Hello, and welcome back to the second installment in our weekend Geek Reads column! This week we were all a little busy in the office writing about Apple’s iPad 2 launch and the disaster relief efforts in Japan, so we thought it might be fun to try out a new format (and save ourselves the headache of having to actually talk to each other in person), and take the conversation to Google Chat.
Last week we talked about the weird origin of the American phone system and the benevolent hegemony of Ma Bell. In Part 2 of Bruce Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown, we finally dig into the meat of America’s war on cybercrime and discover where terms like phreaker, hacker and phile came from. We also meet the principal players in this tragicomedy, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Legion of Doom and a wayward hacker known as Fry Guy; Steve Jackson Games and Sterling himself even make a brief appearance.
David Daw: I now call this meeting of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club to order!
Alex Wawro: Part 2 of the Hacker Crackdown! Wherein shit gets real bad, real quick.
Nate: Well then, shall we get to chatting about this book?
Nate: And fear-mongering up the proverbial wazoo, e.g. phreakers being the nihilistic scourge of the heart. (Please Mr. Sterling, tell us what you really think.)
Alex: Hang on, I scribbled some notes in the margins…lemme grab my iPad real quick…
David: Yeah I dunno, I think he does a pretty good job of ripping into pretty much everybody in this section and in ways that don’t really deny what’s fundamentally good or cool about any one group.
Alex: True, though his bias is showing pretty badly when it comes to harmless teenage hackers vs. the go-getters and good ol’ boys at the Illinois State Police.
David: I dunno, this is reading ahead a bit…
Alex: That’s a risky proposition.
David: …but he really isn’t that biased against the cops in this; I think he thinks there are bad cops…
Alex: Oh I agree, he’s really quite even-handed.
David: …but he also clearly thinks there are some bad hackers.
Alex: Or at least, some awfully foolish ones.
David: See, I think he likes those; or maybe we should just stop attributing motive.
Alex: I found it fascinating to consider how difficult it is for the American justice system to crack down on information thieves.
We have all these Constitutional principles of free speech, free assembly etc…, that are constantly at odds with our concerns about state subversion and rebellion being fomented by internal agents. There are some strong parallels to contemporary concerns about national security.
David: Yeah but I think the real fascinating thing that they keep bumping up against is that they just have no conception of what the hell is going on; like, they want the Legion of Doom to be structured like a drug cartel.
Alex: Yeah, totally; If Sterling is to be believed, the authorities very much envisioned a legion of black-clad hackers seated around a shadowy table.
David: Well I mean the concept of people doing this just to do it is sort of bizarre from the outside, and not exactly the criminal mindset.
Alex: Exactly! When information becomes a commodity, suddenly exploration and experimentation become a crime.
Nate: The “hacker” mindset… it’s about exploration. Whereas Sterling describes phreakers as… I’m not entirely sure what to make of that sect, actually; “proto-trolls” was the vibe I got. The original 4chan, wreaking havoc on corporate voice terminals “for the lulz.”
David: I guess…
Alex: I read them more as free speech hippies, but that’s not far from becoming a modern-day troll.
David: They might be slightly more focused than that; Anonymous rather than 4Chan in general. Like, there’s a political agenda there, unfocused though it may be.
Alex: That’s true! Very Assange-esque, wanting to “stick it to the bastards.”
Nate: Right. But sticking it to the bastards because they’re doing “evil” things, or sticking it to the bastards because… they’re the phone company? I don’t think there’s anything especially “noble” about the phreakers (as described here).
Alex: True, but it’s their experimentation that eventually led to the codification of hacker techniques on every BBS. If they hadn’t been rooting around in Ma Bell’s innards for the hell of it, I think hacker culture would have developed significantly slower.
David: Also, I don’t think they’re described as ignoble exactly; Sterling just has a very peculiar way of looking at revolutionaries (especially failed revolutionaries) as if they are somehow quaint.
Alex: I appreciate his honesty; since most of this happened before I was born, it’s nice to have a historian who appears (relatively) unbiased. That said, it’s fascinating to see the early roots of the geeky hacker fiction I grew up on.
Nate: He’s an outsider, looking in. That’s my (admittedly uninformed) take on his viewpoint.
Alex: Oh I dunno, near the end of Part 2 our narrator reveals his personal connections to Steve Jackson and some of the cyberpunk authors affected by the eponymous Hacker Crackdown.
David: Well yeah, but he’s writing about 3 or 4 mutually exclusive extremely insular viewpoints; he should be writing as an outsider, even when he’s not.
Alex: Right, and for the most part I believe his account, but it’s not hard to see why he approaches the law enforcement angle with some cynicism.
David: Yeah they kinda go off the rails toward the end of this section.
Alex: Also….BBS systems? Modems? FidoNet? I can barely remember a few of these things, and….damn.
David: It’s all coming back man.
Nate: Does anyone else remember the Anarchist’s Cookbook?
David: There was a whole thing I was reading about bringing back fido-net and BBS’s.
David: Because they were actually better distributed than the Web. Anyway, yeah, the Anarchist’s Cookbook.
Nate: That’s how I defined “phreaking” as a kid. A sort of analog, physical version of what the hackers were up to
Alex: Yeah, I don’t think I was capable of understanding UNIX subversion at that age. For me, hackers and anarchists were synonymous.
