You could be whoever you wanted
The origins of what we think of as modern hacker culture emerged from the same California milieu as the 1960s counterculture, and it shows. In 1973, programmers from Berkeley who had worked on the time-sharing Berkeley Operating System launched Community Memory, the first public bulletin board system, and prominent among these pioneers was Jude Milhon, aka St. Jude. She passed away in 2003, much beloved. At the other end of the state, a few years later Susan Headley fell in with a gang and helped hack into DEC’s systems; she went by the name Susy Thunder. Why not take on a kooky new name? It was a sign of the times.
Walter O'Brien, aka Scorpion
Taking on a nickname or pseudonym is a very old tradition and goes across cultures. Walter O’Brien told me that it’s common in Ireland where he grew up; after he dished out revenge on a high school bully, he became known as Scorpion, after a creature that’s docile until pushed and loyal to its tribe. At 13, when he started hacking ARPANET, he naturally used Scorpion as his login; the name followed him to become the brand for his company and the title of the TV series based on his exploits. Many hackers’ handles arise from similar youthful origins.
Michael Calce, aka MafiaBoy
Many of the nicknames chosen by hackers may seem somewhat juvenile; but, as with the case of O’Brien, this makes sense, as they are often literally chosen by juveniles. Michael Calce, for instance, was just a 15-year-old living in Montreal in 2000 when he launched a series of DDoS attacks against high-profile dot-com era sites like Yahoo! and E-Trade. His chosen nickname—MafiaBoy—may seem dramatically overblown for a Canadian teenager. But he was part of an organized group, a hacking collective known as TNT, and the attacks were part of an attempt to demonstrate TNT’s dominance, so perhaps the metaphor wasn’t that far off.
Kim Vanvaeck, aka Gigabyte
Virus writer Kim Vanvaeck’s chosen nickname—Gigabyte—also seems endearingly naive, the sort of word an old person would choose to sound high-tech—or a very young person, like the 16-year-old that she was when she began experimenting with computer viruses. Certainly her peers came to respect the name; other viruses were found that included messages like ”HECHO EN ADMIRACION A GIGABYTE” in their payload. Vanvaeck engaged in a war for a while with Sophos Security’s Graham Cluley, who she deemed patronizing and sexist, before being arrested at 19 in 2004 and giving up the virus game. Now she’s a network security professional and has a homepage looking wistfully back at her past—but she’s still Gigabyte on Twitter.
Gary McKinnon, aka SOLO
British hacker Gary McKinnon used his nickname as a calling card, not just for his fellow hackers, but for his targets. McKinnon broke into numerous U.S. government and defense systems, at one point leaving a message on a compromised machine declaring, “US foreign policy is akin to Government-sponsored terrorism these days ... I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.” Ominous as that sounds, McKinnon later declared himself a ”bumbling nerd” and claimed that he was mostly poking around looking for evidence of covered-up UFOs and supposed free energy tech that was being suppressed. He at least managed to avoid getting extradited to the United States.
George Hotz, aka geohot
Sometimes the use hacking nicknames can be a way for others to signal affiliation with the milieu that the hacker has emerged from. Take, for example the case of George Hotz, famous for writing the first iOS jailbreak tool and reverse-engineering the PlayStation 3. Mainstream publications—like, say, ITworld—usually refer to him by his legal name. But other publications can show that they’re more in tune with hacker culture by referring to him by his well-known nickname—geohot—right in the headlines of their articles about him.
Jonathan James, aka c0mrade
Jonathan James, who gained access to a NASA computer and downloaded navigation software for the International Space Station while he was still a teenager, considered himself a hactivist, which may explain why he chose the hacker nickname c0mrade. He served six months in federal prison as a juvenile in 2000. But it was another nickname that led to tragedy: in the wake of the 2007 hack of the TJX department store chains, investigators focused on a co-conspirator in the case who went by “J.J.” James committed suicide and left a note in which he proclaimed his innocence but also claimed the government would pin the crime on him. James’s own father didn’t seem so sure.
Jonathan Gillette, aka why the lucky stiff
In the ‘00s the man known as why the lucky stiff, or just plain _why, became a mainstay at Ruby conferences with his quirky presentations and charming publications. He hid in plain sight: appearing in public, but always under assumed names and paying for everything in cash. Then, one day in 2009, a bizarrely vituperative anonymous site revealed that he was a computer programmer and indie rocker from Utah named Jonathan Gillette—and _why vanished in an “infosuicide,” removing just about his entire identity from the web, including his open source code. He eventually let it be known through intermediaries that he’s fine, but wants to be left alone.
?, aka Satoshi Nakamoto
The only thing bitcoin users know about the cryptocurrency’s creator is his name: Satoshi Nakamoto. Most people assumed it was a pseudonym or nickname; many doubted whether it was even a single individual, speculating that the name was just a front for the group who created bitcoin. Last year, though, Newsweek made the audacious claim Satoshi Nakamoto was, in fact, a man named Satoshi Nakamoto, a Japanese-born engineer who lives in southern California and goes by Dorian. Despite a confusing interview in which he appeared to confirm that he was the mysterious Satoshi, Dorian eventually denied involvement, and Satoshi re-emerged online after years of silence to confirm that the two men are different people. The mystery remains.
Reality can be monetized
Scorpion’s O’Brien enthusiastically described to me what virtual reality will do for identity: give you the opportunity to change not only what you look like, but what others look like to you. Perhaps it’s a yearning for this sort of mutable virtual identity that attracts hackers and programmers to nicknames. “Real” identities are tied to humdrum reality and dull questions like who, exactly, owns source code written under a pseudonym. Many privacy-obsessed techies were wary of Google Plus’s real name policy because of the realization that it was to further the monetization of your real identity.
Steve Wozniak, aka Rocky Clark
And, after all the armchair psychoanalysis I’ve done in this article, that’s perhaps the biggest motivation to use a nickname or pseudonym: for privacy, so people don’t know who you are. And it can work remarkably well. Take tech legend Steve Wozniak, for instance: he took what he thought would be a year off from UC Berkeley to earn some money, and along the way co-founded Apple. A decade later, he returned to get his engineering degree, under the entirely pedestrian name “Rocky Clark.” Surprisingly few people noticed. The diploma was issued in Clark’s name, but Woz gave the commencement speech the year he finally graduated.
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