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Interview with the hackers

These mischief makers weren’t out to destroy the world-or save it.

Columnist’s note: the characters in this column are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons real and living is unintentional. The character’s attitudes are something else.

The room smelled of sweaty clothes and something yeasty that once might have been edible, probably pizza. The window looking out onto the campus courtyard had curtains covered with posters to block more light. There were two desks overflowing with computer gear. There were miles of wiring, and a few school texts in evidence, though mostly there were piles of computer manuals and paper copies.

I wouldn’t be in this room under any normal circumstances. But when an opportunity comes along, I do know how to respond. I have a friend of a mutual friend who has lots of contacts with young college-age computer nerds, hackers, and whizzes. I wasn’t exactly invited to visit two hackers in their dorm room, but I was informed that my visit would be “tolerated.”

My contact was told that while I was indeed a member of the fourth estate (uh, press), what I was interested in wasn’t a hot story or a finger-wagging lecture on computer morality. I was just somebody interested in why hackers do what they do. I wanted to explore the psychological angle. Apparently that was enough to defang their objections or pique their egos.

The room fulfilled my imagination of a hacker’s den, campus style, which put me on alert to the fact that it was too much like a stereotype. I shouldn’t use the surroundings to explain the people in it. I was right; the two hackers were not stereotypes.

One of them (I’ll call him Dan) was older, old enough to be out of school. The other, who was at least four years younger, I’ll call Mike. Both of them were sitting in their desk chairs staring at their computer monitors. When I knocked, one of them answered, “Come in.” Neither turned when I came in. Somehow I knew this was planned. Instead of saying something, I spent a few moments scanning the room, picked up a book from one bed and tossed it back down, and then sat down on the other bed.

I asked, “What’s it like to sit there for just a moment and then push the key that sends an e-mail virus on its way?”

They looked at each other. “Never done it,” said Mike.

“Hypothetically,” I said.

They looked at each other again. Mike said, “I’ve never done e-mail-that’s his department.”

Dan pushed hair out of his eyes and flicked his long chin with one finger. “The moment has some drama,” he said.

“Are you into e-mails that entice people to open the attachment like that Kournikova piece?”

A small smile turned Dan’s lips, “No. Not at all. I’d rather piggyback on regular business e-mail.”

I asked why. “Stuff like the Love Bug only works a few times,” he said. “Eventually, people get wise.”

“So you want something with legs, a more enduring attack?” I asked.

“Yes, absolutely.”

“I get the impression you’re doing this on some sense of mission.”

I trailed off, hoping he would pick it up from there. Nothing. Was he being deliberately stubborn? Presuming the contact person informed him, he knew I was after his motives. Finally he said, “Look, I’m not into cheap theatrics. I’m not about messing with people’s minds. I don’t want to change the world.” He paused. “From time to time I do want to remind people that technology is not infallible.”

Guessing, I added, “… and do it in the most creative way possible.”

He stared at me. “I don’t give a damn about being creative. Who knows or cares? People don’t necessarily get the message either. All people know it that their systems are screwed up, that there is something always going wrong. They learn not to trust technology.” With that he folded his hands and put them in his lap. End of set piece.

I tried to summarize. “So you get something like the satisfaction of a teacher. You provide a lesson. Maybe the students get it, maybe not, but you know you’ve made an impression.”

Dan uncurled his hands slowly and tapped something on the keyboard. “You could say that.” He looked at me. “In fact, you probably will.”

It was Mike’s turn. “My sister was raped by a computer.”

I figured this was hyperbole, calculated to get a rise out of me. He kicked his feet up on the bed. “Figuratively,” he continued. I have this habit of going stone-faced when people are being provocative. He studied me for a moment. “She really got into chat,” he said. “Met a lot of guys through chat. The rest of the story you don’t need to know.”

“Could I see a picture of your sister?” I asked. This seemed to throw him. When no picture was forthcoming, I continued. “If he does e-mail, what do you do?”

Mike grinned and said, “I’m a sailor. I’ll storm any port.” (He’s too glib to do this full-time, I surmised. I’m convinced he’s a lit major.) Mike has freckles, which make him look even younger than he is.

“I like sneaking into computers, especially the ones at home or on the road. That gets me into other networks, where the real fun begins.” He laughed.

“You have a favorite port address?” I asked.

“Sure, but that’s a trade secret.” He laughed again.

“I’ve heard that some ISPs can be bribed to let you guys use your software to send calls to subscriber ports. Any truth to that?”

Mike grimaced. “Bribes? Who’s got money for bribes?” Not these guys, I guess.

“So you’re not in it for the money, I gather.”

Both Mike and Dan let out an explosive laugh. As if on cue somebody down the hall suddenly cranked up a stereo and the walls shook to the beat of some heavy metal. Just as suddenly, it was quiet again. “Guys, I’m not trying to find out if you’re psycho, obsessive, or some other kind of stereotype,” I said. “I am interested in why you expend so much effort hacking. It doesn’t seem to pay cash. You don’t get awards. It’s not part of your schoolwork. There is some risk.”

Mike said, “Not much risk. We prefer to stay below the radar.” He looked at Dan. “At least most of the time. Some guys are in it to prove they can stay ahead of the security.”

Dan said, “Bogus.” Mike nodded.

I jumped in. “Why bogus? Don’t you respond to some kind of challenge?”

Dan replied, “There’s challenge and there’s stupid. Sites and networks that have big security are like flypaper. Some hackers get off on being daredevils and wind up getting caught. Why screw with trouble? There are so many other places you can go where there is little or no security. Then you can just deal with the mechanics of getting in and doing your thing.” Mike added, “Pretty much the same impact.”

I asked if either of them went to hacker conventions. “I did once,” said Mike, “But I didn’t like the personalities. Most people were interested in showing off. Some of them were parading their knowledge so they would be picked up by corporations as consultants.” There was tension in Mike’s voice, a hint of disgust perhaps–he was a righteous dude despite his easygoing manner.

“Craftsmen,” I said. They both gave me a “Huh?” look, so I elaborated. “Craftspeople are usually most interested in the work itself-the technical challenge, details of execution, the elegance of design or style. Less interested in how others look at the work.”

I looked at them and raised my eyebrows as a question. Mike shrugged. Dan said, “Maybe.” It struck me that both of them were essentially teenagers, and teenagers practice diffidence assiduously.

The rest of the interview went much the same way, although the two became less and less informative. Since I couldn’t discuss technical details or delve into the morality of what they do, I suppose such an interview can’t produce revelations. It did occur to me that likely only a few hackers hide deep mysteries or profound motivations. A lot of them get into it young, have a number of relatively uninspired motivations, and just seem to practice it as a matter of course or through affinity with others who do it. This is similar to a lot of criminal culture, only in this case we have some ambivalence about its criminality. So do these guys. Professional hackers are another matter-and hopefully another interview.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Enterprise Pursuits, a look at the business of back-end computing, every Tuesday on ComputerUser.com

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