kottke.org posts about Susy Thunder

Searching for Susy Thunder

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2022

Searching for Susy Thunder

A really entertaining and interesting piece by Claire Evans about Susan Thunder (aka Susan Thunder aka Susan Headley), a pioneering phone phreaker and computer hacker who ran with the likes of Kevin Mitnick and then just quietly disappeared.

She was known, back then, as Susan Thunder. For someone in the business of deception, she stood out: she was unusually tall, wide-hipped, with a mane of light blonde hair and a wardrobe of jackets embroidered with band logos, spoils from an adolescence spent as an infamous rock groupie. Her backstage conquests had given her a taste for quaaludes and pharmaceutical-grade cocaine; they’d also given her the ability to sneak in anywhere.

Susan found her way into the hacker underground through the phone network. In the late 1970s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of telephone culture: you could dial-a-joke, dial-a-horoscope, even dial-a-prayer. Susan spent most of her days hanging around on 24-hour conference lines, socializing with obsessives with code names like Dan Dual Phase and Regina Watts Towers. Some called themselves phone phreakers and studied the Bell network inside out; like Susan’s groupie friends, they knew how to find all the back doors.

When the phone system went electric, the LA phreakers studied its interlinked networks with equal interest, meeting occasionally at a Shakey’s Pizza parlor in Hollywood to share what they’d learned: ways to skim free long-distance calls, void bills, and spy on one another. Eventually, some of them began to think of themselves as computer phreakers, and then hackers, as they graduated from the tables at Shakey’s to dedicated bulletin board systems, or BBSes.

Susan followed suit. Her specialty was social engineering. She was a master at manipulating people, and she wasn’t above using seduction to gain access to unauthorized information. Over the phone, she could convince anyone of anything. Her voice honey-sweet, she’d pose as a telephone operator, a clerk, or an overworked secretary: I’m sorry, my boss needs to change his password, can you help me out?

Via Evans’ Twitter account, some further reading and viewing on Susy Thunder and 80s hacking/phreaking: Trashing the Phone Company with Suzy Thunder (her 1982 interview on 20/20), audio of Thunder’s DEF CON 3 speech, Exploding the Phone, The Prototype for Clubhouse Is 40 Years Old, and It Was Built by Phone Hackers, and Katie Hafner and John Markoff’s book Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, Revised.