TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: hackers2.txt

Who's Rights Were Violated

                          COMPUTER CASE TAKES A TWIST
                              By Danna Dykstra Coy

This article appeared in the Telegram-Tribune Newspaper, San Luis Obispo, CA.  
March 29, 1991. Permission to electronically reproduce this article was given 
by the newspaper's senior editor.  


A suspected computer hacker says San Luis Obispo police overreacted when they 
broke into his house and confiscated thousands of dollars of  equipment.  "I 
feel violated and I'm angry" said 34-year-old engineer Ron Hopson.  All of 
Hopson's computer equipment was seized last week by police who believed he may 
have illegally tried to "hack" his way into an office computer belonging to two 
San Luis Obispo dermatologists.  Police also confiscated equipment belonging 
to three others.  

"If police had known more about what they were doing, I don't think it would 
have gone this far," Hopson said.  "They've treated me like a criminal, and I 
was never aware I was doing anything wrong.  It's like a nightmare."  Hopson, 
who has not been arrested in the case, was at work last week when a neighbor 
called to tell him there were three patrol cars and two detective cars at his 
house.  Police broke into the locked front door of his residence, said Officer 
Gary Nemeth, and broke down a locked door to his study where he keeps his 
computer.  "They took my stuff, they rummaged through my house, and all the 
time I was trying to figure out what I did, what this was about.  I didn't have 
any idea." 

A police phone tap showed three calls were made from Hopson's residence this 
month to a computer at an office shared by doctors James Longabaugh and Jeffery 
Herten.  The doctors told police they suspected somebody was trying to access 
the computer in their office at 15 Santa Rosa St.  Their system, which contains 
patient records and billing information, kept shutting down.  The doctors were 
unable to access their patients' records, said Nemeth.  They had to pay a 
computer technician at least $1,500 to re-program their modem, a device that 
allows computers to communicate through telephone lines.  

Hopson said there is an easy explanation for the foul-up.  He said he was 
trying to log-on to a public bulletin board that incorrectly gave the doctors 
number as the key to a system called "Cygnus XI".  Cygnus XI enabled people to 
send electronic messages to one another, but the Cygnus XI system was 
apparently outdated.  The person who started it up moved from the San Luis 
Obispo area last year, and the phone company gave the dermatologists his former 
number, according to Officer Nemeth.  

Hopson said he learned about Cygnus XI through a local computer club, the SLO-
BYTES User Group. "Any of the group's 250 members could have been trying to tap 
into the same system", said Robert Ward, SLO-BYTES club secretary and computer 
technician at Cal Poly.  In addition, he suspects members gave the phone number 
to fellow computer buffs and could have been passed around the world through 
the computer Bulletin-Board system.  "I myself might have tried to access it 
three or four times if I was a new user," he said.  "I'd say if somebody tried 
50 times, fine, they should be checked out, but not just for trying a couple of 

Police said some 200 calls were made to the doctors modem during the 10 days 
the phone was tapped.  "They say, therefore, its obvious somebody is trying to 
make a game of trying to crack the computer code", said Hopson.  "The only 
thing obvious to me is a lot of people have that published number.  Nobody's 
trying to crack a code to gain illegal access to a system.  I only tried it 
three times and gave up, figuring the phone was no longer in service." 

Hopson said he tried to explain the situation to the police.  "But they took me 
to an interrogation room and said I was lying.  They treated me like a big-time 
criminal, and now they won't give me back my stuff."  Hopson admitted he owned 
several illegally obtained copies of software confiscated by police.  "But so 
does everybody," he said, "and the police have ever right to keep them, but I 
want the rest of my stuff." 

Nemeth, whose training is in police work and not computer crimes, said this is 
the first such case for the department and he learning as he goes along.  He 
said the matter has been turned over to the District Attorney's Office, which 
will decide whether to bring charges against Hopson and one other suspect.  

The seized belongings could be sold to pay restitution to the doctors who paid 
to re-program their system.  Nemeth said the police are waiting for a printout 
to show how many times the suspects tried to gain access to the doctors' modem.  
"You can try to gain access as many times as you want on one phone call.  The 
fact a suspect only called three times doesn't mean he only tried to gain 
access three times." 

Nemeth said he is aware of the bulletin board theory.  "The problem is we 
believe somebody out there intentionally got into the doctors' system and shut 
it down so nobody could gain access, based on evidence from the doctors' 
computer technician," said Nemeth.  "I don't think we have that person, because 
the guy would need a very sophisticated system to shut somebody else's system 
down."  At the same time, he said, Hopson and the other suspects should have 
known to give up after the first failed attempt.  "The laws are funny.  You 
don't have to prove malicious intent when you're talking about computer 
tampering.  The first attempt you might say was an honest mistake.  More than 
once, you have to wonder." 

Police this week filled reports with the District Attorney's Office regarding 
their investigation of Hopson and another San Luis Obispo man suspected of 
computer tampering.  Police are waiting for Stephen Brown, a deputy district 
attorney, to decide whether there is enough evidence against the two to take 
court action.  If so, Nemeth said he will file reports involving two other 
suspects, both computer science majors from Cal Poly.  All computers, 
telephones, computer instruction manuals, and program disks were seized from 
three houses in police searches last week.  Hundreds of disks containing about 
$5,000 worth of illegally obtained software were also taken from the suspects' 

Police and the District Attorney's Office are not naming the suspects because 
the case is still under investigation.  However, police confirmed Hopson was 
one of the suspects in the case after he called the Telegram-Tribune to give 
his side of the story.  


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