CONCERNING HACKERS WHO BREAK INTO COMPUTER SYSTEMS by D.E. Denning
Contents of this file
are for educational purposes
only. It is strongly suggested
that you do not use this
knowledge for illegal purposes!
Presented at the 13th National Computer Security Conference,
Washington, D.C., Oct. 1-4, 1990.
Digital Equipment Corp., Systems Research Center
130 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94301
A diffuse group of people often called ``hackers'' has been
characterized as unethical, irresponsible, and a serious danger to
society for actions related to breaking into computer systems. This
paper attempts to construct a picture of hackers, their concerns,
and the discourse in which hacking takes place. My initial findings
suggest that hackers are learners and explorers who want to help
rather than cause damage, and who often have very high standards
of behavior. My findings also suggest that the discourse surrounding
hacking belongs at the very least to the gray areas between larger
conflicts that we are experiencing at every level of society and
business in an information age where many are not computer literate.
These conflicts are between the idea that information cannot be owned
and the idea that it can, and between law enforcement and the First
and Fourth Amendments. Hackers have raised serious issues about
values and practices in an information society. Based on my findings,
I recommend that we work closely with hackers, and suggest several
actions that might be taken.
The world is crisscrossed with many different networks that are used
to deliver essential services and basic necessities -- electric power,
water, fuel, food, goods, to name a few. These networks are all
publicly accessible and hence vulnerable to attacks, and yet virtually
no attacks or disruptions actually occur.
The world of computer networking seems to be an anomaly in the
firmament of networks. Stories about attacks, breakins, disruptions,
theft of information, modification of files, and the like appear
frequently in the newspapers. A diffuse group called ``hackers''
is often the target of scorn and blame for these actions. Why are
computer networks any different from other vulnerable public networks?
Is the difference the result of growing pains in a young field?
Or is it the reflection of deeper tensions in our emerging information
[ Top ]
There are no easy or immediate answers to these questions. Yet it
is important to our future in a networked, information-dependent
world that we come to grips with them. I am deeply interested in
them. This paper is my report of what I have discovered in the early
stages of what promises to be a longer investigation. I have
concentrated my attention in these early stages on the hackers
themselves. Who are they? What do they say? What motivates them?
What are their values? What do that have to say about public policies
regarding information and computers? What do they have to say about
From such a profile I expect to be able to construct a picture of
the discourses in which hacking takes place. By a discourse I mean
the invisible background of assumptions that transcends individuals
and governs our ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. My initial
findings lead me to conclude that this discourse belongs at the very
least to the gray areas between larger conflicts that we are
experiencing at every level of society and business, the conflict
between the idea that information cannot be owned and the idea that
it can, and the conflict between law enforcement and the First and
But, enough of the philosophy. On with the story!
2. Opening Moves
In late fall of 1989, Frank Drake (not his real name), Editor of
the now defunct cyberpunk magazine W.O.R.M., invited me to be
interviewed for the magazine. In accepting the invitation, I hoped
that something I might say would discourage hackers from breaking
into systems. I was also curious about the hacker culture. This
seemed like a good opportunity to learn about it.
The interview was conducted electronically. I quickly discovered
that I had much more to learn from Drake's questions than to teach.
For example, he asked: ``Is providing computer security for large
databases that collect information on us a real service? How do
you balance the individual's privacy vs. the corporations?'' This
question surprised me. Nothing that I had read about hackers ever
suggested that they might care about privacy. He also asked: ``What
has [the DES] taught us about what the government's (especially NSA's)
role in cryptography should be?'' Again, I was surprised to discover
a concern for the role of the government in computer security. I
did not know at the time that I would later discover considerable
overlap in the issues discussed by hackers and those of other computer
I met with Drake to discuss his questions and views. After our
meeting, we continued our dialog electronically with me interviewing
him. This gave me the opportunity to explore his views in greater
depth. Both interviews appear in ``Computers Under Attack,''
edited by Peter Denning [DenningP90].
My dialog with Drake increased my curiosity about hackers. I read
articles and books by or about hackers. In addition, I had discussions
with nine hackers whom I will not mention by name. Their ages ranged
from 17 to 28.
The word ``hacker'' has taken on many different meanings ranging
from 1) ``a person who enjoys learning the details of computer systems
and how to stretch their capabilities'' to 2) ``a malicious or
inquisitive meddler who tries to discover information by poking around
.. possibly by deceptive or illegal means ...'' [Steele83] The
hackers described in this paper satisfy both of these definitions,
although all of the hackers I spoke with said they did not engage
in or approve of malicious acts that damage systems or files. Thus,
this paper is not about malicious hackers. Indeed, my research so
far suggests that there are very few malicious hackers. Neither
is this paper about career criminals who, for example, defraud
businesses, or about people who use stolen credit cards to purchase
goods. The characteristics of many of the hackers I am writing about
are summed up in the words of one of the hackers: ``A hacker is someone
that experiments with systems... [Hacking] is playing with systems
and making them do what they were never intended to do. Breaking
in and making free calls is just a small part of that. Hacking is
also about freedom of speech and free access to information -- being
able to find out anything. There is also the David and Goliath side
of it, the underdog vs. the system, and the ethic of being a folk
hero, albeit a minor one.''
