The beginning of the electronic communication revolution that started with the public use of telephones to the emergence of home computers has been accompanied by corresponding social problems involving the activities of so-called “computer hackers,” or better referred to as the computer underground (CU). The CU is composed of computer aficionados who stay on the fringes of legality.
The CU is composed of relatively intelligent people, in contrast to the media’s description of the ultra intelligent and sophisticated teenage “hacker. ” The majority have in common the belief that information should be free and that hey have “a right to know. ” They often have some amount of dislike for the government and the industries who try to control and commercialize information of any sort. This paper attempts to expose what the CU truly is and dispel some of the myths propagated by the media and other organizations.
This paper also tries to show the processes and reasons behind the criminalization of the CU and how the CU is viewed by different organizations, as well as some of the processes by which it came into being. What the CU is has been addressed by the media, criminologists, secuity firms, and the CU themselves, they all ave a different understanding or levels of comprehention, this paper attempts to show the differences between the views as well as attempt to correct misunderstandings that may have been propagated by misinformed sources.
The differences between the parties of the CU such as, “hackers,” “crackers,” “phreaks,” “pirates,” and virus writers have rarely been recognized and some deny that there are differences thus this paper attempts to give a somewhat clearer view and define exactly what each party is and does as well as how they relate to one another. Every individual in the CU has a different level of ophistication when it comes to computers, from the height of the advanced virus writer and network hacker to the pirate who can be at the same level as a novice computer user.
The prevalence of the problem has been dramatized by the media and enforcement agents, and evidenced by the rise of specialized private security firms to confront the “hackers. ” The average person’s knowledge about the CU has been derived mostly from the media. The media gets their information from former CU individuals who have been caught, from law enforcement agents, and from computer security specialists. The computer underground, as it is called by those ho participate in it, is composed of people adhering to one or several roles: “hacker,” “phreaker,” “pirate,” “cracker,” and computer virus developer.
Terms such as these have different meanings for those who have written about the computer underground, such as the media, and those who participate in it. The media’s concept of the Computer Underground is the main cause of the criminalization of the activity and has largely occurred as the result of media dramatization of the “problem” (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988). In fact, it was a collection of newspaper and film clips that was presented to the United States Congress during legislative debates as evidence of the computer hacking problem (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988, p. 07). Unfortunately, the media assessment of the computer underground displays a naive understanding of CU activity.
The media generally makes little distinction between different types of CU activity. Most any computer- related crime activity can be attributed to “hackers. ” Everything from embezzlement to computer viruses have, at one time or another, been attributed to them. Additionally, hackers are often described as being sociopathic or malicious, creating a media image of the computer underground hat may exaggerate their ability for doing damage.
The labeling of the CU and especially hackers as being “evil” is well illustrated by these media examples. The first is from Eddie Schwartz, a WGN-Radio talk show host. Here Schwartz is addressing “Anna,” a self-identified hacker that has phoned into the show: You know what Anna, you know what disturbs me? You don’t sound like a stupid person but you represent a . . . a . . . a . . . lack of morality that disturbs me greatly. You really do. I think you represent a certain way of thinking that is morally bankrupt. And I’m not trying to offend you, but I . I’m offended by you! (WGN Radio, 1988) Another example is from NBC-TV’s “Hour Magazine” featured a segment on “computer crime. ”
In this example, Jay Bloombecker, director of the National Center for Computer Crime Data, discusses the “hacker problem” with the host of the show, Gary Collins. Collins: . . . are they (hackers) malicious in intent, or are they simply out to prove, ah, a certain machismo amongst their peers? Bloombecker: I think so. I’ve talked about “modem macho” as one explanation for what’s being done. And a lot of the cases seem to involve proving that he . . can do something eally spiffy with computers. But, some of the cases are so evil, like causing so many computers to break, they can’t look at that as just trying to prove that you’re better than other people. GC: So that’s just some of it, some kind of “bet” against the computer industry, or against the company. JB: No, I think it’s more than just rottenness. And like someone who uses graffiti doesn’t care too much whose building it is, they just want to be destructive. GC: You’re talking about a sociopath in control of a computer!
JB: Ah, lots of computers, because there’s thousands, or tens of thousands of hackers. (NBC-TV, 1988) The media’s obsession with the computer underground, that is generally labeled as hacking, focuses almost entirely upon the morality of their actions. Since media stories are taken from the accounts of the police, security personnel, and members of the computer underground who have been caught, each of whom have different perspectives and 20 definitions of their own, the media’s definition, if not inherently biased, is at best inconsistent.
Criminologists, are less judgmental than the media, but no more precise. Labels of “electronic trespassers”(Parker, 1983), and “electronic vandals” (Bequai, 1987) have both been applied to he CU’s hacking element specifically. Both terms, while acknowledging that “hacking” is deviant, shy away from labeling it as “criminal” or sociopathic behavior. Yet despite this seemingly non-judgmental approach to the computer underground, both Parker and Bequai have testified before Congress, on behalf of the computer security industry, on the “danger” of computer hackers.
