The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack
It was like any other Sunday night at Chicago’s WGN-TV. And then the signal flickered into darkness.
GIF by Dan Stuckey
Right up until 9:14 PM on November 22nd, 1987, what appeared on Chicago's television sets was somewhat normal: entertainment, news, game shows.
That night, as usual, Dan Roan, a popular local sportscaster on Channel 9's Nine O'Clock News, was narrating highlights of the Bears' victory over the Detroit Lions. And then, suddenly and without warning, the signal flickered up and out into darkness.
In the control room of WGN-TV, the technicians on duty stared blankly at their screens. It was from their studio, located at Bradley Place in the north of the city, that the network broadcasted its microwave transmission to an antenna at the top of the 100-story John Hancock tower, seven miles away, and then out to tens of thousands of viewers. Time seemed to slow to a trickle as they watched that signal get hijacked.
A squat, suited figure sputtered into being, and bounced around maniacally. Wearing a ghoulish rubbery mask with sunglasses and a frozen grin, the mysterious intruder looked like a cross between Richard Nixon and the Joker. Static hissed through the signal; behind him, a slab of corrugated metal spun hypnotically. This was not part of the regularly scheduled broadcast.
Finally someone switched the uplink frequencies, and the studio zapped back to the screen. There was Roan, at his desk in the studio, smiling at the camera, dumbfounded.
"Well, if you're wondering what's happened," he said, chuckling nervously, "so am I."
Within hours, federal officials would be called in to investigate one of the strangest crimes in TV history—a rare broadcast signal intrusion, with no clear motive, method, or culprits. It may as well have come from another dimension.
To many clued-in TV viewers that night, the face of Max Headroom would have been unmistakable. "The world's first computer-generated TV host," as he might have proudly boasted, was a sharp-tongued character inaugurated in 1985 as the veejay for a British music television show. His sarcastic wit and stuttering delivery—along with an ad campaign for New Coke, a late-night talk show on Cinemax, and a few TV specials—had made him a cult personality even before he finally earned his own hour-long TV show in the US.
Max Headroom, which featured the exploits of a TV journalist living in a dystopian future, with a digital alter ego in the form of the title character, debuted on March 31, 1987. In Chicago, it aired on the ABC affiliate Channel 7, and would last for 11 episodes and into a brief second season that fall, before it was canceled, beaten in the ratings by Miami Vice.
Still, the effect of Max's perpetually skipping, computerized face was hard to forget. The result not of computers but of painstaking make-up and prosthetics on top of the comedian Matt Frewer, Max was a dark parody of real-life TV newscasters in a television landscape where news and entertainment were already bleeding into each other. Max Headroom was the cyberpunk on mainstream TV, imagining a digital world that turned out to be not very far from 1987. (The dateline on every episode was "twenty minutes into the future.") By the time the show was canceled, the sarcastic square-jawed fake-rendered mug was as well known to the cult TV viewers of the late 80s as the Guy Fawkes mask is to the people of Twitter today.
At 9:16 PM, just after the faux Max intruded on WGN's signal, technicians there, suspecting an inside job, began scouring the building for a possible assailant. But Max wasn't there. And he wasn't finished.
Almost exactly two hours later, at around 11:15 PM, Channel 11, the PBS affiliate WTTW, was airing an episode of Dr. Who called "The Horror of Fang Rock" when a gargle of static cut in. Scan lines, indicating the beginning of a VHS recording, flashed across the screen. Unlike the previous thirty-second hacking, this one had audio, just barely coherent amid the whirr of distortion. It lasted for one minute and twenty-two seconds.
"He's a frickin nerd," Max says, in a voice that sounds like a cartoon villain. Then, "I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky, frickin Liberal!" referring to the Chicago Bulls announcer who was then WGN Radio's go-to sportscaster. The metal panel spinning hypnotically behind him was a cheap, clever knock-off of Max Headroom's bitmapped "computer"-generated studio. Wielding what looks like a rubber penis, the prankster yells the New Coke slogan—"Catch the wave!"—and hums the theme to the 1960s gonzo TV cartoon Clutch Cargo.
"Your love is fading!" he shouts, before throwing the phallus to the floor. "I still see the X!" he says, a direct reference to the title of the last episode of Cargo.
