He’s ready to go public, he says: ready to expand the UrbanExpos� franchise into print and into broader media coverage, ready to start collecting on the good and bad karma the site has earned him so far. And I guess he figured I’d be a good person for the job — after all, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d blown his cover.
The first time was eleven years ago. Lee wasn’t calling himself Crispus Attucks back then — his handle was Corrupt. He was eighteen years old, living with his mom in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and logging in regularly to a local dial-up bulletin board called Phuck the Pheds, a hangout for computer hackers and phone phreaks that I was spending time on for a Spin magazine assignment. Corrupt wasn’t like most of the other guys on Phuck the Pheds. It wasn’t just that he was black, a rarity then and now in the computer underground. He was also an “elite” hacker who really was — a go-to specialist in cracking DEC Vax machines (aka Vaxen), the corporate and government mainframes of choice in those days.
The Spin article was Corrupt’s first appearance in print, but not his last. By the time it came out, Lee had hooked up with the legendary hacker group MOD, whose accomplishments, by some accounts, would eventually include penetrating nearly every telephone-company system in the world. “I hate to be all bragging about it,” Lee says today, “but we did redefine what hacking was. That’s when things went from, like, dudes trying to guess passwords to actually monitoring networks and understanding the whole topology. Big-picture hacking� It was ill.”
MOD’s legend, however, owes almost as much to their flair for press relations as it does to their hacking skills. I eventually wrote a cover story on them for the Village Voice, but it was hardly an exclusive. Reporters were lined up around the block for a chance to cover these personable, articulate, multiethnic, technoexotic felons. And as such coverage can do, it probably redoubled the legal system’s eagerness to put these personable, articulate, multiethnic, technoexotic felons behind bars. When Lee finally got hauled in to talk to the investigator who got him and four other MOD members indicted on federal charges, he saw on the man’s office wall a framed copy of the Village Voice cover photo: Lee and the others striking gangster poses, not very effectively disguised with bandido-style kerchiefs. “He loved that shit,” Lee recalls, laughing. “And I think he said something like, ‘We was going to leave you alone till you threw it in our face.'”
CONVICTED, Lee did six months in penal boot camp, got out, finished up his Brooklyn College film studies (senior project: the romantic live-action short “Crackhead Love”), became the first and last black man featured on the cover of Wired (for an excerpt from Masters of Deception, Josh Quittner and Michelle Slatalla’s book on MOD) — and then got popped again on a parole violation and did a year in New York City’s federal Metropolitan Detention Center, an experience he says is still painful to talk about. “After that, I got a serious distaste for computers,” says Lee. His life as a hacker celebrity was over.
And probably never would have gone much further anyway. Just one week out of his first jail term, Lee had come down the steps into the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station in downtown Brooklyn and seen the writing on the wall. A movie crew was shooting there, and Lee, curious, sidled up to the production assistant and asked what the film was. The answer: 1995’s Hackers, a film every hacker in New York already knew was based loosely but transparently on the kids of MOD. “I had heard about the movie, and I knew it was going to be fucked up. I knew they marginalized the black character,” Lee says. And now here he was himself standing uninvited on the margins of the production. Lee couldn’t begin to convey to the PA the layers of irony in the situation, and didn’t try. “That shit was like, mad Kafka,” he says. “I’m sitting there waiting for the train to go home and shit, and I’m looking at these motherfuckers shooting the hacker movie. Unbelievable.”