Unfortunately, their “expert” testimony was largely based on information culled from newspaper stories, the objectiveness of which has been seriously questioned (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce 1988 p. 105). Computer security specialists, on the other hand, are often uick to identify the CU as criminals. Similarly, some reject the notion that there are different roles and motivations among the computer underground participants and thereby refuse to define just what it is that a “hacker” or “phreaker” does.
John Maxfield, a “hacker expert,” suggests that differentiating between “hackers” and “phone phreaks” is a moot point, preferring instead that they all just be called “criminals. ” The reluctance or inability to differentiate between roles and activities in the computer underground, as exhibited in the media and computer security firms, creates an ambiguous definition of “hacker” that ossesses two extremes: the modern-day bank robber at one end, the trespassing teenager at the other.
Thus, most any criminal or mischievous act that involves computers can be attributed to “hackers,” regardless of the nature of the crime. Participants in the computer underground also object the overuse and misuse of the word hacking. Their objection centers around the indiscriminate use of the word to refer to computer related crime in general and not, specifically, the activities of the computer underground: Whenever the slightest little thing happens involving computer security, or the breach thereof, the edia goes fucking batshit and points all their fingers at us ‘nasty hackers. They’re so damned ignorant it’s sick (EN, message log, 1988). . . . whenever the media happens upon anything that involves malicious computer use it’s the “HACKERS. ” The word is a catch phrase it makes mom drop the dishes and watch the TV. They use the word because not only they don’t really know the meaning but they have lack of a word to describe the perpetrator. That’s why hacker has such a bad name, its always associated with evil things and such (PA, message log, 1988).
I never seen a phreaker called a phreaker when caught and he’s rinted in the newspaper. You always see them “Hacker caught in telephone fraud. ” “Hacker defrauds old man with phone calling card. ” What someone should do is tell the fucken media to get it straight (TP2, message log, 1988). The difference between the different elements of the computer underground has been generally obscured by the media. Terms such as Cracker, Phreaker, Pirate, or Virus writer have been generally replaced with the all encompassing word “HACKER”.
Each element is associated with the computer underground and some are bigger players than others but none of them can qualify individually as the total sum of all the elements. There are major differences between the elements of the CU that is rarely understood by someone on the outside. The use of the word “hacker”, which is now generally accepted to be part of the CU, has gone through drastic changes in definition. “Hacker” was first applied to computer related activities when it was used by programmers in the late 1950’s.
At that time it referred to the pioneering researchers, such as those at M. I. T. , who were constantly adjusting and experimenting with the new technology (Levy, 1984. p. 7). A “hacker” in this context refers to an unorthodox, yet talented, professional programmer. This use of the term still exits today, though it is largely limited to professional computing circles. The computer professionals maintain that using “hackers” (or “hacking”) to refer to any illegal or illicit activity is a corruption of the “true” meaning of the word.
Bob Bickford, a professional programmer who has organized several programmer conferences, explains: At a conference called “Hackers 4. 0” we had 200 of the most brilliant computer professionals in the world together for one weekend; this crowd included several PhD’s, several presidents of companies (including large companies, such as Pixar), and arious artists, writers, engineers, and programmers. These people all consider themselves Hackers: all derive great joy from their work, from finding ways around problems and limits, from creating rather than destroying.
It would be a great disservice to these people, and the thousands of professionals like them, to let some pathetic teenaged criminals destroy the one word which captures their style of interaction with the universe. (Bickford, 1988). The more widely accepted definition of “hacker” refers to one who obtains unauthorized, if not illegal, access to computer systems and networks. This definition was popularized by the movie War Games and, generally speaking, is the one used by the media. It is also the definition favored by the computer underground.
Both the members of the computer underground and professional computer programmers claim ownership of “hacker,” and each defend the “proper” use of term. However, since computer break-ins are likely to receive more media attention than clever feats of programming, the CU definition is likely to dominate simply by being used more often. A “computer hacker” could be defined as an individual, associated with the computer underground, who specializes in btaining unauthorize access to computer systems. “Hacking” refers to gaining access and exploring computer systems and networks.
Hacking” encompasses both the act and the methods used to obtain valid user accounts on computer systems. “Hacking” also refers to the activity that occurs once access to another computer has been obtained. Since the system is being used without authorization, the hacker does not, generally speaking, have access to the usual operating manuals and other resources that are available to legitimate users. Therefore, the hacker must experiment with commands and explore various files in order o understand and effectively use the system. The goal here is to explore and experiment with the system that has been entered.
