Zen and the Art of Hacking  by Richard Theime


Don't call them hackers, call them Homo sapiens hackii-- human beings who are "back-engineered" by their symbiotic relationship with computer networks to frame reality in ways shaped by that interaction. They're not a new species, but they're a new variety, and just like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they're everywhere. But how can separate the real thing from the pretenders?

Looks, jargon and hard-guy handles are too easy to imitate. Besides, real hackers blend in well with their surroundings--that's the point of social engineering, after all--and hide in large corporations, high-tech start-ups and IT departments, and in intelligence, security and law enforcement.

Some don't even use computers very much.

"I couldn't hack my way out of a wet paper bag," confesses William Knowles, who hangs out on a hacker listserv. "But information hacking, social engineering, dumpster diving, yes--and I'm a terror on the telephone. I am the gatekeeper's worst nightmare!"

"It comes down to a common quest for knowledge," Knowles says. "Why does it do what it does? Who, what, where, when, why, how?"

Hackers are distinguished by their hunger for knowledge. They long to see things whole and yearn to know how things work. Their power derives from the critical knowledge that leverages other knowledge, their enthusiasm from an adrenaline rush that comes when they finally make that connection, solve that puzzle.

When the door against which you've been banging your head suddenly dissolves and you slip effortlessly to the next level--that's the joy of hacking. But the game isn't Doom or Quake, the game is life, and the playing field is the infinity of the wired world that your mind explores in the night like a stealth fighter.

Some hackers have been wired since early childhood; they see the world in the image of networks.

When you learn as a child how to creep unnoticed into root under cover of darkness, or hide in a sniffer that's a surrogate self so you can steal the secrets of the rich and powerful or observe the hidden life of corporations and governments, learn how it really is behind the fictions by which men live, then steal away at dawn leaving not so much as a single track in the melting snows of cyberspace--then you know what hacking means.

Hackers are men and women who go where they must go to learn what they must learn.

Often portrayed as rebellious heretics, hackers are in fact faithful followers of three gods:

  • Odin, who hung cold and alone in a windswept tree for nine long days and nights, sleepless and single-hearted, in order to seize the knowledge of the Runes. The Runes were symbols of what the Greeks called logos, the creative power of the Word, the magic of consciousness acting on inanimate matter and making it plastic.
  • The trickster Coyote, who some call Pan, his wry humor a grin in the shadows, his appetites and passions a firestorm of Dionysian ardor.
  • Jesus the man, the earthy Jew, a real mensch rather than a dreamy- eyed Nordic nanny-of-the-planet, who refused to knuckle under to convention or the suffocating constraints of the lowest common denominator of the crowd.


  Lighten Up

Hackers have a sense of humor.

Dr. Bergan Evans, an English professor at Northwestern University, spoke with a chuckle in the early '60s of a social worker's excessive worry about "juvenile delinquents" stealing cars. He recalled how he and his boyhood chums stole away in the night to loose the horses from a neighbor's corral.

"It wasn't called delinquency in my day," he said. "It was called 'boys will be boys.'"

We discover in the process of living life with gusto the boundaries we had better not cross, then learn how to set limits from within. The risks must be real or the rewards aren't real.

"The callbacks started to terrify me," admits Attitude Adjuster of his early days of phreaking. "I have a healthy fear of being busted. Thankfully, I didn't get busted, and I came out the better for it."

So let's lighten up. Hackers are not just whacked-out loners in darkened bedrooms, cackling like Beavis and Butt-head as they break into your bank account. Hackers at their best are trekkers who hike the peaks and valleys of the virtual world. The infrastructure of the world is a puzzle invented to test their mettle. They fail into failure again and again before failing into success: The non-pattern of chaotic data suddenly coalesces, the dots connect and anxiety vanishes.

You see how it works! Bingo! You understand how it all hangs together.

This is not the malevolent caricature invented by the media to feed the fearful projections of those who don't know. This is humanity at its best.

So if my description evokes judgment, a desire to chastise these high spirits like a stern schoolmaster, beat down that restless intelligence and control them, get them back into the box--then quit reading right now and turn the page.

But if you know what I'm talking about--if you have ever bent your back too long under a low ceiling defined by the rigidly righteous and finally had to stand up, your head crashing through plaster into thin air-- then read on. This is a partial glimpse through the eyes of some of the best and the brightest of the promise and possibilities of the wired world.


