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<nettime> Re: Hackers: the political heroes of cyberspace
Amy Alexander on 16 Mar 2001 11:54:15 -0000

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<nettime> 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:

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:
and especially its intro:

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.


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....

>From time to time I'll receive e-mail from activists who have learned that
I have some sort of technical skills and will casually ask something like,
"Say, do you think you could deface Company X's website for us?" It's generally
asked with a casualness that makes me believe they aren't aware of the
climate or the risks for those who do engage in such activities. I don't
think if I were a locksmith they'd say, "Say, do you think you could break
into Company X and graffiti the walls for us?" Or if they did, it at least wouldn't
be so casual. I don't blame them for asking, but... On the other hand I 
think I understand the person who told Josephine that if he were to decide
to hack a site, it would be his decision alone. 

That said, it seems this is a hegemony that seems to be (with
a few exceptions, like Ricardo & co.) largely successful 
in deterring hactivists - or at least forcing them to keep a low profile, which
as Ricardo pointed out, can be counterproductive. Some hactivists may of course 
philosophically prefer anonymity anyway, as others have suggested on this thread. 
My personal opinion is that both high and low profile approaches are valid.
But perhaps it would be useful to discuss ideas for increasing the 
potential - and profile - for using computers and networks as political tools 
without putting such a disproporionate risk on the individuals with technical 
skills who are ultimately in the hot seat?

- {AT} 

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