By examining files and, perhaps, by a little clever programming, the hacker may be able to obtain protected information or more powerful access privileges. Once a hacker has managed to gain access to a computer system he will generally try make sure that his activities are hidden so that he can keep access on the system. This is the difference between hacker and cracker. Unlike the hacker a cracker is only really interested in “cracking” the machine/system and once the feat is accomplished he is generally isinterested and leaves, he could be called the tourist of the hacking element. Bill Landreth, Outside the Inner Circle) Another role in the computer underground is that of the “phone phreak. ”
Phone phreaking, usually called just “phreaking,” was widely publicized when the exploits of John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper, the “father of phreaking,” were publicized in a 1971 Esquire magazine article. The term “phreaking” encompasses several different means of getting around the billing mechanisms of telephone companies. By using these methods, long distance phone calls can be placed without cost.
In ma y cases the ethods also prevent, or at least inhibit, the possibility of calls being traced to their source thereby helping the phreaker to avoid being caught. Early phreaking methods involved electro- mechanical devices that generated key tones, or altered line voltages in certain ways as to trick the mechanical switches of the phone company into connecting calls without charging. This method of phreaking is generally called “(color) boxing,” where the type of box is referred to by a color such as “blue boxing. ” However the advent of computerized telephone-switching systems largely made these devices obsolete.
In order to continue their ractice the phreaks have had to learn hacking skills. Phreaking and hacking have just recently merged, because now, the telephone companies are using computers to operate their network. So, in order to learn more about these computers in relation to the network, phreaks have learned hacking skills, and can now program, and get around inside the machines (AF, message log, 1988). For most members of the computer underground, phreaking is simply a tool that allows them to call long distance without amassing enormous phone bills.
Because the two activities are so closely related, with phreakers learning hacking skills and ackers breaking into “telco” computers, reference is usually made to phreak/hacking or p/hackers. ” Those who have a deeper and more technically oriented interest in the “telco” (telephone company) are known as phreakers. They, like the hackers discussed earlier, desire to master and explore a system that few outsiders really understand: The phone system is the most interesting, fascinating thing that I know of. There is so much to know.
Even phreaks have their own areas of knowledge. There is so much to know that one phreak could know something fairly important and the next phreak not. The next phreak might know ten things that he first phreak doesn’t though. It all depends upon where and how they get their info. I myself would like to work for the telco, doing something interesting, like programming a switch. Something that isn’t slave labor bullshit. Something that you enjoy, but have to take risks in order to participate unless you are lucky enough to work for the telco.
To have access to telco things, manuals, etc would be great (DP, message log, 1988). Phreaking involves having the dedication to commit yourself to learning as much about the phone system/network as possible. Since most of this information is not made public, phreaks have o resort to legally questionable means to obtain the knowledge they want (TP2, message log, 1988). Most members of the underground do not approach the telephone system with such passion. Many hackers are interested in the phone system solely to the extent that they can exploit its weaknesses and pursue other goals.
In this case, phreaking becomes a means and not a pursuit unto itself. Another individual, one who identifies himself as a hacker, explains: I know very little about phones . . . I just hack. See, I can’t exactly call these numbers direct. A lot of people are in the same boat. In my case, phreaking is a ool, an often used one, but nonetheless a tool (TU, message log, 1988). In the world of the computer underground, the ability to “phreak a call” is taken for granted. The phone companies allowance the use of the credit cards for billing has opened the door to wide-scale phreaking.
With credit cards, no special knowledge or equipment is required to phreak a call, only valid credit card numbers, known as “codez,” are needed to call any location in the world. This method of phreaking is generally called “carding,” it is generally looked on as the lowest form of phreaking as almost no technical skill is necessary. Another ole in the computer underground is that of the software pirate. Software piracy refers to the unauthorized copying and distribution of copyrighted software.
This activity centers around computer bulletin board systems, and parts of the internet that specialize in “warez. ” Pirates and phreak/hackers/crackers do not necessarily support the activities of each other, and there is distrust and misunderstanding between the two groups. At least part of this distrust lies in the phreak/hacker perception that piracy is an unskilled activity. A possible exception to this are those pirates that have the programming skills needed to emove copy protection from software.
By removing the program code that inhibits duplicate copies from being made these individuals, which also go by the name “crackers,” contribute greatly to the easy distribution of “warez. ” While p/hackers generally don’t disapprove of piracy as an activity, especially “cracking pirates,” they nevertheless tend to avoid pirate bulletin boards and internet sites partly because there is little pertinent phreak/hack information contained on them, and partly because of the belief that pirates indiscriminately abuse the telephone network in pursuit of the latest computer game.
One acker illustrates this belief by theorizing that pirates are responsible for a large part of credit card fraud. The media claims that it is solely hackers who are responsible or losses pertaining to large telecommunication companies and long distance services. This is not the case. We are (hackers) but a small portion of these losses. The rest are caused by pirates and thieves who sell these codes to people on the street (AF, message log, 1988).
