The popular fear is that the hacker is potentially anybody, including the neighbor’s teenage son or daughter, who, safely ensconced behind drawn shades or in basement apartments, could be busily hacking global computer systems.
Such news coverage, however, is nothing new given that reports of hackers violating government, corporate, and personal databases have become common currency on the Internet and helped perpetuate a conspiracy-minded paranoia regarding the ubiquity of hackers and the vulnerability of Internet users across the globe.
Yet the term “hacker” is problematic because, since its earliest incarnation in the 1950s, it has mutated in the popular media to include such divergent groups as traditional hackers, phone phreakers (people who hack into the phone system), crackers (the label for the less acceptable forms of hacking), and cypherpunks (those with a more general, but no less radical, interest in cryptography). In the seminal Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1994), Steven Levy notes that, as of 1984, there were three distinguishable generations of hackers.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first generation consisted of Peter Samson, Bob Saunders, John McCarthy, Bill Gosper, Richard Greenblatt, Stewart Nelson, members of the Tech Railroad Model Club, and a host of other figures that found themselves wandering through the early computing labs of MIT.
As Levy describes it, these hackers were drawn to the early computers housed in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and, driven by an overwhelming curiosity, they experimented with both hardware and software for the express purpose of pushing the computer beyond its original programming.
They wanted to create something new, whether through the physical manipulation of the system or writing programming language such as FORTRAN, which helped create a freely distributable precursor of today’s video games: Spacewar.
As a result, a hacker ethic stressing the free flow of ideas emerged: “Just as information should be clearly and elegantly transported within a computer, and just as software should be freely disseminated, hackers believed people should be allowed access to files or tools which might promote the hacker quest to find out and improve the way the world works” (Levy, 102).
Contemporary accounts of hackers continue to stress the ethics of hacking, whether Paul Taylor in Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime (1999), remarking that the true hacker demonstrates simplicity (simple but impressive skills), mastery (sophisticated technical knowledge), and illicitness (the act of hacking is against the rules) (15); or Pekka Himanen’s summary in The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age (2001), that the hacker spirit consists of intrinsic interest, enthusiasm, and joy (3–4).
In addition to their common interests, these early hackers were also united in that they were viewed by the general population as mages of some weird, and equally wicked, magic. As the 1950s changed into the 1960s, resistance to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, condemnation of military/educational partnerships, and the value of free love placed these early hackers in a precarious position.
Public image of these hacking magi fluctuated between the “mad scientist” type and the geeky “pasty-skinned, glassyeyed automatons” that were the precursor to an Orwellian Big Brotherism just over the horizon (Levy, 130). With the advent of the 1970s, hackers eventually exited the hallowed halls of MIT and took to the streets to form computer-based clubs that fostered the hacker ethic by allowing diverse members to share hacking tips.
This second wave of hackers used home-based transistor kits to explore the possibilities of creating new computer systems and social networks “where truth, openness, and democracy existed in a form purer than one could find anywhere else” (Levy, 192). Notable among this second wave were such groups as Community Memory, set up by Lee Felsenstein and Efrem Lipkin, and the popular Homebrew, founded by Gordon French and Fred Moore.
In a shift of the conspiratorial target, this second wave of hackers returned the conspiratorial gaze outward to express their own mistrust of those with economic advantage, notably multinational corporations (e.g., IBM) that threatened to privatize and restrict computer systems, software, and information.
Tellingly, on 3 February 1976, the Homebrew Community Club newsletter was set abuzz when a hacker, in a written letter entitled “An Open Letter to Hobbyists,” expressed dismay, frustration, and anger that his BASIC computer software program had been hacked and freely distributed.
The author of the letter? Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Unfortunately, Gates’s letter was the writing on the wall; money had come to hackerdom as twenty-three separate computer companies, including Apple and Microsoft, were eventually founded out of Homebrew’s members.
Yet, as hackers began to compete with one another in a market that valued shares over sharing, they became their own conspiratorial targets. This third generation ran afoul of the first and second generations and, consequently, internal accusations of corporate espionage, theft, and an overall betrayal of the hacker spirit ensued.
This internal strife among hackers-cum-corporate-officers intensified during the 1980s when the home computing market began to grow at exponential rates. Furthermore, fueled by the popularity of hackers in such venues as movies (War Games), novels (Neuromancer), and television (Max Headroom), hacking exploded in the public consciousness because the personal computer potentially allowed anyone to hack computer systems.
Thus, while War Games was screened nationwide, FBI agents arrested the six teenage members of the “414 Gang,” a computer club that hacked the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a site involved in the development of nuclear weapons.
