Hacking toward Bethlehem

Abe Ingersoll, a former punk hacker and infamous "Road Rules" cast member, reflects on his ill-fated 15 minutes.

Topics: Linux, MTV,

Abe Ingersoll is not the type to hit a lady — even if she is kicking his
ass on national television. So when a tiny woman
named Gladys smacked him with a roundhouse left hook, Abe reacted stoically.
The punch landed squarely on his jaw, sending him sprawling. Gladys then
pounced, raining blow after blow on his back and shoulders. The entire
beating unfolded before rolling MTV video cameras, for later viewing by an
audience of millions. But Abe did nothing to defend himself other than ball
up and yell at her to knock it off.

Abe, a compact, spiffy-looking 18-year-old, was a cast member of “Road
Rules: Latin America” — a 15-week-long installment of MTV’s peripatetic
spinoff from the rusty but reliable documentary show, “The Real World.”
(Abe’s “Road Rules” episodes, which first aired earlier this year, will
likely be rerun in the fall.) When the self-professed “punk hacker kid” decided
to audition for the show, it occurred to him that he might upgrade his odds of making the cast by hacking
into the network of the show’s production company, Bunim/Murray. He was right. Included in his haul
were transcripts of previous interviews with prospective cast members,
which gave him an inside track on what the producers were looking for.

“Actually it’s not even hacking because it’s so straightforward,” Abe tells me as we
sit in his Venice, Calif., apartment, several months after the fact. A well-scuffed
surfboard leans against the wall beside Abe’s home-built, Linux-loaded PC. “They had this information shared to the world. Anybody could just come and find it. Cheap production
company, cheap T-1 connecting a LAN network to the Internet; what could
possibly be at the other end of that?”

A whole mess of trouble, as it turns out. In short, Abe uncovered biographical insights on cast members from previous “Road Rules” excursions,
several of whom dropped by for a “spontaneous” on-air visit during the Latin America shoot.
He then used said info for nefarious purposes that inadvertently aroused the wrath of Gladys. So
she beat him up. All in all, a pretty embarrassing 15 minutes of fame for a kid from Peoria.



For those not part of MTV’s crucial yearning-adolescent demographic, here’s
the high concept behind “Road Rules”: Find six attractive, outspoken, go-for-it
young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, set them up inside an RV, put
them on the road in an exotic locale, and then sit back and let the
zaniness begin. It’s so stupid it’s perfect. A camera crew and production
staff follow the young people around day and night, videotaping their every nervous tic, angst-ridden confessional and shouting match.

Abe’s hack was a classic case of the chickens coming home to roost. Partners Jon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim’s shows are carefully stocked with sexy, flamboyant and ever-so-slightly dysfunctional post-adolescents. The archetype is Puck from
“The Real World,” an abrasive loudmouth whose temporary “family” gave him the
boot. The “Road Rules” producers knew they were getting another bad-boy
specimen with Abe — they even labeled him “The Bad Guy” in on-air promo spots — but he turned out to be more trouble than they’d counted on.

“We knew we were taking a certain risk in choosing someone like Abe,” says Murray, who learned of Abe’s attack after the show had wrapped. “To
some extent, that’s what Abe is about.”
“Abe has tremendous charisma and he has unique experience,” adds Bunim. “When we met him, we were excited that his back story didn’t duplicate anyone else’s. We didn’t think a whole lot about the
danger of casting someone like Abe. Maybe we should have. It’s unnerving to
feel that completely vulnerable.”

And what does Abe have to say for himself? He doesn’t offer any excuses.
But as we become acquainted, he does tell me that he saw “Road Rules” as an opportunity for useful peer-group therapy in the wake of his rather turbulent upbringing. The show was a means, he says, “to be reconnected with my generation.”

“As we see,” he now admits, “that did not happen at all.”

Abe was the second-youngest of seven children — six of them boys. Before he came
along, his parents belonged to the Children of God, a roving religious cult
that emerged from the Jesus People movement of the ’60s. His parents
deserted the sect after a few years but maintained an itinerant lifestyle.
The Ingersoll clan was living in Twisp, Wash., in the basement of an
Assemblies of God church, when Abe entered the world on March 19, 1980.
Later, the family moved to a Mennonite commune in rural Illinois. On “Road Rules,” Abe can be heard lamenting the rigors of growing up on welfare,
mostly through the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Abe’s father, Lewis Ingersoll, an affable man who laughs easily and revels
in the family’s lore, downplays the hardships. “These kids always emphasize
things that, to me, are kind of a distortion,” he says. “I had another son
who went to Yale. He wrote a story that was published in the paper about
him and his older brother getting in a dumpster.” And yet, as Ingersoll admits: “We did have a period of time when we went through dumpsters. But
hell, the kids had more fun! Every dumpster we passed by, they’d want to stop and go through it!”

