Intel's Prosecution of Randal Schwartz

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Note: The Open Letter to Intel closed to new signatures on October 4, 1999. Thanks to all who have signed!
Impending Eclipse

Geek Kahuna Goes Bad?

It began prosaicly enough.  Randal Schwartz, who I knew from Usenet and his very successful books on the Perl language, was on business in Silicon Valley and agreed to meet me at Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too, an Italian restaurant in Mountain View CA, to offer me advice for a program I was writing.  It might seem surprising that Randal would agree to take time from a hectic schedule two weeks before going on trial to give what amounted to free consulting to a stranger.  However, those who have been interested in the Perl language for a while know that Randal is a legend for his generosity. 

Actually, I didn't know Randal was going on trial in two weeks.  I had heard rumors that he had some sort of legal difficulties (a civil suit I assumed) which involved Intel.  I'd known many people with matters before the courts, some close personal friends, and few liked to discuss them.  Therefore it was not until Randal had fielded my Perl questions, the talk turned to minor chit chat and Randal unexpectedly proved willing to discuss the matter that I discovered the person I was drinking beer with was looking at fifteen years in a few days, and, if convicted, would have the biggest legitimate reputation by far of any computer criminal.  I didn't necessarily credit the story he told me -- every accused felon tells you it was all a misunderstanding, and they are almost always just plain guilty.  Neither, I must confess, do I have unquestioning faith in all the conclusions D.A.'s draw. 

Days later, an Oregon Jury convicted Randal of three felonies.  Randal Schwartz was, in the eyes of the law, a Geek Kahuna Gone Bad, the first. 

Especially eerie about the Schwartz matter was the silence surrounding it.  This clearly was a very significant case, far more so than some which have drawn a lot of attention.  Randal Schwartz was either the most dangerous computer criminal ever, or something was terribly amiss, I had to know which.  That night I put the project I had discussed with Randal on a shelf, where it remains. 


"Feel free to stop dancing around the issue any time you like and tell me what this is all about."

On July 25, 1995, a Washington County jury in Hillsboro, Oregon convicted Randal Schwartz of three felony counts:

Count 1: Randal did between November 1, 1992 and November 1, 1993, "unlawfully, knowingly and without authorization alter a computer and computer network consisting of Intel computers Mink and Brillig".

Count 2: Randal did between August 1, 1993 and November 1, 1993, "unlawfully, and knowingly access and use a computer and computer network for the purpose of committing theft of the Intel SSD's password file".

Count 3: Randal did, between October 21, 1993 and October 25, 1993, "unlawfully, knowingly access and use a computer and computer system for the purpose of committing theft of the Intel SSD individual user's passwords."

Jack Webb

"Look, son, Randal may be a what you call a Geek Kahuna, but the law is the same for him as everyone else."

Actually, Randal was not tried under the usual criminal laws, but Oregon's Computer Crime law.  Uses of this law are rare.  I can discover only two convictions under it since 1991, and in one there was no trial.  The purpose for a separate Computer Crime Law was to avoid having bad guys escape on technicalities, something its drafters felt that even an extensive revision of traditional criminal law would allow.  This they accomplished by making it a felony to knowingly do anything "unauthorized" on a computer.  Unusually for a law with severe penalties, there is no requirement to show the defendant caused or intended any harm.  All that is necessary is to show that the proper authority did not like whatever was done. 

The first count is that, pure and simple -- Randal putting a program on an Intel computer which Intel did not like.  The "stolen" property of the second and third counts was never removed from Intel's premises, Intel was never deprived of any of the economic benefit of the property, and no evidence was presented Randal intended to do either of these things.  These "thefts" consist entirely, again, of doing things which Intel decided afterwards it did not like and which it claims that Randal was not allowed to do -- this time with password files involved. 

Criminal laws with wide applicability and severe penalties are a feature of totalitarian states, and may be a necessary evil in free ones.  In Randal's case, where he was trying to be helpful and caused no harm, the potential evil in applying such a law is far more apparent than its necessity.  At the least, a free society asks that a serious crime genuinely reflect one of its serious concerns, and not simply be a tool the powerful can use against the powerless whom they find obnoxious.  A good test of this can be made when a powerful individual breaks the law.  But for computer crime, which is complex and technical, such tests are available only as a matter of luck, since the powerful decide who gets investigated. 

However, we have such a stroke of luck in this case.  An Intel VP confessed on the stand to a more serious infraction of Oregon's computer crime law.  And the Washington County D.A.'s office, which so eagerly talked tough when facing the powerless Randal, has observed a demure silence on this topic. 

The defects in the law should easily have been enough to prevent this case ever coming to trial, and made discussion of the rest of this matter moot.  But at each step of the way, as one person or another faced the prospect of telling Intel "no", they chose instead to praise the Emperor's fine new suit. 

