Hackers: Heroes or Villains? #cyberpunk

I wrote the following piece in 1993 as the introduction to a book called Secrets of a Superhacker by The Knightmare. Secrets was a straight-up hacking/cracking manual and I had reservations about being involved in it. After I was assured by the publisher that I could write whatever I wanted, I decided to take the gig and try and write something that stood on its own as an essay exploring the various roles, motivations, and myths of hackers, circa the early 1990s.

I got a lot of flak for being involved in the project. The ComSec community was none too pleased.

I decided to get the book down from the shelf yesterday and re-read the essay. I think it’s an interesting enough artifact of its time to share here as part of our cyberpunk series. Cyberpunk fiction of the 80s became the starter culture for the cyberculture of the 1990s and this is part of where that culture was at in its early hours.

Several things jumped out at me. We had figured out the promise of hacking — that a lone individual or small group could act as whistle blower; could expose a corrupt government or take down corrupt institutions; that hacking was a power equalizer. But naively, we didn’t consider bad actors (hello, Internet Research Agency!) acting against legitimate democracies and interests. Also in the essay, I talk about the drift of giving more power and control over to machines, especially in the military, an idea that seemed light years away at the time. We definitely live in that world today.

Several fun facts about this book and essay:

I wrote this essay on a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 while sitting under an umbrella at the beach on Nantucket. This was 1993. Such a thing was not at all common. A 4-pound battery-operated computer I could use to write an article and directly upload it to my publisher from my hotel room was bleeding edge tech at the time (even though the 100 had already been around for a while). When, a year later, Wired premiered the first online web advertisement, it was for AT&T’s “You Will” campaign. Whenever the “You Will” commercial came on TV and they said things like: “Have you ever sent someone a document from the beach? You will,” I would shout at the screen: “I have!”

To my shock, sitting in a movie theater one night in 2001, watching the film Ghost World (Scarlett Johansson’s breakthrough role), the cover to Secrets of a Superhacker appeared in a giant poster on the wall inside of the “Zine-o-Phobia” bookstore (see above). There’s also a copy of the book on the counter. It was so bizarre (and exciting) to go to a movie and find some strange evidence of myself in it.


“Where am I?”
“In the Village.”
“What do you want?”
“Whose side are you on?”
“That would be telling. We want… information…
information… information.”
“Well you won’t get it.”
“By hook or by crook, we will!”

Remember the ’60s TV show The Prisoner? Created by and starring Patrick McGoohan, this surrealist series was basically a platform for McGoohan to explore his own fears of modern surveillance/spy technology, behavioral engineering, and society’s increasing ability to control people through pacifying pleasures. He was convinced that all this might soon mean the obliteration of the individual (expressed in the defiant opening shout: “I am not a number, I am a free man!”). McGoohan’s #6 character became a symbol of the lone individual’s right to remain an individual rather than a numbered cog in the chugging machinery of the State. McGoohan, a Luddite to be sure, despised even the TV technology that brought his libertarian tale to the masses. He saw no escape from the mushrooming techno-armed State short of out-and-out violent revolution (it was, after all, the ’60s!). As prescient as The Prisoner series proved to be in some regards, McGoohan failed to see how individuals armed with the same tech as their warders could fight back. The #6 character himself comes close to revealing this in a number of episodes, as he uses his will, his ingenuity, and his own spy skills to re-route #2’s attempts to rob him of his individuality.

One doesn’t have to stretch too far to see the connection between The Prisoner and the subject at hand: hacking. With all the social engineering, spy skills, and street tech knowledge that #6 possessed, he lacked one important thing: access to the higher tech that enslaved him and the other hapless village residents. Today’s techno-warriors are much better equipped to hack the powers that be for whatever personal, social or political gains.

In the last two-part episode of the series, #6 finally reveals why he quit his intelligence job: “Too many people know too much.” Again, this expresses McGoohan’s fear that the powers that be were holding the goods on him and everyone else who was bucking the status quo at that time. He probably didn’t mean “people” as much as he meant “governments.” It is this fact, that “too many [governments/megacorps/special interest groups] know too much” that has provided an important motivation to many contemporary hackers and has fueled the rampant techno-romantic myths of the hacker as a freedom of information warrior.

