Fear and Trembling in Las vegas

by rthieme on October 1, 1996

Islands in the ClickstreamIt was my privilege last summer to deliver a keynote address at DefCon IV, an annual convention of computer hackers held every summer in Las Vegas. Daytime temperatures near 120 degrees ensured that casual curiosity seekers would be at a minimum. In heat that fries an egg on the pavement, you had better WANT to be there.

It was a surprise, then, when eight hundred people showed up, nearly double the expected attendance. It was an exciting convention, but above all else, it was fear that I remember: the collection of hackers inspired more fear and anxiety in the management of our hotel than anything I had ever seen. I felt as if it were 1968 again and the security guards were Chicago police.

After the first night, for example, hotel personnel waited until three in the morning to install tiny security cameras in the ceilings of our meeting rooms. Numerous news crews from mainstream sources like Good Morning America were thrown out of the convention, their video tape confiscated. Concern over self-indulgence was extreme, resulting in my favorite convention photo: a 52-year-old man being “carded” in order to enter a hotel restaurant where alcohol was served!

What is it about hackers that provokes such fear?

It begins with the popular image of hackers as “evil geniuses,” invading our board rooms and bedrooms at will. That image began with the movie “War Games,” and in fact the writer of that screen play, Larry Lasker, was at the convention, paying close attention to the latest trends.

But Lasker is the first to admit that alienated teenagers hunched over glowing screens as they attack the Pentagon are not the whole story. There were plenty of security experts at DefCon, plus intelligence agents, professional engineers, and thriving businessmen.

Real hackers are distinguished not by anti-social tendencies but by their hunger for knowledge. Hackers do not accept conventional explanations; they want to know, see, feel things for themselves. The only way to do that is to enter our complex systems of information technology and look around.

Leonardo da Vinci was a hacker. He refused to limit his exploration of the universe to the constraints his more conventional neighbors called “the known world.” He refused to limit his imagination. He did not ask permission before challenging conventional wisdom. This is why Bill Gates paid a fortune for the Codex Leicester created by that master hacker.

Are hackers criminals?

The short answer is no, not necessarily. Hackers distinguish between real hackers and crackers, or criminal hackers. Crackers use hacking skills to commit fraud, destroy or steal intellectual property, and vandalize the information systems of governments and businesses.

From here on, though, things get a little vague. On the highest levels of international diplomacy, it is difficult to distinguish not only hackers but crackers from government agents. Governments have bugged seats on transatlantic flights to glean important economic information. Governments — including our own — employ master hackers to spy and pry into the economic secrets of friend and foe alike. The busiest people at DefCon were FBI agents — “it’s nice to be here for the first time,” said FBI agent Andrew Black, “overtly” — who spent their days recruiting

promising “brains.”

Global information warfare has succeeded the Cold War. In the global marketplace, a marketplace characterized by increasingly semi-permeable national boundaries, information is ammunition.

This marketplace is appropriately likened to “the wild west” because there is often no legal authority to which to appeal when one has been wronged. In the virtual world, one is often forced to take the law into one’s own hands. The Hacker’s Code is a way to define for the online culture how bonds of trust, accountability to standards, and mutual self-interest can be sustained while the non-virtual legal world debates definitions of intellectual property that will never apply to digital constructs that are plastic and transitory, protean forms authored by online networks that have no names.

The printing press fixed information in forms that required “authors” as owners of those forms, and authors and authorship evolved. Electronic media are de-inventing those forms, those owners. We do not yet have a vocabulary of adjectives and verbs with which to depict a process that disappears when we try to nail it down with nouns.

Anxiety and fear are ubiquitous these days, but irrational fears of hackers are linked to more rational fears as well.

(1) In a global marketplace in which information is currency and knowledge capital, every organization is like an independent country. Intelligence and counter-intelligence is no longer a luxury. What you know must be protected; what others know about your business must be actively managed.

(2) Hackers are feared because their powers have been excessively magnified by the media. But their real knowledge of how the technological infrastructure works is also real power. Hacking is the creative exploration of the complex systems of information to which our lives are wedded. Hacking skills are essential to the well-being of organizations that intend to remain competitive.

(3) Competitive Business Intelligence 101 should be a required course at every business school.

(4) Hackers are not one-dimensional cartoon figures. They are complex human beings. They may play at night in the electronic Big Toy called the Internet, but most hold good jobs in security, intelligence, and high tech businesses. Hacking is where they got good at what they do.

“Tiger teams” of hackers often work collaboratively with government and business to identify holes in their networks and secure their systems. The teams for which I have served as an intermediary are composed of brilliant individuals using their skills in a beneficial way.

As life in the next century becomes unimaginably complex, the skills of hacking will be in demand. As the center continues to shift, we need those who know how to live on the edge. We need bushwhackers, pathfinders, scouts.

Hackers who know the territory make good guides on the electronic frontier.

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