June 1, 2014 in City
Doug Clark: Set phasers to stun: ‘Star Trek’ hacker fesses up
Confession, they say, is good for your soul.
It’s pretty good for stirring up some laughs, too.
At least there was plenty of laughter when Ryan Gallagher owned up to being the culprit behind a 20-year-old mystery.
“Enterprising Hacker Leaks Star Trek Script.”
That clever headline appeared on the front page of this newspaper back on July 1, 1994.
Gallagher was never identified in the story. Barely 16 at the time, his status as a minor no doubt kept him from achieving any unwanted local fame.
But with the story’s double-decade anniversary nearing, Gallagher decided it was time to come clean about his role as that enterprising hacker.
And tell the tale of how a supposedly top-secret script for an unreleased Star Trek movie found its way onto the electronic bulletin board of a Spokane computer club.
“While Paramount Pictures has announced some of the plot twists in the upcoming film, “Star Trek VII: Generations,” they didn’t count on someone spilling all the beans,” read the opening sentence of Ward Sanderson’s 1994 story.
“I wasn’t even looking for it,” Gallagher said of the script over lunch Friday.
“One of my big loves was Star Trek. I was a huge Star Trek fan. Finding it was a huge thrill and I wanted to share it.”
“I just stumbled upon it,” he added. “I just kind of hit the jackpot.”
Gallagher is an articulate, affable guy. Now 35, he’s married and still as passionate about computers as he was when he encountered his first Mac back in middle school.
Today, Gallagher is a digital content programmer and live data specialist for CBS Outdoor, one of the world’s largest outdoor media companies. He also does part-time audio and video work for the Spokane Arena.
To varying degrees, computers play a part in practically all of our lives.
Sure, we may love to gripe and moan about them. But admit it. We’re all cyberjunkies who get the shakes when our smartphones go missing.
What would we do without the instant communication, the on-demand movies, the GPS guidance and the argument-winning wisdom at the touch of a keystroke or two?
Ah, but it was a different cyberworld 20 years ago.
The Internet was so crude that Al Gore hadn’t felt an urge to brag about creating it.
Computer geeks like Gallagher chatted with other users via electronic bulletin board systems that relied on temperamental phone lines.
Just a high school kid, Gallagher had a natural knack for understanding computer code and customizing graphics.
He was a member of the Macintosh Apple Club of Spokane, even editing the club newsletter for a time, he said.
“It was my sport. Technical things were never an issue.”
Gallagher also possessed the burning curiosity of an explorer.
Nowadays, terms like “hacking” and “leaking” carry sinister Edward Snowden baggage.
Back then, however, young hackers like Gallagher were motivated not by vandalism, but by wanting to test their skills and see what they could do.
Which is how he wound up with that Star Trek script.
Gallagher said he had been chatting with someone from the Netherlands. They engaged in some “random electronic exploration” that led them into a remote computer where they discovered a file that had some telltale words like “Star Trek” and “Generations” on it.
It was also written in script form, with movielike instructions for wide shots, etc.
Gallagher downloaded the file and packaged it into a more readable format. Then he posted the complete 120-page script on the Mac club bulletin board.
That wasn’t the wisest thing to do since anybody could see it, like the reporter who smelled a story and made a call to Paramount.
A studio spokesman he quoted was not amused. He saw the file’s removal as “definitely illegal” and “a violation of copyright laws.”
Gallagher had no idea that a storm of fecal proportions was brewing until he read the newspaper while riding on a city bus.
“I was freaking out,” Gallagher recalled. “It was the only time that I was ever a part of a front-page thing.”
In Star Trek parlance, the crisis was more Tribble than Klingon.
The script was removed from the Mac club’s bulletin board, although it appeared someone else had beamed it to America Online.
Gallagher was banned from using the local message board for a time. The worst thing, he said, came in a rather scary call from a studio security man who began the conversation by asking, “Do you mind if I record this?”
“I was terrified at the time,” Gallagher said.
“But Paramount knew I was a minor. That’s what saved me. They just wanted to plug the hole.”
And so life went on.
“Star Trek VII: Generations,” opened in November to rather lackluster reviews.
William Shatner went on to become one of TV’s most highly prized pitchmen.
And young Gallagher?
He learned his lesson while keeping his love for computers alive.
At 17, just a year after his hacking episode, the Shadle Park High School senior won a Chase Youth Award for founding his own computer design company.
Fade to black.
Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at email@example.com.