the Johnny Chase spots, decides to tear into the T-Mobile network and put everyone's Sidekick on the fritz? Will T-Mobile go easy on a real-life Johnny Chase in a court of law? Or, more likely, will it call for the firing squad? One thing's for certain - the ensuing show will be more fun to watch than the animated commercials.


* Right after I finished reading The Hacker Crackdown, I met Sterling for the first time at a computer-human interface conference in Monterey. He wore a sardonic expression, large wireframe glasses, and an extraordinarily aggressive mullet. He invited me to a party that night at a nearby hotel and I accepted. While drinking beer and discussing the book with Sterling and a few other people, I asked him about the government agents he'd interviewed while researching The Hacker Crackdown.

"Why do they want to bust these kids so hard?" I asked him.

With his Texan accent, dripping with incredulity at the naiveté of my question, Sterling said, "So they can do this." Using the butt of his palm, he shoved me in the chest hard enough to make me spill my plastic cup of beer to the ground. He pushed me again just in case I didn't get the message the first time around, saying, "Where else can you get a job that lets you do this?" (I could have answered "as a bigshot science fiction writer," but I was too shy.)

Unlike the Feds, the phone companies weren't interested in bullying people for sadistic kicks. They were more concerned with putting an immediate stop to anyone who made them look stupid and insecure.