'Hackers are necessary': Q&A with Emmanuel Goldstein of 2600: The Hacker's QuarterlyDate: April 19, 2004
1. How do you define hacking?
Hacking is, very simply, asking a lot of questions and refusing to stop asking. This is why computers are perfect for inquisitive people -- they don't tell you to shut up when you keep asking questions or inputting commands over and over and over. But hacking doesn't have to confine itself to computers. Anyone with an inquisitive mind, a sense of adventure and strong beliefs in free speech and the right to know most definitely has a bit of the hacker spirit in them.
2. Are there legal or appropriate forms of hacking?
One of the common misconceptions is that anyone considered a hacker is doing something illegal. It's a sad commentary on the state of our society when someone who is basically seeking knowledge and the truth is assumed to be up to something nefarious. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Hackers, in their idealistic naivet?, reveal the facts that they discover, without regard for money, corporate secrets or government coverups. We have nothing to hide, which is why we're always relatively open with the things we do -- whether it's having meetings in a public place or running a system for everyone to participate in regardless of background. The fact that we don't "play the game" of secrets also makes hackers a tremendous threat in the eyes of many who want to keep things away from the public.
Secrets are all well and good, but if the only thing keeping them a secret is the fact that you say it's a secret, then it's not really a very good secret. We suggest using strong encryption for those really interested in keeping things out of the hands of outsiders. It's interesting also that hackers are the ones who are always pushing strong encryption -- if we were truly interested in getting into everyone's personal affairs, it's unlikely we'd try and show them how to stay secure. There are, however, entities who are trying to weaken encryption. People should look toward them with concern, as they are the true threat to privacy.
3. What in your mind is the purpose of hacking?
To seek knowledge, discover something new, be the first one to find a particular weakness in a computer system or the first to be able to get a certain result from a program. As mentioned above, this doesn't have to confine itself to the world of computers. Anyone who's an adventurer or explorer of some sort, or any good investigative journalist, knows the feeling of wanting to do something nobody has ever done before or find the answer despite being told that you can't. One thing that all of the people involved in these endeavors seem to share is the feeling from outsiders that they're wasting their time.
4. Are you a hacker? Why? Or why not?
Absolutely. It's not something you can just erase from your personality, nor should you want to. Once you lose the desire to mess around with things, tweak programs and systems, or just pursue an answer doggedly until you get a result, you've lost a very important part of yourself. It's quite possible that many "reformed" hackers will lose that special ingredient as they become more and more a part of some other entity that demands their very souls. But for those who can resist this, or figure out a way to incorporate "legitimacy" into their hacker personalities without compromising them, there are some very interesting and fun times ahead.
5. What kind of hacking do you do?
My main interest has always been phones and rarely does a day pass when I don't experiment in some way with a phone system, voice mail system, pay phone, or my own telephone. I've always been fascinated by the fact that we're only a few buttons away from virtually anyone on the planet and I hope that I never lose that sense of marvel.
One of the most amazing things I ever got involved in was routing phone calls within the network itself -- known as blue-boxing. You can't do that as easily any more, but it was a real fun way to learn how everything was connected -- operators, services, countries, you name it. And in the not-too-distant past, there were so many different sounds phones made depending on where you were calling. Now they tend to be standardized rings, busies, etc. But the magic hasn't disappeared, it's just moved on to new things ... satellite technology, new phone networks and voice recognition technologies.
Many times these new technologies are designed by the very people who were hacking the old technologies. The result is usually more security and systems that know what people will find useful. While I've spent a great deal of time playing with phones, I get the same sense of fun from computer systems and have invested lots of time exploring the Internet. It would fill a book to outline all of the hacker potential that exists out there. And, of course, there's radio hacking, which predates a lot of the current technology. It's gotten to the point where simply listening to a certain frequency has become a challenge. It's hard to believe that it's actually turned into a crime to listen to some of these non-scrambled radio waves. But this is the price we pay when people with no understanding of technology are the ones in charge of regulating it.
6. How much time do you spend at it a week?
That's like asking how much time you spend breathing. It's always with you, you do more of it at certain times, but it's always something that's going on in your head. Even when I sleep, I dream from a hacker perspective.
7. Do you have a certain kind of site or "target" sites that most attract you?
We don't sit around with a big map and a list of targets. In fact, we don't even sit around together. Most hacking is done by individuals who simply find things by messing around and making discoveries. We share that info and others add input. Then someone tells the press and the government that we're plotting to move satellites and all hell breaks loose.
I think most of us tend to be drawn to the sites and systems that are said to be impossible to access. This is a normal human reaction to being challenged. The very fact that we continue to do this after so many of us have suffered so greatly indicates that this is a very strong driving force. When this finally becomes recognized as a positive thing, perhaps we'll really be able to learn from each other.
8. What, in general, do you think attracts people to hacking?
People have always been attracted to adventure and exploration. Never before have you been able to get this without leaving your house and without regard to your skin color, religion, sex, or even the sound of your voice. On the Internet, everyone is an equal until they prove themselves to be a moron. And even then, you can always start over. It's the ability to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and not reveal your personal information unless you choose to -- or don't know enough not to -- that most attracts people to the hacker culture, which is slowly becoming the Internet culture.
We find that many "mainstream" people share the values of hackers -- the value of free speech, the power of the individual against the state or the corporation, and the overall sense of fun that we embrace. Look in any movie where an individual is fighting a huge entity, and who does the audience without exception identify with? Even if the character breaks the rules, most people want him/her to succeed because the individual is what it's all about.
9. Do you know enough hackers personally to know what personality traits they share, if any?
Hackers come from all different backgrounds and have all kinds of lifestyles. They aren't the geeks you see on television or the cyberterrorists you see in Janet Reno news conferences. They range in age from under 10 to over 70. They exist in all parts of the world, and one of the most amazing and inspiring things is to see what happens when they come together. It's all about technology, the thrill of discovery, and sharing information. That supersedes any personality issues that might be an issue in other circumstances.
10. Do you think hackers are productive and serve a useful purpose?
I think hackers are necessary, and the future of technology and society itself (freedom, privacy, etc.) hinges on how we address the issues today that hackers are very much a part of. This can be the dawning of a great era. It can also be the beginning of true hell.
11. What percentage would you say are destructive as opposed to those in it out of intellectual curiosity or to test their skills?
This raises several points that I feel strongly about. For one thing, hacking is the only field where the media believes anyone who says they're a hacker. Would you believe someone who said they were a cop? Or a doctor? Or an airline pilot? Odds are they'd have to prove their ability at some point or say something that obviously makes some degree of sense. But you can walk up to any reporter and say you're a hacker and they will write a story about you telling the world that you're exactly what you say you are without any real proof.
So every time a movie like "Hackers" comes out, 10 million people from AOL send us e-mail saying they want to be hackers, too, and suddenly, every 12-year-old with this sentiment instantly becomes a hacker in the eyes of the media and hence, the rest of society. You don't become a hacker by...
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