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UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS--HUNTING FOR WOMEN HACKERS by Cornelia Sollfrank
first published in "artbyte", the magazine for digital culture
July-August 2000

According to the research of Randall Nichols, president of the computer security company Comsec Solutions, the typical hacker is a young (19-30 years old) white male without any previous convictions. The hacker identifies with technology rather than with his employer. He is smart, intelligent, self-confident, thirsting for adventure, highly motivated, and likes to take up challenges. In the 8,000 cases of computer crime investigated by Nichols, there was not a single woman involved. According to him, this finding leads to two conclusions: either women are actually not involved in computer crime, OR women are too cunning to get caught! In any case, there is no representation of women hackers. As a cyberfeminist who is dealing with politics of representation on the Net, I was drawn to this phenomenon. Where technology is traditionally seen as a male domain, I found the province of hackers a highly gendered zone—the last stand of the boys’ club. The following catalogues my hunt for female hackers.

When the word "hacker” was first coined at MIT in the ‘60s, it was an honorable title. Hackers were known for their resourcefulness and their persistence in solving software-related problems. But after some major incidents, such as the legendary Internet worm of "rtm” in the ‘80s, and the subsequent sensationalistic press coverage, the notion of "hacker” has been reversed. In a society in which data security and the stability of the infrastructure have become major concerns, the "hacker” is being hyped as the perfect concept of an enemy. Nowadays, hackers function mainly as a screen on which technophobia is projected.

The subversive activity of hackers is not exclusively reserved for the criminal-minded, as the media would lead us to believe. In many cases the goals are not about acquisition but emancipation: to maintain freedom (e.g., from censorship), security (e.g., through cryptography) and to flatten hierarchies like software monopoly (e.g., the free software movement). Now, it might happen that in order to pursue their concerns, hackers have to cross borders and stretch certain limits. As Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, stated, ”A border which is not meant to be transgressed would not [exist].”

In 1996, I started visiting hackers’ meeting places on- and offline. Very quickly, I became aware that only a few women participated—and most of them were not actively involved in computer hacking. So I started to research the relationship between women and hacking. Experts of the scene, like Bruce Sterling, assured me that there were no women hackers; at least he had never heard of any. From Sterling, this does not come as a surprise. For him, ”hacking is a teenage-male voyeur-thrill power-trip activity. You don't find female computer intruders, any more than you find female voyeurs who are obsessed with catching glimpses of men's underwear.”

According to Sterling, women do not have a motive, because the omnipresent point-and-click software, which easily allows novice hackers to penetrate some computers ”. . . is incredibly dull and has no emotional payoff.” He traces the root of hacking to the psychological deficiencies from which male juveniles supposedly suffer. I wouldn’t agree with Sterling that hacking generally requires an impoverished emotional life, but, even it were true, certainly some women meet that requirement too. As for the ”power-trip activities”, from what I can tell, plenty of women are happily practicing them in myriad forms.

Another expert, Gail Thackeray, Special Counsel, Technology Crimes, in the Arizona Attorney General's Office, whom I contacted through the "defcon” hacker mailing list, painted the same picture of the absentee female hacker. ”There are no serious technical women hackers,” she says ”There were a lot of women phone phreaks [people who crack a telephone network], though for the most part they’re merely ‘finger hackers’ [people running the program "finger” to get information users on a system] and were more interested in the social aspects than the technical ones.” Thackeray continues, ”Part of the lure of hacking is the same thrill people get from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons—another obsession more male than female. It's a (false) power rush,” she wrote in our e-mail exchange, ”the illusion of control, dominance, etc . . ., the desire to ‘take over’ a system. It's not that we're targeting young male hackers, it's just that that's who we find, by and large, when we investigate the complaints.”

What I found most staggering in talking to the "experts” is that Sterling and Thackeray made their arguments based on unexamined essentialist ideas about the biological differences between men and women. Basically they were agreeing that it is a genetic thing—women are not "coded” to code, leaving out any consideration of the socially constructed caricatures of the male techno nerd and the female communicator.

So, is it true that there are no women hackers? After my hundreds of posts to hacker mailing lists and hauling butt to infinite hacker meetings, finally I hit pay dirt: "nomade” (Germany), Rena Tangens (Germany), Marieke van Santen (Netherlands), Corrine Petrus (Netherlands), and Stephanie Wehner (Netherlands) responded to my search. I was able to motivate the five of them to join the Next Cyberfeminist International, held in March 1999 in Rotterdam(www.obn.org/nCI), a conference organized by the Old Boys Network. On a special day, dedicated to ”Women Hackers,” nomade, Tangens, van Santen, Petrus, and Wehner participated in seminars as on issues as ”Free Software Philosophy,” ”Privacy and Security on the Net,” explained hacking from a technical point of view, and gave a workshop on ”How to become a hacker.” Our group of female hackers demonstrated that neither physical conditions nor social constructions can prevent women from gaining access to restricted sectors of the Internet. The presence of these women at the conference demonstrated the ability of women to gain access to restricted sectors of the Internet, to move with the freedom of their male counterparts. As Yvonne Volkart, a Swiss art critic has put it, the female hacker and the cyberfeminists alike "recode dominant ideologies of information technologies.”

Cornelia Sollfrank is an artist living in Hamburg, Germany. Central to her conceptual and performance works are the relation between art and politics, changing notions of art, the advent of a new image of the artist in the information age, and gender-specific handling of technology, as well as the deconstruction of the all-pervading power of technology. She was a member of the artist groups "frauen-und-technik” and "-Innen,” and initiated the cyberfemininist organization Old Boys Network (www.obn.org).

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