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation who calls
himself a hacker according to the first sense of the word above,
recommends calling security-breaking hackers ``crackers''
[Stallman84]. While this description may be more accurate, I shall
use the term ``hacker'' since the people I am writing about call
themselves hackers and all are interested in learning about computer
and communication systems. However, there are many people like
Stallman who call themselves hackers and do not engage in illegal
or deceptive practices; this paper is also not about those hackers.
In what follows I will report on what I have learned about hackers
from hackers. I will organize the discussion around the principal
domains of concerns I observed. I recommend Meyer's thesis [Meyer89]
for a more detailed treatment of the hackers' social culture and
networks, and Meyer and Thomas [MeyerThomas90] for an interesting
interpretation of the computer underground as a postmodernist rejection
of conventional culture that substitutes ``rational technological
control of the present for an anarchic and playful future.''
I do not pretend to know all the concerns that hackers have, nor
do I claim to have conducted a scientific study. Rather, I hope
that my own informal study motivates others to explore the area
further. It is essential that we as computer security professionals
take into account hackers' concerns in the design of our policies,
procedures, laws regulating computer and information access, and
educational programs. Although I speak about security-breaking hackers
as a group, their competencies, actions, and views are not all the
same. Thus, it is equally important that our policies and programs
take into account individual differences.
In focusing on what hackers say and do, I do not mean for a moment
to set aside the concerns of the owners and users of systems that
hackers break into, the concerns of law enforcement personnel, or
our own concerns as computer security professionals. But I do
recommend that we work closely with hackers as well as these other
groups to design new approaches and programs for addressing the
concerns of all. Like ham radio operators, hackers exist, and it
is in our best interest that we learn to communicate and work with
them rather than against them.
[ Top ]
I will suggest some actions that we might consider taking, and I
invite others to reflect on these and suggest their own. Many of
these suggestions are from the hackers themselves; others came from
the recommendations of the ACM Panel on Hacking [Lee86] and from
I grouped the hackers' concerns into five categories: access to
computers and information for learning; thrill, excitement and
challenge; ethics and avoiding damage; public image and treatment;
and privacy and first amendment rights. These are discussed in
the next five subsections. I have made an effort to present my
findings as uncritical observations. The reader should not infer
that I either approve or disapprove of actions hackers take.
3. Access to Computers and Information for Learning
Although Levy's book ``Hackers'' [Levy84] is not about today's
security-breaking hackers, it articulates and interprets a ``hacker
ethic'' that is shared by many of these hackers. The ethic includes
two key principles that were formulated in the early days of the
AI Lab at MIT: ``Access to computers -- and anything which might
teach you something about the way the world works -- should be
unlimited and total,'' and ``All information should be free.'' In
the context in which these principles were formulated, the computers
of interest were research machines and the information was software
and systems information.
[ Top ]
Since Stallman is a leading advocate of open systems and freedom
of information, especially software, I asked him what he means by
this. He said: ``I believe that all generally useful information
should be free. By `free' I am not referring to price, but rather
to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one's own
uses.'' By ``generally useful'' he does not include confidential
information about individuals or credit card information, for example.
He further writes: ``When information is generally useful,
redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is
distributing and no matter who is receiving.'' Stallman has argued
strongly against user interface copyright, claiming that it does
not serve the users or promote the evolutionary process [Stallman90].
I asked hackers whether all systems should be accessible and all
information should be free. They said that it is OK if some systems
are closed and some information, mainly confidential information
about individuals, is not accessible. They make a distinction between
information about security technology, e.g., the DES, and confidential
information protected by that technology, arguing that it is the
former that should be accessible. They said that information hoarding
is inefficient and slows down evolution of technology. They also
said that more systems should be open so that idle resources are
not wasted. One hacker said that the high costs of communication
hurts the growth of the information economy.
These views of information sharing seem to go back at least as far
as the 17th and 18th Centuries. Samuelson [Samuelson89] notes that
``The drafters of the Constitution, educated in the Enlightenment
tradition, shared that era's legacy of faith in the enabling powers
of knowledge for society as well as the individual.'' She writes
that our current copyright laws, which protect the expression of
information, but not the information itself, are based on the belief
that unfettered and widespread dissemination of information promotes
technological progress. (Similarly for patent laws which protect
devices and processes, not the information about them.) She cites
two recent court cases where courts reversed the historical trend
and treated information as ownable property. She raises questions
about whether in entering the Information Age where information is
the source of greatest wealth, we have outgrown the Enlightenment
tradition and are coming to treat information as property.
In a society where knowledge is said to be power, Drake expressed
particular concern about what he sees as a growing information gap
between the rich and poor. He would like to see information that
is not about individuals be made public, although it could still
be owned. He likes to think that companies would actually find it
to their advantage to share information. He noted how IBM's disclosure
of the PC allowed developers to make more products for the computers,
and how Adobe's disclosure of their fonts helped them compete against
the Apple-Microsoft deal. He recognizes that in our current political
framework, it is difficult to make all information public, because
complicated structures have been built on top of an assumption that
certain information will be kept secret. He cites our defense policy,
which is founded on secrecy for military information, as an example.