"I just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds," he added, making another apparent dig at Chicago's television establishment. The call sign of the station, WGN, was an abbreviation for "World's Greatest Newspaper," a slogan borrowed from the early days of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that owned the station.
Then the camera cuts to Max from a slightly new angle, facing off screen and bent over. His mask dangles near the camera; his face is off screen and his buttocks are hanging out, front and center. "They're coming to get me!" he screams. On the right side of the screen, a woman lazily spanks his ass with a flyswatter. "Come get me bitch!" he yells. The scream becomes a distorted, symphonic drone. And then just as quickly as his arrival, the signal cuts out, and Chicago was back to the eerie quiet of the regularly scheduled Dr. Who episode.
"As far as I can tell," the Doctor observes at that very moment, "a massive electric shock. He must have died instantly."
"By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over," a spokesman for WTTW, which is located about two miles to the southeast of WGN, told the Tribune. For thousands of Chicago residents, it was already too late. The invention of the World Wide Web wasjust a few years away, but for a few moments that night, thousands of viewers simultaneously caught a glimpse of a kind of proto troll, a hacker who had managed, somehow, to hijack Chicago's broadcast signals, not once but twice.
At both WGN and WTTW, phones began ringing off the hook from confused and sympathetic viewers. For the next few days, the tale of the hack went viral. Local newspapers and newscasts covered the incident with a mix of suspense and bemusement. (The Tribune's headline: "Powerful Video Prankster c-c-c-could become Max Jailroom.") WGN made it their top story, and titled it "TV VIDEO PIRATE."
"I got so upset that I wanted to bust the TV set," a man in a jacket and tie told the reporter. One young woman, apparently a fan of Dr. Who, was unimpressed. "We're going to have to tape over it," she whined. An older man compared the incident to a hooligan throwing a brick through a window. A young boy grinned at the reporter. "Very, very funny," he said.
The government was unamused. Officials from the FCC, the agency responsible for regulating America's airwaves, pledged to track down the mysterious culprits and bring them to justice. Agents from the FBI's Chicago field office would soon join the investigation. "I would like to inform anybody involved in this kinda thing, that there's a maximum penalty of $100,000, one-year in jail, or both," Phil Bradford, an FCC spokesman, told a reporter the following day. "All in all, there are some who may view this as comical," WTTW spokesman Anders Yocom said. "But it is a very serious matter because illegal interference of a broadcast signal is a violation of federal law. "
That law was a new one, prompted largely by a growing fear among communications experts and law enforcement officials. At the time of the Headroom hack, broadcast signal intrusions were considered a rare phenomenon, limited to small stations with lower power transmissions, and requiring special knowledge and equipment that was estimated to cost up to a hundred thousand dollars.
But the prospect of a new form of pranksterism—or protest, or even terrorism—began to emerge a year and a half earlier, on April 27, 1986. That night HBO aired The Falcon and the Snowman, the 1985 John Schlesinger movie based on the true story of an American intelligence contractor who sells secrets to the Soviets. At around thirty two minutes past midnight, the screen flickered into color bars, with a message superimposed on top:
*> "GOODEVENING HBO" <*
*> "FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT" <*
*> "$12.95/A MONTH?" *<
*> "NO WAY"<*
*> [SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!] <*
Lasting four and a half minutes, the message from Captain Midnight was America's first-known broadcast signal intrusion. HBO executives refused to publicly discuss the incident—a protest of the network's recently-announced price hike—and experts worried that the hack presaged a dark future for broadcasters, for the country's satellite infrastructure, and for the viewing public. "In the wrong hands, this new form of jamming would be no laughing matter," intoned a reporter for ABC News.
Within days, FCC investigators had found their intruder. Captain Midnight was a satellite technician named John MacDougall, whose mistake had apparently been to use a relatively uncommon text generator program to display the text on screen, a clue that led FCC investigators to MacDougall's employer, Central Florida Teleport, a satellite uplink company in Ocala, Florida.
At the end of his night shift, finishing a broadcast of Pee-wee's Big Adventure for the now defunct network People's Choice, MacDougall flipped the dish in the direction of the satellite that carried HBO, Galaxy 1, and broadcast his message, overpowering the network's signal. He explained to investigators that he was frustrated at the network's rising fees, which hurt his other business, selling satellite TV equipment. After pleading guilty to charges of transmitting without a radio license, a violation of federal law, MacDougall paid a $5,000 fine and served a year-long probation.
