Hackers Say They Want a Revolution

But some attendees at the H2K2 hacker conference charge that dot-com greed robbed the computer underground of its soul

NEW YORK--The three-day H2K2 conference wrapped up here Sunday night, having pulled in an estimated two thousand hackers, ex-hackers, security pros and activists to swap war stories and tips, hack the venue and each other, and engage in some navel gazing on their subcultures' place in the post dot-com era.

As in years past, the bi-annual gathering at the gloomy Hotel Pennsylvania provided hackers with an anti-establishment alternative to the bigger, brighter and more commercial DefCon convention that takes place in Las Vegas later in the summer. Short on technical talks and tee-shirt vendors, long on lefty political philosophy and fiery manifestos, the conference was exemplified by one of its keynote speakers: Aaron McGruder, writer and illustrator of the often-controversial nationally-syndicated daily comic strip The Boondocks.

Last year, McGruder used his space in the funny pages to criticize the motion picture industry for its legal efforts to squash DeCSS, a computer program that defeats the scrambling system on DVD movies. His talk Saturday was peppered with biting humor, as he railed against the Bush administration, corporate-controlled mass media, political corruption, financial scandal and U.S. foreign policy, declaring that nothing short of a revolution could restore honesty to government.

Evoking the anti-war movement of the 1960s, McGruder compared the activism of that era with the original Star Wars trilogy -- spirited rebels advancing their cause though the sheer power of their numbers. But the future, he said, could be seen in a more recent sci-fi franchise. "The new parable for our time is The Matrix," said McGruder. "Five people, but five people who are really good at computers. That seems to be the only battlefield where the revolution can actually be won."

McGruder's talk drew a rare standing ovation from the hackers packed into the conference hall. But in other sessions, the attendees themselves had a less romanticized view of their world. San Francisco hacker and activist "Gweeds" slammed those hackers who traded their anarchistic ethic for jobs in the "military industrial security complex," i.e., the raft of computer security companies that sprang up in the dot-com era.

After joining or starting security firms, hackers invariably support the agendas of law enforcement, defense and intelligence agencies determined to hype the hacker threat and increase their own budgets, Gweeds said. "They're making money, sure, but they're also extending the reach of the Federal police state," said Gweeds.

Gweeds' sermon triggered a twinge of conscience in 24-year-old "Sloppy," formerly a member of Hagis, a hacking group that enjoyed notoriet y in the late 1990s after defacing NASA, Yahoo, Greenpeace and other sites with messages protesting the imprisonment of hacker Kevin Mitnick. "I identify with Gweeds on a lot of this," Sloppy said after the talk.

Sloppy now works for a respected computer security firm, which SecurityFocus Online agreed not to identify, and he says he sometimes does forensic work on systems that have been hacked. He admits to mixed feelings about working in the industry. "When they hired me, they asked, 'With your hacking background, how would you feel if it came up that you had to testify against another hacker?''" says Sloppy. He recalls reluctantly answering that he'd testify in his professional role, if he had to. "I said, I wouldn't lie or anything."

"It's hard to make a living unless you're with a security company," says the ex-hacker.

Gweeds admits he doesn't have a good alternative for hackers determined to make a comfortable living. "I just think that it's dangerous, because you don't think of your friend who might go to jail," he said after the talk.

By Kevin Poulsen

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