|Amy Alexander on 16 Mar 2001 07:05:40 -0000
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|[Nettime-bold] Re: Hackers: the political heroes of cyberspace
Just a couple quick (haha) tidbits to throw into the mix: 1) As to talking about hackers, apolitical unix-only-loving-hackers, etc., we should point out the controversy/ambiguity over the use of the term "hacker." The term originally meant "taking apart", such as hacking wood with an axe. It initially got applied to computer use meaning, "one who likes to play with code, take it apart, write new stuff, etc." Whereas 'cracker' meant, "one who breaks into a computer system." But things got mixed and matched in the media, and now people think of "hacker" to mean "cracker". It might be that "hacker" is a lost cause by now, but it still makes a lot of hackers angry to hear themselves referred to in the context of "cracking." Recommended reading - this from the Jargon File: http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon/h/helpinghackerculturegrow.html There is of course more to it than this, some hackers crack, many hackers believe in exploratory cracking but not destructive cracking, etc... Anyway, this is old news for many of you, but perhaps new info to others. 2) Some hackers are apolitical, stereotypical computer nerds. But most aren't, though they don't all want to engage in politics through computer attacks, cracking, etc. There are a number of reasons for this. These include: a feeling that they have betrayed their occupational ethics (just as a doctor is ethically forbidden to use medicine to harm someone, no matter how evil), fear of prosecution or related legal hassles (see #3), disdain for the fact that computer attacks are popularly associated with "script kiddies" (untrained young crackers who use pre-written scripts to attack systems for the purpose of bragging to friends), empathetic feelings for the poor sysadmin on the other end of the attack who will be tormented, fired, or both, etc. Recommended reading - the Jargon File: http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon/ and especially its intro: http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon/i/introduction.html The Jargon File is a set of docs that go back a number of years and are occasionally updated. It is written by hackers describing their own culture and defining their own terminology. It is mirrored at a number of sites - I just gave one in the links. I am by no means advocating it as The Definitive Word on hacker culture. Not all hackers will agree with what the Jargon File has to say; it presents its own stereotypes. Many other writings have appeared on the topic of "Hackers explain themselves to the Uninitiated." But, I think it presents a decent insight into hacker psychology, and the stereotypes are at least a little less closed than the "boring computer nerd" variety. 3) Being a hacker can be a scary thing, and being a Cracker or Hacktivist is many times scarier. Regular readers of Slashdot are constantly barraged with stories of "Innocent Hacker Victimized by Paranoid, Doltish Authorities Who Don't Understand Computers!" Things like "College student hears on IRC that Yankees website has been defaced, innocently does some DNS zone transfers (totally legal) to see if he can figure out how it happened, and the next day the FBI shows up and seizes his computer, despite total lack of evidence he did anything wrong." Things like, "High school student does website parodying local police department, including images downloaded from the police website. Police department doesn't understand that anyone can copy images from a website, and assumes he got them by cracking. They seize his computer and charge him with computer cracking." There's more Stupid Authority Stories than you can shake a stick at, and even though many of the charges will presumably be dropped (after expensive legal battle), computers are in virtually every case seized, along with media backups, not to be seen again for years. This technique is well-documented back to at least the early 90's, (see Bruce Sterling's Hacker Crackdown), and seems to have expanded in scope in recent years. There are higher-profile, scarier stories, too. Perl guru Randal Schwarz narrowly avoided jail (and has had to deal with fines, lengthy probation, and life as a convicted felon) for a non-malicious, fairly minor rule-infraction at Intel, where he was working as a contractor. This was made possible through incredibly vague and broad computer crime laws in the state of Oregon which allow for felony prosecution of basically anything done on a computer that the computer's owner doesn't happen to like. See: http://www.lightlink.com/spacenka/fors/ And that's really the gist - hackers nowadays feel they're the targets of a witch-hunting popular media, legal system, and corporate hegemony. Punishments for anything even resembling an infraction with a computer tend to be wildly disproportionate to other types of crime. (This is what most of that "Free Kevin" 2600 stuff is about.) Hackers feel that they're technical expertise puts them in a position of power in the New Net Order, and that this scares the non-technical powers that be - thus the witchhunt to keep them in line. Now to actually bring this back to the previous discussion of star-presence vs. anonymity in hacktivism: I don't think one can really be critical of hacktivists who wish to work anonymously, or even computer folks who don't want to use their technical knowledge for purposes of civil disobedience. Depending on the situation, the risks are often far greater with acts of hactivist disobedience than with their non-technical counterparts. (Yes, I realize sometimes it's the reverse - you can be executed for a sit-in in certain places. But I'm trying to point out that the risks for seemingly non-hazardous acts of Digital Disobedience - e.g. floodnetting a corporation or defacing its webpage - are much greater than people may realize.) Anyway, the reason this particular hegemony seems to work is that the public generally doesn't understand much technically about the way digital disobedience works, and so media and prosecutors are able to distort facts even more easily than usual. Media reports say things like "police found 5 computers in his apartment - all networked together" - thus even a home LAN becomes de facto evidence of criminal intentions. Imagine if you really did something....