Sony and AT&T, a historical connection?

Bruce Sterling’s words resonate to this day, as history threatens to repeat itself.

Below is the beginning to Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, an important history of the phenomenon that has become Anonymous. Anonymous has a new face but is as old as the first telephone network.

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.”

Anonymous, you are a thorn in the side of corporations and government. The AT&T crisis in 1990 that led to the hacker crackdown is very much like what is happening now with Sony. Regardless of the nature of the outage, Anonymous will take blame from many groups. Should history repeat itself, these groups will include Playstation owners, Sony security officials, and law enforcement officials.

17 replies on “Sony and AT&T, a historical connection?”

“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.”

That never happened.

Also, you seem upset.

the crash happened very close to 9 a.m. eastern time. at&t never laid blame on hackers. bob allen, ceo, took “full responsibility” and gave free long-distance on valentines day — one month later. i had recently been in t’s “unix system labs”. i’d have loved to have a dime on the dollar of the roughly $100 M i figured this fiasco cost us. the program in question had never been volume tested, let along “LINT”ed. i learned this while at a chinese new year party later in january from members of the ‘tiger team’ who found and fixed the bug later that day (9 hrs sounds right). the bug, documented elsewhere as among the 10 worst (thru y2k at least), was laid to an individual, recently promoted from shell programming to C programming, who used a shell syntax to break from a while loop. it compiled correctly, but was needless to say, ineffective in C.

You are correct, sir. I would, in my own words, say that the rumor, fear, and public outrage about AT&T’s network outage is what led to the hacker crackdown. It’s clear that Sony was taken down by hackers, but I don’t think that they were particularly skilled. Sony’s failure was much more profound than a piece of failcode.

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