The Computer Underground. The beginning of the electronic communication revolution that started with the public use of telephones to the emergence of home computers has been accompanied by corresponding social problems involving the activities of so-called “computer hackers,” or better referred to as the computer underground (CU). The CU is composed of computer aficionados who stay on the fringes of legality. The CU is composed of relatively intelligent people, in contrast to the media’s description of the ultra intelligent and sophisticated teenage “hacker.” The majority have in common the belief that information should be free and that they have “a right to know.” They often have some amount of dislike for the government and the industries who try to control and commercialize information of any sort. This paper attempts to expose what the CU truly is and dispel some of the myths propagated by the media and other organizations. This paper also tries to show the processes and reasons behind the criminalization of the CU and how the CU is viewed by different organizations, as well as some of the processes by which it came into being.
What the CU is has been addressed by the media, criminologists, secuity firms, and the CU themselves, they all have a different understanding or levels of comprehention, this paper attempts to show the differences between the views as well as attempt to correct misunderstandings that may have been propagated by misinformed sources. The differences between the parties of the CU such as, “hackers,” “crackers,” “phreaks,” “pirates,” and virus writers have rarely been recognized and some deny that there are differences thus this paper attempts to give a somewhat clearer view and define exactly what each party is and does as well as how they relate to one another. Every individual in the CU has a different level of sophistication when it comes to computers, from the height of the advanced virus writer and network hacker to the pirate who can be at the same level as a novice computer user. The prevalence of the problem has been dramatized by the media and enforcement agents, and evidenced by the rise of specialized private security firms to confront the “hackers.” The average person’s knowledge about the CU has been derived mostly from the media. The media gets their information from former CU individuals who have been caught, from law enforcement agents, and from computer security specialists.
The computer underground, as it is called by those who participate in it, is composed of people adhering to one or several roles: “hacker,” “phreaker,” “pirate,” “cracker,” and computer virus developer. Terms such as these have different meanings for those who have written about the computer underground, such as the media, and those who participate in it. The media’s concept of the Computer Underground is the main cause of the criminalization of the activity and has largely occurred as the result of media dramatization of the “problem” (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988). In fact, it was a collection of newspaper and film clips that was presented to the United States Congress during legislative debates as evidence of the computer hacking problem (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988, p.107). Unfortunately, the media assessment of the computer underground displays a naive understanding of CU activity. The media generally makes little distinction between different types of CU activity.
Most any computer- related crime activity can be attributed to “hackers.” Everything from embezzlement to computer viruses have, at one time or another, been attributed to them. Additionally, hackers are often described as being sociopathic or malicious, creating a media image of the computer underground that may exaggerate their ability for doing damage. The labeling of the CU and especially hackers as being “evil” is well illustrated by these media examples. The first is from Eddie Schwartz, a WGN-Radio talk show host. Here Schwartz is addressing “Anna,” a self-identified hacker that has phoned into the show: You know what Anna, you know what disturbs me? You don’t sound like a stupid person but you represent a .
. . a . . .
a . . . lack of morality that disturbs me greatly. You really do. I think you represent a certain way of thinking that is morally bankrupt.
And I’m not trying to offend you, but I . . .I’m offended by you! (WGN Radio, 1988) Another example is from NBC-TV’s “Hour Magazine” featured a segment on “computer crime.” In this example, Jay Bloombecker, director of the National Center for Computer Crime Data, discusses the “hacker problem” with the host of the show, Gary Collins. Collins: . . .
are they (hackers) malicious in intent, or are they simply out to prove, ah, a certain machismo amongst their peers? Bloombecker: I think so. I’ve talked about “modem macho” as one explanation for what’s being done. And a lot of the cases seem to involve proving that he . . . can do something really spiffy with computers. But, some of the cases are so evil, like causing so many computers to break, they can’t look at that as just trying to prove that you’re better than other people.
GC: So that’s just some of it, some kind of “bet” against the computer industry, or against the company. JB: No, I think it’s more than just rottenness. And like someone who uses graffiti doesn’t care too much whose building it is, they just want to be destructive. GC: You’re talking about a sociopath in control of a computer! JB: Ah, lots of computers, because there’s thousands, or tens of thousands of hackers. (NBC-TV, 1988) The media’s obsession with the computer underground, that is generally labeled as hacking, focuses almost entirely upon the morality of their actions.
Since media stories are taken from the accounts of the police, security personnel, and members of the computer underground who have been caught, each of whom have different perspectives and 20 definitions of their own, the media’s definition, if not inherently biased, is at best inconsistent. Criminologists, are less judgmental than the media, but no more precise. Labels of “electronic trespassers”(Parker, 1983), and “electronic vandals” (Bequai, 1987) have both been applied to the CU’s hacking element specifically. Both terms, while acknowledging that “hacking” is deviant, shy away from labeling it as “criminal” or sociopathic behavior. Yet despite this seemingly non-judgmental approach to the computer underground, both Parker and Bequai have testified before Congress, on behalf of the computer security industry, on the “danger” of computer hackers. Unfortunately, their “expert” testimony was largely based on information culled from newspaper stories, the objectiveness of which has been seriously questioned (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce 1988 p.105).