Let’s look at a number of the mythic images of the hacker that have arisen in the past decade and explore the reality that they both reflect and distort:

The Hacker as Independent Scientist

The first image of hackerdom to emerge in the 60s and 70s was of the benevolent computer science student pushing the limits of computer technology and his/her own intellect. Computer labs at MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and other schools hummed throughout the night as budding brainiacs sat mesmerized by the promise of life on the other side of a glowing computer screen. These early hackers quickly developed a set of ethics that centered around the pursuit of pure knowledge and the idea that hackers should share all of their information and brilliant hacks with each other. Steven Levy summarizes this ethic in his 1984 book Hackers:

“To a hacker a closed door is an insult, and a locked door is an outrage. Just as information should be clearly and elegantly transported within the 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. When a hacker needed something to help him create, explore, or fix, he did not bother with such ridiculous concepts as property rights.”

While this ethic continues to inform many hackers, including the author of the book you are holding, it has become more difficult for many to purely embrace, as the once-innocent and largely sheltered world of hackerdom has opened up onto a vast geography of data continents with spoils beyond measure, tempting even the most principled hackers. The Knightmare weaves his way in and out of these ethical issues throughout Secrets of a Super Hacker.

The Hacker as Cowboy

The cowboy has always served as a potent American myth of individuality and survivalism in the face of a harsh and lawless frontier. It is no accident that William Gibson chose cowboy metaphors for his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984). Case and the other “console cowboys” in the novel ride the cybernetic range as data rustlers for hire, ultimately sad and alone in their harsh nomadic world. They are both loner heroes and bad-assed predators of the law-abiding cyber-citizenry they burn in their wake. I don’t think I need to tell readers here what impact Gibson’s fictional world has had on fueling hacker fantasies or what potent similarities now exist between Gibson’s world and our own.

Like the cowboy tales of the wild west, the myth of the console cowboy is undoubtedly more image-over-substance (as are most of the myths we will explore here), but there are some important kernels of truth: a) hackers are often loners, b) there are many nomadic and mercenary aspects to the burgeoning cyberspace of the 1990s, and c) it is a wide-open and lawless territory where the distinctions between good and bad, following the law and forging new ones, and issues of free access and property rights are all up for grabs (hey, remember Native Americans?). Not surprisingly, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow (a Wyoming cattle rancher himself) chose frontier metaphors when he wrote his landmark essay “Crime and Puzzlement” (Whole Earth Review, Fall 1990). The first section of this lengthy essay that lead to the birth of the EFF was entitled, “Desperadoes of the DataSphere.”

The Hacker as Techno-Terrorist

One of the first “a-ha’s” I had about computer terrorism in the late ’80s was that the possibilities for insurrection and a parity of power not based on brute force had changed radically with the advent of computer networks and our society’s almost complete reliance on them. There was now at least the possibility that groups, or individual hackers, could seriously compromise the U.S. military and/or civilian electronic infrastructure. The reality of this hit home on November 2, 1988, when Robert Morris, Jr., the son of a well-known computer security researcher, brought down over 10% of the Internet with his worm (a program that self-propagates over a network, reproducing as it goes). This event led to a media feeding frenzy which brought the heretofore computer underground into the harsh lights of television cameras and sound-bite journalism. “Hacker terrorists,” “viruses,” “worms,” “computer espionage”…all of a sudden, everyone was looking over their shoulders for lurking cyberspooks and sniffing their computer disks and downloads to see if they had contracted nasty viruses. A new computer security industry popped up overnight, offering counseling, virus protection software (sometimes with antidotes to viruses that didn’t even exist!), and workshops, seminars, and books on computer crime.

Hysteria over hacker terrorism reached another plateau in 1990 with the execution of Operation Sundevil, a wide-net Secret Service operation intended to cripple the now notorious hacker underground. Like a cat chasing its own tail, the busts and media coverage and additional busts, followed by more sensational reportage, created a runaway loop of accelerating hysteria and misinformation. One radio report on the “stealing” (copying, actually) of a piece of information “critical to the operations of the Emergency 911 system” for Bell South opined: “It’s a miracle that no one was seriously hurt.” Of course, the truth turned out to be far less dramatic. The copied booty was a very boring text document on some management aspects of the Bell South system. For a thorough and lively account of this and many of the other arrests made during Operation Sundevil, check out Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown (Bantam, 1992).