3 Stooges

Some Highlights from the Ongoing Farce

As I go through the records in this matter, more and more startling and troubling material continues to come out.  It is as if this case was an entry in a contest to see how much misbehavior could be squeezed into a case where nobody was shot or beaten.  I document my progress into this shambles in the Letters from Cybersalem

Full eclipse with sorceress

The Letters From Cybersalem

CS0: Announcement.  Obviously, the letter which announced the series. 

CS1: Disclosures and Disclaimers.  My connections to Intel and Randal, and various other things which need to be said. Nothing stunning IMHO, but you have a right to know and to judge that for yourself. 

CS2: Wizard Prosecutions: Then and Now.  A comparison of the quality of the prosecution in the Salem, Massachusetts of 1692 and the Hillsboro, Oregon of 1995.  Witchcraft prosecutions have declined sadly in the last 300 years. 

CS3: The Unindicted: Ed Masi.  It is so easy to make a case for the crime of which Randal was convicted, an Intel VP testifying against Randal made a full confession under oath on the stand.  It's all here. 

CS4: Shocked, Shocked.  Randal's "crime" caused no harm, which is perplexing since harm is basic to both the legal theory and lay intuition of what "crime" means.  The policy infraction to which Ed Masi confessed is shown to have quite likely caused real and serious harm to Intel. 

CS5: Leadfinger.  This imbecility is not without its literary appeal.  A nicely Kafkaesque touch is added by the reluctance of the Intel nabob who ordered Randal nailed to identify himself.  Of course, nobody forced him to come forward. 

CS6: Unlearn Perl in 41 days! Rich Cower of Intel security, adds to the list of remarkable intellectual feats performed on behalf of the prosecution. On June 13, 1995, he answers most questions about Randal's Perl scripts with assurance, but passes on others until he can look at the code.  41 days later he testifies under oath he does not know Perl. 

CS7: The Essential Cower.  As Network Security Expert at Intel, Cower played quite a role in the case.  He was present at the search, participated in Randal's interrogation, was an expert witness and as State's Expert sat next to the prosecutor for the whole trial. 

CS8: What Does Familiar Mean? However, this Intel "expert", when shown the seminal work in modern network security, Cheswick and Bellovin, does not recognize the cover. 

CS9: Shortcut to Expertise.  An examination of Cower's background and qualifications, as revealed in his testimony. 

CS10: Too Stupid for Their Own Good?  Randal's local paper was The Oregonian, already notorious for ignoring the Packwood scandal.  It heaped abuse on Randal and the whole "computer programming subculture" during the trial.  I recommend anyone planning to work as a programmer in Oregon read this one. 

CS11: Oregon Employees have No First Amendment Rights  Unbelievable? That is Judge Nachtigal's ruling.  Read it. 

CS12: Oops! There Goes Another Personal Right  Judge Nachtigal also discovered that the law allowed "silly" (her word) prosecutions, which in the D.A.'s words show his "office must have an awful lot of time on their hands".  These are forbidden by the due process protections of the 14th Amendment, but Nachtigal finds that "we may want that authority there with computers", and the charges against Randal stand. 

CS13: The Confidence of the Public  This one is entirely uncommented quotes.  Here are some snippets.  The prosecutor: "I don't represent Intel."  The judge: "Not yet."  The detective: "We could probably use two or three more people".  The Associated Press: "Intel Corp. is handing the local police $100,000 to have two detectives concentrate their computer theft efforts at the company."

CS14: Moore's Lawlessness  It would be surprising if Intel's heavy-handed contempt for the law were unique to this case. As Tim Jackson's new book shows, it is not.

An Open Letter to Intel


We wish to express our strong objection to the prosecution of Randal Schwartz and Intel's role in it. We believe it necessary that Intel repudiate the criminal charges made against Randal in Oregon v. Schwartz, refund any "restitution" paid based on those charges and offset the costs of Randal's defense against them.  This is the minimum that fairness requires since what happened was at worst a policy breach and since Randal also suffered loss of income, loss of reputation and a good deal of anguish. 

The full list of signers

The current signature count, with subtotals by country

Signers whose names you might recognize

Comments made by the Signers

The Open Letter closed to new signatures on October 4, 1999. Thanks to all the over 2000 signers!

Lynx in front of chain link fence


To get an auto-reply giving Randal's own statement, and discussing how you can contribute to his Legal Defense Fund, send an empty message to Randal's Defense Fund mail daemon

Steve Pacenka maintains the Friends of Randal Schwartz website , which is dedicated to archiving all relevant materials from all sides of this issue. 

There is also Randal's award-winning website .  How come he gets an award and I don't? :-)

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W3C Wilbur Checked!