In The Realm Of The Hackers

ABC • 2003

The story of the Australian teenagers who hacked into some of the most secure computer networks in the world, including NASA.



In the late 1980′s, before there was public access to the Internet, Melbourne was the hub of the computer Underground in Australia. The hackers who formed the Underground were not disgruntled computer professionals or gangs of organised criminals. They were disaffected teenagers from the suburbs who used their basic home computers to explore the embryonic Internet from the comfort of their own bedrooms. From this shadowy world emerged elite computer hackers like ‘Electron’.

‘In The Realm of the Hackers’ charts ‘Electron’s’ journey through the computer Underground, from his early innocent explorations to his obsession and final addiction to computer hacking. ‘Electron’ formed an alliance with another Melbourne hacker called ‘Phoenix’ and together they stole a restricted computer security list and used it to break into some of the world’s most classified and supposedly secure computer systems, including NASA. So fast and widespread was the attack, people assumed it was an automated program, until ‘Phoenix’ called The New York Times to brag about it. Soon the US Secret Service and the FBI were on their trail and the Australian Federal Police made their first arrests.

Using a combination of interviews and dramatic reconstructions, the film vividly recreates the climate of the 1980′s, from the persistent threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the Cold War, to the growing sophistication of the hackers and those who pursued them through cyberspace and eventually brought them to justice.

‘In The Realm of the Hackers’ takes us headlong into the clandestine, risky but intoxicating world of the computer Underground. The film explains not only how hackers like ‘Electron’ did it, but why they became obsessed, providing a unique insight of the psychology of this little known subculture. Once deprived of hacking after his arrest, ‘Electron’ descended into drug addiction and subsequent mental illness. His case dealt with by the courts, ‘Electron’ slowly rebuilt his life and today puts his skills to a different kind of test within the IT industry.

Production Story

I initially became aware of the story of the Melbourne computer Underground after reading “Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier” by Melbourne based author and journalist Suelette Dreyfus. When I first contacted Suelette to talk about a documentary on computer hacking she warned me that dealing with computer hackers was “like trying to herd cats”, and that she had spent two and a half years working on her book as a result. As I became involved in trying to bring the story to the small screen I was to remember these words often as I would spendmore than three years on the project myself.

During my three year involvement with the project I had to immerse myself in the computer Underground and acquaint myself with terms and concepts I was completely unfamiliar with. Suelette was to become my main conduit to various members of the computer Underground, both past and present.

My own computer skills are fairly rudimentary so I guess I was initially attracted to the idea because what hackers actually did was a complete mystery to me and making films about the unknown is a great way to learn. There were also some interesting themes in the story to do with teenage disaffection and empowerment, addiction and criminality, as well as the accelerating role of technology in our lives and the ways we deal with it.

The story also represented a number of ‘firsts’ – the new crime called computer hacking, the first computer crime case to be prosecuted in Australia, the introduction of federal computer crime laws, the establishment of a computer crime unit within the Australian Federal Police, the first time computer data had been recorded and used as evidence in Australia.

Forming the spine of the story was also the development of the Internet in Australia and here was an opportunity to show the role that computer hackers played in this and ironically how they were responsible for the creation of the computer security industry, something that wasn’t needed in the early ‘open’ days of the Internet.

From the beginning I involved producer John Moore in the project. John and I had just finished working together on ‘Thomson of Arnhem Land’ for Film Australia; he as Director and Co-Producer, me as Cinematographer.

As the script developed it became more focussed on the story of ‘Electron’ and ‘Phoenix’, two Melbourne hackers who formed part of a group of hackers known as ‘The Realm’.

Attempts were made to contact both ‘Electron’ and ‘Phoenix’, initially without success. When I finally managed to contact ‘Electron’, after more than a year of trying, we arranged to meet in a suburban cafe. His initial reluctance gave way to an open and honest discussion which lasted for more than four hours and provided me with a unique insight into the life of a computer hacker.

Before agreeing to participate in the documentary however ‘Electron’ stressed that his identity needed to be protected. Initially he was not happy to be interviewed at all but eventually agreed to be interviewed on camera so long as his face and voice were disguised.

