What Ever Happened to my Hacker Angst?

by Ted Wallingford

Related link: http://www.hackcanada.com/hackcanada/media/stcb2.html

While researching the roots of the public telephone system for my book, I came across some rather interesting urband legends about Ma Bell and the travails of hackers past. Like the guy who pranked President Nixon, telling him he'd run out of toilet paper. Or the guy who discovered a phone number answered by the same lady no matter which area code he dialed with it--until the FBI showed up and hauled him off, never to be seen again.

I remembered my own days spent hunkered in front of a terminal that was plugged into a 2400 baud mode, thinking, "Wow, this thing is fast!" I secretly hoped a white surveillance van would park out in front of my mom's place with ultra-narrow microphones trained on my bedroom window, just like War Games.

Of course, even then, 2400 baud wasn't that quick if you could afford a T1, but, then again, who was using T1s for data in the 80s? Ma Bell herself was--and she was the perennial target of hacker anger. I remember commiserating with hacker buddies about how Ma Bell "hogged all the good connections" and other dimwitted conspiracy theories. Ah, if ignorance were bliss, I would've been in heaven.

That's because, at the time, I knew very little about the Phone Company, but I was taught, by my buds, to be suspicious of them. Hacker Heaven will someday be filled with suspicious, untrusting intellects who spent a good part of the 1980's and early 1990's trying to figure out better ways of ripping Ma Bell off.

Cheating Bell was a prerequisite goal of every decent hacker, and using Bell's network for unsavory things, like software piracy and trading bomb-making recipes, was considered "free speech". People even built pocket-sized tone-generators, little devices that could trick a payphone into thinking a dime had been inserted--so the person could make a free call. Now, I may be a little late in making this observation now, twenty years later, but who really needed to save a dime? Seriously, if you had enough money to build a tone-generator, did you really need to save a dime?

Yet, an attitude of "watch what I can do" still prevails among hackers. This is actually a wonderful thing, but I'm convinced this is at least partially to blame for enterprise America's rejection of such amazing but hacker-centric technologies as PHP and PostgreSQL. I understand why PHP, though better in many respects than VBScript, isn't often accepted inside the corporation. Corporate dealmakers are usually more interested in hearing about what a technology has already done than in what it can do.

The reason is one of perception. PHP itself is awesome, but because its community of developers doesn't hold with the same attitude as VBScript's clean-cut, button-down DOT-NET marketing bonanza, enterprise decision-makers often dismiss PHP as a freeware fad. One is the hacker's tool, and the other is the enterprise tool, right? Developers choose DOT-NET because it can be a full-time job. Decision-makers choose it be because it has a safe perception.

Enterprise America's perceptions of hacker-types are sour, and they trickle to the tools of the hacking trade: GCC, Perl, Linux, PHP, etc. Of course, this sour perception isn't entirely undeserved. When was the last time you saw example code for a root exploit written in C# or Visual Basic? You probably haven't, as C# and VB aren't kept in the underground hacker arsenal.

When I read 2600's recent conference schedule, I saw a list that included ex-cons and people who are getting arrested at political conventions; people who cite Orwellian objections to the world around them. People like me when I was a teenager.

I remember myself at the age I had a 2400-baud modem. I was a high-school freshman. I was captivated by William Gibson's "Neuromancer"; I was a skateboarder; I was addicted to cracked Psygnosis games for the Amiga; I was even a boardOp on a BBS run by this hot-shot around the corner--a guy who had, get this, THREE phone lines. At this rate, I would've grown into an ultra-pink 2600 techno-paranoid, for sure.

I would never have become the enterprise-minded, corporate sell-out I loathed. I might even have been waiting for an autograph when hallowed hacker Kevin Mitnick was released from jail. It's possible I'd be the guy with three phone lines or maybe hosting a P2P mega-node out of my house. I might still even be living with my mother!

How have your ideas about hacking, cracking, and rebellion changed over the years?