Whatever the truth of these particular incidents, computer crime is here big time and the boasts of even the most suspect hacker/cracker are usually at least theoretically possible. Computer terrorism has yet to rear its head in any significant fashion, but the potential is definitely there. This is very unsettling when you think how many people can gain access to critical systems and how many loony tunes there are out there armed with computers, modems, and less-than-honorable intentions. Wireheads of every gauge would do well to study volumes like Secrets of a Super Hacker to stay ahead of the game and to cover their backsides should the proverbial shit hit the fan.

The Hacker as Pirate

Next to “cowboy,” the most potent and popular image of the hacker is that of the pirate. Oceanographic and piracy metaphors are equally as common in cyberculture as ones about lawless frontiers and modem-wieldin’ cowboys n’ cowgirls. People talk of “surfing the edge,” and the “vast oceans of the Internet.” Bruce Sterling’s near-future novel about data piracy was named Islands in the Net. In it, third world countries and anarchist enclaves operate data havens, buying and selling global information through the world’s wide-bandwidth computer networks.

Anarchist theorist and rantmeister Hakim Bey penned an essay called “Temporary Autonomous Zones (or T.A.Z.)” inspired by Sterling’s data islands. Bey sees in the rapidly growing techno-sphere of our planet the possibilities for a new form of nomadic anarchic culture that might resemble the sea-faring pirate societies of the 18th century. Using all the resources of the global nets, individual cybernauts can come together to form temporary and virtual enclaves. These bands can wreak havoc, throw a party, exchange intelligence, or whatever else they want. Once the deed is done, the party over, the nomadic bands simply disappear back into the dense fabric of cyberspace. While decidedly romantic, the TAZ idea is attractive to many hackers and cyberspace residents who daily feel the fluidity of movement and the potential for invisibility offered on “the nets.”

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, pirates were mainly concerned with stealing your stuff. In cyberspace, piracy becomes a more ambiguous and contested can of worms. Are you really taking something if you’re simply looking at it or making a copy of it? If you copy copyrighted material — let’s say an image — and then alter it significantly, to the point that it is almost unrecognizable, have you violated the copyright? What if you’re using it as raw materials in a piece of art, like collage? What does stealing mean when what is stolen is nothing more than a particular assemblage of electrical impulses? I regularly download recognizable audio bytes from networks, process them in a sound editor, and then use them in various audio art projects. Am I stealing? If I publish the work commercially, THEN is it plagiarism? All of these questions about sampling, copying, cutting, pasting, re-purposing, and altering have become the thorny legal and ethical issues of our cybernetic age. Hackerdom is one of the domains that is rapidly fueling the fire.

The Hacker as David vs. Goliath

When liberal and fringe media want to feel good about hacking and cracking they start invoking images of the hacker as a do-gooder David against a military/industrial Goliath. This myth of the hacker, based on the “parity of power” theme discussed above can bring comfort to those of us who are paranoid about megacorporate and government big brothers. However, over-romanticized this myth is, there is comfort to be found in the knowledge that individuals can penetrate even the most behemoth systems. If big brother gets too big for his britches, “Davidian” (?) hackers are standing by to do some necessary tailoring.

The Hacker as Security Informant

Another do-gooder myth revolves around the hacker as either self-appointed or hired security checker. Many hackers, true to their ethos of simply wanting to push the limits of their ability and not to cause harm, will report holes in security after they’ve breached them. To the hacker who is interested in the gamesmanship and challenge of penetrating a system, tipping off the system’s administrators means a new level of challenge should they ever return. Hackers who are hired for purposes of testing system security, called “tiger teams,” also work to compromise the security of a system to find weaknesses. Often times, these hired guns are convicted computer criminals who “go straight.” Several members of the legendary Legion of Doom, caught in the Operation Sundevil busts, formed COMSEC, a computer security team for hire. While many hackers bristle at such turncoat maneuvers, other more politically-neutral hackers point out that it doesn’t really matter to them who they’re
working for as long as they get to hack.

The Hacker as the U.S. Cavalry

Just as Hollywood movies raised the dusty cowboy to mythic status, it is now presenting hackers as tech-mounted U.S. Cavalry, a cyberpunk version of Mighty Mouse, here to save the day — and the movie — in the final seconds. Movies such as WarGames, Sneakers, Jurassic Park, and TV shows like Max Headroom glamorize hackers, often portraying them as misguided geniuses who finally see the light and prevent calamities they’re often responsible for initiating. At the same time that the mainstream media has demonized hackers, Hollywood has romanticized them. John Badham’s 1983 film WarGames probably did more to stimulate interest in hacking and phone phreaking among young people than anything before or since. Numerous legendary hackers have credited that film as their chief inspiration and raison d’etre. All these films have also played into the myth of the evil government and megacorps who deserve the harassment that the hacker protagonists dish out. As this introduction is being written, rumors are flying fast and furious that a number of near-future hacker /cyberpunk TV shows are in the works. It will be very interesting to see how Hollywood continues to re-invent the hacker and feed the myth.