Hackers say they want access to information and computing and network
resources in order to learn. Both Levy [Levy84] and Landreth
[Landreth89] note that hackers have an intense, compelling interest
in computers and learning, and many go into computers as a profession.
Some hackers break into systems in order to learn more about how
the systems work. Landreth says these hackers want to remain
undiscovered so that they can stay on the system as long as possible.
Some of them devote most of their time to learning how to break the
locks and other security mechanisms on systems; their background
in systems and programming varies considerably. One hacker wrote
``A hacker sees a security hole and takes advantage of it because
it is there, not to destroy information or steal. I think our
activities would be analogous to someone discovering methods of
acquiring information in a library and becoming excited and perhaps
We should not underestimate the effectiveness of the networks in
which hackers learn their craft. They do research, learn about
systems, work in groups, write, and teach others. One hacker said
that he belongs to a study group with the mission of churning out
files of information and learning as much as possible. Within the
group, people specialize, collaborate on research project, share
information and news, write articles, and teach other about their
areas of specialization. Hackers have set up a private system of
education that engages them, teaches them to think, and allows them
to apply their knowledge in purposeful, if not always legal,
activity. Ironically, many of our nation's classrooms have been
criticized for providing a poor learning environment that seems to
emphasize memorization rather than thinking and reasoning. One hacker
reported that through volunteer work with a local high school, he
was trying to get students turned on to learning.
Many hackers say that the legitimate computer access they have through
their home and school computers do not meet their needs. One student
told me that his high school did not offer anything beyond elementary
courses in BASIC and PASCAL, and that he was bored by these. Hans
Huebner, a hacker in Germany who goes by the name Pengo, wrote in
a note to the RISKS Forum [Huebner89] : ``I was just interested in
computers, not in the data which has been kept on their disks. As
I was going to school at that time, I didn't even have the money
to buy [my] own computer. Since CP/M (which was the most sophisticated
OS I could use on machines which I had legal access to) didn't turn
me on anymore, I enjoyed the lax security of the systems I had access
to by using X.25 networks. You might point out that I should have
been patient and wait[ed] until I could go to the university and
use their machines. Some of you might understand that waiting was
just not the thing I was keen on in those days.''
Brian Harvey, in his position paper [Harvey86] for the ACM Panel on
Hacking, claims that the computer medium available to students, e.g.,
BASIC and floppy disks, is inadequate for challenging intellectual
work. His recommendation is that students be given access to real
computing power, and that they be taught how to use that power
responsibly. He describes a program he created at a public high school
in Massachusetts during the period 1979-1982. They installed a
PDP-11/70 and let students and teachers carry out the administration
of the system. Harvey assessed that putting the burden of dealing
with the problems of malicious users on the students themselves was
a powerful educational force. He also noted that the students who
had the skill and interest to be password hackers were discouraged
from this activity because they also wanted to keep the trust of
their colleagues in order that they could acquire ``superuser'' status
on the system.
Harvey also makes an interesting analogy between teaching computing
and teaching karate. In karate instruction, students are introduced
to the real, adult community. They are given access to a powerful,
deadly weapon, and at the same time are taught discipline and to
not abuse the art. Harvey speculates that the reason that students
do not misuse their power is that they know they are being trusted
with something important, and they want to live up to that trust.
Harvey applied this principle when he set up the school system.
The ACM panel endorsed Harvey's recommendation, proposing a
three-tiered computing environment with local, district-wide, and
nation-wide networks. They recommended that computer professionals
participate in this effort as mentors and role models. They also
recommended that outside of schools, government and industry be
encouraged to establish regional computing centers using donated
or re-cycled equipment; that students be apprenticed to local companies
either part-time on a continuing basis or on a periodic basis; and,
following a suggestion from Felsenstein [Felsenstein86] for a
``Hacker's League,'' that a league analogous to the Amateur Radio
Relay League be established to make contributed resources available
for educational purposes.
Drake said he liked these recommendations. He said that if hackers
were given access to powerful systems through a public account system,
they would supervise themselves. He also suggested that Computer
Resource Centers be established in low-income areas in order to help
the poor get access to information. Perhaps hackers could help run
the centers and teach the members of the community how to use the
facilities. One of my colleagues suggested cynically that the hackers
would only use this to teach the poor how to hack rich people's
systems. A hacker responded by saying this was ridiculous; hackers
would not teach people how to break into systems, but rather how
to use computers effectively and not be afraid of them.
In addition, the hackers I spoke with who had given up illegal
activities said they stopped doing so when they got engaged in other
Geoff Goodfellow and Richard Stallman have reported that they have
given hackers accounts on systems that they manage, and that the
hackers have not misused the trust granted to them. Perhaps
universities could consider providing accounts to pre-college students
on the basis of recommendations from their teachers or parents.
The students might be challenged to work on the same homework problems
assigned in courses or to explore their own interests. Students
who strongly dislike the inflexibility of classroom learning might
excel in an environment that allows them to learn on their own, in
much the way that hackers have done.
