Season 3, Ep. 8 – TWiTH: The first digital search warrant, with Jessi Soler
Long before we all knew how to use Incognito mode or clear a search history, someone had to be the first person to do something illegal on a computer. And in 1971, that first person was caught after the very first warrant for a computer search was executed. This week, Faith talks with Jessi Soler about this momentous occasion, what it means for internet privacy now, and why that art dealer thought using his son’s iPad to search body disposal techniques was a good idea.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Jessi! Go Birds!
Go Birds! <Laugh>.
It looks great.
It’s a children’s XXXL <laugh>.
If someone were to ask me your size, that’s what I would probably say.
Yes. Thank you. I also do children’s shoes.
You know, you find what works for you, and you stick to it, and that’s what I really respect about you, Jessi.
Thank you so much, Faith.
Welcome back to the Frontier podcast, Jessi.
Thank you so much, Faith.
You haven’t heard her on the podcast before, she is our head of strategic accounts, so if you are strategic, and you’re an account, she will be involved. (Jessi: I’m your woman.) Also lives in Nashville, best city in the world, second to Philadelphia, (Jessi: That’s right <laugh>.) with me. That’s great. We love it here. Also, the Piedmont Natural Gas truck just rolled up in front of my house. I’m a little worried that… who knows what’s gonna happen. If my house blows up, at least we’ll get it recorded (Jessi: Okay, Faith <laugh>.) on the podcast <laugh>. Speaking of crimes, Jessi, that’s what we’re talking about today. I don’t know if you’ve listened to any of season three yet of the Frontier. Don’t tell me if you haven’t, ‘cause I’ll be mad at you, but one thing that we’re doing every week is looking into a historical event that happened in technology that week and just talking about it.
If you do not work for Gun.io and you’re listening to this, which is a likely scenario, it’ll be news to you that every Friday when we share, like our daily standup, we also share something that we learned that week, and the stuff that people share is ridiculous. So I enjoy doing this, because I learn a lot that I can then put in the old bank and share with the team as the thing I learned this week. And we’re also just huge fans of rabbit holes, so that’s why we’re here. This is like technical true crime, which is exciting. (Jessi: I know.) Okay, let’s get into it.
(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS)
On February 19th, 1971, the first warrant to search a computer was issued through the San Jose Milpitas District of the Santa Clara County Court, through an affidavit made by an Oakland Police Department sergeant attached to the fraud detail. They had probable cause to believe evidence related to the theft of trade secrets was contained in the data storage of a computer. And, just to clarify, this is 1971. So when we’re talking about a computer, this is a large mass of object. We are not talking about a laptop. Oh, by the way, the historical event is, this was the first search warrant for a computer being issued. The way you used to <laugh> process code was to convert it to a card where the information was translated via a series of hole punches and then fed to a computer to process. The president of an information systems company found an unauthorized set of these punch cards connected to one of his computer terminals. This is crazy. This is like library…
So, it’s physical punch cards that were attached to this big ass machine.
What were the cards called in the…it’s like a card catalog in the library. (Jessi: Yeah.) Remember going to like the library, and like, sifting through, (Jessi: Dewey Decimal.) <laugh> and then bringing your card to the librarian, and being like, “How do we find this book?”
Yeah. Isn’t it wild, side note, that we had like, full classes on library and like, how it worked? Do they still do that?
Doubtful. Actually, I have, this is a question I can answer, because once I was an eighth grade teacher. No, they don’t have library class.
The warrant was issued to get three things. The first is the key punch computer cards, punched with a proprietary remote plotting program. The second was a computer printout sheet of the proprietary remote plotting program. And the third was the computer memory bank and other data storage devices, magnetically imprinted with the proprietary computer program. I just wanna pause really quick and say I understand why so much sci-fi, with like, ridiculous names for things came out of the ‘70s, because this is legitimately what we were naming stuff.
Yeah. That is true.
This is ridiculous. Okay.
But it’s fun. It’s very ‘70s.
It’s very ‘70s, and it’s very fun to say. I feel like I’m warming up to like, give a TED talk or something. Okay, so what were the results of this search warrant? As it turns out, it was nefarious, indeed. Those cards were set up for remote plotting, which means the person who installed them was able to then read and plot it out from a secondary location, all of the code for the company’s proprietary product, which was valued at about $15K, which was just over $100K in today’s money. A computer specialist, who was helping in the investigation in Palo Alto, confirmed that making a call to the program printed out the entire program. The search ultimately led to a conviction of theft of trade secrets and a new era of digital forensics, in addition to encryption becoming a hot topic as people sought more and more sophisticated means of hiding their digital misdeed from police. Now, I wanna start there, because, to me, encryption doesn’t feel like…like, I care about encrypting my data, and I am not a criminal despite, you know, loving the Ocean’s movies and really wanting to grow up to be a bank robber when I was a kid.
That’s always been most people’s dreams, I feel like.
