THE NIGHTCLUB IN DOWNTOWN Manhattan is swarming with reporters, cameramen, Internet bohemians and online celebrities, people with handles like "Mnemonic," "Razor" and "Garbled Uplink." The center of attention -- a fashionably wan, cigarette-smoking ex-con known as Phiber Optik -- shows up an hour late, even though the party is in his honor. Phiberphest '95, they're calling it. Onstage is a band called Foamola, consisting of a bald male organist, a homeless man playing what appear to be a pair of rocks and a female vocalist who yowls, "When I read a book, I always read Balzac!/ When I take a drug, I always take Prozac!" Mercifully, an emcee named Jane Doe finally seizes the mike and asks, to the delight of the assembled digerati, "Just who the hell is Phiber Optik? A soft drink? A sex aid?"
Phiber Optik, 23, is decidedly not a soft drink -- and probably not a sex aid. According to his supporters, who gathered last week to celebrate his release from prison, he's the first underground hero of the Information Age, the Robin Hood of cyberspace. Arrested two years ago in a federal crackdown on computer break-ins, he became a cause celebre among the Net intelligentsia: a master hacker jailed not only for what he did but also for what he knew how to do.
Like many bright kids with a talent for things digital, Mark Abene (as he's known to his parents) decided early on that computers were going to be his ticket to stardom. Raised in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, he used his $300 Radio Shack computer like a magic carpet to cyberspace, staying up all night to explore the mysteries of the worldwide telephone grid. Phiber had a gift: computers yielded their secrets to his prying fingers like jewels to a safecracker. Eventually, he dropped out of school to pursue his education in the online world -- the poor man's university.
There he met other students, among them a gang of mischief-making teenagers from Brooklyn and the Bronx who called themselves the Masters of Destruction. Although Phiber claims he never joined MOD, he was happy to share his knowledge with them. Under his tutelage, they learned how to seize control of a telephone account and alter services at will. One trick: turning a rival's home telephone into a pay phone, so that whenever his parents tried to dial a number an operator would interrupt to say, "Please deposit 25 cents."
By 1992 every U.S. telephone network of any consequence was MOD's playground. At first they used their powers for harmless high jinks: looking up the unlisted numbers of celebrities, pestering people they disliked (such as white supremacist Tom Metzgar and former Klansman David Duke) and calling the homes of people they admired (Richard Gere, Julia Roberts). But gradually, they began to trespass on more than just the telephone lines. With Phiber's help, the crew infiltrated the computer networks of TRW, Martin Marietta, the Bank of America, the National Security Agency and Chiquita Banana. At one point, two MOD members can be heard in a Secret Service wiretap hatching a scheme to create their own bogus credit bureau that would -- for the right price -- alter people's credit histories. "We can destroy people's lives," they boasted. "Or make them look like saints."