The Hacker as Cyborg

Ultimately, computer hacking and net navigating, and the images and fantasies surrounding them, represent something greater than the sum of the parts outlined here. It is this writer’s opinion that hackers represent the scouts to a new territory that is just now beginning to be mapped out. Hackers were the first cybernauts, the first group of people to understand that we as a species are about to disappear into a cyberspace at least similar in function to that posited by William Gibson in his 80s fiction. As Manuel De Landa explains in his book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT, 1991), we are forging a new symbiotic relationship with machines via computers. The nature of this relationship and the level of individual freedom afforded by it has a lot to do with how hackers, visionary scientists, and the first wave of cyber-settlers go about their business. While De Landa is sympathetic to the “freedom of information” ethic and developmental ingenuity of hackerdom, he cautions those who wish to make too much trouble for individuals and organizations, leading to retaliation, escalation of tensions, and increased paranoia over technology. He writes:

“…[S]ome elements of the hacker ethic which were once indispensable means to channel their energies into the quest for interactivity (system-crashing, physical and logical lock-busting) have changed character as the once innocent world of hackerism has become the multimillion-dollar business of computer crime. What used to be a healthy expression of the hacker maxim that information should flow freely is now in danger of becoming a new form of terrorism and organized crime which could create a new era of unprecedented repression.”

De Landa argues elsewhere in Machines that the U.S. government’s (especially the military’s), desire to centralize decision-making power has been seriously compromised by the personal computer revolution. He speculates that those outside the military-industrial machinery have only a few years to develop a new and truly decentralized system of networks before the military devises a new tactical doctrine that subsumes the distributed PC.

The images of hacking: coming in under the wire of mainstream society, cobbling together technology for individual and group purposes, overcoming limitations, and all the other real and imagined dimensions of hacking, have become part of a new academic trend that uses the sci-fi image of the cyborg as a model of late twentieth century humanity. These academics have embraced cyberpunk sci-fi, the politicized image of the hacker, and postmodern ideas of posthumanism (a future of human/machine hybridization). Anyone who spends most of their waking hours patched into a PC and the Internet or hacking code has felt the margins between themselves and their machines getting disturbingly leaky. Hackers were the first to experience this, many others are now following in their digital footsteps. Hacking has become trendy and chic among people who, if pressed, couldn’t even define what an operating system actually is. The “idea” of hacking has migrated far from the actual act of hacking. It has become a cultural icon for decentralized power and individual freedom at the turn of the millennium.

The Knightmare’s Vision

Behind all these lofty notions lies the tedious and compelling act of the hack itself. Hacker-monikered “The Knightmare” presents his complex view of hacking in Secrets of a Super Hacker. In this classic hacker cookbook, the author has gone to great pains to explain the width and breadth of hacking, cracking, and computer security. With Sherlock Holmes-like compulsion and attention to detail, he presents the history of hacking, the how-tos of hacking, the legal and ethical issues surrounding hacking, and his own personal reasons for hacking. Numerous examples and “amazing hacker tales” take the reader inside each level of the hack. Reading Secrets will change the way you look at computers and computer security. It has already been very valuable to me. I am a smarter computer/net user now and much more attuned to computer security issues.

When Patrick McGoohan conceived of The Prisoner he wanted to create a show that would demand thinking. He wanted controversy, arguments, fights, discussions, people waving fists in his face. You might love the show, you might hate the show (or both), but you would HAVE to talk about the show. Computer hacking and the woolly frontiers of cyberspace are similar domains of controversy. In the true spirit of open sharing and freedom of information, Secrets of a Super Hacker is being made available to anyone who cares to read it. It is my hope that it will help keep the debate alive and that those who make use of its privileged information will do so responsibly and without malice.

Be Seeing You,

Gareth Branwyn
August 29, 1993
Nantucket Island, MA

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1 Comment

  1. someguyonline

    This was a great read, thanks for posting it.

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