OSUNY: By Hackers, For Hackers

Posted by

The Ohio Scientific Users of New York, or OSUNY, was a dial-up BBS in the 1980’s based in Scarsdale and White Plains, New York.  The BBS was very popular among hackers, computer programmers, and other technological communities. It was named for the Ohio Scientific Inc computers that were used by the members. Phone phreaking, the act of manipulating telephone signaling in order to make free phone calls, was also common among the members. The Scarsdale operator was known just as Sysop, which is an abbreviation for system operator, and the White Plains operator was Frank Roberts. Sysop chose to remain anonymous because of the illegal activity occurring on the BBS, saying how he didn’t want it to be traced back to him. He was just 16 when he created OSUNY back in 1982, still in high school. Sysop said in an interview how OSUNY was a project between him and a few fellow hackers who had met on other BBS’s. They decided to start their own, and have it be specifically meant for hackers, the first major BBS to do so. Hacking was viewed very differently back then, most people not even knowing what it is and those that did not having the negative connotation about it that is present today. According to sysop, the movie “War Games,” released in 1983, was what brought hacking into the public eye. This movie ended up being one of the factors leading to hacking laws being created. When he was 17, one year into OSUNY, Sysop was visited at his house by an FBI agent at his house due to the free illegal calls being made using information found on the BBS. He did not get into any trouble though, because he was not personally breaking any laws. Besides his main partner, Frank Roberts, Sysop recruited other members of OSUNY to help write files and programs based on their posts on the BBS. If he found someone who clearly knew what they were doing when it came to programming or hacking, he would reach out to them and offer them a position. One feature of OSUNY that was relatively new at the time was having different areas of the BBS for different types of messages called subject areas. Messages on the BBS could be tagged with a subject area, an early version of how hashtags are used today. Sysop continued to run OSUNY throughout college, until 1988 when he stepped down.

Sysop of OSUNY

Mentioned in The Hacker Crackdown novel by Bruce Sterling and in 2600: The Hacker Quarterly Magazine, OSUNY made its mark in the hacker community that was rapidly growing in popularity. When Sysop ended the BBS in 1988, the community OSUNY had created stayed intact, moving on to other BBS’s and hacking ventures. OSUNY was even revived two times; once in 1997 and once in 2000. In 1997, the domain name osuny.com was registered bringing back the spirit of the BBS with old and new members alike through telenet and ssh. It ran on Linux until 1999, and has remained offline since.The 2000 revival was similar, being accessible through the internet, not dial-up, and forming a decent sized community for the few years that it lasted.

The New York Times article “Touring the Cyberhood,” published on October 9th, 1994, goes on a deep-dive through the impact of BBS’s on New Yorkers’ daily lives. NYC and its suburbs was one of the first hotspots in the country for BBS’s, and they took the area by storm. The article highlights a BBS for Asians, one for women, one for computer nerds, and one for Jesuits. But each BBS is multifaceted and serves a variety of functions. They are ways for people to meet and connect with others they have things in common with, like an early version of social media. The article mentions how “Part of what drives it is that it’s like a coffeehouse or a small bistro. Almost anybody can scrape up the couple of thousand dollars it takes to create a bulletin board. And just like a restaurant, if it starts to catch a crowd, they grow it up a little bit.” Because BBS’s were so accessible and affordable, everyone wanted in. For the first time, people could connect with each other and meet new like-minded people without leaving their desk. OSUNY fit right into this trend, carving out its own space for technology nerds and the hacker community.

When doing my research, I stumbled upon a text file posted to OSUNY titled “Watching the Feds who are Watching You”. The user’s name was Sir Knight, and the file was posted in June of 1987. This file includes Sir Knight’s step by step guide to identify federal agents or cops trying to infiltrate a BBS. For a BBS that specialized in illegal activities such as hacking and phreaking, there is sure to be plenty of posts like this warning people to be wary of the government. It is interesting to see an early version of internet safety pop up on OSUNY back in the 80’s. Nowadays kids are told constantly to be paranoid on the internet and to not give their information to any non-reliable sources. In the early days of BBS’s though, it was a new frontier and most people didn’t understand the consequences of sharing their information. Posts like this also show the sense of community within OSUNY. The members were there to share information about hacking and phreaking, but they were also there to help and support each other. Sysop was clearly a gifted programmer starting OSUNY at such a young age, but in his own words, it would never have become as popular as it did without its community.

Home Page of OSUNY

Leave a Reply