America Online's Dark Side

The Secret World You Never Knew Existed

In the late 1980's, hacking was all the rage in the computer underground world. Young adults needing an outlet to express their dissatisfaction at the government sought release in cracking passwords of high ranking users, gaining access to areas that were supposed to be secured, and making free telephone calls. Communication among hackers was normally done through data lines on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and IRC (internet relay chat).

When America Online came along in the early 90's, a new group of younger, more righteous hackers stepped up to the plate. Led by two kids who used aliases in order to hide their true identities, Soul Crusher and Antedeluvian formed the underground hacking scene on America Online. They recruited others to join the team, making the group about a dozen strong, compromising of several guys (SC, Ante, Charlie, Oneal/UpNWatts, Da Chronic, Radiator/JoeSlick, TooFast4u, BlueDemon, and girls (Hellpup, Becky, Jill).

By thinking outside of the box, they were able to discover a way to get free access to America Online by invoking a user named "5555555555" through a hidden portal. This name was used to anonymously create chaos in the normal AOL chat rooms such as Teen Chat and the Lobby. They had the AOL Security team stumped for a few months before the exploit was fixed.

Initially, they hung out in a public member created chat room named "Hacking," but AOL soon closed it down permanently, making it illegal to create a chat room of that name. So instead, the group used AOL's "private" chat rooms. To keep the room a secret and away from intruders, the name of the chat room was changed nightly and given out via e-mail and instant messenger. Such names used were "hack," "kcah" (hack backwards), "crack," (password cracking) and "phreak" (term used for phone system hacking).

You'd think that they used the room to hatch conspiracies against the government, but the topic of discussion wasn't always politics, hacking, or even about computers. It was usually normal chit-chat among friends. After all, this was their second family, filled with others from all over the country that understood them. Of course, in a small group like this with everyone struggling for power, there was bound to be drama. Becky had a one night stand with another hacker and Jill had issues with Charlie turning into a jealous stalker. MTV could have filmed a Real World series on these people alone. The kids may have been gifted and intelligent, but they were still human.

Frustrated with AOL's willingness acceptance of deviant sexual chat rooms but not hacking chat rooms, Da Chronic and Radiator decided to unleash Pandora's Box on AOL by using their software programming skills to create malicious programs. But on April 19th, 1995, everything changed. That was the day that the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma was bombed by Timothy McVeigh. One member, Hellpup, was hit the hardest since she lived in Oklahoma and knew people who worked there. After the incident, many members decided that this wasn't what they wanted to be a part of. They realized that they no longer hated the government--at least not to that extent. But Da Chronic and Radiator went on as if unfazed. Although they did not condone what McVeigh did to the building, neither did they recognized their beliefs and actions to be similar to his. After extensive testing and basically trying to one-up one another in program features, the two hacking utilities were finally completed in the 4th quarter of 1995. In spirit of the name America Online (AOL), the competing programmers named their creations America On Hell (AOHell) and America On LSD (AOLSD) respectively.

The programs were a hit with the 2nd generation of hackers, most of whom were minions of the elder 1st generation. They used the tools to excessively scroll chat rooms, mailbomb AOL Staff, gain passwords through automated social engineering, crash other people's computers, and redistribute illegally obtained software. The very first major pirated software on America Online was actually a beta copy of Chicago, the codename for what was to be Windows 95.

By this time, social engineering became the dominant hacker activity on AOL. The process allowed members on fraudulent accounts to steal passwords from normal everyday members, which held more value than fake accounts because since their credit cards were on file with AOL, any unauthorized user could order goods and services directly from AOL using the account holder's credit cards and have it shipped anywhere. In late 1995, hacking veteran MethodMan recruited a social engineering prodigy by the name of Genius. His plan was to call up AOL tech support pretending to be Steve Case and claim to have lost his password, banking on the idea that most of AOL's technical support workers probably had no clue that Steve Case was actually the President of the company. Within 5 minutes, the had succeeded in convincing a tech representative to give us Steve Case's password, which was "AOLISFUN". While Case himself discovered the problem a couple days later, the fact that we were able to acquire his password was an astounding accomplishment in the underground community.