  Living by a Vision

Technically, it's called "living proleptically"--when a new possibility breaks into the present with such compelling power that we have no choice but to live out of that vision as if it's real. We adopt a new point of reference, and by living as if it has already happened, we make it real.

Hang out with hackers and you'll find yourself moving toward their way of framing reality. That's how we know that the tao--the way things are flowing--is moving in that direction.

Example: A teacher I know was supposed to teach her fourth graders how to use computers but she didn't know how. She made a secret pact with her three brightest students to meet her after school to teach her computing so she could teach the other students computing.

Of course many hackers are bored with school! They haven't the patience to wait while the teachers catch up. They don't want information delivered at the plodding pace of a curriculum through a command-and-control structure. They want to get out there on the wires and get it themselves.

"The administrator that I work for at school," says Attitude Adjuster, "lets me hack the system all I want. He doesn't interfere because he doesn't know what I'm doing. Sometimes he asks me, 'What should I do next?' I can't believe what I'm hearing. I want to say, 'You mean you haven't figured that out yet from the logical progression of things?' I used to try to tell him what to do next and he would ask, 'Why?' I stopped answering because any answer I gave him, he couldn't understand. He could never see the Big Picture so the details never connected in a way that made sense."

Se7en, a noted hacker, says, "There were a lot of great discoveries through the years, but the greatest was how I grew in knowledge in my own eyes. The giant telephone company and many of the all-knowing corporations really had very little clue as to what they were doing. The all-powerful government--starting wars, controlling your life--did not have a clue as to what a computer is or what it can do."

A hacker and phreaker from the age of 11, Se7en recently came up from the underground, looking for a little light and air. He now lectures engineers in the intelligence community on the psychology of hacking-- how to tell from the tracks if an intruder is a trophy-hunting kid or an intelligence agent looking for proprietary data.

"The realization that all of these people that as a kid you're told to respect and fear--in a lot of ways you're a lot smarter than many of these people...You find out there's nothing special about these people. Here you are, some little 15- or 16-year old kid, you can do things that the phone company can't even do or the government can't even do."


  Living As If the New World is Already Here

For some, that vision begins with a blinding light; for others it just happens to happen.

"My first computer was a Commodore 64," says DIALTONE_, who works for a high-tech Canadian company. "I started with games, but they bored me, so I started looking into the works of the computer. It fascinated the hell out of me!" After getting his first modem and being turned on to hacking by the sysop of a BBS, he hacked into his first computer.

"As I was exploring. I had this feeling of...it was a feeling you can't explain, anxiety to get ahold and see everything I could. Sure, I was scared at first, but that disappeared as I discovered what was in this machine."

Modify remembers it similarly.

"My first real hack was into the system of a nuclear engineering company. I took the unshadowed password file, then went back to take a look at the system itself...Wow, was it great! You're torn between two emotions. One is, what if I screw up and leave my muddy footprints all over the computer? The other is, what does this thing do? What information does it hold? You are 'God' over that machine."

For Attitude Adjuster, his interest developed more gradually through conversations with kindred spirits.

"More than anything else, it was something I talked about with other kids who used public computers in the library. We'd sit around and speculate about other systems, huddle around the single Unix reference the library owned."


  The Machinery is Always On

Hackers are need-to-know machines, obsessively searching for a way to scratch that itch and gain momentary peace before it flares up again.

The popular perception of hackers as malicious warez kiddies downloading someone else's code draws contempt from hackers who earn their knowledge with sleepless nights and relentless exploration.

Use someone else's scripts to do something malicious or damage someone's system?

"That's not hacking," says Yobie Benjamin, a respected emerging technologies consultant. Benjamin has worked with Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Boeing, Hewlett Packard and many others on prototyping, project development and product design. He knows that many respectable names in high-tech commerce earned their stripes as hackers.

"Sure, we all did some of that when we were kids first starting out. Maybe that's all you know how to do when you begin. But what moves me is, what's out there? Hacking for me is more than a quest, it's the quest--the quest for knowledge."

Listen to Modify: "When I went on to learn advanced programming languages, I would sit in a bookstore until closing time and just read up on all types of stuff--circuits, DNS, TCP/IP, firewalls, Unix, Java--I have tons of books all over the house and that's pretty much how I got into hacking, feeding my head with knowledge from books and classes in schools."

