In Defense of Hacking: The Director’s Cut

by rthieme on February 20, 2000

In Defense of Hacking


Richard Thieme

Computer hackers are a prototype of twenty-first century humanity.

Real hackers, that is.

Real hackers embody the attitudes, skills, mind-sets, and realized possibilities that the digital world makes possible and rewards. Hackers reveal the kind of multi-dimensional thinking an information society demands – one in which all of humankind is fused with the wireless world and created in its image, enhanced by implants and genetic engineering and distributed like a multi-nodal network throughout the solar system and beyond.

We’re talking about cyborg-humankind, not some cyborg of science fiction, not some Star Trek Borg saying, “We will assimilate you” – but something very near to that: cyborg-humankind, not in the future, but here, now.

The future is arriving at the present so fast that soon the future and the present will be virtually simultaneous like some time lapse movie gone mad.

So let’s get our definitions straight. Last week a wave of Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks interfered with the operations of well-known web sites like Yahoo, E-bay, and DDOS attacks are not the work of real hackers. Real hackers don’t park thousands of cars on the freeway and run for the exits. Real hackers don’t call up everyone at the same time and create busy signals for a few hours. That’s the work of  “script kiddies,” whatever their motives. Real hackers sneer at “script kiddies” who download ready-made tools from the Internet and use them to do invasive, annoying or damaging things without any end in mind beyond the inflation of their egos and the power rush that tells them (and us) paradoxically how powerless they really feel.

No, real hackers don’t simply use tools strewn about the internet like bones around a fire. Real hackers build those tools and take them apart and build them again, just as they have cobbled together the Internet itself out of bits of information. They do it because it’s fun, because it’s a challenge, becausethe  doing of it constitutes their identity and self in the digital world.

Real hacking is how we learn how the digital infrastructure works. And how we learn how ANY infrastructure or complex system really works.

The hacker lineage runs from Leonardo da Vinci through creators of the Internet, like Tim Berners-Lee, who designed the first web protocols and wrote the first browser code. But no one exemplifies the real hacker ethos more than Richard Stallman who some think has just never grown up but others call a genuine saint, as single-minded in his dedicaiton to open source software as any religious martyr. Stallman inaugurated the GNU Project (“GNUs’ Not UNIX”) so that robust powerful and open souce operating systems could remain in the hands of programmers who build code because they love to contribute to the world and make something worthy of their best efforts. The LINUX movement, currently getting lots of attention because LINUX users reached critical mass and ignited a firestorm of applications with commercial viability, grew entirely from the hacker ethos, based on the insight that any complex organic system must be open, evolving, and free in order to reach its full potential.

But hackers are fighting a battle they may have already lost to retain the word “hacker” as it used to be used, to denote a project worhty of their wit, intelligence, and the long hours of effort. Hacking isn’t so much work as endless play, more fun than sex for some, full of humorous asides.

The fact that we need to define “real hacking” to distinguish it from hacking as malicious mischief points up the problem. People usually become that conservative only when a new sun has already risen.

So how can we distinguish real hackers from doers of malicious mischief, the vandals who get off on slowing down or crashing web sites, those whacked-out loners hunched over glowing monitors in the middle of the night, cackling like Beavis or Butthead as they break into your bank account?

Hackers are characterized by a real hunger for knowledge, a passion for knowing and growing wholistic visions of complex systems, seeing things whole, understanding how things work. Hackers need to get inside the skin of a system, any system, and take it apart to understand how it fits together.  Hackers need to see how things connect in complex systems.

Nothing typifies the hacking spirit better than the brainstorm sessions at secruity firms like Secure Computing. Some of their Professional Services experts cut their teeth on system hacking. Faced with a difficult problem from a client – they work for corporate giants and three-letter government agencies – their brainstorming sessions go far into the night, they group turning the porblem around in their group-mind to see it from all sides, using all the arcane knowledge and lore they learned in the land beyond midnight when, for example, they explored some ancient application with its back doors or unknown exploits, an applicaiton that is still connected for no real reason to a clients immense network. The way they feed off each others insights in those late-night sessions replicates the stucture of the electronic network which taught them how to think and work together.

That’s why we can say that people who grew up digital were formed in their thnking and behaving by the networks they explored. Those who explored them most deeply were most deeply affected. The possibilities for action disclosed by the network became part of the repertoire of possibilities for action that humankind can now entertain.

The power of real hackers derives from critical knowledge of those networks, knowledge that leverages all other knowledge and recontextualizes it in a new framework. Edward O. Wilson said that the best scientists are characterized by a passion for knowledge, obsession and daring, and that’s a good definition of hackers too. They’re jkust like the rest of us, restless and wandering, wondering what’s beyond that next hill. But the landscape they explore is inside, it’s our entire field of subjectivity, how we humans define ourselves in the world – the increasingly complex terrain of digital humanity is created and discovered by those who made it n the first place and discovered themselves changed by their work.

That’s the real paradox of all this. That’s what tricky.