Yeah, this never came to fruition. So, fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not a criminal, but I do care about encryption. And it’s interesting that this kind of like, sense of hygiene around data privacy began, essentially, with this search warrant.
Like, was it just something no one thought of before that no one cared about? I don’t know, it just…it blows my mind that that wasn’t a thing. Like, were there passwords, or did they just have to keep these punch holes like, in a security box, and shit was good?
<Laugh>. Punch holes. Bill, I hope you can find a picture of the punch holes, because it’s really rocking our world. I think a huge part of it was like, computers, just given their size and the way they worked, there was no, and the lack of an internet, right? There was really no way to access it remotely. So any theft of trade secrets would have to be done in person. (Jessi: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) And that is naturally much harder to do than like, a hack that’s done just with code, remotely. <Laugh>. One of Abbey’s questions says, “The offender was effectively the first person to have their life ruined by a search history,” <laugh>. (Jessi: <Laugh>.) “What are some of your favorite or memorable cyber blunders?”
Well, I’m just saying this because Abbey put it in, and also my boyfriend’s been like, obsessed with it since it happened, and he keeps typing these things into his own computer. Just couldn’t tell you why; (Faith: <Laugh>.) I think he’s trying to kill me. But the one in Massachusetts where that guy killed his wife and goes on his son’s iPad and looks up like, “How long does it take for a body to decompose?” “How best to like, dispose of a body?” “If it’s raining, is that gonna dispose of it quicker?” Like, it’s just every, I mean, and it’s like, 40 different searches of just like, “Yeah, I definitely killed my wife.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) And I think he did it on his son’s iPad. ‘Cause I mean, I don’t know, you have to be an absolute moron, but that’s an interesting topic. One that I’ve been hearing plenty about, lately. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) So yeah, I mean, I don’t know. It seems like, you know what, when did this happen? 1971?
Yeah. Like, at that point, search away. But we’re in 2023.
Search away. ‘Cause there is no internet to surf, you know?
Yeah. Go to the library <laugh>.
Go to the library <laugh>. I still love, I mean, this isn’t like search history, this is text history, but “I love you, alive girl” is one of my favorite…it’s like, the only way to say “I love you,” I think, in my book. The Jeff Bezos…(Jessi: What?) Remember when Jeff Bezos…the whole “I love you, alive girl?” (Jessi: No <laugh>.) Well, Jessi. Jessi!
I told you; I’m going to be so shitty at this.
You’re supposed to be a pop culture icon.
Since when, dude? <Laugh>. I’m the worst at that.
I most recently had this thought about a cyber blunder-slash…god, my search history is so messed up. Yesterday, because, every year, my group of friends does like, a mountain or like, lake house retreat. (Jessi: Yeah.) And we’re calling it the Gay Straight Alliance Offsite. (Jessi: I love it.) I know; it’s pretty awesome. And, this year, we’re all preparing PowerPoint presentations to educate each other about something along the gay/straight spectrum.
Oh, that’s so you, Faith <laugh>.
I know. It’s gonna be really fun. I bought a clicker, so we can (Jessi: Oh, good.) click through our slides like a real TED talk. But my topic is an empirical cataloging of power tools into gay tribes. So like, a laser level is a twunk, obviously.
<Laugh>. I love that.
Would you say a screwdriver is twink?
No, no, no, no, no. A screwdriver is an otter.
Oh, you know what? I do see that actually.
It makes a lot more sense.
It’s empirical. It’s evidence-based.
I wanna do a podcast on that <laugh>. Like, come on.
Yeah, then you would excel. Yeah. Anyway, I was crafting this PowerPoint yesterday, and I had to search really weird terms, (Jessi: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and I was like, this is weird. So I relate to this person, this criminal.
Okay, next question, Jessi. Some estimates say that cyber crime will cost the global economy $10.5 billion every year by 2025. Frankly, that feels lower to me than I thought it would.
I agree. I <unintelligible> for that.
Yeah. Do you feel more could be done to curb this number? Or have we reached a place where computers are so advanced, Siemens can’t possibly stay ahead of them? Computers aren’t the ones committing the crimes. What do you mean?
I have two thoughts on this. Duh, I’m sure there’s more that could be done, right? And like, we have, I just, because I’ve been working like, a lot recently with one of the cybersecurity devs on our platform, like, there are geniuses out there that can, that are like, working on this that are, you know, making things happen across the board. But like, of course, there’s more, I think, that could be done. You know, not, it’s…not everything is like a DOD situation. Not every company and in every, you know, (Faith: Right.) network. Well, <laugh> I dunno if this is relevant, but…
Lay it on me.
Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily computers doing it, but I do think computers…I read a very, very, very long article on AI like, a month ago, and I do think they’re going to get to a place where humans can’t possibly stay ahead of them.
Okay, as you know, I watched The Matrix for the first time last month, and I don’t appreciate that.
I’ve never seen it.
You should have told me; I would’ve done it with you.