Or, in 1987, Shadow Hawk (Herbert Zinn), admitting to hacking AT&T computers, became the first to be prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. Finally, to help solidify the growing concern over hackers, Cornell graduate student Robert Morris unleashed the first computer worm that “unknowingly” infected computer systems worldwide and shut down the emergent Internet network.
As Andrew Ross, in Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (1991), puts it, the effects of Morris’s Internet virus “helped to generate a moral panic that has all but transformed everyday ‘computer culture’” (75) while a “[v]irusconscious fear and loathing have clearly fed into the paranoid climate of privatization that increasingly defines social identities in the new post-Fordist era” (80).
By the end of the 1980s, the conspiracy dialogue shifted toward a media-hyped condemnation of hacking—the distinctions among hacking, cracking, and phone phreaking completely ignored—and the potentially crippling abilities of such computerized cabals as the Legion of Doom or, in West Germany, the Chaos Computer Club. Tellingly, U.S. Attorney Otto Obermaier called hacking the “crime of the future ... [and] this kind of conduct will not be tolerated” (Slatalla and Quittner).
The judicial pursuit of hackers has only intensified since the 1980s and has now become an increasingly publicized enterprise. For example, in 1990, four members of the Legion of Doom were arrested for stealing information that could potentially disrupt BellSouth’s 911 emergency system.
Later that year, the Secret Service, operating in the interest of national security, launched Operation Sundevil, a cooperative, multijurisdictional search and seizure operation targeting computer bulletin boards housed in fourteen cities.
Bruce Sterling, in the online version of The Hacker Crackdown, writes that “Sundevil appears to have been a complete success. Boards went down all over the United States, and were shipped en masse to the computer investigation lab of the Secret Service, in Washington D.C., along with the 23,000 floppy disks and unknown quantities of printed material.”
Yet, Sterling argues that Sundevil had little to do with hacking itself but with media relations, since it would send a “message” to the digital underground that they could not hide behind the relative anonymity of their computer terminals for long.
Essentially, the hacker war escalated into the public domain as businesses used the hacker threat to market security software. At the same time, law enforcement agencies publicly brought the more flamboyant hackers to trial and shifted the cultural understanding of hackers from the early days of computer exploration into the realm of computer theft and fraud.
Examples of these cybercriminals include members of Masters of Deception (Phiber Optik, Acid Phreak, Scorpion), who broke into such corporations as AT&T and the Bank of America, and Kevin Poulsen, who manipulated phone lines in both Los Angeles and Hawaii to ensure that he won Porsches and cash from radio giveaway contests.
Conspiracy theorists, however, point to the case of Kevin Mitnick as the most public example of government/corporate manipulation of the hacking image. In trouble with the law since his hacking teenage years, Mitnick, over a two-year period, became the FBI’s most wanted hacker of the 1990s after allegedly hacking into computers, stealing corporate secrets, scrambling phone networks, and breaking into the national defense warning system. Foiled by security specialist Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick was arrested in 1995 after eluding authorities for several years.
Mitnick spent over four years in jail prior to his trial, prompting biographer Jonathan Littman to remark that “the government made it clear that they might indict him in different jurisdictions [and] that he might have to face multiple trials. He did not get the evidence against him for a very long time. The only trial Kevin Mitnick got was in the New York Times and in the media.”
Most observers argue that Mitnick, while certainly responsible for some of his deeds (he signed a plea agreement in 1995), could not have carried out all his attributed hacks and was unjustly prosecuted in favor of the positive media spin that increasingly depicted hackers in criminal/terrorist terms.
Given the climate of the 1990s, Littman remarks that “there was more at stake at that time. And I think Mitnick, for the media and for some in the government, made a great scapegoat and was a great sort of boogeyman.”
Even Levy, in the 1994 edition of Hackers, states that the noble stature of the early hackers has been deleted by this fourth branch of media-hyped hacker, a figure “rooted in the vernacular ... [and] synonymous with the ‘digital trespasser.’ ... In the past few years, with the emergence of computer viruses, the hacker has been literally transformed into a virulent force” (432).
Unfortunately, the term has fared no better in recent years, evidenced in the “Denial of Service” attacks of 2000 or, a few years earlier, the 1998 penetration of the Pentagon’s unclassified computer networks and, in 1999, the vandalization of the U.S. Senate, White House, and U.S. Army websites.
Critics contend that such hacks continue to feed into the conspiratorial paranoia that accompanies average computer users regarding the malevolent computer hacker lurking over the digital horizon, which only helps sway public opinion toward increased policing of the Internet and the ongoing development (and purchase) of security software.