When electronic networks first evolved, hacking behavior was not considered criminal because no one thought about it that way. When genuinely new things emerge in human experienc,e we do not at first have the vocabulary to describe or define them.

A cyberlawyer was venting his frustration at lunch the other day at the kinds of precedents being cited in cases of intellectual property rights. “We’re trying to catch an avalanche coming downhill. The snow is bigger than our baskets,” he said. “Try applying ‘If your ox wanders out of your field into your neighbor’s orchard …’ to the music industry and MP3.”

For many in today‘s digital generation, their first toys  were computer games for early Apples or Ataris. The protection schemes were easily cracked and became as much a part of the game as the game itself. Once computers were networked through telephone lines and slow modems, Bulletin Boards (BBS) emerged in the sea of digital information like volcanic islands rising in the ocean. They became crossroads where cyber-travelers left messages for each other. In effect, the network itself was forming a symbiotic relationship with its users and bootstrapping itself to higher levels of complexity. To the degree that the human users were leapfrogging old ways of thinking about information and the way it disclosed opportunities for action, teaching and learning from one another, the network itself reinvented education and work as a cooperative venture.

“The most important thjing I need to know,” a hacker once said, “is what I don’t need to know. Because there’s too much for anyone to know. That means, though, that I also need to know who knows what I don’t so I can get it when I need it.”

That hacker located real power in the wired world in his ability to see patterns, discern the Bigger Picture, and know how to work in the human network to exchange data and turn it into information. Inevitably over time, as hackers matured, that ifnormaiton – seen in the proper perspective – turned into wisdom.

It was no surprise, then, when I was consulting with a multi-billion dollar financial firm recently and the head of IT start telling war stories of phone-phreaking in the old days (getting into the telephone system) and hacking old UNIX systems. Most of the bright men and women in the business learned how to hack by – what else? – hacking.

In those “good old days,” the boundaries between people and machines were intended to be semi-permeable. That’s why nhetworks were powerful. That’s why they worked. The Internet was invented as a trusted network among colleagues in business, educaiton, and government, an outgrowth of a military mindset that saw the need for distributed computing. It was built for easy access. It evolved into a culture, a way of thinking and behaving, like moving to China and having your neighbors swarm into your apartment and open your drawers to see touch feel who you are.

It’s a different way of living together. A different way of working. The network itself trained people, both liberating and constraining their thinking and behavior, just like another culture taking over after a merger.

Naturally those who thrived on this adventure learned how to maneuver through programming languages down to the level of the machine itself and down to the darkness of “not knowing” where cmplexity seemed to become chaotic … and they learned to wait patiently until the darkness became visible, self-luminous. Every hacker knows the power rush that comes when a puzzle is solved, when pieces that had not fit together suddenly clicked.

The only way to know then how the network worked was to explore it.

“No kid could afford a Solaris workstation then,” says Tom Jackiewicz who helps to administer the Bulletin Board. Some of the best minds in business and government learned by doing, and the only machines available were those connected to the network.

“A lot of the old reasons to break in just aren’t there any more,” Jackiewicz says. “Nobody can say they can’t afford a UNIX box when all you have to do is throw some free LINUX

onto an old PC.” UPT maintains an extensive system of networked Windows, UNIX and Sun machines (available at – the Internet playpen descended from the Bulletin Board where some of hacking’s best and the brightest honed their skills before graduating into corporate and intelligence ranks. Like many hackers who have matured, he prefers to secure systems agaijnst would-be jhackersd and dare them to bypass multiple levels of security, escape the cul-de-sacs that look like entire systems but are really traps set by the adminiustrator.

Hackers thrive on that kind of challenge, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the gauntlet thrown down by Microsoft which claims that Windows NT is secure. Nothing violates the hacker ethos like the fusion of lies and greed, and that’s what many see when look at MS.

Groups like the l0pht gained fame when they illuminated exploit after exploit that could be used to violate Windows NT. Two of their members, Mudge and Weld Pond, testified before Congress about security risks on the Internet. The ad hoc “corporate hacking” of the l0pht did not need validaiton from others in the hakcing world because their work was its own validation. But others in more conventional channels took notice when the l0pht joined with Cambrdige Technology Partners in receiving an infusion of venture capital that transformed them all into @stake, a computer security firm.

So when is a hacker not a hacker? When somebody gives them ten million dollars and validates their efforts?

Cult of the Dead Cow (CdC), a noted hacker group, rolled out an application called Back Orifice 2000 (BO2K) last year at DefCon VII (the annual Las Vegas convention that draws thousands of  hackers, would-be hackers, journalists, and corporate security and intelligence types). BO2K was a piece of work of which any programmer could be proud. It’s classified as a Trojan Horse because it can be loaded stealthily on a network, then give a remote user “root” privileges or control over the network. So is it a hacking tool or a useful security testing and administration tool? BO2K is similar to Microsoft’s SMS which does pretty much the same thing – and can also be hidden while its being used, something Microsoft attacked in BO2K as the mark of a hacking tool  – but does SMS does it in a much messier fashion, according to Dildog, the primary architext of BO2K. SMS is larger, clunkier, and harder to hide.

