10 The Wrong Side of the Passwords

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Don't you think that for your first crime you shouldn't attach your name and address and mail it to several thousand strangers?

--Dogbert, in Scott Adams's Dilbert

If pornography on the Net scares people, hackers scare them even more. The word "hacker" has slipped its meanings from the culture of engineering and technology building recounted by Steven Levy in his 1984 book Hackers. Robert Bickford, a California software developer who runs an annual conference for that sort of hacker, defines it as "any person who derives joy from discovering ways to circumvent limitations."[1] That definition, as Bickford writes, includes software engineers and systems analysts as readily as the archetypal anti-social teenage hacker of media stereotype. In the context of the Net, such a definition takes in PGP creator Phil Zimmermann, the students who made the first UUCP connection to start Usenet, anonymous server operator Julf Helsingius, John Gilmore, the Computer Emergency Response Team that cleans up after computer break-ins, and even Bill Gates, who managed to subvert IBM's licensing procedures and make Microsoft rich. But that's not the popular image; press reports focus on the so-called "dark-side" hacker who gets arrested for cracking into others' systems--like Kevin Mitnick, whose arrest in February 1995 in Raleigh, North Carolina, made worldwide headlines and spawned three books.[2] Bickford would exclude the criminal hackers and keep the technologically gifted inventors in his definition.

Although the Net makes it easier for certain types of information--passwords, system-cracking software tools, and information about security weaknesses--to change hands, the hacker community isn't really kept together by the Net. Instead, its center of gravity is a small-format printed magazine called 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, published out of New York by its editor-in-chief, Emmanuel Goldstein.

Emmanuel Goldstein is, of course, not his real name, which might (or might not) be Eric Corley. Corley, a New Yorker who looks a little like Arlo Guthrie and some days talks to journalists with all the enthusiasm of Arlo facing the draft board, borrowed his professional name from George Orwell's 1984. (In Orwell's book, Goldstein was the author of the Book of Forbidden Knowledge; an apparent subversive, he eventually turned out to be in cahoots with the all-controlling Party.) Besides running the magazine, this Goldstein does a radio show on WBAI in New York called "Off the Hook," in which he, guests, and callers talk about technology and complain about telephones.

In this subculture, no one is fond of companies like IBM and Microsoft, but the arch-enemy is the telephone companies. Hacking's roots are in what used to be known as "phone phreaking," the practice of coercing the telephone system into giving you free phone calls. Anyone who was in college in the early 1970s probably remembers one of the earliest manifestations, phony credit card calls, but the more dedicated and technically gifted were able to construct boxes that mimicked the sounds of coins dropping into the slot to fool operators. The magazine 2600 derives its name from 2600Hz, the tone which, when blown into a telephone receiver, used to trigger the phone system into accepting your commands as though you were an operator. Curiously (and famously), for a time whistles tuned to exactly that tone were distributed as prizes in boxes of the cereal Cap'n Crunch; the early phreaker who discovered this, John Draper, was for a long time known by that name.

These days, much of hacking is about computers and the Internet, but the basic character of the scene hasn't changed. Robert Schifreen, whose 1984 arrest for hacking into Prince Philip's Prestel mailbox inspired the writing of Britain's Computer Misuse Act, says, "It's still that desperate mentality of sitting there and doing it for hours on end."[3] Goldstein, too, talks of hacking as "searching out information and wasting a lot of time."

Hackers challenge: they stress-test security systems, they evade detection when they can, and they try to find out things they're not supposed to know. In that, they're probably not so different from any adolescent boy who ever took apart the new school radio or stripped down a car and rebuilt it. They also challenge our faith in the systems we try to trust every day, our notions of the freedom of information,


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