The Ottawa Sun
Friday, March 7, 1997

On the trail of pirates

by Dave Rider

Based in an Ottawa-area home, The Ghostship was much more than a mere computer bulletin board.

To the world's software pirates, it was a treasure chest -- filled with bootlegged programs so hot they hadn't yet hit the stores.

But to the RCMP, who helped pay to keep The Ghostship afloat, it was an electronic window on the expanding but shadowy world of computer crime -- full of pirates, hackers and "phone phreaks".

That is, until another bunch of Mounties raided operator Marc Grove's home and carted it away, hook, line and sinker.

Marc Grove was a computer enthusiast when the information highway was a footpath, its pioneers meeting on dial-up bulletin boards where they could leave messages as well as deposit and withdraw computer files.

Grove, a civilian National Defence worker who has since left DND, ran his own electronic bulletin board at home. He admits to "skirting in the grey areas of the pirate world" by supplying code-breaking programs, without actually trading illegally copied software.

But in 1989, Grove was surprised to see an electronic exchange in which a German man arranged to sell guns and illegal ammunition to two Canadians.

That, combined with the fact that the authorities' attempts at busting computer crime were weak at best, prompted Grove to go to the RCMP.

He contacted a Mountie who was knowledgeable about computers and agreed to become an unpaid "resource consultant". He turned his site, called The Ghostship, into a full-fledged "pirate" board that could eventually be turned over to the RCMP for a sting operation.

But, he says, the Mountie brass didn't want to commit resources to computer crime, then a low priority.

After a couple of years of feeding the RCMP intelligence from The Ghostship, Grove got a new "handler", Cpl. Marc Moureau of A Division's economic crime unit.

Grove's phone bills were mounting -- totalling $1,700 one month -- and Moreau managed to spring loose some Mountie money to pay him as an informant.

The Ghostship really began to sail. Eventually, 10 phone lines buzzed and hummed around the clock with a never-ending flow of cutting-edge software, including the wares of hi-tech titans Corel Corp. and Microsoft.

Grove made no money from the board. Visiting pirates would trade programs for others of equal value and then leave.

Documents show Grove gave the RCMP the names of more than a hundred other pirate boards. He also provided them with details about a notorious computer snatch-and-grab ring known as the "33-Second Gang".

And he exposed hundreds of government phone codes which were being used by so-called "phreaks" -- people who hacked into the government phone system and ran up huge bills, moving illicit wares around the world on the taxpayers' tab.

"We were like the first cop cruiser on the speedway", Grove recalls.

But this cruiser was also flying a Jolly Roger.

"In Canada, it was the No. 2 most powerful or elite pirate board. In North America, we were in the top 10."

Through him, the police got passage into a world where only high-ranking, well-known pirates were welcome.

At one point, the Supply and Services department put a value of more than $5 million on his information, particularly the government phone codes and private calling card passcodes, Grove says.

n court documents, the Mounties say their payments to Grove totalled $7,450.

The payments, however, suddenly stopped in November 1994 when Grove's identity as a Mountie informant was revealed. He says his boss at National Defence saw him receive money from two plainclothes Mounties; the RCMP say he revealed his informer status to the boss and his MP, Don Boudria.

Regardless, he continued to feed the Mounties information without any hope of further payment until almost a year later, when another branch of the RCMP raided his home.

On the Friday before the 1995 Labor Day weekend, Grove and his family arrived home from a trip to McDonald's to find RCMP officers loading disks, computers, and assorted hardware into vans.

At least one military police officer was present and a search warrant was taped to the banister.

These Mounties were members of the Federal Investigation Unit. The FIU offices are at 155 McArthur Ave., one floor above the Economic Crime unit and the fax machine which had spat out hundreds of reports from Grove.

After running The Ghostship for five years with full police knowledge and even funding, he suddenly faced 18 charges under the Copyright Act, sparked by a complaint from software producer Novell.

Grove now faced up to $1 million in fines and five years in jail. That is, until the Mounties' case crashed.

On Jan. 21, federal Crown attorney Christine Morris stayed the charges, effectively dropping them unless sufficient grounds are found within a year. In an interview, Morris declined to say why.

Grove is suing the RCMP officer who led the search and the feds for $2.35 million for negligence and invasion of privacy.

The Mounties refused comment on the case because it is before the courts.

Copyright © 1997 by The Ottawa Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.