Running for president casts a bright spotlight in the shadows of candidates’ pasts. That’s a good thing, of course, allowing voters to learn about the people who are contending for the most important position in the country. But it doesn’t always mean that particularly salacious things are uncovered. Sometimes what’s uncovered is something … unusual.
As was the case with a report published Friday by Reuters. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), it seems, participated in an early hacking collective called “Cult of the Dead Cow” while he was in high school.
For most people, that name probably won’t ring a bell. For many, linking O’Rourke’s name to “hacking” seems like a black mark or a pejorative. But that’s not really the case — at least, not in the sense in which it applies here.
Thanks largely to movies, the term “hacking” is broadly understood to refer to nefarious activity focused on theft or other illegal acts. In a broader sense of the word — in the sense used by O’Rourke’s group — it means something more like “mess around with.” Hacking things together. Coming up with a hack that solves a problem. And, sure, getting past barriers by messing with code.
O'Rourke alluded to this broader definition in an interview with Reuters.
"There’s just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun while you’re doing it,” he said. That's the not-necessarily-illegal sense of the word.
At the time that O’Rourke was engaged with the group, the Internet wasn’t the Internet we have today. This was the late 1980s, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Americans began to regularly use something like the Internet as we understand it now, connecting over networks to pages on the Web. O’Rourke wasn’t sitting in front of a computer and clicking a Web browser. In fact, he wasn’t clicking anything.
What O’Rourke was using was a “bulletin-board system,” or BBS, which is to the Web what going to a restaurant is to going to a food festival. A food festival that’s also on Seamless.
How much of this is familiar to you will depend on how old you are. You may, for example, remember modems, little boxes attached to your computer or (in later years) built into it, into which you’d plug a regular phone landline. (If you don’t know what a phone landline is, which seems plausible, it’s the physical cord that ran phone lines into houses before cellphones became ubiquitous.) The modem converted a signal that could run over a phone line into one that a computer could recognize.
In the early days of the Internet, people used modems to connect to Internet service providers (ISPs), which would connect them to the broader Internet. But in the BBS era, modems were used to connect directly to other computers that were running software that could host small communities of users. To connect, you would actually call a specific phone number with your computer and connect to the computer hosting the BBS.
In college, I had a roommate who wanted to run a BBS from our dorm room. From the BBS operator side, it meant leaving the computer connected to the phone constantly, to answer incoming calls. He was discouraged from undertaking the project.
To discover new bulletin-board systems, one would hear from other BBS users, see ads in computer publications or learn about them from messages on other bulletin-board sites. At the bottom of one of the essays O’Rourke wrote for Cult of the Dead Cow, for example, are instructions on how to connect to a specific bulletin board.
Notice the 915 area code: El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown.
Remember, too, that long-distance phone calls — generally calls outside your own area code — were often expensive. If you were living in Ohio and read O’Rourke’s essay about how money is bad, you would’ve needed to have your modem call that 915 number to connect to the BBS. (O’Rourke, Reuters reports, ran a BBS called Tacoland, but it’s not clear whether “The New Society” advertised above is the same thing.) These modems were not fast, transmitting at something like 300 baud — 300 bits per second. One character is eight bits, so you’re getting around 40 characters a second.
This sentence would take over a second to load.
(Of course, screen resolutions were low, too, and most of the “graphics” were simply what’s now known as ASCII art — deliberately spaced characters used as decoration or to like an animal or person.)
The point is: Loading a BBS could be expensive. In an interview with Reuters, O’Rourke acknowledges doing some of the less-legal sort of hacking.
"Heavy use of long-distance modem calls could add up to hundreds of dollars a month. Savvy teens learned techniques for getting around the charges, such as using other people’s phone-company credit card numbers and five-digit calling codes to place free calls,” Reuters’ Joseph Menn writes. “O’Rourke didn’t say what techniques he used. Like thousands of others, though, he said he pilfered long-distance service ‘so I wouldn’t run up the phone bill.’ "
Once connected and logged in — some BBSes required accounts, some didn’t — users were given a list of services, such as messages between users or stories to read. Generally, the menu of choices was shown as a list, with a prompt asking for users to enter a letter or number representing their choices. Press 1 for new messages, that sort of thing. Hence the above analogy of a restaurant. There was no jumping around from one thing to the next. There were a slate of services offered, and if you didn’t like them, you could leave.
At the time O’Rourke was involved, Cult of the Dead Cow was focused on writing, according to the Reuters report.
"Although some CDC essays gave programming and hacking instructions, in the late 1980s, the group was more about writing than it was about breaking into computer systems,” Menn writes.
You can still read O’Rourke’s essays online at an archive of old CDC files. His handle was Psychedelic Warlord.
In other words, O’Rourke wasn’t a hacker in the sense that you might think. A way to describe him at the time that is more fitting with the understood usage of a word would probably be something like “nerd.”