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
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
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
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 FIRST DEFENDANT REPRESENTED
BY THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION?
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
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
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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.