Nate: There was a political subtext there, sure. Stick it to the man. But for the most part, it felt like kids being kids, with a whole lot of criminal activity worked in for good measure. But phreaking as he knew it has disappeared.
Alex: True. If anything, The Hacker Crackdown reinforces the notion that hackers never have a reason; they’re just doing it because they can. And because they can, they attract hangers-on and groupies.
(And tech journalists, which are basically the same thing.)
Nate: I call “hanger-on.”
Alex: I’ve never made any secret of being a Google groupie. Eric Schmidt can take me home any time he wants.
Nate: There’s no way in hell you’re editing that out.
Alex: …Sooo…hacking the E911 protocol. Serious business, amirite?
David: Man, just wait till you actually read the thing; right now it’s fascinating because, like, I talked a bit last week about how Sterling has a way of making mundane things sound science-fictional and I love his account here of file sharing. I mean, it’s just file sharing and information wanting to be free and it being easier every day to copy digital information but it reads like you’re reading the first 3 chapters of Outbreak or something.
Alex: Absolutely. Maybe it’s just the abysmal data speeds they were stuck with back then, but every download seems to mean something; every file seems important. I wonder if that’s because of how Sterling writes, or because data is fast becoming valueless.
David: I think it’s a combination of the two. Like, that really was the culture; I’m just old enough that I remember getting data being an act with value, and being kinda weirdly sacred in a way because it was so weird and difficult.
David: …and I was never getting something as weird or high-profile as Phrack even.
Alex: As an impressionable (and horribly geeky) teenager I read a ton of cheesy cyberpunk fiction, and was heavily into games like Shadowrun; I remember a weird period in the early 90’s when “paydata” was a thing.
David: Yeah the part about where hackers come from struck home for me because like, I got a modem young.
Alex: and you were hooked, huh?
David: I racked up the 400 buck phone bill.
Alex: Yesssss! I racked up nearly 200 bucks one weekend just trying to play Doom II with my friend via IP. I had to work it off with extra chores for six months, and the sucka spawn-camped me to boot.
David: If I had been just a bit older, or if AOL took a bit longer to come out with a flat-rate plan I totally would have been trying to steal time off of telecoms (and I was in the Atlanta area so apparently it would have been easy!).
Alex: Oh man! You could have met a member of the Legion of Doom at a McDonald’s drive-thru and never. Even. Known.
David: Ha! Well, we all could have since they were apparently everywhere.
Nate: The same holds true today.
Alex: …I still can’t believe the Secret Service was involved. Does anyone remember why? ‘Cuz I can’t.
Nate: The telephone company was big business. When someone threatens vital infrastructure, well, you call in the big guns.
David: I think it’s because of the wire fraud stuff which technically means Office of the Treasury, which means Secret Service. I could be wrong though.
Alex: Google, don’t fail me now! Also, holy crap, Google has basically rendered hacker culture moot; (unless you want to start talking about the deep Web, or cracking isolated systems) you don’t need to trade codes for philes anymore. All the information you could ever want about anything is instantly aggregated at your command
Nate: Nah, “hacker culture” has simply gone further underground. A quick trip through IRC will make that clear. There are plenty of things you can’t get through Google, or torrents, or whatever (for good reason). Obscure anime. Old, unpopular movies. Et cetera.
Alex: Seems like the best way to get rid of hackers is open up rather than crack down.
David: there’s a great Cory Doctorow talk about how Google is the greatest file-sharing software in existence and it’s really awkward because it’s at Google, and he’s asking them to raise their hand if they ever pirated something (and used Google to do it) and everyone is like, sheepishly raising their hand.
Alex: Ha! Also, apparently the U.S. Secret Service got involved once we caught foreign hackers cracking codes for contract pay from the KGB.
Nate: Never forget the old Fark/Reddit adage, “Let them have BitTorrent, shut up before they find out about Usenet,” etc.
Alex: Yeah, I could crack wise about 90’s era 1337 h4xx0rz for hours, but alas I’ve got actual work to do…. But I am curious to see what happens next.
Nate: Yeah, we should find some way to wrap this up coherently.
Alex: Especially since Sterling hints at the rise of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the next section and they’re like, four blocks from my house.
Nate: Well aren’t you just in the center of everything.
Alex: Not to mention a bunch of awesome bars and taquerias ….yeah, actually my neighborhood is pretty sweet. I think I’ll give up this fool’s dream of tech journalism and go hang out at Noisebridge, crack mainframes for the hell of it.
David: Man, Noisebridge; that’s what hacker culture looks like these days
Alex: …we still have mainframes, right? and nodes? Are nodes still a thing?
Nate: Yes, those are things.
Alex: Awesome! Technology is rad.
David: Anyway, until next week…
Nate: Alex, i hate you so much.
David: …when we follow the law enforcement angle on all this and learn that they aren’t all that bad. In fact, some of them are actually pretty awesome.
Alex: Ooh, someone’s been reading ahead…
David: Err, good talk guys. I think we all learned a lot about ourselves…
Alex: …and each other. Maybe next week, we can finally learn to love again.