4. Thrill, Excitement, and Challenge
One hacker wrote that ``Hackers understand something basic about
computers, and that is that they can be enjoyed. I know none who
hack for money, or hack to frighten the company, or hack for anything
[ Top ]
In the words of another hacker, ``Hacking was the ultimate cerebral
buzz for me. I would come home from another dull day at school,
turn my computer on, and become a member of the hacker elite. It
was a whole different world where there were no condescending adults
and you were judged only by your talent. I would first check in
to the private Bulletin Boards where other people who were like me
would hang out, see what the news was in the community, and trade
some info with people across the country. Then I would start actually
hacking. My brain would be going a million miles an hour and I'd
basically completely forget about my body as I would jump from one
computer to another trying to find a path into my target. It was
the rush of working on a puzzle coupled with the high of discovery
many magnitudes intensified. To go along with the adrenaline rush
was the illicit thrill of doing something illegal. Every step I made
could be the one that would bring the authorities crashing down on
me. I was on the edge of technology and exploring past it, spelunking
into electronic caves where I wasn't supposed to be.''
The other hackers I spoke with made similar statements about the
fun and challenge of hacking. In SPIN magazine [Dibbel90], reporter
Julian Dibbell speculated that much of the thrill comes from the
dangers associated with the activity, writing that ``the technology
just lends itself to cloak-and-dagger drama,'' and that ``hackers
were already living in a world in which covert action was nothing
more than a game children played.''
Eric Corley [Corley89] characterizes hacking as an evolved form of
mountain climbing. In describing an effort to construct a list of
active mailboxes on a Voice Messaging System, he writes ``I suppose
the main reason I'm wasting my time pushing all these buttons is
simply so that I can make a list of something that I'm not supposed
to have and be the first person to accomplish this.'' He said that
he was not interested in obtaining an account of his own on the system.
Gordon Meyer says he found this to be a recurring theme: ``We aren't
supposed to be able to do this, but we can'' -- so they do.
One hacker said he was now working on anti-viral programming. He
said it was almost as much fun as breaking into systems, and that
it was an intellectual battle against the virus author.
5. Ethics and Avoiding Damage
All of the hackers I spoke with said that malicious hacking was morally
wrong. They said that most hackers are not intentionally malicious,
and that they themselves are concerned about causing accidental
damage. When I asked Drake about the responsibility of a person
with a PC and modem, his reply included not erasing or modifying
anyone else's data, and not causing a legitimate user on a system
any problems. Hackers say they are outraged when other hackers cause
damage or use resources that would be missed, even if the results
are unintentional and due to incompetence. One hacker wrote ``I
have ALWAYS strived to do NO damage, and inconvenience as few people
as possible. I NEVER, EVER, EVER DELETE A FILE. One of the first
commands I do on a new system is disable the delete file command.''
Some hackers say that it is unethical to give passwords and similar
security-related information to persons who might do damage. In
the recent incident where a hacker broke into Bell South and downloaded
a text file on the emergency 911 service, hackers say that there
was no intention to use this knowledge to break into or sabotage
the 911 system. According to Emmanuel Goldstein [Goldstein90], the
file did not even contain information about how to break into the
[ Top ]
The hackers also said that some break-ins were unethical, e.g.,
breaking into hospital systems, and that it is wrong to read
confidential information about individuals or steal classified
information. All said it was wrong to commit fraud for personal
Although we as computer security professionals often disagree with
hackers about what constitutes damage, the ethical standards listed
sound much like our own. Where the hackers' ethics differs from
the standards adopted by most in the computer security community
is that hackers say it is not unethical to break into many systems,
use idle computer and communications resources, and download system
files in order to learn. Goldstein says that hacking is not wrong:
it is not the same as stealing, and uncovers design flaws and security
Brian Reid speculates that a hacker's ethics may come from not being
raised properly as a civilized member of society, and not appreciating
the rules of living in society. One hacker responded to this with
``What does `being brought up properly' mean? Some would say that
it is `good' to keep to yourself, mind your own business. Others
might argue that it is healthy to explore, take risks, be curious
and discover.'' Brian Harvey [Harvey86] notes that many hackers are
adolescents, and that adolescents are at a less developed stage of
moral development than adults, where they might not see how the effects
of their actions hurt others. Larry Martin [Martin89] claims that
parents, teachers, the press, and others in society are not aware
of their responsibility to contribute to instilling ethical values
associated with computer use. This could be the consequence of the
youth of the computing field; many people are still computer illiterate
and cultural norms may be lagging behind advances in technology and
the growing dependency on that technology by businesses and society.
Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce speculate that the cultural normative
messages about the use and abuse of computer technology have been
driven by the adaption of criminal laws [HollingerLanza-Kaduce88],
which have been mainly in the last decade. They also speculate that
hacking may be encouraged during the process of becoming computer
literate. Some of my colleagues say that hackers are irresponsible.
One hacker responded ``I think it's a strong indication of the amount
of responsibility shown that so FEW actually DAMAGING incidents are
But we must not overlook that the differences in ethics also reflect
a difference in philosophy about information and information handling
resources; whereas hackers advocate sharing, we seem to be advocating
ownership as property. The differences also represent an opportunity
to examine our own ethical behavior and our practices for information
sharing and protection. For example, one hacker wrote ``I will accept
that it is morally wrong to copy some proprietary software, however,
I think that it is morally wrong to charge $6000 for a program that
is only around 25K long.'' Hence, I shall go into a few of the ethical
points raised by hackers more closely. It is not a simple case of
good or mature (us) against bad or immature (hackers), or of teaching
hackers a list of rules.
