The mid to late 80’s were a fascinating time for anyone preoccupied with computers and stories about programmers and hackers. Two books that made an impression on me during that time were Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, and Out of the Inner Circle: The True Story of a Computer Intruder Capable of Cracking the Nation’s Most Secure Computer Systems by Bill Landreth.
Steven Levy was an experienced journalist when he wrote Hackers. Bill Landreth, by contrast, wrote Out of the Inner Circle as a 19 year old kid trying to earn some money to replace a computer the FBI confiscated from him for hacking into GTE’s Telemail network in the early 1980’s.
Out of the Inner Circle is an intriguing story from the perspective of a kid raised in the ethos of curiosity and exploration that characterized much of the early computer revolution. Now we naturally assume that the almost weekly corporate hacks we’ve become accustomed to are performed with malicious intent, but back when Bill Landreth was better known as The Cracker, it was more about smart, curious, bored young people figuring out how things worked. It’s the kind of explorative wonder that didn’t exactly endear them to responsible adults then, and is purposely excised as rapidly as possible from children now lest they discover a way to clamber out of their boxes.
I was reminded of Out of the Inner Circle tonight while reading Future Crimes by Marc Goodman. Marc references several high profile hacks of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but the story of the Inner Circle is made conspicuous by its absence from his list of examples. It made me curious about what happened to Bill.
I searched Twitter for Bill Landreth and found no one that could possibly be the same man, so I googled “Bill Landreth Inner Circle”. Not only did I find his book in Kindle format on Amazon (and I still have my original paperback copy), I also found a fascinating piece of writing by Matt Novak for Gizmodo from earlier this year titled The Untold Story of the Teen Hackers who Transformed the Early Internet. Right at the beginning of the article is a photo of Bill Landreth, now 50 years old, with the caption Bill Landreth, former teen hacker of the early 1980s, now homeless in Santa Monica on March 18, 2016 (Photo by Matt Novak).
I have to admit after reading his book, I would never have imagined that Bill Landreth would wind up homeless and shunned by society. His own words from 1985 are evidence of his intellect, as are the crimes with which he was charged. Stories about hackers who get caught and go on to become security consultants or journalists seem commonplace by now, and I guess I’ve always assumed it was no different for Landreth.
Sadly, I was wrong.
It’s true that Out of the Inner Circle feels a bit dated now; it was written pre-internet (for most of us), and the hacking described isn’t exactly up to the standard of the evil motives of modern p0wnage, but it is absolutely instructive still as to how kids get into hacking, and why people may want to access computer networks and systems that they aren’t authorized to do so.
Have a read. It’s an inexpensive purchase, and if you were a computer geek as a kid in the 80’s, you’ll find yourself transported back in time to the genesis of the kind of always on network connectivity we now take for granted.