Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Cyber Pirates

Nashville hackers say they are misunderstood

By James Hanback Jr.

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  The first blustery days of the fall are creeping into Nashville. The leaves haven't yet begun to change color, but everywhere one walks there are people wearing long sleeves, or light jackets, some of them with a little extra bounce in their steps, hopeful that the last of the blistering days of summer are behind them.

It is on nights like these in early October that people gather for the finer pursuits: literature, film, art. They gather in bookstores, in galleries, and in coffeehouses, desiring the company of their comrades and the warmth of the atmosphere, not to mention intelligent conversation and observations of the world about them.

The little coffeehouse/Internet cafe called Bean Central on West End is no exception, although some of the people who gather there do have a minor difference among them in that their pursuits are less artsy or literary, and more technologically-oriented. The Pac-Man style lettering of the Bean Central logo might, in fact, give outsiders the impression that gathered within are 1980s video game fanatics, or those with a more-than-passing curiosity about the Internet.

It goes a little deeper than that.

"Hey, did you get that message I sent you?" the man in the green baseball cap asks another who has just walked in the cafe door. "I haven't heard back."

Moving to the rear of the two-person coffee line, the other nods hello and replies: "I've been offline for a while. I was trying something new."

One by one members of the group file in for their monthly Bean Central meeting. They drink coffee; they socialize; and they joke about themselves and the perceptions other people have of them. Perhaps it's their common interests, the regularity of their meetings, or the rich smell of Bean Central's varied coffees, but there's something decidedly purposeful in the atmosphere surrounding this group. It's a culture of its own, some of them say. Others insist that it's simply a common desire for knowledge and discovery.

"Hey! Somebody's been playing games on my network today!" one of them announces to a small group of people who have gathered around the table by the window where he sits. "That's not nice."

"It wasn't me!" two others snicker, nearly at the same time, while still another presses the power switch of a small black laptop, engrossed in the grayish technological aura of a liquid crystal display.

And when it's time to settle down to business, the members of the group South Eastern 2600, a regional organization inspired by the quarterly 2600 magazine, interact with each other the way any other group of familiar people in any other situation might: with a little fun-poking, a little respect, and a seemingly genuine desire to be among friends. Friends, that is, who have a common thread of interest in the inner workings of all things technological.

They're hackers. And they say they've gotten a bad rap.

The movies. The media. A lack of education or awareness among the general public. Blame whomever or whatever you wish. The fact is, according to se2600, hackers were around long before the mainstream ever heard of the term, and long before the desktop personal computer. They were the people who discovered how to fool telephone companies in the 1970s, or hacked into mainframes to discover how they worked. And simply because one is called a hacker does not indicate that one should also be called a criminal.

se2600 hacker "jonnyx" celebrates Halloween and Hackerdom at last year's PhreakNIC 2.0.
Photo by Natalia Marek.

Instead, the members of se2600 say, hacking is a process of learning: a desire for knowledge that, before the Internet and lower pricing for sophisticated technology, could not be easily obtained. The best way to learn is by doing, they maintain. And knowledge is power.

Lately, reports in media all over the globe are discussing the hacker "problem." Recent high-profile attacks on World Wide Web servers like that of the New York Times last year or, more recently, the defacing of Web sites like ABC.com, have attracted the mainstream media more than ever. And in some cases the media haven't been very kind.

"Hacker" in the mainstream media is not a term associated with one who takes things apart to learn how they work (be it computer hardware or software, telephones, or washing machines). Instead, it has come to be associated with words like "criminal"--terms se2600 and other hackers around the world consider unfair.

On this night in early October, the hackers gathered at Bean Central are planning PhreakNIC, their yearly festival of hacking and learning, partly in the hope that they'll change some of that public perception. The convention is intended not only for hackers, but for those in other technological businesses and for the general public. By putting themselves and their work on display, the members of se2600 hope to educate people about what it really means to be a hacker, and how dangerous it is to use modern networked technology for storing vital information when you really don't know how to protect that data from the outside world.

"Dagmar d'Surreal" is a man who has garnered respect among se2600 members as an authority on security within the Unix-like Linux computer operating system. Often, it is him people turn to for advice on securing their own Unix-based computers. With his command of language, and his willingness to share what he knows, Dagmar is a prominent figure in se2600. In fact, his thoughts on securing Unix systems from attack can be found in RealNetworks' RealAudio format on a few hacker Web sites. His philosophy: Learn your system and lock it down.

Like the names of other people quoted in this story, "Dagmar" is a pseudonym. The Scene agreed to attribute the sources of this story by their hacker handles, and not their real names, to protect their identities. In the past, Dagmar explains, people have lost their jobs after openly acknowledging they are hackers, even though they aren't criminals and have no record of criminal activity.

