[ISN] Smashing The Stereotype Of The Villainous Hacker

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Wed Mar 17 1999 - 07:43:47 PST

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    Monday March 15 10:18 AM ET
    Smashing The Stereotype Of The Villainous Hacker
    By Lydia Zajc
    TORONTO (Reuters) - Every hacker is a pimply youth out to break into your
    system, steal your money, vandalize your Web site and leave destruction in
    his wake, right? 
    Up to 80 percent of computer criminals are corporate insiders who
    penetrate their company's system to siphon out money, do some industrial
    spying or mess up computers for revenge and more, experts think. 
    But eliminate the lawbreakers and bratty teen-agers, and you'll find
    technology lovers who dispel the overblown hacker mystique by testing
    systems for consumers and advocating free speech. 
    ``There's a demonization of hackers that goes on that's unfortunate,''
    said Richard Power, editorial director at the San Francisco-based Computer
    Security Institute. 
    Hacker stereotypes include young computer joyriders who promote mischief
    and mayhem. Then there are those who freelance for illicit gain, called
    ``black hats,'' and the ``white hats,'' generally established corporate
    types who are paid by companies to break into their own systems. 
    But there are those to whom the term ``hacker'' was a compliment:
    brilliant technicians on the cutting edge of exploring the vulnerabilities
    of technology, Power said. 
    Like Mudge (not his real name). He's from a Boston-based group that calls
    itself L0pht (pronounced ``loft'') Heavy Industries. The group,
    established in 1992, was named after its headquarters in a loft space but
    jokingly spelled in the silly fashion used by computer insiders to
    distinguish themselves. 
    Mudge, who has been hacking for up to 17 years and has hair flowing past
    his mid-back, said the term ``hacker'' originated as a positive label in
    American academic hotbeds in the late 1960s. 
    ``Any neat and novel way of solving a problem was called a hack,'' Mudge
    told Reuters by telephone.  ``So to be a hacker was to be somebody who was
    capable of thinking abstractly, thinking in not-just linear methods to
    solve problems, and doing it in a bright and novel way.''
    The meaning was twisted once Hollywood and the media stepped in.
    Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put out a movie called ``WarGames'' in 1983, featuring
    a teen-ager who accidentally breaks into a U.S. military computer, nearly
    triggering World War III. Some people responded by attempting to replicate
    that kind of feat, which helped lead to negative media coverage, Mudge
    Hackers have been struggling to reclaim the language, with some
    considering the epithet ``cracker'' as the correct term for lawbreakers. 
    Mudge and L0pht sell tools on the Internet to allow companies to break
    into their own systems, which firmly puts them in the ``gray hat''
    movement, he said. 
    Like bullets, the tools can be used either by authorities patrolling for
    possible intruders or by criminals to crack open a company's defense
    ``The L0pht prides itself on kicking the beehive pretty frequently and
    staying, you know, smack dab in the middle of the gray area,'' said Mudge,
    who has testified to the U.S. Congress on the topic of hacking. 
    Beyond the tools, L0pht believes in helping consumers. The group, which
    routinely finds the holes in systems, sees itself as providing a public
    service for unwary buyers. 
    Power added that vendors can be under pressure to get a product out the
    door to reap profits and so might highlight the product's strengths and
    shy away from revealing its weaknesses. 
    Mudge said, ``Who's the bad guy: the person who actually exploits this or
    (company X) for knowing this up front and giving the user a false sense of
    security and putting them in that situation to begin with?''
    L0pht is not the only group which believes in doing good. Count Zero (also
    not his real name), a 31-year-old who researches ways to manage
    information for hospitals, belongs to a group whose name was inspired by a
    visit to a Texas slaughterhouse. 
    The Cult of the Dead Cow, shortened to cDc, began as an electronic
    magazine for creative expression in the early 1980s, Count Zero said over
    the phone. The name sprang from the concept that ideas and free speech
    could flow in a raw, fresh format; not censored or dressed up like a
    In fact, Count Zero likens the computer to the automobile. First it was
    simply a vehicle to allow people to travel, then it created wide-ranging
    consequences such as freeways and pollution, changing lifestyles and the
    shape of cities. 
    ``There are going to be even more changes in the way people communicate
    with each other, and ideas get across, and we're seeing the 'Net become so
    ubiquitous that it's really a true global, wired village.''
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