Islands in the Clickstream:

Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas

by Richard Thieme
It was my privilege last summer to deliver a keynote address at DefCon IV, an annual convention of hackers and crackers held every summer in Las Vegas. Daytime temperatures near 120 degrees ensured that casual curiosity seekers would be at a minimum. In heat that fries an egg on the pavement, you had better WANT to be there.

It was a surprise, then, when eight hundred people showed up, nearly double the expected attendance. It was an exciting convention, but above all else, it was fear that I remember: the collection of hackers inspired more fear and anxiety in the management of our hotel than anything I had ever seen. I felt as if it were 1968 again and the security guards were Chicago police.

After the first night, for example, hotel personnel waited until three in the morning to install tiny security cameras in the ceilings of our meeting rooms. Numerous news crews from mainstream sources like Good Morning America were thrown out of the convention, their video tape confiscated. Concern over self- indulgence was extreme, resulting in my favorite convention photo: a 52-year-old man being "carded" in order to enter a hotel restaurant where alcohol was served!

What is it about hackers that provokes such fear?

It begins with the popular image of hackers as "evil geniuses," invading our boardrooms and bedrooms at will. That image began with the movie "War Games," and in fact the writer of that screen play, Larry Lasker, was at the convention, paying close attention to the latest trends.

But Lasker is the first to admit that alienated teenagers hunched over glowing screens as they attack the Pentagon are not the whole story. There were plenty of security experts at DefCon, plus intelligence agents, professional engineers, and thriving businessmen.

Real hackers are distinguished not by anti-social tendencies but by their hunger for knowledge. Hackers do not accept conventional explanations; they want to know, see, feel things for themselves. The only way to do that is to enter our complex systems of information technology and look around.

Leonardo da Vinci was a hacker. He refused to limit his exploration of the universe to the constraints his more conventional neighbors called "the known world." He refused to limit his imagination. He did not ask permission before challenging conventional wisdom. This is why Bill Gates paid a fortune for some of the drawings and notes of that master hacker.

Are hackers criminals?

The short answer is no, not necessarily. Hackers distinguish between real hackers and crackers, or criminal hackers. Crackers use hacking skills to commit fraud, destroy or steal intellectual property, and vandalize the information systems of governments and businesses.

From here on, though, things get a little vague. On the highest levels of international diplomacy, it is difficult to distinguish not only hackers but crackers from government agents. France has admitted bugging every first class seat on transatlantic Air France flights to glean important economic information. Germany and Japan employ master hackers, as does our government, to spy and pry into the economic secrets of friend and foe alike.

Global information warfare has succeeded the Cold War. In the global marketplace, a marketplace characterized by increasingly semi-permeable national boundaries, information is ammunition.

This marketplace is appropriately likened to "the wild west" because there is often no legal authority to which to appeal when one has been wronged. One is forced to take the law into one's own hands.

Here's a small example of why that happens.

I like to play by the rules. I use the Internet to locate magazines, query editors, then research and deliver articles, I write for computer magazines in six countries. One of them published three articles consecutively, but the checks to pay for the articles -- the only non-electronic piece of the transaction -- never arrived. I sent email. Then more email. And more. Then I telephoned. And I telephoned again. Every promise of payment was followed by inaction.

What was I to do? Hmmm, I thought. The Internet enabled me to deal with foreign businesses as if national boundaries did not exist. Perhaps the Internet could also be a medium for the redress of grievance.

I sent one more email.

I explained that I was working on an article on the pitfalls of the virtual marketplace and needed an example of what happened when a business violated the trust which made such commerce possible. I intended to use the publisher as the example.

In addition, I would post on a web site the details of our transaction and use the full resources of the Internet to reach others who might be interested in how they did business. I received an email within minutes full of profuse apologies. A check arrived in four days.

The irrational fear of hackers in Las Vegas is linked to the rational fear of that publisher and (hopefully) to your rational fear as well.

(1) In a global marketplace in which information is currency and knowledge capital, every organization is like an independent country. Intelligence and counter-intelligence is no longer a luxury. What you know must be protected; what others know about your business must be actively managed.

(2) Hackers are feared because their powers have been excessively magnified by the media. But their real knowledge of how the technological infrastructure works is also real power. Hacking is the creative exploration of the complex systems of information to which our lives are wedded. Hacking skills are essential to the well-being of organizations that intend to remain competitive.

(3) Competitive business intelligence should be an introductory course at every business school.

(4) Hackers are not one-dimensional cartoon figures. They are complex human beings. They may play at night in the electronic Big Toy called the Internet, but most hold good jobs in security, intelligence, and high tech businesses, "Tiger teams" of hackers often work collaboratively with government and business to identify holes in their networks and secure their systems. The teams for which I have served as an intermediary are composed of brilliant individuals using their skills to a beneficial way.

As life in the next century becomes unimaginably complex, the skills of hacking will be in demand. We will need bushwhackers, pathfinders, scouts. Hackers who know the territory make good guides on the electronic frontier.


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© Richard Thieme 1996