Since his arrest and subsequent period of mental illness ‘Electron’ has slowly managed to rebuild his life and become a productive member of society, working in the IT industry today. As such he was reluctant to reveal his true identity on national television. There are several people he knows whom he hasn’t told about his past life as a computer hacker and felt that revelations about his past would damage these relationships and possibly affect his employment situation.

‘Electron’ was also concerned that people would learn of his previous mental instability, something that he is equally sensitive about. He cites several examples about how our society doesn’t take mental illness seriously and feels that people primarily think that people never fully recover from mental illness. He also feels that as a group people with mental illness are disadvantaged as they are not able to advocate successfully when they are pursuing their own needs in our society.

We filmed a test and it was felt that the physical and vocal disguise would militate against audience involvement in the character of ‘Electron’. The problem seemed insurmountable and opposition to the proposed film seemed to be increasing. I was reluctant to let the story go because of this and it was decided to use an actor to play ‘Electron’, both in the dramatic reconstructions and in the interview situation. The text for the interview would come directly from an audio interview transcript that we did with ‘Electron’, so the actor would be speaking ‘Electron’s’ actual words.

In keeping with the secretive nature of the Underground, over the next three years I was to have a very ‘cloak and dagger’ series of meetings with the various players in the story. Meetings were held on street corners at night, or in cars, but primarily in cafes. Meetings were never held at anyone’s home, or office. Even the ex members of the Australian Federal Police seemed shy and cautious. For me it all helped to create the smoky ambience of the computer Underground and those associated with it.

There were others with whom I only communicated with via email. These ranged from university system administrators to hackers themselves. This virtual communication came closer than most in capturing the flavour of the Underground as you would imagine these people in their homes or offices sending and receiving their messages and perhaps wondering about you and your motives. One of the hackers involved in the story abruptly terminated his emails to me when I asked him what significance the movie ‘War Games’ had for the computer Underground. I received a curt reply saying “I have just lost respect for you” and never heard from him again.

An important part of the story for me was the involvement of the Australian Federal Police and their involvement with the US Secret Service and the FBI. Because Australian hackers primarily attacked US computer systems; “because that’s where the interesting computer systems were”, the US authorities put a lot of pressure on the Australian authorities to do something about the Australian hackers, saying; “If you don’t do something about it, we will.” This led to the passing of the first computer crime legislation in June 1989 which gave the AFP the authority they needed to prosecute the Australian hackers.

Initially the Federal Police were not fully up to speed when it came to computers and computer crime. The culture within the force understood crime as something tangible; there was a body or there was some stolen money; some tangible evidence to be had. With computer crime the tangibles disappeared. What crime was actually committed? Show me the victim. This meant that the AFP members had to embark on a huge learning curve if they were going to prosecute hackers.

To prosecute ‘The Realm’ hackers the police had to develop surveillance technology that allowed them to capture and record the actual data from the hackers’ computers and print it out so it could be used in court. To be able to film this part of the story I talked to the two former AFP officers who developed this technology; Bill Apro and David Costello. They very patiently explained the process to me as I grappled to understand how they actually did it.

Because of the nature to the project and the fact that we perceived it to be a very Australian story, John Moore and I took it to Franco di Chiera at Film Australia. As the film’s Executive Producer Franco was instrumental in getting the project into production and his taste and judgement also guided the post production process.

Once the Melbourne interviews and dramatised scene were completed, producer John Moore and I travelled to the US to film the NASA and other American components of the story. This trip was a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks and America felt like a country under siege. While we were shooting in Times Square in New York an electronic news banner displayed a message saying that the Department of Energy, one of the targets of the hackers in our story, was removing sensitive information from its web site in response to an unprecedented number of hits. The shot is in the film.

Airport security was very high and where formerly it took about an hour to go through an airport it now took over three. As we travelled from the west to the east coast, ending up in New York, we went through many airports and we and our ten pieces of luggage were searched almost on a daily basis. No-one really minded the long queues though, as it seemed to give travellers a comforting sense of increased security.

While we were in the US we were also able to get an interview with Jim Settle, former head of the FBI computer crime unit who interacted directly with the AFP during the investigation of The Realm hackers and the subsequent court case. This interview seemed to draw a few more threads of the story together.

Kevin Anderson
Writer & Director
April 2002

Contact Details