Computer security specialists, on the other hand, are often quick to identify the CU as criminals. Similarly, some reject the notion that there are different roles and motivations among the computer underground participants and thereby refuse to define just what it is that a “hacker” or “phreaker” does. John Maxfield, a “hacker expert,” suggests that differentiating between “hackers” and “phone phreaks” is a moot point, preferring instead that they all just be called “criminals.” The reluctance or inability to differentiate between roles and activities in the computer underground, as exhibited in the media and computer security firms, creates an ambiguous definition of “hacker” that possesses two extremes: the modern-day bank robber at one end, the trespassing teenager at the other. Thus, most any criminal or mischievous act that involves computers can be attributed to “hackers,” regardless of the nature of the crime. Participants in the computer underground also object the overuse and misuse of the word hacking. Their objection centers around the indiscriminate use of the word to refer to computer related crime in general and not, specifically, the activities of the computer underground: Whenever the slightest little thing happens involving computer security, or the breach thereof, the media goes fucking batshit and points all their fingers at us ‘nasty hackers.’ They’re so damned ignorant it’s sick (EN, message log, 1988). . .
. whenever the media happens upon anything that involves malicious computer use it’s the “HACKERS.” The word is a catch phrase it makes mom drop the dishes and watch the TV. They use the word because not only they don’t really know the meaning but they have lack of a word to describe the perpetrator. That’s why hacker has such a bad name, its always associated with evil things and such (PA, message log, 1988). I never seen a phreaker called a phreaker when caught and he’s printed in the newspaper.
You always see them “Hacker caught in telephone fraud.” “Hacker defrauds old man with phone calling card.” What someone should do is tell the fucken media to get it straight (TP2, message log, 1988). The difference between the different elements of the computer underground has been generally obscured by the media. Terms such as Cracker, Phreaker, Pirate, or Virus writer have been generally replaced with the all encompassing word “HACKER”. Each element is associated with the computer underground and some are bigger players than others but none of them can qualify individually as the total sum of all the elements. There are major differences between the elements of the CU that is rarely understood by someone on the outside. The use of the word “hacker”, which is now generally accepted to be part of the CU, has gone through drastic changes in definition. “Hacker” was first applied to computer related activities when it was used by programmers in the late 1950’s.
At that time it referred to the pioneering researchers, such as those at M.I.T., who were constantly adjusting and experimenting with the new technology (Levy, 1984. p.7). A “hacker” in this context refers to an unorthodox, yet talented, professional programmer. This use of the term still exits today, though it is largely limited to professional computing circles. The computer professionals maintain that using “hackers” (or “hacking”) to refer to any illegal or illicit activity is a corruption of the “true” meaning of the word.
Bob Bickford, a professional programmer who has organized several programmer conferences, explains: At a conference called “Hackers 4.0” we had 200 of the most brilliant computer professionals in the world together for one weekend; this crowd included several PhD’s, several presidents of companies (including large companies, such as Pixar), and various artists, writers, engineers, and programmers. These people all consider themselves Hackers: all derive great joy from their work, from finding ways around problems and limits, from creating rather than destroying. It would be a great disservice to these people, and the thousands of professionals like them, to let some pathetic teenaged criminals destroy the one word which captures their style of interaction with the universe. (Bickford, 1988). The more widely accepted definition of “hacker” refers to one who obtains unauthorized, if not illegal, access to computer systems and networks. This definition was popularized by the movie War Games and, generally speaking, is the one used by the media. It is also the definition favored by the computer underground.
Both the members of the computer underground and professional computer programmers claim ownership of “hacker,” and each defend the “proper” use of term. However, since computer break-ins are likely to receive more media attention than clever feats of programming, the CU definition is likely to dominate simply by being used more often. A “computer hacker” could be defined as an individual, associated with the computer underground, who specializes in obtaining unauthorize access to computer systems. “Hacking” refers to gaining access and exploring computer systems and networks. “Hacking” encompasses both the act and the methods used to obtain valid user accounts on computer systems.
“Hacking” also refers to the activity that occurs once access to another computer has been obtained. Since the system is being used without authorization, the hacker does not, generally speaking, have access to the usual operating manuals and other resources that are available to legitimate users. Therefore, the hacker must experiment with commands and explore various files in order to understand and effectively use the system. The goal here is to explore and experiment with the system that has been entered. By examining files and, perhaps, by a little clever programming, the hacker may be able to obtain protected information or more powerful access privileges.
Once a hacker has managed to gain access to a computer system he will generally try make sure that his activities are hidden so that he can keep access on the system. This is the difference between hacker and cracker. Unlike the hacker a cracker is only really interested in “cracking” the machine/system and once the feat is accomplished he is generally disinterested and leaves, he could be called the tourist of the hacking element. (Bill Landreth, Outside the Inner Circle) Another role in the computer underground is that of the “phone phreak.” Phone phreaking, usually called just “phreaking,” was widely publicized when the exploits of John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper, the “father of phreaking,” w …