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Beto O'Rourke was a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow, America's oldest hacking group

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke stands on a counter top as he talks with voters during his second day of campaigning for the 2020 nomination at Central Park Coffee Company March 15, 2019 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By MATTHEW ADAMS | The Dallas Morning News | Published: March 16, 2019

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Beto O'Rourke said Friday his membership in the oldest group of computer hackers as a teenager isn't something he's proud of.

Reuters reported Friday that O'Rourke was part of the Cult of the Dead Cow, jokingly named for an abandoned Texas slaughterhouse. The group was known for releasing tools that allow ordinary people to hack computers running Microsoft Windows. The group is also known for inventing the term "hacktivism" to describe human rights-driven security work.

"You know, stuff I was part of as, as a teenager," he told reporters in Iowa. "It's not anything I'm proud of today, and I mean, that's – that's the long and short of it. All I can do is my best, which is what I'm trying to do. I can't control anything I've done in the past. I can only control what I do going forward and what I plan to do is give this my best."

Carrie Campbell, the woman O'Rourke helped get into the Cult of the Dead Cow and made it one of the few hacker groups weren't all-male, left the Cow email group in 2006. Before doing so, she asked everyone to keep O'Rourke's identity a secret after he was elected to the El Paso City Council.

Members of the group then worked to keep this detail hidden throughout O'Rourke's Senate race. Joseph Menn, author of "Cult of the Dead Cow" being published in June, revealed members would not go on record about O'Rourke's involvement unless he agreed to publish his book after the 2018 election.

"There's just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun while you're doing it," O'Rourke told Reuters. "I think of the Cult of the Dead Cow as a great example of that."

As a teen in the 1980s, O'Rourke decided to seek out bulletin board systems to connect with people online outside of school and church.

"When Dad bought an Apple IIe and a 300-baud modem and I started to get on boards, it was the Facebook of its day. You just wanted to be part of a community," he said.

He started his own switchboard, TacoLand, mostly devoted to his love for punk rock.

Reuters also reported that O'Rourke wrote under the name Psychedelic Warlord to post on Cult of the Dead Cow boards. One post was a first-person fictional story written by O'Rourke at age 15 about a troubled person running over two children crossing a street. He characterized mowing down the children as an "act of love" and "simply ecstasy."

"I was so fascinated for a moment, that when after I had stopped my vehicle, I just sat in a daze, sweet visions filling my head," O'Rourke wrote, according to Reuters.

He also discussed a money-less society and fought with another poster over the poster's contention that Adolf Hitler was misunderstood.

O'Rourke connected with Kevin Wheeler in Lubbock who had his own switchboard, Demon Roach Underground. Wheeler moved to Texas from a college town in Ohio and was having problems adjusting to his new home.

Wheeler told Reuters he used the device to look for video games that had been stripped down from digital rights and play for free on his Apple. But he also said it was an avenue to connect with others interested in similar things and say things that their parents or conservatives neighbors would not appreciate.

At the time, people connected to the bulletin boards by dialing in to the phone lines through a modem. To avoid racking up a lot of long distance costs, some methods teens used included using other people's phone-company credit card numbers and five-digit calling codes to place free calls.

O'Rourke did not say what techniques he used other than he pilfered the long distance service so he would not collect a lot of phone costs.

Reuters reported that under Texas law at the time, stealing long-distance service worth less than $1,500 is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine. More than that is a felony, and could result in jail time. It is unclear whether O'Rourke topped that threshold. The state barred prosecution of the offense for those under 17, as O'Rourke was for most of his active time in the group, and the statute of limitations is five years. Two Cult of the Dead Cow contemporaries in Texas who were caught misusing calling cards as minors got off with warnings.

Reuters reported there was no evidence that O'Rourke broke into computers or wrote code that enabled others to do so.

O'Rourke handed over the control of his board when he moved to attend Woodberry Forest School and he stopped participating in the Cult of the Dead Cow board when he enrolled in Columbia University, Reuters reported.

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Washington Bureau Chief Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report from Iowa
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