No Country for Incarcerated Hackers
by Ghost Exodus
Hello world! Greetings from within the razor-wire. I have been in FCI Seagoville's Special Housing Unit for a year now. For those of you who don't know what a SHU is, it's a maximum security control unit, 23/5 lockdown - a prison within a prison where I have aboded for a minor infraction which has evolved into a laundry list of human rights violations to include cruel and unusual punishment.
One thing is for certain: Hollywood seems to love hackers. They glamorize us and portray the hacker in favorable roles where the audience can't help but love those characters. Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Napster in The Italian Job or Stanley in Swordfish are to name a few characters the audience's rooted for. When Matthew Farrell and Warlock were jibbering about the Woodlawn servers being "hot" in Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane's clueless expression as to what the two hackers were talking about was priceless.
My favorite scene from The Matrix was the part where Neo is snoozing at his cluttered computer desk, listening to electronic music while his computer is running some script, searching newspaper archives for articles on Morpheus. I can reminisce on times when that was me, having crashed from an energy drink high, listening to the powerful thump of Pendulum's "Voodoo People" remix in my headphones. My computers were my babies, which I had built from my trashing exploits (Dumpster diving), which cranked enough juice to keep me satisfied.
In prison, the inmate populous also loves hackers. Unknown to themselves, many of them are hackers too. I've seen guys modify AM/FM radios and make them more energy efficient by disabling backlights, build external battery packs, and even boost the frequency range to pick up the air traffic control band. (Of course, on my first attempt at this I killed my radio and, in my frustration, I flushed it down the toilet.)
However, prison is also a melting pot of criminal minds, which is counterproductive to those who seek rehabilitation and, while I freely teach and explain "hackerdom" to my fellow inmates in a gesture towards the hacker philosophy that "information should be free," I can only hope that my advice will be used in productive ways that society can benefit from.
But because of my botnet case back in June 2009, prison officials are extremely wary of me. My case was over sensationalized - like most hacker cases - by the news media and their creative flair (Markoff, anyone?), thus making me a target of vicious persecution because of the prison staff's fanatical misconception of who I am and what they believe I am capable of, which isn't much, considering the Bureau of Prisons uses these Dell Optiplex thin clients which are network booted, have no local operating system, and whose BIOS is password protected. The thin clients are secured under lock and key, so anything short of a bolt cutter makes physical access impossible. Without knowing the BIOS password in order to change the boot priorities to read from an external storage device equipped with a Linux distro, there is no point of entry server-side or client-side (at least not in my skill set).
Naturally, I'm blocked from using Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), where at one time I could email people on an approved list. I still retain computer access, except I can't utilize electronic mail functions. I'm still not entirely sure that revoking my access to a monitored and filtered email system accomplished anything relevant.
I'm on a restricted books/magazines blacklist, so I can't receive computer-related literature, especially 2600 or even my own writings which have been seized as contraband by Special Investigation Services without reason or receipt, which spawns a spartan kick to my First Amendment rights - an issue being touched upon in my litigation against said lynch mob. Linux shell commands are forbidden. (Note to self: must tattoo all shell commands on my leg next time.) I have an eight-bit binary tattoo on my wrist which spells "JESUS" and this should make them paranoid too!
A friend of mine had a copy of 2600 sent to him via the mail. It got intercepted by SIS and they began interrogating him, asking such things as: "Are you into this kind of stuff?" and "Are you a friend of [my real name]?" He vigorously denied everything or else they would have crucified him like they did to me.
The reason I was confined to a year of isolation was because I had borrowed a friend's email account, which isn't a big deal - unless you have my name. Then it became a security threat (in the eyes of the paranoid and the misinformed).
I atoned for my sin twelve times over and became the target of an FBI investigation after several UNSUBs accused me of "hacking into the BoP systems" (which specific systems, no one knows). And since I hired a lawyer to combat this unlawful incarceration under false charges, the retaliation I've experienced is insane. This is but the G-rated version of my woes.
If you get the opportunity, I recommend buying the 2600 documentary Freedom Downtime. Hackers and phreaks like Kevin Mitnick, Phiber Optik, and Bernie S. experienced the razor-wire, though Kevin and Bernie endured tremendous woes in prison, which goes to show that there really needs to be sentencing alternatives for the non-violent offender.
I can't participate in computer-related educational programs or have a job that involves computers. Word travels fast within the prison guard fraternity. I have been excommunicated.
What I've endured thus far is a mirror reflection of the discrimination we face in the real, free world. The word "hacker" is so misunderstood it's taboo, regardless of whether you mod radios or Xboxes. When people are unwilling to learn, they are quick on that judgment trigger - perhaps because they've had a bad experience with someone malicious. Our subculture is an enigma, which is what drew me into this mysterious world of tinkering in the first place 14 years ago. Haters will hate, and they're next to impossible to reason with.
Those of you who know "Silence" (a.k.a. "Little Hacker") may be aware that his sentencing judge called him a terrorist, while mine called me evil. Funny how hypocritical society can be. That just doesn't compute with me. There are a minority of scheming black hats who do cause mischief and sometimes cause damage to data and intellectual property. But sadly, all of the good that the majority does often goes unrecognized. For ethics' sake, I drafted "The Hacker's Ten Nodes" as a moral guideline to keep me from sin and transgressing the network. My morals may differ from yours, but here's my example:
The Hacker's Ten Nodes
1.) I will not steal that which is not mine. If I must copy a file, it's because I legitimately need it and will compensate the owner of the original file so as not to threaten the commerce and livelihood of the owner.
2.) I will use my skills to stop any and all forms of cyberbullying.
3.) I will not weaponize my skills to harm the innocent or the defenseless. I will empower the oppressed and be a benefit to society.
4.) If I encounter corruption, I will leak it for the sake of justice.
5.) Knowledge shall be free. I won't withhold knowledge from the hungry.
6.) I will not boast of my abilities to those who don't appreciate the art of hacking.
7.) I will not judge those of a lesser skill, but help them advance forward.
8.) I will RTFM and encourage my peers to RTFM.
9.) I will aid the voiceless in obtaining a voice and help them evade censorship so they too can enjoy the fundamental human rights of free speech.
10.) I will not share my skills or my knowledge with any government because they will abuse it.
As I am now being shipped, probably to a galaxy far, far away, I leave you with encouragement. If you have suffered persecution, you are not alone. We freethinking technoids have always been misunderstood. We go against the grain of social conformity and dwell in a creative universe of our own. A peculiar people. We are unique. We are the essence of individuality. That's something that a conformist mind can never achieve.
This piece was originally written in January of 2013. We feel it's as relevant now as it was then. We're also happy to say that the writer was released from prison in 2018.