The Ingersolls’ marriage disintegrated in the late ’80s. After bearing seven children, Abe’s mother “switched teams,” as Abe puts it.
She and her partner got custody of the younger children, including Abe. He
lived with his mother in De Kalb, Ill., but after a round of family counseling, he relocated to his father’s home in Peoria, where he lived
from 1994 to 1997. Abe was 12 when he first discovered computers, specifically a
Toshiba laptop that his dad brought home, which was running an old version of DOS.
Abe was a natural with computers. “I picked up the Toshiba, fired up
Procomm Plus, and that was the end of it,” he says. He started with
dial-ups to local bulletin board systems. When a local ISP hooked up its T-1 line in
late 1994, Abe discovered the Internet. “Of course I was their first
customer,” he says.

With no money to buy better computer equipment, and under the influence of
older hacker buddies he met while noodling around online, Abe soon
dived into deeper waters. Using discarded credit-card receipts, he
started ordering computer equipment from pay phones, having the merchandise
overnighted to vacant houses. Before the shippers discovered the scam, he
was long gone with the booty. Eventually, his older brother Chase ratted
Abe out to his father, who turned his son in to the police. Abe confessed all. He was
slapped with 18 months of probation and several hundred dollars in fines.

After this incident, Abe’s father was ready for him to move on. An uncle on
his mother’s side agreed to serve as Abe’s new mentor and guardian. Abe relocated to Los Angeles, entered high school, dithered, dropped out by pulling what he calls “the Ferris Bueller trick” (back-dooring into the school’s
computers and wiping clean all records of himself).

Abe was free, but he felt like he was missing out on something. So he figured he should cap his adolescence with a lunge at TV stardom. He
decided to tough out the arduous “Road Rules” casting process — which begins with 5,000 applicants — to try to land a spot on the show.

What Abe got into was, of course, a real-life variation on “EDtv,” in which
everyone’s existence is quasi-scripted by unseen hands. “The big mindfuck of it all is
that they control everything,” Abe says of Bunim and Murray. “From how much money you have to where you’re going to what you’re doing. You have this
set of parameters you have to work within to, like, ‘have fun.’ You’re on ‘The Truman Show.’ You just happen to know it.”

“Basically you saw how mundane and silly a lot of it was,” says Abe. “These
two burned-out soap opera producers are now doing a show for MTV. They take
thousands of hours of tape and make it into — whatever you call it. It’s
pretty much a joke.” (For the record: Bunim is a former soap opera producer; Murray came out of news and documentary production.)

If Bunim and Murray were shocked that Abe hacked their system,
the first line of Abe’s application questionnaire should have been their first clue.
Asked to “Describe your job,” Abe wrote: “Full time systems analyst (aka punk hacker kid).”
Bunim and Murray eventually lifted Abe’s “punk hacker” wording for his
cast bio on the Road Rules Web site. But they just
didn’t get it. Abe wasn’t being cute with the hacking boast. He was being honest.

The casting process
started with a homemade tape in which Abe introduced
himself to the producers and proved that he looked sharp on camera. A
lengthy and repetitive series of interviews followed; they were conducted mostly by phone, but a few were held in the company’s Van Nuys offices. It was during one of those sessions that
an interviewer challenged him about the possibility of hacking the office
computers.

“They said, ‘So, Abe, what have you seen in our computer system?’ I just laughed
because at that point I hadn’t spent any time at all investigating stuff. I don’t know
if they didn’t think it could happen or what. But when they offhandedly made a remark, it kind of
stuck in my mind. Then I got bored one night and the next thing you know …”

He quickly discovered a significant security flaw in the
Bunim/Murray network — namely, that it had no security. The company was running various incarnations of Windows, which, according to Abe, contained
gaping holes. Abe doesn’t hang out or correspond much with the hacker
community — “I’m not a typical hacker!” he insists — but he does read “bug
reports,” in which hackers list the flaws they’ve discovered in software
programs and operating systems. Drawing on that information and several
hours of trial and error, Abe found a point of entry. Then he made a quick
stop at Cult of the Dead Cow,
an active hacker site, where he downloaded a copy of Back Orifice, a “remote control”
program that allows someone like Abe to operate a Windows 95 machine from any
location via the Internet.

With that capability, he was able to navigate the network and uncover a
huge storehouse of Bunim/Murray documents and files. Most of it was
eye-glazing stuff — Excel spreadsheets, legalistic internal memos and
other mulch he didn’t care about. “It’s like a vast empty void,” he says.
But he also found inside dope: transcripts of casting interviews,
meticulous logs of videotapes describing every titter, jitter and
palpitation of the characters recorded on tape, story outlines for
half-hour episodes distilled from hundreds of hours of film time. This was
Abe’s pre-show education, his own private screening room.

In typical exchanges, people were asked about their problems growing up,
about their appetites for sex. One guy is asked if it’s true that all men measure their penises.
(His answer: I never have.) “In the interviews they cover this huge range of topics, but what it comes
down to is the sex and the conflict,” Abe observes. “That’s basically what
the show revolves around.”

