[ISN] Among Code Warriors, Women, Too, Can Fight

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Thu Jun 07 2001 - 15:13:24 PDT

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    June 7, 2001 
    WHEN Sarah Flannery was 16 in 1999, she won Ireland's Young Scientist
    of the Year award for her work in Internet cryptography. Although she
    is described in a recent book, "The Hacker Ethic," as "a 16-year-old
    hacker," Ms. Flannery, now 19 and studying computer science at
    Cambridge University, isn't quite sure how to feel about that
    "I haven't read the book," she said in a phone interview. "I've been a
    bit confused about what a hacker really is."
    She is not alone. The word "hacker" calls to mind two stereotypes. The
    first is that hackers are bad guys. (Among those who call themselves
    hackers, a "hacker" is generally defined as someone who loves to write
    precise programming code and takes joy in exploring the nooks and
    crannies of the Net including places that some would prefer they not
    explore.) The second is that hackers are guys.
    In fact, women who consider themselves hackers, as well as women like
    Ms. Flannery who just plain enjoy math and technology, have been part
    of the computer world for decades. Some are prominent for their
    accomplishments; all tend to stand out in their field just because
    they are women.
    Ms. Flannery, who was obviously never given a "Math is hard!" talking
    Barbie as a child, has written about her adventures as a young
    mathematician and cryptographer in "In Code: A Mathematical Journey,"
    a book written with her father, David Flannery, and published this
    month in the United States by Workman Publishing.
    In her book, she writes of her experiences in Dublin during a stint at
    Baltimore Technologies, where she began to work seriously on what
    became her prize-winning Cayley- Purser algorithm (named after a
    mathematician and a cryptographer), which could be used for faster
    encryption of information on the Internet. (In the spirit of the
    hacker ethic that information should be free, she declined to patent
    her algorithm, so that it would be available to anyone.)
    Most of her work with the company was, not surprisingly, alongside
    men. "The women tended to be managers and secretaries and not to be
    involved in the technical side of things," she recalled. "I wasn't
    treated any differently for it, though."
    But women with longer tenure in technology say that for better or
    worse, it is still hard to avoid being a curiosity. "The assumptions
    made about you when you get into a technical field are that you're
    either a feminist," said Carole Fennelly, 39, a Unix programmer since
    1980, "or you're trying to make a statement, or you're some sort of
    "I'm in technology because I happen to like it. I'm not trying to make
    a statement, and I don't want to be treated differently. Technology is
    about facts and has nothing to do with gender." Ms. Fennelly is a
    partner in the Wizard's Keys Corporation, a computer-security
    consulting firm in Tinton Falls, N.J., that she founded with her
    husband in 1992.
    Jude Milhon is a longtime programmer who taught herself the Fortran
    computer language from a library book in the 1960's. Although she was
    told to fetch the coffee for a roomful of men at her first
    professional programming job (but spilled it so deftly on the table
    that her boss wisely opted to have somebody else bring it for future
    meetings), Ms. Milhon went on to work as a programmer and was an
    editor at Mondo 2000, a cyberculture magazine published in the early
    "As soon as I got away from businessmen," she said in an e-mail
    message, "the world was different: respect for geekliness, double
    points for female." Female programmers are cherished, she said,
    explaining, "You're still a rarity: a blue rose, a precious freak."
    In addition to being an author and a programmer, Ms. Milhon, who is
    widely known by her online name, St. Jude, has been cited as one of
    the first known female hackers, by Steven Levy in his 1984 book,
    "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution."
    "My own definition of hacking," Ms. Milhon said, "is the clever
    circumvention of imposed limits, whether imposed by your government,
    your own skills or the laws of physics."
    Of course, the stereotype says a hacker is a solitary teenage boy who
    stays up all night in his bedroom trying to knock the Pentagon's Web
    site off the Net, and indeed, Ms. Milhon said, the image is not
    altogether false. Teenage boys, susceptible to boredom and a feeling
    of powerlessness, "are the universal soldiers of hacking," she said.
    "I think more teenage girls can accept the idea that 14-year-olds
    don't have lives," she said. "Also, girls tend to be better at finding
    human contact."
    But there are women who hack, and many learn their skills where they
    are handily outnumbered by men: in the rough-and-tumble online
    enclaves that hackers frequent or at hacker conventions. A spokesman
    for Defcon, the annual hacker gathering in Las Vegas, estimated that
    the event drew eight men for every woman.
    An Australian hacker in her early 30's who goes by the online handle
    Blueberry has similar memories of her early days in the hacker
    stomping grounds in the Internet Relay Channel chat areas, which she
    compares to a men's smoking room.
    "You throw open the door and everything stops," she wrote by e-mail,
    "all eyes are turned in your direction, and you could hear a pin
    drop." (Like many hackers, Blueberry chooses to be known simply by her
    online name for reasons of personal privacy and security.) But she
    persisted in her pursuit of arcane hacker knowledge, learning the
    computer inside and out with help from male hackers online.
    She put her skills to work with some friends in 1999 by starting a Web
    site called Condemned .org, which helps the authorities snare people
    dealing in child pornography over the Internet by using legal hacking
    techniques for tracking files.
    Though they could remain anonymous, some women hackers refuse to hide
    their sex online, even if it means drawing unwanted attention.
    Blueberry said women could silence derogatory comments from older
    hackers by proving their technical prowess on the PC. "You have to
    earn the respect," she said. But a female technophile may have to
    overcome the perception that she hangs out in online areas dominated
    by men so she can meet men with the potential for hefty stock options
    not because she is really interested in computers themselves. The
    quality of her hacking may also be questioned, and she is likely to
    draw chauvinistic comments.
    "The hacker scene tends to be a younger, male-dominated scene," said
    Ms. Fennelly, the computer-security consultant, who counts a number of
    male hackers among her close friends. "I hate to talk in generalities,
    but a lot of times, younger guys just aren't experienced with women,
    and they're still kind of focused on that whole thing. There is more
    sexism in a younger atmosphere. That said, there are a lot of hacker
    guys who are great."
    In her years in the industry, Ms. Fennelly has had plenty of time to
    observe Mars and Venus in the workplace. While women can write
    programs just as nimbly as men, other skills can become evident, she
    said. "Social engineering is a big deal in the computer field
    manipulating people to do things," she said. "Women can understand
    that pretty well. Men are supposed to be better at cognitive thinking.
    You need that mix."
    But Dr. Mary Bucholtz, an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M
    University who has studied the attitudes of women online, said women
    were less likely than men to say women had a different approach, good
    or bad, to hacking.
    "Interestingly, it's often men rather than women that suggest that
    women bring something unique or different to hacking by virtue of
    their gender," she said in an e-mail message. "A lot of female geeks
    really object to the idea that women and men are essentially
    different. They've spent a lot of time combating that ideology in
    their own lives."
    Women who are geeks and who simply want to be themselves might take
    comfort in the old maxim, Knowledge is power. "Being able to answer
    computer questions for your male friends generates a lot of respect,"
    Ms. Milhon said. "It breaks the female stereotype, and every time you
    can break the stereotype, you must. Stereotype-wrecking helps push the
    past behind us, helps speed the future. I love the future more than
    Sarah Flannery, part of the future herself, states her own goals very
    simply in her book. "Ultimately," she writes, "I would like to be one
    of those lucky people who get paid for doing what they love."
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