Geek Trivia: Gaming the (legal) system

Which game manufacturer was the first defendant represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation?

By its own description, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is "a nonprofit group of passionate people—lawyers, technologists, volunteers, and visionaries—working to protect your digital rights." By some measures, the EFF is the most ardent advocate of Internet privacy, freedom of information, and open standards—and a lightning rod for the various ethical, social, and legal controversies surrounding digital technologies and the Internet. And it all began with a somewhat obscure event that took place 16 years ago today.

EFF's formation came about as a reaction to a government effort popularly known as Operation Sundevil. The actual Operation Sundevil was a U.S. Secret Service crackdown on computer- and telephone-based credit card fraud and long-distance service abuse.

Operation Sundevil's catchy nickname made it perhaps the most memorable of a series of raids and anti-computer-crime actions undertaken by U.S. law enforcement agencies in 1990. The general public has conflated most, if not all, of these actions with the Sundevil title, even if only a small portion of those actions actually belong under the formal Sundevil umbrella.

In any case, 1990 saw several law enforcement actions that were spurious in nature or ill-informed in their scope and execution. As a result, some observers felt that innocent parties had been the victims of wrongful harassment and prosecution, and a group of those observers formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation to legally and publicly defend some of the victims.

EFF's founding members were Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation and designer of Lotus 1-2-3; John Gilmore, developer of the alt.* Usenet hierarchy; and John Perry Barlow, poet and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. The trio met online and resolved to form an ACLU-esque organization for the digital age.

However, it wasn't just a general uproar over the ill-defined Operation Sundevil summer that spurred this group into action. In fact, a particularly ridiculous law enforcement raid provoked the EFF's existence.

On March 1, 1990, the U.S. Secret Service raided a game manufacturer, confiscating several of its in-development game materials under the allegation that the game was actually a how-to handbook for undertaking and suborning illegal hacker activities. The victims of this suspect raid became the first defendants represented by the EFF.


Which game manufacturer was the focus of a 1990 U.S. Secret Service raid for allegedly supporting illegal hacker activities and subsequently helped inspire the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, becoming the EFF's first officially represented defendants?

Steve Jackson Games (SJG), developer of such classic geek diversions as the GURPS role-playing system, the Car Wars board game, and the Munchkin line of comedy card games (a personal favorite of this Trivia Geek), was the defendant in question.

According to SJG, what got the company into trouble—for which authorities eventually exonerated it—was staffer Loyd Blankenship's research into the game resource book GURPS Cyberpunk. Blankenship's investigation of hacker culture caught the eye of the U.S. Secret Service, which decided he was a reasonable suspect for possible computer crime, and it subsequently raided both Blankenship's home and his place of business, Steve Jackson Games.

During the course of the raid, the Secret Service confiscated several SJG computers and a large chunk of game materials related to GURPS Cyberpunk. After examining the game, the Secret Service declared GURPS Cyberpunk a "handbook for computer crime" and held SJG's confiscated property for several months. As a small game manufacturer, SJG very nearly folded from this interruption of business.

This is where the EFF stepped in, providing in SJG's terms, "the financial backing that made it possible for SJ Games... to file suit against the Secret Service... In early 1993, the case finally came to trial... And we won. The judge gave the Secret Service a tongue-lashing and ruled for SJ Games on two out of the three counts, and awarded over $50,000 in damages, plus over $250,000 in attorneys' fees." (You can read Steve Jackson Games' full account of the events here.)

Science-fiction author Bruce Sterling immortalized the case by including it—along with other related events—in his 1994 nonfiction book, The Hacker Crackdown. In the years since, the public has managed to obscure or misconstrue several key details, so much that some believe the Secret Service raided SJG specifically to confiscate GURPS Cyberpunk. (It didn't.) Such is the making of great urban legends—and lively Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the February 8 edition of Geek Trivia, "Planetary (m)alignment." TechRepublic member Jbehounek called me out for my definition of a trans-Neptunian object. (And this is why I love you people.)

"[You wrote,] 'A trans-Neptunian object is, not surprisingly, any object that regularly orbits our sun at a distance greater than the orbit of the planet Neptune. The Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt are thus collections of trans-Neptunian objects.'

"With this definition, Pluto could not apply as a trans-Neptunian object since its orbit regularly brings it inside the orbit of Neptune. A trans-Neptunian object is any object in the solar system [that] orbits the sun at a greater distance on average than Neptune. A slight difference, but one definition includes Pluto (and other highly eccentric orbiting objects), and the other does not."

You're quite right, dear reader. Specificity of language is a Trivia Geek's greatest weapon. Thanks for keeping me sharp, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...