Under Texas law, 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. In any event, the state bars 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.
O’Rourke handed off control of his own board when he moved east for boarding school, and he said he stopped participating on the hidden CDC board after he enrolled at Columbia University at age 18.
Hana Callaghan, a government specialist at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said that voters might want to consider both the gravity of any candidate’s offenses and the person’s age at the time.
Among the questions voters should ask, she said: “What was the violation? Was it egregious? What does it say about their character – do they believe the rules don’t apply to them?” If substantial time has passed, she added, voters should decide whether the person “learned the error of their ways and no longer engages in those kind of behavior.”
When he was a teen, O’Rourke also frequented sites that offered cracked software. The bulletin boards were “a great way to get cracked games,” O’Rourke said, adding that he later realized his habit wasn’t morally defensible and stopped.
Using pirated software violates copyright laws, attorneys say, but in practice, software companies have rarely sued young people over it. When they do go after someone, it is typically an employer with workers using multiple unlicensed copies. Software providers are more interested in those who break the protections and spread their wares.
CDC wasn’t of that ilk. Although some CDC essays gave programming and hacking instructions, in the late 1980s, the group was more about writing than it was about breaking into computer systems.
But its focus on creative expression didn’t mean there were no grounds for controversy. Like many an underground newspaper, the Cult of the Dead Cow avidly pursued it.
A CDC member who joined in the early 1990s had previously used real instructions for making a pipe bomb to joke about shedding pounds by losing limbs. Three teenagers in Montreal found the file, and one lost two fingers after he tried to follow the formula, prompting outrage.
Rather than remove similar posts and hide the group’s history, the CDC warned readers not to take the files literally and added a disclaimer that survives on its current web page: “Warning: This site may contain explicit descriptions of or advocate one or more of the following: adultery, murder, morbid violence, bad grammar, deviant sexual conduct in violent contexts, or the consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs.”