domingo, 24 de julho de 2011

Crashing the System

On January 15, 1990, AT&T's long-distance telephone switching system crashed.

This was a strange, dire, huge event. Sixty thousand people lost their telephone service completely. During the nine long hours of frantic effort that it took to restore service, some seventy million telephone calls went uncompleted.

Losses of service, known as "outages" in the telco trade, are a known and accepted hazard of the telephone business. Hurricanes hit, and phone cables get snapped by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through buried fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn to the ground. These things do happen. There are contingency plans for them, and decades of experience in dealing with them. But the Crash of January 15 was unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred for no apparent physical reason.

The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single switching- station in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until fully half of AT&T's network had gone haywire and the remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow.

Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or less understood what had caused the crash. Replicating the problem exactly, poring over software line by line, took them a couple of weeks. But because it was hard to understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and explained. The root cause of the crash remained obscure, surrounded by rumor and fear. The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment. The "culprit" was a bug in AT&T's own software — not the sort of admission the telecommunications giant wanted to make, especially in the face of increasing competition. Still, the truth was told, in the baffling technical terms necessary to explain it.

Somehow the explanation failed to persuade American law enforcement officials and even telephone corporate security personnel. These people were not technical experts or software wizards, and they had their own suspicions about the cause of this disaster.

The police and telco security had important sources of information denied to mere software engineers. They had informants in the computer underground and years of experience in dealing with high-tech rascality that seemed to grow ever more sophisticated. For years they had been expecting a direct and savage attack against the American national telephone system. And with the Crash of January 15 — the first month of a new, high-tech decade — their predictions, fears, and suspicions seemed at last to have entered the real world. A world where the telephone system had not merely crashed, but, quite likely, been crashed — by "hackers".

The crash created a large dark cloud of suspicion that would color certain people's assumptions and actions for months. The fact that it took place in the realm of software was suspicious on its face. The fact that it occurred on Martin Luther King Day, still the most politically touchy of American holidays, made it more suspicious yet.

The Crash of January 15 gave the Hacker Crackdown its sense of edge and its sweaty urgency. It made people, powerful people in positions of public authority, willing to believe the worst. And, most fatally, it helped to give investigators a willingness to take extreme measures and the determination to preserve almost total secrecy. An obscure software fault in an aging switching system in New York was to lead to a chain reaction of legal and constitutional trouble all across the country.

Like the crash in the telephone system, this chain reaction was ready and waiting to happen. During the 1980s, the American legal system was extensively patched to deal with the novel issues of computer crime. There was, for instance, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (eloquently described as "a stinking mess" by a prominent law enforcement official). And there was the draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, passed unanimously by the United States Senate, which later would reveal a large number of flaws. Extensive, wellmeant efforts had been made to keep the legal system up to date. But in the day-to-day grind of the real world, even the most elegant software tends to crumble and suddenly reveal its hidden bugs.

Like the advancing telephone system, the American legal system was certainly not ruined by its temporary crash; but for those caught under the weight of the collapsing system, life became a series of blackouts and anomalies.

In order to understand why these weird events occurred, both in the world of technology and in the world of law, it's not enough to understand the merely technical problems. We will get to those; but first and foremost, we must try to understand the telephone, and the business of telephones, and the community of human beings that telephones have created.

Technologies have life cycles, like cities do, like institutions do, like laws and governments do.


Bruce Sterling,
The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier,
1992.