There exists, Dagmar says, a generalization among the public that a hacker's intent is always criminal: that he (or she) spends time seeking ways into someone's bank account; or finding ways to charge his long distance phone calls to someone else's account.

For his own part, Dagmar adds, he has been accused more than once of breaking into someone's computer system, when all he was trying to do was to help warn people (or businesses) about a hole in their security, or to provide them evidence with which to prosecute someone who had already cracked them, or who was attempting to do so.

"There have been times when I've delivered people to them on a golden platter," he explains. "Once, I traced a guy back to his machine and found out that he obviously didn't know what he was doing. He was sitting there with his own machine wide open. So, I sat and collected information about him. I found out he had cracked so many sites, and I made a list of them. It took me all day to 'whois' all those sites, so I could let them know what happened."

"Whois" is a program used for accessing Internet authority databases for information on domains: who owns them, who administrates them, and who the billing contact is.

"I'm really wary about bringing things like that up now," Dagmar continues. "Sometimes they either accuse me of breaking in or don't bother to prosecute the people I've practically handed to them. They think: 'Well, he's already broken in once, so he won't try it again.' That's not true. If a hacker has found a way into your system, he will come back.

"Then sometimes it's a question of ego," he adds. "A lot of systems administrators don't want to admit that they don't know how to lock down their systems. So instead of taking advice on how to fix the problem, they accuse us of creating it."

It all leads back to public perception. Lately, the media have been focused on a sort of new hacker breed, groups that hackers like those in se2600 call "script kiddies," "crackers," or "hacktivists," who use hacker tools to take control of Web sites and replace them with their own pages and messages. From stories about those exploits and, perhaps, a general fear of those who know things the general public may not, hackers are still getting a bad rap.

But if hackers aren't the villains who appear in films, in books, or in the press, if they're not generally people who are out to commit a crime, then who are they?

According to Rattle and Ataraxia, two more se2600 members, they are, at the simplest level, people who like to discover how things work. Even so, they maintain that their personal characteristics, values, and views are as diverse as the rest of the world, in spite of what they perceive as the media's attempts to lump them all into one tightly wrapped ideological box.

"When I was a young kid, I liked to take things apart," says Rattle, whose honest face and outgoing personality seem to contradict virtually every "hacker" stereotype in modern media. (Hackers are often portrayed in the media, movies, and books as social misfits, bent on taking out their personal frustrations on other people.) "[I took apart] toys, stuff around the house, anything I could get my hands on. My parents bought me a toolkit at one point. I believe I was 4. That night, I took apart the clothes dryer."

It was then, Rattle explains, that he first started "thinking like a hacker."

"[The dryer] was broken. I was bored. I had a new set of toys, and I wanted to know how it worked," he says. "That's as far back as I can remember thinking like a 'hacker.' At least, that's what I think 'thinking like a hacker' is.

"Believe it or not, I hate computers," he adds. "I just like what you can do with them. When I was 6, my Dad bought an IBM PC Jr. I don't even remember the stats on the thing, but it kept me occupied for a little while. To be honest, I really thought it was boring. The games were OK, but like any video game, then and now, they get boring really quick. Playing with radio stuff and building remote control cars was more fun than copying BASIC programs out of a book. I thought BASIC was dumb. I couldn't make anything interesting with it. And on top of it, I liked things that were a little more social. Sitting in front of a computer did not seem social to me."

Then young Rattle got his first Apple computer, the Apple IIc, which came with a 300-baud modem. At that moment, he says, he discovered something wonderful.

"Computers could be used to communicate," he explains. "And the people on the other end were not all computer geeks. They were people a lot like myself. While I did not realize it at the time, I discovered a culture. And I do not use the word culture lightly."

Rattle eventually set up his own electronic bulletin board system (BBS), and in 1994 discovered the Internet. Suddenly, his appetite for things social and his propensity for taking things apart were melded into one. More recently, Rattle has become a security consultant and network designer, a business that lets him explore the inner workings of computer networks and be social all at the same time.

But not every hacker is as concerned with the social aspect of the Internet or hacking. Unlike Rattle, Ataraxia is more the private type--a man who says he generally prefers to remain "behind the scenes." While Rattle was averse to simply sitting in front of a computer, Ataraxia often found himself a shut-in as a result of serious allergies. He discovered discovery, not to mention a way to beat the blues, he says, in a little box called the Sinclair ZX81, which he ordered from Popular Science.

"I remember the day I went to Zayre and got the big 16K RAM upgrade," Ataraxia says. "Those things were touchy. After getting the rampack, printer, etc., daisy-chained on the little breadboard in the back, all you had to do was breathe on it wrong and it would crash."

