Late last year we discovered that MySpace cofounder Tom Anderson, arguably the most popular individual on the Internet with 240+ million MySpace friends (he is added by default to every MySpace account) was actually 37 years old, not the 32 that he continues to claim on his MySpace page.
Now we’ve learned a much more colorful part of Anderson’s history: In 1985, when he was fourteen and in high school in Escondido, California, Anderson was subject to one of the largest FBI raids in California history after hacking into a Chase Manhattan Bank computer system and subsequently showing his friends how to do it. He was never arrested because he was a minor, but the FBI confiscated all of his computer equipment and some newspaper accounts of the incident stated incorrectly (see image below from a 1986 LA Times story) that he was “convicted in federal court of computer hacking and placed on probation” (the statements were corrected in subsequent articles). Anderson used the hacker name “Lord Flathead.”
MySpace and Anderson would not comment on this post. But most of the information is now available online as news articles from the 1980s (and earlier) have been added to Google and other search engines. We came across an initial article accidentally and started investigating from there. Some of the information in this post has been obtained by a source close to Anderson, including the connection between Anderson and his hacker name.
Lord Flathead Goes Too Far
Anderson, using the name Lord Flathead, was a computer hacker at least since he was 13 years old, which is just about the time the movie WarGames came out in theaters. Like David Lightman in WarGames (played by Mathew Broderick), Anderson was able to hack into computer systems by simply figuring out the right phone number (this was called “war dialing” and was done with the help of a simple computer program that dialed sequential phone numbers until it received a modem response, signaling a computer system on the other end, usually a UNIX mainframe that often had a default password or no password at all). Once you were past the password security, you often had deep access to whatever system you had called.
According to a New York Times article in October 1985, “Lord Flathead,” was the leader of an early black-hat hacker group when he was 14 years old. In July and August 1985, between his freshman and sophomore years, Anderson hacked into a Chase Manhattan Bank DEC VAX computer system (like the one in the image below) that handled “much of Chase’s data processing and record keeping, including records of home mortgages and…portfolios of major customers such as pension funds.” He subsequently showed up to 40 of his friends how to do it.
Anderson obtained or guessed the passwords necessary to get through the first level of security and, once connected, changed at least two passwords to prevent bank officials from accessing the system. According to the New York Times article the group also created fictitious accounts, and Anderson, using the Lord Flathead name, left a message saying that unless he was given free use of the system he would destroy records.
The bank notified the FBI and they set up an “electronic trap in the computer system that traced the calls to at least 23 homes in the San Diego area.” Fifty FBI agents then raided the homes of Anderson and his friends and seized 25 personal computers. The raids were conducted simultaneously at 7 pm to prevent anyone from notifying the other hackers and giving them a chance to destroy evidence. This was one of the largest FBI raids in California history. Our source says the FBI was expecting a serious criminal conspiracy ring of hardcore hackers, not a group of teens led by Anderson, a high school freshman.
Tom was hacking for quite a while before the raid, says our source. Tom, a minor at the time, agreed to stop committing computer crimes and was put on probation. His computer was never returned.
One of the reasons Anderson would hack into living room sized mainframe systems was to get access to computers that could run a C compiler to learn programming. There were no open source or free C compilers at the time, and personal computers had very limited memory and processing power, so hackers would try to access them on other systems.
As far as we can tell Anderson never attempted to destroy records or transfer funds. We can’t find any records of prosecutions being made against any of the people raided.
Supporting documents are here. The LA Times article linked above and the Newsweek article talk about a friend of Anderson, a hacker named Bill Landreth, a published author for Microsoft Press on computer security issues. At Bill’s suggestion Anderson spoke with a literary agent and published books about computer security as well (we are trying to track them down).
Landreth was living with Anderson’s family and disappeared in September 1986 after leaving a suicide note. We haven’t been able to determine Landreth’s fate, although based on this article from 1991 he or someone with his name became a government agent investigating security crimes.
Frankly, my opinion of Tom Anderson just rose significantly. This was pretty hard core stuff in the 80s. Twenty years later he would go on to cofound what would become the largest site on the Internet.
Thanks to TechCrunch intern Cameron Christoffers for assistance in researching this post.