There was some ambiguity in the case, specifically about whether the federal misdemeanor charge made against him, as a violation under 47 USC 301, "transmitting without a license," was applicable. McDougall in fact had a license to transmit. The following year, Congress passed 18 USC 1367, which made satellite jamming a felony. That law was put to the test after another incident a year later, some two months before the Max Headroom intrusion.
In September 1987, Playboy TV was hijacked with fanatical text messages telling surprised onanists at home to repent and find Jesus. The FBI identified the hacker as Thomas Haynie, a technician employed by the Christian Broadcasting Network. Haynie was caught and convicted under the new satellite jamming law, and sentenced to probation.
The FBI report on the Headroom incident, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, was written by Dr. Michael Marcus, who was then the assistant bureau chief in the FCC's Field Operations Bureau and the lead investigator. An expert in the mechanics of TV hacking and radio transmission technology, Marcus joined the FCC in 1979, and began to play an instrumental role in proposing and developing policies for advanced radio technologies. Before he retired in 2004, he braved industry opposition to help the FCC unleash technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on the commercial spectrum.
He was also instrumental in catching Captain Midnight and the Playboy TV hacker, experiences he remembers with equal doses of relish and disgust, as much for the bureaucratic challenges involved as for the "lunatic" hackers he was after. To Marcus, who now runs a telecom consultancy in Washington, the Headroom hacker was still "a bad guy" and "the one that got away." But, he said, it wasn't his fault.
"The head man in Chicago at the time"—an FCC investigator whom he wouldn't name—"said 'what am I supposed to do?' I said, 'You have the video — go to the place where you think it was filmed!'"
To find a signal hijacker, it helps to start with a physical location, to know from where the hijack began, and that requires knowing the path the signal was taking when it got hijacked. To spread their signals across a city local TV networks first relay their signals from their respective studios to high-powered transmitters on top of tall buildings. The connection between the TV studios and the transmitter is called the studio transmitter link, or STL.
In the case of the Max Headroom intrusion, the theory goes like this: the hacker managed to overpower the microwaves of the STL, which sat vulnerable to attack on a frequency that wouldn't have been hard to find, as they were being sent to the receivers atop the John Hancock Building and Sears Tower.
The intruders would have simply had to switch on their transmission equipment at a high enough location, probably a high-rise apartment or a roof, at a place between the two studios and their downtown transmitters, somewhere on the North or Northwest Sides of Chicago. From there, they could blast the skyscraper receivers with high-power microwave frequencies, and by overriding the studios' signals, they could trick the transmitters into sending out their own signal. "I think the bad guy got close to the receiving end and just transmitted a signal that was received with a stronger strength than the more distant, intended signal," said Marcus.
Marcus doubts that the hacker was using sophisticated, costly equipment, or that the equipment was even very large, as some said at the time. "I don't think it need be expensive," he said. "New, the gear might have cost around ten thousand dollars, but would have been available, used, on the amateur radio market. There is surplus equipment sold with this capability. I don't think it needed a few briefcases," he said.
"It did need a dish antenna," said Marcus, "but if they got close to the STL receiver antenna at the TV transmitter, than a Direct-TV-size antenna might have been adequate."
While Marcus and other FCC agents worked out the likely technical scenario and then attempted to follow-up on tips, focusing on the north and northwestern parts of the city—the most likely area from which to interrupt the transmissions—the FBI carefully examined the videotape. At the very least, the bureau made photographic prints from it, a capability the FCC didn't yet have.
FBI analysts enhanced frames from a broadcast quality U-Matic video cassette tape copy of the intrusion. Six dry-silver prints were taken from the video, according to a "Report of the FBI Technical Services Division," but it was noted that a first generation recording would be paramount for a better examination. It appears that they also attempted to enhance the "UPPER RIGHT HAND QUADRANT" of the video to get a better visual of Max's kinky accomplice.
The location of the intruders' signal was one thing; but teasing out where they had shot their video would fall to the videotape itself. It would provide, said Marcus, the most clues to the identity of the culprits, in large part because it was the only evidence at all the investigators had to work with.
But for Marcus, it was enough. The spinning backdrop was telling.
"The background looked to be about eight-feet wide, industrial type metal, maybe a roll-down warehouse door," he said. That would have already limited it to certain places in the city where the video could have been filmed. And one tip sounded particularly promising, said Marcus, one that pointed at a particular person, someone who worked for a company that had a warehouse-like space in the city, a place that might have played host to the video shoot.