Many computer professionals argue the moral questions by analogy,
e.g., see Martin [Martin89]. The analogies are then used to justify
their judgement of a hacker's actions as unethical. Breaking into
a system is compared with breaking into a house, and downloading
information and using computer and telecommunications services is
compared with stealing tangible goods. But, say hackers, the
situations are not the same. When someone breaks into a house, the
objective is to steal goods, which are often irreplaceable, and
property is often damaged in the process. By contrast, when a hacker
breaks into a system, the objective is to learn and avoid causing
damage. Downloaded information is copied, not stolen, and still
exists on the original system. Moreover, as noted earlier, information
has not been traditionally regarded as property. Dibbel [Dibbel90]
says that when the software industries and phone companies claim
losses of billions of dollars to piracy, they are not talking about
goods that disappear from the shelves and could have been sold.
We often say that breaking into a system implies a lack of caring
for the system's owner and authorized users. But, one hacker says
that the ease of breaking into a system reveals a lack of caring
on the part of the system manager to protect user and company assets,
or failure on the part of vendors to warn managers about the
vulnerabilities of their systems. He estimated his success rate
of getting in at 10-15%, and that is without spending more than an
hour on any one target system. Another hacker says that he sees
messages from vendors notifying the managers, but that the managers
fail to take action.
Richard Pethia of CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) reports
that they seldom see cases of malicious damage caused by hackers,
but that the break-ins are nevertheless disruptive because system
users and administrators want to be sure that nothing was damaged.
(CERT suggests that sites reload system software from secure backups
and change all user passwords in order to protect against possible
back doors and Trojan Horses that might have been planted by the
hacker. Pethia also noted that prosecutors are generally called
for government sites, and are being called for non-government sites
with increasing frequency.) Pethia says that break-ins also generate
a loss of trust in the computing environment, and may lead to adoption
of new policies that are formulated in a panic or management edicts
that severely restrict connectivity to outside systems. Brian Harvey
says that hackers cause damage by increasing the amount of paranoia,
which in turn leads to tighter security controls that diminish the
quality of life for the users. Hackers respond to these points by
saying they are the scapegoats for systems that are not adequately
protected. They say that the paranoia is generated by ill-founded
fears and media distortions (I will return to this point later),
and that security need not be oppressive to keep hackers out; it
is mainly making sure that passwords and system defaults are
Pethia says that some intruders seem to be disruptive to prove a
point, such as that the systems are vulnerable, the security personnel
are incompetent, or ``it's not nice to say bad things about hackers.''
In the N.Y. Times, John Markoff [Markoff90] wrote that the hacker
who claimed to have broken into Cliff Stoll's system said he was
upset by Stoll's portrayal of hackers in ``The Cuckoo's Egg''
[Stoll90]. Markoff reported that the caller said: ``He [Stoll]
was going on about how he hates all hackers, and he gave pretty much
of a one-sided view of who hackers are.''
``The Cuckoo's Egg'' captures much of the popular stereotypes of
hackers. Criminologist Jim Thomas criticizes it for presenting a
simplified view of the world, one where everything springs from the
forces of light (us) or of darkness (hackers) [Thomas90]. He claims
that Stoll fails to see the similarities between his own activities
(e.g., monitoring communications, ``borrowing'' monitors without
authorization, shutting off network access without warning, and lying
to get information he wants) and those of hackers. He points out
Stoll's use of pejorative words such as ``varmint'' to describe
hackers, and Stoll's quote of a colleague: ``They're technically
skilled but ethically bankrupt programmers without any respect for
others' work -- or privacy. They're not destroying one or two
programs. They're trying to wreck the cooperation that builds our
networks.'' [Stoll90, p. 159] Thomas writes ``at an intellectual
level, [Stoll] provides a persuasive, but simplistic, moral imagery
of the nature of right and wrong, and provides what -- to a lay reader
-- would seem a compelling justification for more statutes and severe
penalties against the computer underground. This is troublesome
for two reasons. First, it leads to a mentality of social control
by law enforcement during a social phase when some would argue we
are already over-controlled. Second, it invokes a punishment model
that assumes we can stamp out behaviors to which we object if only
we apprehend and convict a sufficient number of violators. ... There
is little evidence that punishment will in the long run reduce any
given offense, and the research of Gordon Meyer and I suggests that
criminalization may, in fact, contribute to the growth of the computer
6. Public Image and Treatment
Hackers express concern about their negative public image and
identity. As noted earlier, hackers are often portrayed as being
irresponsible and immoral. One hacker said that ``government
propaganda is spreading an image of our being at best, sub-human,
depraved, criminally inclined, morally corrupt, low life. We need
to prove that the activities that we are accused of (crashing systems,
interfering with life support equipment, robbing banks, and jamming
911 lines) are as morally abhorent to us as they are to the general
[ Top ]
The public identity of an individual or group is generated in part
by the actions of the group interacting with the standards of the
community observing those actions. What then accounts for the
difference between the hacker's public image and what they say about
themselves? One explanation may be the different standards. Outside
the hacking community, the simple act of breaking into systems is
regarded as unethical by many. The use of pejorative words like
``vandal'' and ``varmint'' reflect this discrepency in ethics. Even
the word ``criminal'' carries with it connotations of someone evil;
hackers say they are not criminal in this sense. Katie Hafner notes
that Robert Morris, who was convicted of launching the Internet worm,
was likened to a terrorist even though the worm did not destroy data
Distortions of events and references to potential threats also create
an image of persons who are dangerous. Regarding the 911 incident
where a hacker downloaded a file from Bell South, Goldstein reported
``Quickly, headlines screamed that hackers had broken into the 911
system and were interfering with emergency telephone calls to the
police. One newspaper report said there were no indications that
anyone had died or been injured as a result of the intrusions. What
a relief. Too bad it wasn't true.'' [Goldstein90] In fact, the
hackers involved with the 911 text file had not broken into the 911
system. The dollar losses attributed to hacking incidents also are
often highly inflated.