Dark Tangent, the highly respected founder of DefCon, the annual summer convention for computer hackers, security specialists, intelligence personnel, journalists and IT professionals, reflects on what distinguishes the best hackers. "The defining characteristic is they see the Big Picture," he says. "They have incredible amounts of knowledge and have gone into things at incredibly deep levels. There is such an immense base of knowledge about competing technologies, so if you can see the Big Picture...there's often a defining moment when you see the whole thing come together.

"Everyone specializes so much," Dark Tangent continues, "that it's important to know people in all the different areas. You have to know what you don't need to know and you have to know who you can call when you need to know it."

That doesn't sound like a loner who can't talk face-to-face with another human being, does it?

"You need to surround yourself with intelligent people," Dark Tangent adds. "You don't need to be a social genius, but it's a lot more fun if you are. You can make it just trading tokens of knowledge, the currency of hacking and advance through 'remote learning.' But the Network is not just computers, it's knowledgeable people connected by computers."


  Do the Homework

Hackers have little patience with people who want to be spoon-fed hard-earned knowledge and won't do the homework. A sure way to invite flames is to ask on a listserv, "Can someone please tell me how to hack Windows NT?"

Most "hacking sites" are dismissed as lists of links to other links, although, according to Se7en, "There are some good things out there-- but you have to know where to look."

Se7en, like most of the hackers I spoke with, connected with a mentor at a critical moment in his career. That mentor taught him how to look through trash for hours to find the few significant items that would let him gain entry to the telephone system; more importantly, his mentor taught him by example how to mentor.

"I tell people to learn the way I learn," Se7en says. "Read, read, read, learn, learn, learn. Do everything you can to answer your own questions first. Get good books on Unix or Windows NT security or TCP/IP, then come to me with the questions you can't answer."

By being available to provide information at the right moment to enable a learner to leverage what he already knows, Se7en defines the ideal coach.

"That's why I surround myself with intelligent people," Dark Tangent says. "My friends all know things I don't. I never answer e-mail that says 'teach me, teach me.' The knowledge is out there for anyone who is committed. Give the word 'hack' to a search engine and start plowing through the thousands of hits you get."

Modify remembers staying up all night coding text games and debugging others' programs, learning by doing. One of his early connections was Ruff-Neck, who told him, "Learn as much as you can and don't think of problems as problems. Think of them more as challenges."

DIALTONE_ adds, "I'm not unwilling to help others, but I'm not going to teach a kid to hack. There's no future in it and often someone who is just starting is focused entirely on 'illegal hacking' and will end up getting busted."

He gives the example of a student at the high school where he works. Lots of people want to "run the Network," he says, but "she's the only one willing to do what it takes to learn about it. She started asking specific, pointed questions about networking. That earned her my undivided attention and assistance in learning."

A hacker named Artimage says, "Many people complain that older hackers won't teach them anything or answer questions. First, these people taught themselves, no one gave them the information. Second, if you have researched your question to the best of your abilities beforehand, and it is a specific question, it will most often be answered. "Hackers teach themselves. That's the whole point...If you want to crack into systems, you can have someone show you how, but to be a hacker means that you explore the system on your own..."

And finally, listen to Rogue Agent set someone straight on a listserv. "You want to create hackers? Don't tell them how to do this or that. Show them how to discover it for themselves. Those who have the innate drive will get the point and find tutorials written by experts or dive in and learn by trial and error. Those who don't will fall by the wayside, staying comfortable within the bounds of their safe little lives."


  The Journey Becomes a Quest

With power comes responsibility.

I was talking with Dead Addict about the adrenaline rush that comes when you discover valuable information and are tempted to use it. "That's the trouble with being God," he said. "You can look but you can't touch."

Maybe that's what Dark Tangent means when he speaks of keeping your balance and "managing your ego," which he does by hanging out with smart friends. That keeps the limits of his own knowledge in perspective.

Perspective is needed as you move down the hacker's path. You discover that the fact of hacking makes a commitment for you to pierce the veil of illusion and discover the truth. That can be lonely. It gets cold out there, hanging night after night in a windswept tree.

"Your perspective changes as a result of learning how things really work," Dark Tangent observes. "I have had to recognize that my perception of reality is fundamentally different than that of people who don't want to know how it really is. You can come off sounding cynical, but it isn't cynicism, really, it's just that you have had experiences they haven't and that deeper reality becomes your point of departure and your point of reference."

