'Hacker ethic' insists on free information

August 15, 1994|By Amy Harmon | Amy Harmon,Los Angeles Times

Eric Corley, a.k.a. Emmanual Goldstein -- patron saint of computer hackers and phone phreaks -- is having a party.

And perhaps it is just in time. 2600, the hacker magazine Mr. Corley started when he was 23, is a decade old. It has spawned monthly hacker meetings in dozens of cities. It has even gone aboveground, with newsstand sales of 20,000 last year.

But the wild expansion of the computer and phone networks that have traditionally been hacker stomping grounds -- and an accompanying rise in electronic crime -- has made life more complicated for Mr. Corley and other members of the computer underground who claim to adhere to a higher ethical standard.

Computer security, once the exclusive concern of elite computer technicians and their mischievous hacker adversaries, is now a topic of heated public debate. A growing constituency is calling for tighter restrictions on those who roam digital networks, and tough criminal penalties for unauthorized activities -- even when they stop short of information theft.

As hundreds of hackers converged on New York City over the weekend to celebrate 2600's anniversary, Mr. Corley hoped to grapple with how to uphold the "hacker ethic" in an era when many of 2600's devotees just want to know how to make free phone calls.

(Less high-minded activities -- like cracking the New York City subway's new electronic fare card system -- were also on the agenda).

For Mr. Corley and other purists, the hacker ethic begins with the notion that "all information should be free." They view themselves as valiant holdouts against complete corporate and government control of ever-more-powerful information technologies. They hack not out of greed or malice, but out of a desire to understand the high-tech infrastructure and keep the technocrats honest -- and they take pains to do no harm.

It's an outlook that tends to run contrary to the principles of private property and ownership under capitalism. Businesses whose computers and phone systems are broken into in the interest of exploration and the greater good of society generally don't think much of hacker ethics.

Neither do law enforcement officials. "They say they're doing it for the intellectual pursuit, and that sounds real nice," says James Settle, former head of the FBI's Computer Crime Squad, who was responsible for the indictment of "Phiber Optik," an outspoken New York hacker who went to jail for computer trespassing this year. "But there are much bigger ramifications."

Mr. Corley's magazine takes its name from the 2,600-hertz tone that used to control the AT&T switching system. Mimicking it was one of the first hacks every "phone phreak" learned, allowing free access to long-distance lines.

The phone company has long since abandoned the signal.

In a continuing attack on the Internet computer network that has extended into military computers and alarmed system administrators around the world, hundreds of thousands of passwords have been stolen by intruders using a program known as a "sniffer," which records the first 128 keystrokes of every message that passes through a computer.

Security experts have been unable to trace the source of the attacks. But there is no evidence that the passwords have been used to harm or steal anything. "It's probably too early to tell if it's just an 'intellectual enterprise,' " says Dain Gary, manager of the Computer Emergency Response Team, a government-funded agency at Carnegie Mellon University that investigates security violations on the Internet. "But the point is the integrity of those systems has been compromised."

The agency received 773 break-in reports in 1992. This year, the agency estimates it will receive more than 2,300 reports.

Since no one likes to admit being a victim of break-ins, it's hard to assess computer crime. But aside from common credit-card theft, security professionals believe there has been a big increase in economic espionage as more corporations rely on computers and electronic communications to conduct daily business.

Mr. Gary says one problem is the lack of a value system. "Cyberethics are not being taught. Parents don't know what their kids are doing. The kids think of it as joy riding -- but joy riding can be dangerous."

Hackers counter that in a society increasingly dependent on technology, the very basis for democracy could be threatened by limiting technological exploration. "Hacking teaches people to think critically about technology," says Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker. "The corporations that are building the technology are certainly not going to tell us, because they're trying to sell it to us. Whole societies are trusting technology blindly -- they just believe what the technocrats say."

2600 and its supporters have an unlikely ally in AT&T computer security expert Kevin Hanely, who planned to attend the conference and said he was looking forward to meeting the infamous "Emmanual Goldstein."

"I sometimes wonder how he knows so much," Mr. Hanely admits, noting that 2600 has published articles on several internal AT&T documents over the years. "And I'm concerned when the information he shares gets into the hands of people who use it as a tool to hurt the customers that I try to represent. But we recognize the distinction between the hacker community and a community of criminal abusers."

AT&T just formed an investigative team to stage electronic stake-outs on systems known to be violated in an effort to "take the bad hackers off the street." Says Mr. Hanely: "Hopefully the true hacker, the hacker who believes in the ethic of information and knowledge expansion, will laud these efforts, because we're going to help untarnish their image."

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