Off With His Hands

by rthieme on February 1, 1997

Off With His Hands

In his award-winning science fiction novel, "The Stars My Destination," Alfred Bester
conceived of a world in which "jaunting," or short-distance teleportation, was the
norm. In order to jaunt, you had to know exactly where you were, so criminals were
kept in a  maze-like cave in darkness, denied access to the sense data that would
allow them to visualize their  location. This intentionally cruel and unusual
punishment had nothing to do with the crimes for which prisoners were sentenced.

Participation in the Internet and other computer networks is our version of jaunting.
That's how twenty-first century humankind transcends time and  space. Denying a
criminal access to computer networks is like breaking his fingers for writing a
hold-up note and forbidding him to use a pen. When the crime has had nothing to do
with computers or networks in the first place, it's like putting him into a
sensory-deprivation tank simply to punish him.

Enter Chris Lamprecht, a sometime hacker and formerly a programmer, installer,
and trouble-shooter  for Optical Document Technology in Austin, Texas. Lamprecht
is now serving seventy months in a Texas prison for money laundering, although
the activities connected to his sentencing included burglary and the theft and
sale of hundreds of thousands of dollars  worth of electronic switching systems
and other telephone company equipment. His crimes had nothing to do with hacking,
but if the criminal justice  system has its way, he will not be able to use a
computer connected to a modem or connect to a network when he gets out. The case
illustrates not  only the great gulf fixed between those who use the Net and
those who don't, but also how the image of  hackers as "evil geniuses" can
distort the perception  and judgement of those who play into the image as
well as those who fear and misunderstand it.

From the government side, it seems Lamprecht's computer activities were linked
to his criminal activities through a bizarre chain of reasoning. Lamprecht once
made calls to change the outgoing telephone message on someone's answering
machine. He acknowledged that and stopped doing  it. The police investigation
determined, however, that  Lamprecht was "computer literate" and he and his
cohorts were "known hackers and had the capability to enter into a computer
program and review, extract,  and change information." Lamprecht and his pals,
particularly Jason Copson, had penetrated several private and government
computer systems, although "it is unknown if these illegal entries have
resulted in  monetary gain." (Lamprecht says he never made a dime from his
hacking; like most hackers, he explored  computer systems for the pleasure of
the quest and to  learn).

One of Lamprecht's errors was speaking openly with Copson during a telephone
call Copson made from  prison. Both men knew the calls were monitored, but
discussed nevertheless their desire to "ruin" an Austin cop, Paul Brick. They
discussed obtaining his social security number. To prevent them from entering
computer systems in search of that social security number, the following
stipulation was made:

"Upon release from imprisonment ... for a term of three years, the defendant
cannot be employed where he is the installer, programmer, or trouble shooter
for computer equipment; may not purchase, possess or receive a personal computer
which uses a modem; and may not utilize the Internet or other computer  networks"

When he heard these conditions, Lamprecht broke  down in the courtroom and cried.
They had hit him where it hurt. They deprived him of the only way he knew how to make a living and banished him for three
additional years to the wasteland of the caves.

Did the judge, the Honorable Sam Sparks, really  understand what he was doing? Did
he really intend that Lamprecht should not attend schools that assign email addresses
and in some cases insist email be  used to submit papers? Did he really intend that
he never use a public library online catalog?

Doesn't Sparks know that anyone with a few dollars can buy a social security number
in the data  marketplace? Besides, good hackers are equally adept at "social
engineering." If Lamprecht talks someone out of their social security number,
should we cut out his tongue? In short, does the judge have a  clue as to how life
is lived these days? Lamprecht's  former boss, Selwyn Polit of ODT, laughed when
asked about the case. "They're dead scared of him because of the computer stuff,"
he said. "They treat him differently because they think if he just thinks about
computers, he can do magical things." Unfortunately, Lamprecht's statements feed
these projections. He plays to the "evil hacker genius" image for all its worth.

Lamprecht says his sentence is longer than that of any other hacker, for example.
But if his crime has nothing to do with that, why identify himself that way? Why feed
the distortion? Lamprecht also says he  created ToneLoc, a widely used program that
scans for carriers and dial tones, useful for hacking PBX codes. Wardialers like ToneLoc,
however, existed long before Lamprecht got into hacking; like most tools that evolve
over time online, many minds contributed to creating the finished product.  Lamprecht
is learning painfully that you can be punished for how you're perceived as much as
whatyou've done. Some of his colleagues describe him as an innocent despite his
criminal activity, naive about the real world. His employer as well as his friends
call him loyal, reliable, capable. His employer felt his need to be more than capable
might have led him to exaggerate his computer skills.

Polit said "he took pride in his work and wrote clean tight code, but nothing
spectacular. He's sharp, but not extraordinary." Would ODT hire him back?
Absolutely. But they may not have that opportunity.  Lamprecht feels it's a question
of free speech and first amendment rights, but he "will probably have an  uphill
battle because of the wide discretion given judges in creating conditions of probation,"
says Tim Muth, partner at Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren,  Norris, and Rieselbach, a
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, law firm. Muth built the firm's celebrated web site and has a
passion for the legal issues emerging in the virtual world. "On the other hand, with
the growing importance of computers and network communications for making a living,
a court might say that a greater justification should be required for this kind of
restriction. Unfortunately for Lamprecht, our courts have not yet recognized such
a principle in the constitution or elsewhere."

Lamprecht hopes to find lawyers willing to work pro bono to establish that principle.
And who can blame him? Isolated from the network, deprived of his livelihood, the
prospect of wandering the maze in the cave is a lonely one. You don't have to be the
anti-hero of Neuromancer to know how it feels to be kept off the Net. Just as we
don't speak a language, but our language speaks us, once we have been connected, we
can never forget that the Net is our hive mind. We don't dream up the Net, the Net

dreams us. Now more than ever, you just can’t be a human being alone.

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