The tip seemed strong, but the investigators had no probable cause, no warrant. Just a hunch. Figuring it out would require going to the place to determine if anyone had seen anything unusual, and maybe in the process, to stumble upon their culprit or culprits. "It had to be someone who knew the technology," said Marcus, "maybe a broadcast techie, but there were other techies who could figure it out also."
But even with a likely geographical location, Marcus said, finding the resources and manpower needed to continue the investigation was a struggle. He was back in headquarters in DC, and the FCC investigator in Chicago was too timid to go investigating.
"Our man in Chicago didn't want to start knocking on doors," Marcus remembered, with disdain, without naming names. "He was used to more traditional FCC cases, and felt uncomfortable doing things he hadn't done before."
Momentum slowed: the case lacked evidence, and the threat felt ambiguous. "How are you going to lose sleep over something like that? Nobody dies, and there's no damage." There were fears at the time about the harm a satellite jammer might do to infrastructure that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, but concerns about regular television signals were much lower. "Max Headroom wasn't a danger to public safety, or to a multimillion piece of equipment," Marcus said. "So the resources were a lot less."
Two days later, a separate Headroom hack occurred during the 10 PM news on Channel 5, WMAQ-TV. This time however it was a goofy prank by the program's sports anchor, Mark Giangreco, who spliced tape from the actual hack into his segment. "Did you see the FCC said they're going to analyze the signals and go right to the source and put this guy out of business?" the main anchor says snarkily. "Those are the same people who spent ten years trying to make Steve Dahl talk nice!" The trail had turned cold.
As I said before, it's one of those things that doesn't work out on paper. But it works. Welcome to Earth—Where everything you know is wrong.
While the tale of Max Headroom hacking into two Chicago TV stations in one night would be eclipsed by the death, a week later, of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, the theories began piling up online. The speculation that would eventually reach places like reddit began on Chicago's bulletin board systems, places with names like Ripco, Overdrive, and God's Country. On the Tolmes News Service BBS, dial-up "modemers" reacted to the signal intrusion with curiosity and awe and hacker pride. Two days later, at least one person, someone with the BBS handle "The Chamelion" (the author of a text file called "Computer Terror and Distruction" [sic]) seemed to know more.
87Nov24 6:18 am from The Chamelion This morning of ABC's World News This Morning, there was a story about all the broadcast overrides. We've gotten WGN, WWOR, and the superatation out of Kansas, KTAT, I believe. He said "The FCC is looking into how someone could intercept broadcasts". I've studied this for a long time, and believe me, it's not hard. Especially overriding superstations. They showed a videotape of what was transmitted. It was Bo A homemade Max Headroom. It was pretty neat. We'll strike again. I can guarantee it. --------------------------------------------------------------------- 87Nov25 11:27 am from Milo Phonbil Who's "we", lizard-face? --------------------------------------------------------------------- 87Nov29 9:05 pm from The Slipped Disk So wait... How did these dudes in Chi town do it? I saw the transmission. Very witty. Inside job, you think? --------------------------------------------------------------------- 87Nov30 6:02 am from The Chamelion Hardly an inside job. They just aimed their transmitter at the same transponder that WGN uses, and used a higher power. It doesn't even have to be significantly higher. Just more, and the WGN signal will cancel out. As I said before, it's one of those things that doesn't work out on paper. But it works. Welcome to Earth--Where everything you know is wrong. ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Since the Headroom incident, the interception of broadcast signals has become a popular trope in hacker fantasies: Jack Nicholson's Joker inserts an ad for poisoned cosmetics in Batman (1989), Christian Slater builds a reputation around his own pirate radio talk show in Pump Up the Volume (1990), and in the beginning of Hackers (1995) the main character tells his mom he's "taking over a TV network." Broadcast intrusion is a central part of2005's V for Vendetta too, and the opening of The Outer Limits warned, "Do not attempt to adjust your television set...We are controlling the transmission." Anonymous would even reference the Headroom hack directly in a 2008 video, during its campaign against Scientology.