So why did CdC develop and release BO2K with such fanfare? In the current environment of ubiquitous distributed computing – which means networks and nodes everywhere – Dildog says, no operating system provides a good solution to the problem of stealthy executables. Such a solution CAN be layered on operating systems that exist, using a system-level auditing sandbox to run suspect programs to see what they’ll do before they’re loaded into the system. Cult of the Dead Cow generated all that publicity in the hopes that BO2K would stir the industry into action.

That‘s a lot different than using the tool to attack a network and not tleling anybody what you’re doing.

It ought to be clear by now that real hackers have become leaders in the digital world. Leaders have always seen first what was coming over the horizon and given it a name. When the government wanted to cut back subsidies to airplanes that were paid to fly mail, they needed a new name for the “aeronauts” who caught rides on the mail planes. So they called them “passangers” instead. Then the rest of us could think of ourselves as “passangers” and do what passangers do, i.e. buy tickets and go places by air.

But leaders do more than discover and name these emergent realities. Leaders literally create them too, creating from nothing the structures in which we believe. That has always been the task of leadership, but the digital world takes the game to a higher level of abstraction. We are real birds in digital cages, and those who surrounded us with digital images can lead us where they like – so long as they leave us enough room to fly to have the illusion of freedom.

In the same way, Eddie Bernays, the “father of spin,” working primarily with images and print, invented “public relations.” Bernays was hired by New York publishers to enhance book sales. Rather than advertise books, he went to some leading intellectual lights and asked them to affirm that literacy was critical to a civilized society. Then he took their testimonials to architects, who agreed to do what they could to sustain civilization. Thus it came about that built-in bookshelves began to appear in new houses. Soon tenants were buying books without even thinking about it.

That’s the digital world too. By building the infrastructure that discloses new possibilities to the rest of us, hackers are building virtual bookshelves and we buy books without even noticing.

Most of us take the words and images on our monitors at face value. But those icons are made up of pixels. Pixels behave the way programs tell them to behave. Networks organize the way informaiton moves from computer to computer. Those who have the courage to descend into the tangled wires of the network and see how these nested levels of informaiton and meaning connect to each other have their hands on the power to change how we think and behave.

That’s why real hackers create as wlel as sustain the consensus reality most of us are starting to take for granted and call “common sense.” When a focus group of students in a university dorm was queried about the want ads they consulted, it did not occur to any of them to find those ads in a newspaper. Because their experience was online, they didn’t even see it as an option. They simply saw it as “reality.”

In the same way, IT people are being included – at last – in the decision-making prcoess in corporations. Leaders are realizing that structure of informaiton and communicaiton are not “added on” to a business but are intrinsic to the architecture of the system from the inside out. Those who build it had better be included in planning and creating the future.

So something paradoxical is taking place. One one hand, the world that hackers built is becoming everybody’s world, but on the other hand, the attempt to secure and defend that world as it is bricks and mortar is contraining the freedom that brought that world into being in the first place.

Hacking was not criminalized behavior because it was behavior mandated by life lived in distributed networks. Power is exercized in networks by contributing and participatingf, not by dominatiung and ocntorlling. That’s the genius of LINUX and the GNU project, the genius of open source software, the genius really of our species.  Confusing the antics of a few malicious “script kiddies” for the actions of real hackers is shortsighted and contrary to our best long-term interests. Those script kiddies are would-be hackers gone bad, not real hackers, but crackers, criminal hackers. They download a few scripts, find some open dors, and click click click … then revel in the after-effects of a media feeding-frenzy like an arsonist getting off on a fire.

Once it may have been necessary to cross those boundaries in order to learn, but now, real hackers know how to look but not touch. Only the immature ones, the sociopaths, get kicks from malicious damage – not just leaving graffiti and heartfelt manifestos on web sites or playing mischievous pranks, but hurting people, breaking things.

So life during these difficult transition is tricky. Hackers do break many of the old rules, but many of the old rules just don’t hold anymore. Some do, of course, but while we sort out which do and which don’t, it would be a mistake to throw out the babies with the bathwater.  Every savvy businessperson is either becoming a kind of hacker of necessity or learning to hire hackers in order to make it in a digital economy.  The way information moves and links and forms patterns in our networks is dissolving boundaries and transforming our old roles. That’s why intelligence agents, businesspeople, journalists, advertising and marketers, are all becoming indistinguishable from hackers. Our social roles are converging toward new identities that do not yet have names.  Hackers create and disclose new possibilities for human action and the task of leadership is to give those possibilities names.

Hackers are more than cyberpunk heroes of infowar scripts. Today, all war is infowar. The skills and attributes of hackers — a love of adventure and risk, a toleration of ambiguity, an ability to synthesize meaning from disparate sources, a passion for knowledge – are needed by the network, but don;t forget what that hacker discovered – people are the network, and knowing how to interact with human motivations and intentions in mind is always the challenge.

Originally published (edited significantly) in the Village Voice, February 16 – 22, 2000. Copyright (c) 2000. All rights reserved.

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