"jonnyx" displays some of his favorite hacker "tools": a lineman's handset and... a rubber chicken?

Even so, programming the Sinclair with his own shoot-'em-up UFO games, and discovering tricks and cheats in various other programs, sparked the imagination of the barely teenage Ataraxia. He was soon hacking into the code of text adventure games to figure out their solutions, and creating little programs that baffled classmates and teachers in his later computer classes. Young Ataraxia was so interested in the technology that he often learned more than his teachers knew. He learned so much on his own, in fact, that he could usually get away with goofing off during class.

"My school had computer camps in the summer and I was a TA there," he explains. "[I] once had a woman in the class who the next year was my computer class teacher. Needless to say, I played games the whole time and aced the course. She fucking hated me."

But it wasn't until he logged onto his first BBS that Ataraxia really entered the hacker culture, the hacker world. Suddenly, he thrust himself into a whole new realm where people were talking about doing the things he liked to do, and showing him ways to do more.

"One day I met up with a couple of guys who had funny nicknames," he continues. "I guess I could stop here and say the rest is history, but I'll elaborate. These guys were the coolest. I could not believe what they had--what they let me have--the things they showed me. They had keys to get into the buildings at the school! We would go into the computer lab late at night and play with the VAX by crawling around in the maintenance corridors until we came to the computer room. Same thing with the labs. It was a real mind-opening experience.

"They had a loft up in the attic of one of the halls that was filled with monitors, weed, TV sets, a stereo, beer, a bunch of computers and video game consoles," he adds. "The big thing there was the Amiga with all the fancy things it could do. Blew me away. We would go up there and hang out, talk to other people with funny nicknames on the computer that was connected up to some network of other computers via these cables they had run illicitly to other cables that belonged to the school.

"This was all new to me," he says. "I had no idea what all that was, or that someday I would control my own little part of it. I had all this cool stuff, these cool ideas, and even my own cool nickname." That nickname was "devilman," because of the long hair and goatee he wore at the time.

"Once I had moved to Nashville and started back to college, I was full on the Internet," he continues. "I was the first student to be on the Net connection at the school, testing the waters for all the others soon to follow. I was studying programming, but spending all my time on the Net, and I mean all my time. When I wasn't on the Net I was reading about the Net or talking to other people about the Net. Then I met another one of those people with the funny nicknames and he turned me on to this hacker site, and that's when it hit me. I was a hacker. I had always been a hacker. That's why it always came back to computers. It just took me a few years to put it all together."

Like every culture, the hacking universe is in a constant state of flux, perhaps even more so than other "cultures" because the nature of their environment is constantly changing. What's state-of-the-art today is useless tomorrow. There are always new technologies and new challenges. But there are also some basic hacker principles that have remained pretty much a constant.

Rattle explains it this way: "Now everything is Internet, but the idea is the same. The only difference is that there are a lot more [hackers] out there. And the culture that surrounds the hacker is not as clearly defined (or understood) as it was 'back in the day.' "

Rattle's list of hacker principles, which he attributes to technology author Steven Levy, include the following:

* Access to computers should be unlimited and total;

* All information should be free;

* Mistrust authority--promote decentralization;

* Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position;

* You can create art and beauty on a computer;

* Computers can change your life for the better.

"While I never thought about any of this at the time [I was growing up], all of that is 100 percent true, and I was teaching it to myself," he continues. "There are a few other romantic-type phrases that you hear hackers spit out that I also agree with 100 percent: 'Don't damage, don't destroy, don't touch money, don't touch government.'

"That's a biggie," he explains. "You know the 'prime directive' in Star Trek? I always thought of that as kind of the 'hacker prime directive.' Not just because it's something that all hackers [should] follow at all costs, but because there is a kind of more grand idea behind it. If you are not screwing anything up, you are not doing anything that will get you (or someone else) in trouble. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

"Although, times have changed," he adds. " 'Access to computers should be unlimited and total' also has a more grand idea behind it. There once was no way to learn about large mainframes and stuff like that other than to hack into them. So we did. Now, anyone can install Solaris or Linux or something else on their computer, and learn things that way."

Unfortunately for hackers, that availability of technology is the argument some people (and media) would use as reasoning behind labeling hackers as criminals. The access is cheap, they argue. So why break in?

But Rattle says there's more to it than that. While technology is more reasonably priced than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, it's still not free--unless you happen to be downloading a distribution of the 32-bit Linux operating system from the Internet. Thanks to hackers and other programmers, Linux has become the favorite Internet operating system, and some say it will penetrate the Microsoft Windows-dominated PC markets as well, if it hasn't already. (Linux, a Unix clone, was developed in 1991 by then University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds. Released under the GNU Public License, it was built upon and improved by others all over the world. Versions of it are now developed by several software companies, including Red Hat, Slackware, and Debian.)