In the age of digital transmissions and encryption, signal intrusions have become harder to perpetrate, but they still happen. In 2007, a Disney Channel show being broadcast to a town in New Jersey was interrupted with scenes from an adult film; last year, someone inserted hardcore gay porn into a morning news show in Hamilton, Ontario, and a technician in Tuscon was charged with doing something similar to Comcast's 2009 broadcast of the Super Bowl in that city. Last February, a hacker managed to hijack the emergency alert systems of four separate TV stations with warnings of a zombie invasion; he was quickly found and arrested.
Signal jamming has military purposes too. In 2006, during Lebanon's war with Israel, hackers disrupted Hezbollah's Al-Manar television channel with pictures of dead Hezbollah soldiers and warnings directed at the party's secretary general. In September, Al Jazeera claimed that the Egyptian military was likely jamming its signals to viewers in that country on a daily basis since July 3, when Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was deposed. In May, Iran's state-run Press TV claimed that its signals were being jammed in Europe, even as Iran's government has reportedly been jamming incoming satellite signals for years, something one Iranian doctor blamed for infertility in the country.
Jamming has also saved lives: the US military has relied on radio jamming equipment to counter the scourge of IEDs in Iraq, buying some 50,000 jamming units at an estimated price tag of $17 billion.
Signal intrusion is also the weapon of choice for the character of Max Headroom. According to the legend, Max began as Edison Carter, an intrepid, muckraking TV reporter for Network 23, investigating the dealings of corporations in a dystopian near-future, when he discovers that his own network is airing a new kind of advertisement that can literally kill viewers. Edison is captured, knocked unconscious, and has his brain "downloaded" so it can be reviewed by the network's overlords (the last thing he sees is a sign hanging from an underpass that apparently reads "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M").
Meanwhile, the network's resident geek manages to upload Edison's brain into the computer network. Max Headroom is born. Edison's digital alter ego appears only periodically on the show, as a kind of Greek chorus and a provocateur in the system, cracking wise about censorship and control whenever he hacks into the feed—an act that, by law, is punishable by death.
In some corners of the Internet, the story of how Max Headroom infiltrated two Chicago TV stations, just a few weeks after the show was canceled, has reached almost mythic proportions. When the tale is retold every now and then, it's often received with incredulity by newbies, or with a shock of recognition by Chicagoans who remember watching it as kids, and being terrified, confused, and dazzled.
"I thought it was the coolest thing since WarGames," said Rick Klein, a Chicagoan who serves as founder and curator of the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, and its website, fuzzymemories.tv. Klein, who was thirteen when it happened, didn't catch the intrusion live, but he knew that his friend's father recorded Dr. Who every Sunday night on VHS.
"I asked my friend to secure that tape at all costs," he said. "After I got the tape home I excitedly fast-forwarded through it until that creepy and unsettling Max Headroom visage bobbed up through the scan lines. Like many people, I viewed it several times, trying to make out some words here or there, or an overall meaning behind it.
"I eventually had to conclude that there wasn't any. I put the tape away but would take it out at times as a cherished item in my collection, sure to leave most people mystified when they watched it." Since Klein uploaded the footage of the " Dr. Who" intrusion to YouTube in 2006, the incident has been watched more than two million times.
The matter of how it was done was relatively simple. Who did it was another matter. One theory that's circulated online for years centers on a performance artist and musician named Eric Fournier. Eric was the creator of the wonderfully surreal and creepy avant garde YouTube series, "Shaye Saint John." Many theorists draw parallels between the erratic style of the Max Headroom hacker and Eric's freakish video star.
The legend is that Eric—who lived in nearby Bloomington, Indiana, at the time and played in a punk band called The Blood Farmers—simply wanted exposure for his band's music videos. At the last minute, he decided to ditch the idea of broadcasting one of their videos out of fear that they would be identified, and reverted instead to his own spontaneous performance.
But Harry Burgan, a former band member of Eric's, dismisses the theory. "This is ridiculous bullshit," he wrote by email. "Eric didn't know anything about video editing when we were in high school. We never made music videos apart from someone maybe videotaping one of our shows. We weren't friends with anyone getting degrees in mass communications and had no access to broadcasting equipment. I think the only time the four of us were ever in Chicago together was to see a Pixies concert at the Riviera."
"Eric would have thought this rumor is hilarious," said Burgan. "I just find it bizarre." Even if the hacker may have exhibited a trace of Eric's kooky showmanship, other friends of Eric's I spoke to also dismissed the theory. Eric himself can't confirm or deny the rumor; he passed away in 2010.
The second prevailing theory, proposed by a computer programmer from Chicago named Bowie J. Poag, holds that the communication guerrilla was born out of the local hacking culture of the late 1980s, and fostered by a loose group of hackers who hung around local BBSes. It was a scene to which Poag, then only 13, was eager to belong. "There's a big difference between 80s 'geek' and today's 'geek,'" he said. "We were more isolated, socially, than the kids are today."
Though a newbie, Poag managed to ingratiate himself with some of older hackers, and began attending small gatherings where board participants met to socialize in real life. At one party in 1987, he remembers meeting a small, peculiar man he guesses was in his 30s. J was socially uncomfortable, and may have been autistic, Poag said. He was looked after by his older brother K, who lived with his girlfriend in an apartment, ten miles away from downtown Chicago, and strewn with computers and cables. "There was very little standing room," he remembers, and one "normal" piece of decoration—a large rainbow colored kite suspended from the ceiling in one corner.
The brothers were close. "J was a stocky guy with tinted lenses, perhaps in his early 30s, and just sort of odd. K," who he remembers may have worked for the phone company, "was very normal looking, by anyone's standards." J and K, he added, are not their real names.
The younger brother was child-like but extremely intelligent. "J knew a great deal about not just the broadcast spectrum, but the electronics that underpinned that sort of stuff," said Poag. "He was a broadcast hacker."
He was also an oddball. "Where most people would say 'um' in conversation, J said 'Ohhhh,' at various lengths." Scaring people in perverse ways was his technique for making new friends.
It wasn't until later, Poag claims, that he made a connection between J and the signal intrusion. "I look at the guy in the mask," he said, "and I see J."
Around midday on November 22nd, 1987, Poag was at a small gathering of geeks at the brothers' apartment, where there were "three or four people standing around J. They were smiling about something that J was referring to, and I heard that word, 'Big.' I didn't ask at the time what they were referring to... I stood with my back to the wall the whole time, terrified of being ridiculed or asked to leave."
The group relocated to a nearby Pizza Hut. "While there, I asked a few of them what they meant by 'Big.' K leaned forward and told me, 'just watch Channel 11 later tonight.'"
Poag shrugs off the peculiar fact that the connection didn't occur to him immediately the next day, when news of the incident began to spread. "The fact that one of them told me to watch Channel 11 later that night was about as weighty as a remark as a dozen other things I heard that day from them," he said. "I know it sounds strange, but, I honestly didn't put two and two together at the time. It didn't even click in my head that it might be J until I was an adult. And the more I thought about it, the more everything clicked."
Twenty-five years later, Poag decided to post his theory on reddit, concealing identities and keeping the details vague. The post spread fast, and helped to jog the memories of at least a handful of redditors who had watched the episode live. I contacted Bowie to hear his account, and then asked if he would pass along an interview request to the brothers.
Bowie was happy to oblige. A few weeks later, I heard back. "I tried to reach both J and K separately via email, and via Facebook, but with no results," he wrote by email. "Not even an acknowledgement. I don't even have the ability to say they heard from me—the only thing I can say with total certainty is that I sent them messages."
"I think it's clear that whoever it was, they're not interested in talking." Social awkwardness, not fear of the law, could be the major hurdle to coming clean, he mused. "If it was J, the exposure that would come as a result of admitting it would be terrifying."
Poag's claim itself could be an elaborate hoax, a ruse to distract attention from someone else, including himself. Poag could offer no physical evidence, though he pointed to comments made by another redditor who claimed to remember the brothers. "After the broadcast was broken into," the commenter wrote, "word was going around the DDial scene about who did it. Fingers were being pointed at the guys living in the apartment. Of course it was all deny, deny, deny..."
At my request, Poag made one last attempt to summon the hacking duo via certified mail. He said he had used personal information search services like "Spokeo/Intellius/YP/Pipl," to determine that the brothers own a house together, just down the street from their parents. After weeks of waiting, he wrote back, exasperated with our quest. "I refuse to try any further," he wrote. "It's abundantly clear to me they wish to be left alone, and I'm going to respect that."
In May, Poag returned to reddit to describe the responses he had received to his post, including my own, reiterated his desire to keep the names of J and K secret, and rejected the possibility that he was involved. "For the record, I am not J, or K, or any other pseudonym I mentioned," he wrote. "Nor am I writing something to divulge what I know by some other means."
Klein doesn't buy Poag's story "for a variety of reasons," he said. "But whoever 'Max' was, he sure didn't act like he had any form of Asperger's syndrome—even if under the influence of drugs or not."
More likely, argues Klein, the perpetrators had a special relationship with WGN. "It's important to keep in mind that this whole prank was designed for and against WGN." After a failed attempt to fully break in to WGN's signal, the intruders took to WTTW. And there are the references to WGN—the mention of Chuck Swirsky and the timing, during the sports highlights, the Tribune, and Clutch Cargo, which used to air on WGN.
"Was it a disgruntled former employee of WGN-TV?" Klein asked. "Or someone who got turned down for a job there? Perhaps an engineer or someone with the technical knowledge and equipment to allow them to pull this off?"
Prompted in part by the reporting of this story, Klein opened an email tip line at MaxTips@fuzzymemories.tv, in the hope that someone might cough up more useful information, or that the Headroom hacker himself might finally come forward.
"I honestly believe that this mystery can still be solved," he said. "I suspect more people didn't talk back then because maybe they were afraid for their own job or reputation in the competitive TV industry. For no one to spill the beans after all this time, it's surprising."
Max Headroom hasn't haunted Marcus, the retired investigator, in the same way. His experience with radio and television intrusions has given him a tolerance for the bizarre. "In the radio world, a lot of strange things happen. And you can do weird things once, and probably get away with it. if you do it multiple times, there's more of a chance you'll be caught. And we haven't seen this guy for over twenty years."
The Dept of Justice has declined to issue a specific comment on the case. But by law the Headroom Hacker of 1987 would be safe from recrimination, according to its cybercrime manual: "In the absence of a specific statute of limitations, the default federal limitations period of five years applies."
In the US, a TV hacker today could be charged under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law that has been used to prosecute, with what critics have called "draconian" penalties, a variety of relatively benign hackers in recent years, including Aaron Swartz and Andrew Auernheimer.
But the Headroom hack wasn't like the hacks that get media coverage now, with their often heavy political or social undertones. Meanwhile, the digitization of television systems and the use of fiber optic lines and signal encryption has helped make TV hacks increasingly look like artifacts of another era. And when you look back at the history, none have come close to the Headroom hack for sheer notoriety or strangeness. There was no clear motive, no clear message, and thirty years on, no clear perpetrator. It was a hack of and for its time, done for the curiosity and the glory of simply doing it.
It's ripe for media studies too, perhaps—a cyberpunk culture jam, an anarchic protest decades before Anonymous and hacktivism became household terms, reminding unsuspecting audiences how unsuspecting they really were. But the incident's impact lies in its murk. I wonder if the hackers could have suspected that their momentary coup on the broadcast spectrum would find a new life on the Internet, where it still plays forever on repeat, forever subject to analysis and befuddlement. It lives in that ambiguous space between uncanny and scary, that place where "the hacker" continues to live.
In March 1989, not long after a 25-year-old named Kevin Mitnick was arrested for tapping into NSA computers, the Tribune meditated on this relatively new type of person. "Once seen as eccentric hobbyists, hackers today often are viewed as a malevolent force whose arcane knowledge and irresponsible ways threaten the fundamental usefulness of computers. Business people have come to view them as criminals intent on stealing money and information." There was no mention of the paper's hometown hack, one that seemed to take direct aim at the media, and perhaps at the "greatest world newspaper nerds" in particular.
Whatever his particular motive was, the Headroom Hacker's victory that day, and after all these years, may be his eerie persistence. Despite his analog origins, he's still gracing our screens. A quarter century later and the ghostly image of one hacker, interrupting normally scheduled programming for nothing, it seems, but a prank, still keeps people awake at night.
For some shred of meaning, Poag returns to the character of Max. On his television show, the "real" Max Headroom broke into the broadcasts of Channel 23, mocking the mind-controlling media.
"For a few precious seconds, life imitated art for a change," Poag wrote to me in a final email. "How precious is that? It's a small peek behind the curtain... the public saw a rare and endangered animal, an actual dyed-in-the-wool hacker. Something real, something other than the Hollywood nonsense everyone gets pumped full of. They could decide for themselves whether to laugh with this person's gag, or to be horrified."
Additional reporting by Alex Pasternack, @pasternack