Thomas and Meyer [ThomasMeyer90] say that the rhetoric depicting
hackers as a dangerous evil contributes to a ``witch hunt'' mentality,
wherein a group is first labeled as dangerous, and then enforcement
agents are mobilized to exorcise the alleged social evil. They see
the current sweeps against hackers as part of a reaction to a broader
fear of change, rather than to the actual crimes committed.
Hackers say they are particularly concerned that computer security
professionals and system managers do not appear to understand hackers
or be interested in their concerns. Hackers say that system managers
treat them like enemies and criminals, rather than as potential helpers
in their task of making their systems secure. This may reflect
managers' fears about hackers, as well as their responsibilities
to protect the information on their systems. Stallman says that
the strangers he encounters using his account are more likely to
have a chip on their shoulder than in the past; he attributes this
to a harsh enforcer mentality adopted by the establishment. He says
that network system managers start out with too little trust and
a hostile attitude toward strangers that few of the strangers deserve.
One hacker said that system managers show a lack of openness to those
who want to learn.
Stallman also says that the laws make the hacker scared to communicate
with anyone even slightly ``official,'' because that person might
try to track the hacker down and have him or her arrested. Drake
raised the issue of whether the laws could differentiate between
malicious and nonmalicious hacking, in support of a ``kinder, gentler''
relationship between hackers and computer security people. In fact,
many states such as California initially passed computer crime laws
that excluded malicious hacking; it was only later that these laws
were amended to include nonmalicious actions [HollingerLanza-Kaduce88].
Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce speculate that these amendments and other
new laws were catalyzed mainly by media events, especially the reports
on the ``414 hackers'' and the movie ``War Games,'' which created
a perception of hacking as extremely dangerous, even if that perception
was not based on facts.
Hackers say they want to help system managers make their systems
more secure. They would like managers to recognize and use their
knowledge about design flaws and the outsider threat problem.
Landreth [Landreth89] suggests ways in which system managers can
approach hackers in order to turn them into colleagues, and Goodfellow
also suggests befriending hackers [Goodfellow83]. John Draper (Cap'n
Crunch) says it would help if system managers and the operators of
phone companies and switches could coopererate in tracing a hacker
without bringing in law enforcement authorities.
Drake suggests giving hackers free access in exchange for helping
with security, a suggestion that I also heard from several hackers.
Drake says that the current attitude of treating hackers as enemies
is not very conducive to a solution, and by belittling them, we only
cause ourselves problems.
I asked some of the hackers whether they'd be interested in breaking
into systems if the rules of the ``game'' were changed so that instead
of being threatened by prosecution, they were invited to leave a
``calling card'' giving their name, phone number, and method of
breaking in. In exchange, they would get recognition and points
for each vulnerability they discovered. Most were interested in
playing; one hacker said he would prefer monetary reward since he
was supporting himself. Any system manager interested in trying
this out could post a welcome message inviting hackers to leave their
cards. This approach could have the advantage of not only letting
the hackers contribute to the security of the system, but of allowing
the managers to quickly recognize the potentially malicious hackers,
since they are unlikely to leave their cards. Perhaps if hackers
are given the opportunity to make contributions outside the
underground, this will dampen their desire to pursue illegal activities.
Several hackers said that they would like to be able to pursue their
activities legally and for income. They like breaking into systems,
doing research on computer security, and figuring out how to protect
against vulnerabilities. They say they would like to be in a position
where they have permission to hack systems. Goodfellow suggests
hiring hackers to work on tiger teams that are commissioned to locate
vulnerabilities in systems through penetration testing. Baird
Info-Systems Safeguards, Inc., a security consulting firm, reports
that they have employed hackers on several assignments [Baird87].
They say the hackers did not violate their trust or the trust of
their clients, and performed in an outstanding manner. Baird believes
that system vulnerabilities can be better identified by employing
people who have exploited systems.