"Now, the only hacks most people see are of a bad nature," Rattle says. "Hence, we have had to create the term 'cracker' to distinguish bad hackers from good hackers. At one point, hacking into a system was the status quo in order to learn. It's not like that anymore. Today, the greatest hacks are taking place in creating things like Linux. Great hackers create, secure, and make things run smoothly. The definition in the dictionary of 'hacker' is accurate."

In fact, the best description of a hacker may be the term "do-it-yourselfer." What does a hacker do when needs a new tool? He creates it.

"We needed a way to communicate, so we created BBSes, FIDO networks, etc., etc., etc.," Rattle says. "We wanted to learn about computer systems no 16-year-old kid would have access to, so we hacked into them. We needed a more powerful operating system for our home computers, so we wrote Linux. We needed the Internet, so we created it."

Ataraxia agrees.

Tools for information-gathering, like card scanners, are favorite toys of Nashville hackers.

"I am better informed of the world around me," he says. "I don't think you can find a group of people who know more about current events, technology, and the effects of each on the other and the world than hackers. The hacker community is like a hive mind or collective, if you will. Everyone has their own philosophies, specialities, beliefs, skills, etc., and this is all shared with others freely so that all may benefit.

"Recently hackers have taken center stage in the show we call current events, even testifying before Congress about Internet security," he adds. "Why? Because they are the ones causing the trouble? No, because they are the ones who can fix the problems."

In fact, "current events" is a hot topic on many hacker e-mail lists. On the se2600 list alone, the topics vary from mundane film discussion to governmental policy on the exporting of strong encryption software.

Last Oct. 31, Nashville's Drury Inn South came alive with computers and cables, music and talk, Internet downloads and broadcasts. PhreakNIC 2.0, according to se2600 member jonnyx, was a thrilling success. (jonnyx is a prominent figure in se2600, and one of the major participants in organizing PhreakNIC, the se2600 hacker convention.)

"Some of us spent some time searching for the term PhreakNIC on the Internet," jonnyx said. "We even found information about it that was in Portuguese. People have come here from as far away as Canada."

The walls and ceilings of Drury Inn South were decorated for Halloween; and while the daytime events were reserved for discussion and demonstration of hacker-oriented materials, the nights were geared more toward the social end, with parties lasting well into the morning hours.

The se2600 crew went all out to present Nashville with its second hacker convention in the past two years. Many of the PhreakNIC attendees even sported official PhreakNIC 2.0 T-shirts, with a parody of the Intel logo on the chest. "Hacker Inside," it read.

Behind the closed door of at least one of the inn's rooms, an anonymous PhreakNIC attendee demonstrated for the Scene the multiple ways in which hackers can glean information: not only from computers, but cellular telephones and any number of other devices.

"This is just a simple scanner you can buy at any Radio Shack," the anonymous hacker says, pointing to a black box common on any police reporter's desk; or in the homes of many curious people who listen to police emergency radio bands. "If I open this up and cut one diode, I can hear all kinds of cellular phone conversations and other broadcasts.

"This is one of the reasons I don't like cellular phones," he adds. "I wouldn't have one."

So how does one protect oneself from prying eyes and ears? What's the best course of action to prevent attacks from people using hacker techniques? It stands to reason that the best thing you can do is to consult a hacker. They know the techniques better than anybody. They invented them.

And even though hacker principles may include "Don't damage. Don't destroy. Don't touch money. Don't touch government," Dagmar d'Surreal and other se2600 members say people should still be aware, and be vigilant regarding their technology and its security, because there are people out there who will do some damage, whether they are truly hackers or not.

And as the members of se2600 gear up for PhreakNIC 3.0 (also known as PhreakNIC '99), their focus again turns to security: what works and what doesn't, what's flawed and what's not-so-flawed. PhreakNIC 3.0 is scheduled for Halloween weekend at Drury Inn South. Hackers, computer security specialists, the public, and even the media are invited.

"You wouldn't go off and leave your home unlocked," Dagmar d'Surreal says. "The same common sense applies to your computer."

In fact, some hackers eventually start their own computer security companies or consulting services, building a life on what they learned as hacking youths. Ataraxia, who himself in the past has offered free advice to those he's discovered with weak security, says the best person for securing a computer system is most often the very person who can break it.

"Don't trust a hacker?" he asks. "No, don't trust anyone who's not a hacker."

More information about hackers, hacking, PhreakNIC, and se2600 can be found at the organization's World Wide Web site: http://www.se2600.org. Information specific to PhreakNIC 3.0 is available at http://www.phreaknic.org.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Nashville Scene . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch