BERLIN — It was a classic case of reality being stranger — and more dangerous — than fiction. In May 1989, Karl Koch, a West German hacker linked to an espionage scandal with the Russian secret services, was found dead under suspicious circumstances. The mystery surrounding his death remains, in a plot that is somewhat typical of the Cold War.

Already in 1989 did Germany's public service broadcaster ARD see the story's potential, dedicating the half-hour program Brennpunkt to it in March 1989. "Eastern spies on Western computer networks. German hackers are working for the KGB" was the title of the show.

The program aired on the same day the police carried out a nationwide operation, arresting four young men; more evidence was obtained from another 14 alleged co-conspirers. For several years, the suspects had repeatedly hacked into the protected computer networks of German and U.S. companies and authorities to steal data, which they sold to the KGB, the main secret service in the Soviet Union.

In order to establish first contact with the Soviet secret service, three young men, named Karl Koch alias "Hagbard Celine", Dirk Otto B. alias "DOB", and Peter C. alias "Pedro", drove to East Berlin in September 1986. At first, they were ignored by the Soviets, but then they found an agent who recognized the potential of such attacks. His code name was "Sergei". Over the following two years, the hackers delivered all kinds of programs and huge amounts of data to the KGB. The Soviet organization paid a total of 90,000 Deutsche Mark to the group.

I did not want to kill anyone.

Karl Koch was probably the most gifted of the small hacker group. At that time there was no public Internet and only a few computers were connected via the normal telephone network. Koch and his friends had to take telephones apart to get the necessary components. With acoustic couplers that split data packets into beeps, Karl Koch and his crew went to telephone booths and were easily able to override the low-security barriers of the network.

Around 1986, Koch appeared at the Cebit computer fair in his hometown Hannover. In front of an audience, he hacked himself with a standard home computer in a secured mainframe. Koch even had his picture taken and filmed — but only from the back.

Actually, Koch would have had every reason to protect his identity: He was not only a highly talented nerd and hacker, but also a mentally unstable drug addict convinced he was hunted by "dark forces". Hagbard Celine, his fake name, came from the main character of the Illuminatus! science fiction trilogy written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Soon after contacting the KGB, the German hackers stumbled upon an American on their path. It was system administrator Clifford Stoll who worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory: on his employer's computer, Stoll had discovered a $0.75 accounting error. Apparently, this error came from someone that had entered the system without authorization.

After months of research, Stoll found out that the security breach originated in West Germany and set a trap for the hackers: He copied from various sources a file that at that time was considered huge. He called it "SDInet". The "Strategic Defense Initiative", known as SDI, was a program launched by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan to build a space shield against enemy nuclear missiles. It was a hot topic in the second half of the 1980s.

The German hackers came across the file and copied it. Due to its sheer size, Stoll had enough time to track down the data thieves. German authorities jumped in and apprehended Karl Koch's group. Koch then offered to be a witness. In 1990, the authorities closed the case, with the hackers found guilty of espionage. Peter C. was given two years, Dirk-Otto B. received a 14-month sentence, while another participant named Markus H. alias Urmel was given 20 months.

Was he kidnaped and then killed? If yes — by whom? By the KGB?

But what happened to Koch could never be clarified. On May 23, 1989, he was seen alive for the last time. He was 23 at the time. A week later, his charred corpse was found in a forest in Lower Saxony. Next to the body was an empty gas can.

Had Koch burned himself in an acute fit of persecutory delusion? Or was he kidnaped and then killed in that cruel way? If yes — by whom? By the KGB? Or by other hackers who wanted revenge for his betrayal? There was no evidence that allowed the authorities or the public to speculate. In the epilogue of his book on the KGB hack, Stoll wrote: "The tragic death of Karl Koch has deeply shocked me. I did not want to kill anyone."

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