One hacker suggested setting up a clearinghouse that would match
hackers with companies that could use their expertise, while
maintaining anonymity of the hackers and ensuring confidentiality
of all records. Another hacker, in describing an incident where
he discovered a privileged account without a password, said ``What
I (and others) wish for is a way that hackers can give information
like this to a responsible source, AND HAVE HACKERS GIVEN CREDIT
FOR HELPING! As it is, if someone told them that `I'm a hacker, and
I REALLY think you should know...' they would freak out, and run
screaming to the SS [Secret Service] or the FBI. Eventually, the
person who found it would be caught, and hauled away on some crazy
charge. If they could only just ACCEPT that the hacker was trying
to help!'' The clearinghouse could also provide this type of service.
Hackers are also interested in security policy issues. Drake expressed
concern over how we handle information about computer security
vulnerabilities. He argues that it is better to make this information
public than cover it up and pretend that it does not exist, and cites
the CERT to illustrate how this approach can be workable. Other
hackers, however, argue for restricting initial dissemination of
flaws to customers and users. Drake also expressed concern about
the role of the government, particularly the military, in
cryptography. He argues that NSA's opinion on a cryptographic standard
should be taken with a large grain of salt because of their code
Some security specialists are opposed to hiring hackers for security
work, and Eugene Spafford has urged people not to do business with
any company that hires a convicted hacker to work in the security
area [ACM90]. He says that ``This is like having a known arsonist
install a fire alarm.'' But, the laws are such that a person can
be convicted for having done nothing other than break into a system;
no serious damage (i.e., no ``computer arson'') is necessary. Many
of our colleagues admit to having broken into systems in the past,
e.g., Geoff Goodfellow [Goodfellow83] and Brian Reid [Frenkel87];
Reid is quoted as saying that because of the knowledge he gained
breaking into systems as a kid, he was frequently called in to help
catch people who break in. Spafford says that times have changed,
and that this method of entering the field is no longer socially
acceptable, and fails to provide adequate training in computer science
and computer engineering [Spafford89]. However, from what I have
observed, many hackers do have considerable knowledge about
telecommunications, data security, operating systems, programming
languages, networks, and cryptography. But, I am not challenging
a policy to hire competent people of sound character. Rather, I am
challenging a strict policy that uses economic pressure to close
a field of activity to all persons convicted of breaking into
systems. It is enough that a company is responsible for the behavior
of its employees. Each hacker can be considered for employment based
on his or her own competency and character.
Some people have called for stricter penalties for hackers, including
prison terms, in order to send a strong deterrent message to hackers.
John Draper, who was incarcerated for his activities in the 1970's,
argues that in practice this will only make the problem worse. He
told me that he was forced under threat to teach other inmates his
knowledge of communications systems. He believes that prison sentences
will serve only to spread hacker's knowledge to career criminals.
He said he was never approached by criminals outside the prison,
but that inside the prison they had control over him.
One hacker said that by clamping down on the hobbyist underground,
we will only be left with the criminal underground. He said that
without hackers to uncover system vulnerabilities, the holes will
be left undiscovered, to be utilized by those likely to cause real
Goldstein argues that the existing penalties are already way out
of proportion to the acts committed, and that the reason is because
of computers [Goldstein89]. He says that if Kevin Mitnick had
committed crimes similar to those he committed but without a computer,
he would have been classified as a mischief maker and maybe fined
$100 for trespassing; instead, he was put in jail without bail
[Goldstein89]. Craig Neidorf, a publisher and editor of the electronic
newsletter ``Phrack,'' faces up to 31 years and a fine of $122,000
for receiving, editing, and transmitting the downloaded text file
on the 911 system [Goldstein90].
7. Privacy and the First and Fourth Amendments
The hackers I spoke with advocated privacy protection for sensitive
information about individuals. They said they are not interested
in invading people's privacy, and that they limited their hacking
activities to acquiring information about computer systems or how
to break into them. There are, of course, hackers who break into
systems such as the TRW credit database. Emanuel Goldstein argues
that such invasions of privacy took place before the hacker arrived
[Harpers90]. Referring to credit reports, government files, motor
vehicle records, and the ``megabytes of data piling up about each
of us,'' he says that thousands of people legally can see and use
this data, much of it erroneous. He claims that the public has been
misinformed about the databases, and that hackers have become
scapegoats for the holes in the systems. One hacker questioned the
practice of storing sensitive personal information on open systems
with dial-up access, the accrual of the information, the methods
used to acquire it, and the purposes to which it is put. Another
hacker questioned the inclusion of religion and race in credit records.
[ Top ]
Drake told me that he was concerned about the increasing amount of
information about individuals that is stored in large data banks,
and the inability of the individual to have much control over the
use of that information. He suggests that the individual might be
co-owner of information collected about him or her, with control
over the use of that information. He also says that an individual
should be free to withhold personal information, of course paying
the consequences of doing so (e.g., not getting a drivers license
or credit card). (In fact, all Federal Government forms are required
to contain a Privacy Act Statement that states how the information
being collected will be used and, in some cases, giving the option
of withholding the information.)
Goldstein has also challenged the practices of law enforcement agencies
in their attempt to crack down on hackers [Goldstein90]. He said
that all incoming and outgoing electronic mail used by ``Phrack''
was monitored before the newsletter was shutdown by authorities.