That's why hackers necessarily build a community founded on camaraderie, mutual respect, and enough trust to get the job done balanced by a healthy dose of paranoia. That community is regulated by an informal system of norms and shared values, a code derived from experience. Like all codes, the Hackers' Code is a plumb line enabling hackers to "true themselves up" when they get off track.

"The ethic is there--it really is," insists Attitude Adjuster. "There will always be malicious kids who don't understand, and maybe all of us were there at one time, but evolution will single them out. They'll either get busted or close enough to being busted (like I was) to get scared back onto the right path."

DIALTONE_ and his cohorts in =x9= drew up a code of ethics that reveals why the world of hacking can look so different inside than from outside. The Code is proscriptive (don't do it) about intentional damage to others' systems but pragmatic as to how to protect yourself when crossing the borders that must be crossed to hack in the first place.

The contextual shift through which our culture is moving is immense. Hackers live in the gray areas that must exist as we redefine ourselves. Many began hacking when there was nothing illegal about cracking games, copying an article or singing camp songs without a permit. Intellectual property rights? International traffic in digital goods? The ownership of a link?

"How clearly are these boundaries defined?" laughs Tim Muth, an attorney who specializes in cyberlaw. "Come back in five years when we've had some cases. I'll tell you then."


  The Spirit of Hacking

Hackers refuse to be defined by conventional wisdom, conventional behavior. In the '60s the hackers at MIT became known for a spirit of exploration as the virtual world became an emergent reality on mainframes. Then the media skewed the image of hackers toward the criminal misfit and forced the distinction between hackers and crackers, those who use hacking skills to cause damage or steal secrets. Hackers are fighting a battle they may have already lost to save their name.

If the best hackers are not hanging porno on government Web sites, what are they doing? Where is the "redeeming social value" in all this?

First, many who make their living in computer security, military and civilian intelligence and law enforcement learned their craft as hackers or hire hackers.

Secondly, hackers provide value for the computer industry by identifying bugs and security holes. Many software companies count on hackers to work free to locate holes in their applications. What else is a beta version? Why else do manufacturers of firewalls offer cash to penetrate their systems?

Yobie Benjamin, working with cohorts from the l0pht and the DoC group, discovered several serious holes in Windows NT 4.0, not the least of which was the ability to steal passwords in an entire NT domain and capture all the traffic in an NT Network.

Unlike criminals intent on exploiting these flaws, their exploits were shared with Microsoft and the public.

"The only thing the public knows about hackers is how they defaced some Web page or crashed a server," Modify says. "They never hear about the hacker that e-mails an administrator about the holes in his security or fixes security breaches for a system administrator."

Third, hackers engage in wide-ranging projects that have great promise for future applications. Benjamin identifies the essence of hacking as trailblazing.

"Take the challenge of parallel processing," he says. "Every day, there are thousands of computers sitting idle while projects that could use their power or schools that don't have access to networks sit idly by. We're exploring ways to link those computers, align that processor power for parallel processing."

Benjamin is also fascinated by applying the command-and-control model to the current multiplicity of digital interfaces to assist the convergence of electronic appliances and software applications into a single networked entity.

"I took apart one of my remotes, rewired it and plugged it into a parallel port so I could program my VCR over the Internet.

"Now, why," he continues, "shouldn't all of the arbitrary devices that constitute digital interfaces be linked in the same way? Why not develop an application for power companies, for example, as they bundle products in a deregulated environment?"

Benjamin is committed to developing applications that empower people to build their own virtual spaces, enabling them to interoperate and intercommunicate through an infrastructure that already exists. Benjamin's vision is a world of consumers able to control their own futures in cyberspace.

The Hacker's Code is an affirmation of life itself, life that wants to know, and grow, and extend itself.

Hackers are threatening because they live like spies, appearing to play by the rules but given secret sanction to break them. Sanction comes not from a central government, however, but from the facts of paradigm change, hierarchical restructuring and exponential change itself. The evolution of a single global economy mandates that every business behave as if it's an independent country. Every enterprise must manage its proprietary data and master the craft of intelligence and disinformation. Information is currency, and those who know how to get it and integrate it into meaningful patterns are the new Masters of the Universe.

The skills of hackers--a love of adventure and risk, a toleration of ambiguity, an ability to synthesize meaning from disparate sources, a commitment to knowledge--are skills needed in the next century. Hackers are the pathfinders of the wilderness called the future toward which the tao is flowing like a river, flowing and branching fractal-like, flowing in the vanishing tracks of hackers.

 


Last updated 1.7.03