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World: A Computer Hacker Explains His Perspective

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 30 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- His online name is Route and he is a self-described computer hacker -- as long as you consider hacker in the positive sense of the word, he says.

Route, who declined to give his real name during an interview with RFE/RL, says the actual definition of a hacker is someone who enjoys pushing technology to its limits. He blames the media for the more negative definition of a hacker, and causing what he called an "artificially induced hysteria" over people who simply enjoy testing the boundaries of computer technology.

Route says he has been involved with computers all his life and that hacking was a natural progression for him. He enjoys the challenge and excitement of hacking, or what he says is "innovating as opposed to implementing."

Route is in his mid-twenties and lives in the western U.S. state of California. By day, he works in the respectable field of computer security. By night, he is the editor of a popular online hacker magazine called "Phrack."

Phrack -- whose name is a combination of the words hack and phreak (meaning phone hacking) -- is the longest online computer security journal and reportedly has about 8,000 regular subscribers. It came online in November of 1985 -- ancient history in terms of hacker years.

Route says Phrack caters to whoever wants to read it, but mostly computer security types in both the amateur and professional community. He says the journal provides interesting technical tidbits and hacker programs, useful industry information and articles on computer security.

Phrack itself has an interesting history. It became the object of a U.S. federal investigation in 1990 when Craig Neidorf -- the editor at the time -- published a document with certain details about the nation's emergency telephone system. The case was eventually dropped when Neidorf was able to prove that the same information had been already published in the phone company's technical catalog.

Route acknowledges that there are items posted on the site today that might be considered questionable by some people. But he says he only puts out materials that can be obtained from other places like the library or in catalogs.

"I don't publish anything that is illegal, in the sense that it would get me arrested for publishing it," he says.

Besides, Phrack is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which deals with freedom of speech, he adds.

But Route admits that classified and protected material sometimes comes his way. He says he doesn't post it. The items he does decide to post are, in his words, a "judgment call."

Route explains: "That is the nature of the industry I work in....But I see it as full disclosure. You have to disseminate the information to everyone. You basically take the stance that the bad people already have the information, so you have to get it out to the good people so they can do something about it."

Route says overall hackers have gotten an unfair reputation from the media.

He says: "The whole scene of computer is a mirror of society. You have good people and bad people. It is a lot easier to think of hackers as bad people. It is easier if there is a single bad entity. But reality isn't like that."

Route says what the media is largely referring to when discussing hackers are really what he calls "crackers." He explains that crackers are people who break into systems with malicious intent or the desire to do serious damage. Hackers, he insists, are just curious and inquisitive people who have no intention of causing any harm -- they just want to chart new territory and look around.

But Daniel Kuehl, Chairman of the Information Operations Department at the National Defense University in Washington, told RFE/RL that this is a typical "hacker mentality."

Says Kuehl: "They believe that whatever is out there that they can connect to -- they should be able to get into as long as they are skillful enough to do it. If they break into a system, then you didn't protect it well enough and it is your fault. The analogy to that is that if they break into my house at night, it is my fault because I didn't have enough locks on my door."

Route disagrees: "Hacking is a more of a pushing the limits thing. I would consider the innovation verses the implementation aspect of it rather gratifying and rewarding. I mean, you go out there and do things that haven't been done before or haven't been done well."

But perhaps what explains the "hacker mentality" best is the quote which follows the automatic signature line on Route's electronic mail.

It says: "I live a world of paradox... My willingness to destroy is your chance for improvement, my hate is your fate -- my failure is your victory, a victory that won't last."

(Part II of a two-part series on hackers)