``Had a printed magazine been shut down in this fashion after having
all of their mail opened and read, even the most thick-headed
sensationalist media types would have caught on: hey, isn't that
a violation of the First Amendment?'' He also cites the shutdown
of several bulletin boards as part of Operation Sun Devil, and quotes
the administrator of the bulletin board Zygot as saying ``Should
I start reading my users' mail to make sure they aren't saying anything
naughty? Should I snoop through all the files to make sure everyone
is being good? This whole affair is rather chilling.'' The
administrator for the public system The Point wrote ``Today, there
is no law or precedent which affords me ... the same legal rights
that other common carriers have against prosecution should some other
party (you) use my property (The Point) for illegal activities.
That worries me ...''
About 40 personal computer systems and 23,000 data disks were seized
under Operation Sun Devil, a two-year investigation involving the
FBI, Secret Service, and other federal and local law enforcement
officials. In addition, the Secret Service acknowledges that its
agents, acting as legitimate users, had secretly monitored computer
bulletin boards [Markoff90a]. Markoff reports that California
Representative Don Edwards, industry leader Mitchell Kapor, and civil
liberties advocates are alarmed by these government actions, saying
that they challenge freedom of speech under the First Amendment and
protection against searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.
Markoff asks: ``Will fear of hackers bring oppression?''
John Barlow writes ``The Secret Service may actually have done a
service for those of us who love liberty. They have provided us
with a devil. And devils, among their other galvanizing virtues,
are just great for clarifying the issues and putting iron in your
spine.'' [Barlow90] Some of the questions that Barlow says need
to be addressed include ``What are data and what is free speech?
How does one treat property which has no physical form and can be
infinitely reproduced? Is a computer the same as a printing press?''
Barlow urges those of us who understand the technology to address
these questions, lest the answers be given to us by law makers and
law enforcers who do not. Barlow and Kapor are constituting the
Computer Liberty Foundation to ``raise and disburse funds for
education, lobbying, and litigation in the areas relating to digital
speech and the extension of the Constitution into Cyberspace.''
Hackers say that it is our social responsibility to share information,
and that it is information hoarding and disinformation that are the
crimes. This ethic of resource and information sharing contrasts
sharply with computer security policies that are based on authorization
and ``need to know.'' This discrepancy raises an interesting question:
Does the hacker ethic reflects a growing force in society that stands
for greater sharing of resources and information -- a reaffirmation
of basic values in our constitution and laws? It is important that
we examine the differences between the standards of hackers, systems
managers, users, and the public. These differences may represent
breakdowns in current practices, and may present new opportunities
to design better policies and mechanisms for making computer resources
and information more widely available.
[ Top ]
The sentiment for greater information sharing is not restricted to
hackers. In the best seller ``Thriving on Chaos,'' Tom Peters
[Peters87] writes about sharing within organizations: ``Information
hoarding, especially by politically motivated, power-seeking staffs,
has been commonplace throughout American industry, service and
manufacturing alike. It will be an impossible millstone around the
neck of tomorrow's organizations. Sharing is a must.'' Peters argues
that information flow and sharing is fundamental to innovation and
competetiveness. On a broader scale, Peter Drucker [Drucker89] says
that the ``control of information by government is no longer possible.
Indeed, information is now transnational. Like money, it has no
Nor is the sentiment restricted to people outside the computer security
field. Harry DeMaio [DeMaio89] says that our natural urge is to
share information, and that we are suspicious of organizations and
individuals who are secretive. He says that information is exchanged
out of ``want to know'' and mutual accommodation rather than ``need
to know.'' If this is so, then some of our security policies are
out of step with the way people work. Peter Denning [DenningP89]
says that information sharing will be widespread in the emerging
worldwide networks of computers and that we need to focus on ``immune
systems'' that protect against mistakes in our designs and recover
I began my investigation of hackers with the question: who are they
and what is their culture and discourse? My investigation uncovered
some of their concerns, which provided the organizational structure
to this paper, and several suggestions for new actions that might
be taken. My investigation also opened up a broader question: What
are the clashing discourses that the hackers stand at the battle
lines of? Is it owning or restricting information vs. sharing
information -- a tension between an age-old tradition of controlling
information as property and the Englightenment tradition of sharing
and disseminating information? Is it controlling access based on
``need to know,'' as determined by the information provider, vs.
``want to know,'' as determined by the person desiring access?
Is it law enforcement vs. freedoms granted under the First and Fourth
Amendments? The answers to these questions, as well as those raised
by Barlow on the nature of information and free speech, are important
because they tell us whether our policies and practices serve us
as well as they might. The issue is not simply hackers vs. system
managers or law enforcers; it is a much larger question about values
and practices in an information society.
I am deeply grateful to Peter Denning, Frank Drake, Nathan Estey,
Katie Hafner, Brian Harvey, Steve Lipner, Teresa Lunt, Larry Martin,
Gordon Meyer, Donn Parker, Morgan Schweers, Richard Stallman, and
Alex for their comments on earlier versions of this paper and helpful
discussions; to Richard Stallman for putting me in contact with
hackers; John Draper, Geoff Goodfellow, Brian Reid, Eugene Spafford,
and the hackers for helpful discussions; and Richard Pethia for a
summary of some of his experiences at CERT. The opinions expressed
here, however, are my own and do not necessarily represent those
of the people mentioned above or of Digital Equipment Corporation.
[ Top ]
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