Facing legal pressure from AOL claiming their programs caused millions of dollars in damages, Da Chronic and Radiator were forced to hang up their gloves and go legit. Da Chronic disappeared almost entirely, sparking rumors that he had been arrested and was serving time in prison. On the other side of the country, Radiator programmed games that were played in AOL's chat rooms, such as the famous Scrambler, Hangman, and Jeopardy. Unfazed by the legal threats, in 1996 a new breed of younger and exceedingly talented kids started to surface, becoming a 3rd generation of hackers on AOL. AOHell and AOLSD inspired them to create their own versions of these programs, making them even more advanced and far more destructive. At the same time, a separate group of experienced and knowledgeable hackers migrated over from IRC seeking the spoils and riches on AOL. They created a labyrinth of chat rooms that encased rooms for hacking, software pirating, and computer programming.

During the AOL underground hacking scene's peak, two raw and enthusiastic prodigal kids named Corrupt and Sonic made a big entrance, coming in with egos bigger than they had so far earned. Sonic ran with the veterans from generation two who were responsible for social engineering AOL Staff accounts which had access to the more secret areas of the service where normal members could not get to. While most of the elder first generation hackers scoffed at the kids they called "newbies," Radiator felt that these youngsters were the future. Aside from teaching them the secrets of the trade, what they needed most was guidance as they were young, fragile, and misunderstood. Radiator took Corrupt under his wing, making the kid his protégé, but he also saw the kid as a little brother since they both had attention deficit disorder. Corrupt was an eager learner, but always insisted on wanting to figure it all out for himself as well. Relentlessly determined, the student eventually came to surpass the master.

In 1998, AOL had finally had enough. When the FBI demanded that they put a stop to the illegal hacking and software pirating on their service, spies were sent to infiltrate the community and narcs were recruited, many of these narcs from generation 2 who knew all the names of every hacker. They formed a presence in the underground chat rooms and closed the accounts of all known hackers. Most of the hackers had knowledge on how to create fake user accounts in order to escape the great purge, but if they named their accounts using their well known hacker names, they were doomed. Radiator himself created 50 accounts in one night, named Radiator01 to Radiator50 with the undercover AOL staff deleting his accounts one by one within seconds of him appearing in an underground chat room. It was the last stand, but he finally admitted defeat and joined the rest of the crew in going incognito.

During the great purge of '98, communication was difficult as you could only talk to those you knew you could trust. Within two years, most of the hackers left AOL entirely. The online giant had succeeded not only in squashing the underground hacking scene on its service, but the act also destroyed many friendships in the process. Some still communicated via phone, U.S. mail, or other on-line chat services such as IRC, but for most, especially the elders and 2nd generation, it was time for college and that meant leaving everything from your home town behind, including online friends.

There were three who did stay behind, one from each generation--Nikita, Moebius, and Radiator--all under new names. No matter how much the new kids annoyed them, these three took pride in showing the youngsters the way of old, passing down three generations of secrets. Five years later, they still occasionally visit the underground scene which is small time compared to ten years ago. These three Masters have a wealth of knowledge and underground culture too significant to throw away. The kids are all in their teens, are very enthusiastic and authority challenged, but they are mainly interested in computer programming and not so much hacking or software pirating these days.

It's been a long time since the hackers reigned over America Online. Times have changed. Computer hacking is no longer accepted as what is "cool" and the world itself has become more open to alternative ideas and talents. Some of them completed their degrees and managed to attain jobs in Network Administration and Security, using their knowledge for good this time. Da Chronic himself started a software company, Nikita became a Network Engineer at NASA, Moebius is an aspiring filmmaker, Soul Crusher came out of the closet, and Radiator is a Motivational Coach.

So what happened to the two young prodigies, Corrupt and Sonic? Today they use their hacking instincts in a different manner, both of whom are currently up and coming trance music DJ's. Corrupt's personality shows through in his dark and gloomy electronica while Sonic spins soulful house music.

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