Abe is probably right. I search through his archive for something, anything, of deeper interest to mankind, but I come up empty. For me, the
sheer banality of it all is the most telling part. But Abe, half my age and
far more idealistic, got his hackles up about the manipulative nature of
the “Road Rules” experience. For that reason, he felt no compunction about
using the information he gathered to take action.
But instead of striking back at his Orwellian
puppet masters with some sort of brilliant
megaprank — as he easily could have –
Abe used his insider knowledge to bag a babe.

As the Latin America road trip got under way, Abe almost immediately filled
the role of black sheep. The show portrayed him as a gadfly and a cad, whose idea of fun is to electronically eavesdrop on another cast member’s intimate phone call to a girlfriend back home, while coolly plotting to seduce any female
who catches his fancy.

Abe wasn’t secretive about his plans. On MTV’s Web site, he’s quoted
reflecting on his experience: “If there was one thing that I was really 18
about, I said that I would get with all three girls … but in the same respect I’m kind of, you know, what else is a horny young 18-year-old dude gonna do?”

“The degree of that surprised me,” says Abe’s uncle, Jon Burdick, who guided Abe’s move to California. “I knew he’d want to come across as the
wild one. But he doesn’t ever really mean to hurt anybody and he’s surprised when he does. I think it’s just the way Bunim/Murray wants to cut
it, for the sake of ratings.”

Which brings us to the part of Abe’s saga that connects his “Road Rules” hack
to the now infamous fight with Gladys. While beetling through the casting interviews
from “Road Rules: Australia,” Abe found interviews with “Susie,” an
18-year-old blond from Pittsburgh. What Abe did not know as he perused her
personal effusions was that he would encounter Susie during the trip
through Latin America. As one in a series of contrivances known as
“missions” (“Go deep sea fishing!” “Fight a bull!”), the producers arranged
for the Australia cast to appear and “challenge” the Latin America cast to
a jet-ski competition. When Abe glimpsed Susie in her wet suit, he felt an
instant connection. “A new way to meet girls in the ’90s!” Abe laughs. “Beat them at their own
game. Know them better than they know themselves.”

From reading Susie’s interview, Abe learned enough to get her attention.
“I knew little tidbits. When I met her, it was like, ‘Ha ha! I’ve got
information on you!’” Then he made himself seem really cool by telling her
about the hack: “Just imagine a girl doing this thing for the show — and
one of the kids on the show knows you work in a video store, and that you
got the information off of Bunim/Murray’s computer system. That’s pretty
impressive.”

Impressive or not, it worked. Abe and Susie’s affair was a highlight of the series.
In one shot, we see them strolling through a balmy Mexican evening and smooching under the streetlights. The next morning, as Abe and his
Winnebago-riding mates pack up for the day’s adventures, the previous night’s
activities are, understandably, the talk of the group. Susie has already been spirited away,
the Australia cast’s mission accomplished. She isn’t around to defend her honor.
That’s when Gladys loses it. A feisty native of Boston’s inner-city Roxbury
district, she announces that she didn’t like Susie and gets going on a
judgmental diatribe directed at Abe and his girlfriend-for-a-night. “She has no class!”

Gladys calls Abe a “coward” and, strangely, taunts him for his
unwillingness to strike her. Abe lashes back, blasting her as a “psychotic
bitch” and a “maniac.” Suddenly, Gladys charges him and — bop! pow! — she
unleashes a flurry of blows that drops Abe, who collapses onto a cot.
The upshot of the fight: Abe throws a fit, not without some justification.
He threatens first to call “the federales” and then, more realistically, a
lawyer. The Bunim/Murray contract prohibits violence among cast members.
Gladys gets a one-way ticket back to her Boston home and Abe serves time as
the group pariah, particularly in the eyes of the remaining two female cast
members. Apparently, the resentments lingered well beyond the end of the
experience. When asked in January by a New Orleans newspaper to describe
Abe, cast member Sarah Martinez dubbed him “the asshole.” This was the same Sarah who, not knowing how correct she was, described Abe
on the air as “the type of person who’d read your journal.” Abe finds that comment offensive. “I never read anybody’s journal!” he
says, laughing.

The sojourn through Latin America is
history, but Abe relived it every Monday night as the episodes aired on
MTV. Or at least, he relived an approximation of it. “I talked to one of
the other guys in the cast recently,” Abe says. “He watches the show and
says, ‘That’s not the trip I remember.’” That’s the way Abe feels, too.
“I had no idea that I’d be as big of a troublemaker as I ended up being,” he confesses.
“I expected there’d be people just as bad as me. Or just as interesting.”

Abe peruses the alt.tv.road-rules newsgroup and sometimes posts there when
the commentary about him gets out of hand. “I’m the one everyone likes to
talk shit about,” he sighs. But he’s also a favorite of female
viewers. One e-mail from a young lady — offering to perform certain
favors for him — is printed out and taped to his door. To better service his fans, Abe has created a Web site, “Abecam,” which features live, streamed video of his daily
activities.

Abe tells me that he rarely hacks anymore. In the end, it seems he has learned a lesson from “Road Rules,” just as the producers had hoped. “It’s just a vast empty void out there,” he says. “Like looking up somebody’s asshole.”

Jonathan Vankin is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.

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