Aw. I’ll watch it again. (Jessi: Okay.) I’ll have you over. You can see the new house.
Now, I’m excited.
Great. Yeah, I agree with that. I also feel like so much cyber crime is easily preventable by humans just having good hygiene about their personal cybersecurity. And that goes for like, individuals, which I’m sure contribute a large percentage to this kind of like, global loss to cybercrime, but also small businesses who think like, who cares about what we’re doing? You know? Like, it’s not always stealing proprietary technology. That feels like, in the age of open source software, and generally we’re all, kind of, building the same things, that doesn’t feel super relevant to me. But things like password management…
Credit card information.
I would imagine that’s where like, most of it comes from.
A hundred percent. Even, I mean, even things that are, maybe, less intuitive, but if you just do a bit of Googling, <laugh> or ask Twitter, it’ll be obvious. Like, things like devices, like a TV or refrigerator that connects to your Wi-Fi. That’s not good, <laugh> because these, anytime there’s any sort of vulnerability with that like, hardware or IOT, like, they’re not updating nearly as much as your devices that are made to be connected to the Internet, like your computer and your iPhone.
Well, that’s something I hadn’t even thought of, Faith.
Sorry, Jessi <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Luckily, I don’t have a smart fridge, but (Faith: Yeah.) I certainly have an internet-based television system. <Laugh>
Well, I mean that’s like, your Apple TV is different than like, your Vizio television, which is like, there’s not a whole lot of security consideration going into that.
All right, Jessi, our last question is about how, in today’s world, where it’s really hard to do anything without a digital trail, how cyber criminals still feel like they can get away with it. And honestly, the fact of the matter is, ’cause they’re probably smart, and this is their job. Just like, you know, if I were to ask you to figure out how to make a term rank on first page search, you’d be like, “But how?” It’s like, it’s their job. They’re good at it. I think maybe the more relevant question is like, do we still care about our digital trail, or is it, this is like a personal opinion question for you, like, have you come to the place where you’re like, “You know what? Everything I do is trackable, so it is what it is,” or how do you feel about it?
I do, but I’m also like, just as you’re talking about, I’m in that like, I’m always in that mindset like, well who cares what I’m doing? You know, who cares what I search? Like, I’m a nobody. Like, what is anyone ever getting from this? And also, on that same note, Faith, I think that like, this happens, because the people that are like, hacking and doing this like, that’s what they find fun and interesting. Like, they’re solving a problem. You know what I mean?
So like, I think they’re getting more out of that than just like, oh, I’m getting like, I’m stealing this person’s identity, I’m getting money. It’s like, cool, I get to like sit down in my basement and solve this like, really cool problem.
It’s puzzle solving. Yeah, that’s why…
Yeah, there’s like, professional hackers that do it. Like in the good way, you know?
White hat. Yeah.
They’re looking for vulnerabilities and everything. So like, it’s fun for people. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) I should probably be better about my digital trail. (Faith: <Laugh>.) But I’m not.
Jessi, I feel like anyone who’s able to hack into your search history is just gonna be delighted and like you even more as a person <laugh>.
Yeah. I mean it’s so stupid.
My most recent was, I’m watching The Last of Us, and so I’ve been very into watching ants with cordyceps infections.
There’s videos of it?
Yeah. It’s really traumatizing. Proceed with caution.
Faith, how do you feel about that?
About your digital trail?
You know, I don’t know that I really care too much about it. I’m weird about, so things like, I don’t like any sort of like, voice-activated thing in my house.
Yeah. You don’t have a Siri or anything.
Yeah, or like, IOT. Even things like, we just got a sleep number bed and, it tracks your sleep data, and anonymously consolidates that data for, you know, data reasons <laugh>. And even that, kind of, freaks me out a little bit. But part of me is like, we just live in an age where it’s become a little bit inevitable, and it’s nice when you’re able to choose your data privacy settings, but I also benefit from those, right? Like, I benefit from huge data sets, collected from people like me, because I’m a marketer, and that’s how I’m better able to like, target our ideal customers. So undecided. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) I think I’m like, kind of like, happily living in the gray space. But you know, what hasn’t changed is I’m still disappointed that I did not turn out to be a cyber criminal, because that sounds like a really cool job.
Wait, you’re still young.
I’m still young. I’m still young.
I’m still upset. I didn’t turn out to be a bank robber.
Ugh, Jessi. Together in our future lives, we would be a real team.
Yeah. We’ve got time.
Yeah <laugh>. Thanks for listening to the Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @thefrontierpod, and we’ll see you next week. (MUSIC STOPS) I can’t wait to pitch you on future “This Week in Tech” topics, because I think you’ll enjoy them.
Okay. If there’s any that involve like, Real House Wives, (Faith: Lady Gaga?) Lady Gaga, you know, Rodgers and Hammerstein. (Faith: <Laugh>.)
Interested in working with Gun.io? We specialize in helping engineers hire (and get hired by) the best minds in software development.