Other hackers complain that uploading large programs frequently takes several hours to complete, and it is pirate calls, not the ones placed by “tele-communications nthusiasts” (a popular euphemism for phreakers and hackers) that cost the telephone industry large sums of money. However, not all pirates phreak their calls. Phreaking is considered “very tacky” among elite pirates, and system operators (Sysops) of pirate bulletin boards discourage phreaked calls because it draws attention to the system when the call is discovered by the telephone company.
For the average computer user the most feared of the computer underground is that of the computer virus creator. Among the CU computer viruses are generally referred to as “viri. ” Computer viruses are in themselves a very specific type of rogram but to the novice or low sophistication computer user, which the majority are, they are any program that can take over, damage or otherwise infiltrate, a computer. Program that qualify as “trojan horses,” “logic bombs,” or “worms” are often just called “viruses. A virus is a self-replicating program that is capable of carrying a destructive or otherwise annoying payload while a “trojan horse” is a program that allows easy access to an already-penetrated system. It can also be used to facilitate a penetration by being tagged to a legitimate program so that when the host computer runs the program the trojan put itself in a osition to allow the designer easy access. “Logic” or “time bombs” are similar to the trojans except that they wait for a specific circumstances or time to detonate a harmful payload.
Logic bombs are often incorporated into a virus, if it is of the destructive variety, as their destructive payload. The “worm” is the most similar to a virus in that it also replicates, but it is generally designed to infect idle workstations or terminals on a network. Worms tend to exist in memory and are non- permanent, one must simply reboot to remove them, while the virus resides on disk where they are permanent until eradicated. There are two main types of virus writers, people who’s main purpose is to create havoc for the computer user doing everything possible to spread their viruses.
Then there are the people who aren’t interested in spreading their viruses but rather creating them as a mental exercise that involves figuring out better ways to evade detection or further empower their programming skills. The latter will often be composed of software engineers and highly skilled programmers while the primary tends to be a younger age group who are relatively unskilled in comparison. An example of this is a teenage viri writer called “Little Loc” who wanted to be the most dangerous virus writer in American,” and attempted to prove it by writing a virus that became wide spread and know as the Satan Bug.
On the other hand there are writers like “Screaming Radish,” who is Windows-application developer from Australia, his purpose in virus development is not destructive but rather to gain a better understanding of how anti-virus software works. He likes to “reverse-engineer” anti- virus software taking them apart to study what signatures it scanned for and what the software excludes from it’s scrutiny. Viruses made with that level of sophistication are becoming a ype of digital currency in the computer underground where one can use them to trade for other information. Jan Smith, 1994) Mark A. Lugwig, the writer of virus tutorials, had this to say: It is inevitable that these books will offend some people. In fact, I hope they do. They need to. I am convinced that computer viruses are not evil and that programmers have the right to create them, posses them and experiment with them. That kind of a stand is going to offend a lot of people, no matter how it is presented. Even a purely technical treatment of viruses which simply discussed how to write them and provided some examples ould be offensive.
The mere thought of a million well armed hackers out there is enough to drive some bureaucrats mad. These books go beyond a technical treatment, though, to defend the idea that viruses can be useful, interesting, and just plain fun. That is bound to prove even more offensive. Still, the truth is the truth, and it needs to be spoken, even if it is offensive. Morals and ethics cannot be determined by a majority vote, any more than they can be determined by the barrel of a gun or loud mouth. Might does not make right. The mass media has tended to sensationalize hacking, whilst soundly condemning it.
But there other points of view: for example, in many instances the breaching of systems can provide more effective security in the future, so that other (presumably less well-intentioned) elements of the CU are prevented from causing real harm. A good llustration of this was the penetration of British Telecom’s electronic mail system in 1984, by Steven Gold and Robert Schifreen, which resulted in a rude message being left in none other than the Duke of Edinburgh’s account! This incident attracted enormous publicity and led directly to improved security arrangements for the whole of the Prestel system.
Gold and Schifeen were therefore extremely indignant at being treated as criminals – and this illustrates the discrepancy between what the law considers to be criminal behavior and how the CU often perceive themselves. (The Australian, 1988) We might therefore ask ourselves whether, for the sake of balance, a truly democratic society should possess a core of technically gifted but recalcitrant people. Given that more and more information about individuals is now being stored on computers, often without our knowledge or consent, is it not reassuring that some citizens are able to penetrate these atabases to find out what is going on?
Thus it could be argued that the CU represent one way in which we can help avoid the creation of a more centralized, even totalitarian government. This is one scenario the CU openly entertain. Indeed, we now know that at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in the former Soviet Union, hackers from the Chaos Computer Club released more information to the public about developments than did the West German government itself. All of this information was gained by illegal break-ins carried out in government computer installations.