Life Is Not a Movie, and Other Hacker Truths

Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist

Depending on your perspective, it is either very late or quite early. We are milling around the In-N-Out burger near Barstow--about 100 techno-geeks waiting for the show to literally get back on the road.

Workers behind the counter look on those in the convoy with expressions that vary from puzzled to concerned to contemptuous, depending on which dweeb happens to be placing an order. Tattoos, dyed hair, piercings and combat boots are not uncommon. Wireless gadgets dangle from clothes like newfangled bandoleers.

These are computer hackers on their way to Def Con, a legendary annual convention in Las Vegas. Although they look every bit the part of rebellious digital scavengers, hackers have changed since Def Con began a decade ago as a way to fight the system by infiltrating it.

Today Def Con is, depending on your perspective, a serious seminar, a bacchanal or pure performance art that draws 5,000 people for a weekend of swapping computer code and stories of past exploits.

Suddenly, the Mothership--a beat-up blue pickup with a 12-foot antenna mounted in the bed--cruises past the In-N-Out. The truck resembles a ship sailing majestically up the driveway, the antenna rocking like a mast in a calm sea.

The Mothership broadcasts a pirate radio station that will stay with us on our trek to Las Vegas. Tuning to 104.7 on the FM band gets travel instructions and music. Those carrying transceivers hear the announcement and pass the word: The convoy is moving out.

A good chunk of those in the convoy are like Robert McLaughlin, a basketball-player-size guy who runs the 911 system for the San Bernardino County Fire Department and is driving in the convoy with me. McLaughlin likes to solve problems. This gathering, where some of the best and the brightest will congregate, is a place where he can learn a lot.

"This is one of the few places where I can talk about computers and nobody will look at me funny," he says with a laugh. "This is where I get food for the brain. You go to Def Con and get total immersion." His wife, Amy, is coming along, but she won't be attending the seminars.

"I just wanted a vacation," she says.

The fact that McLaughlin is attending Def Con is evidence that the hacker sensibility has undergone a profound reconstruction, moving away from an overt emphasis on illegal activities and toward a more nuanced worldview that encourages exploration while respecting others.

"The message of Def Con today is more mature," says Jeff Moss. Moss is also known as the Dark Tangent, his nom de guerre from a time when hackers routinely baited police and security agencies by brazenly breaking into computer systems and challenging the constabulary to do something about it. This was shortly before new laws, sentencing guidelines and a growing familiarity with the technology led to the routine arrest and conviction of hackers.

Moss, who today is a computer security professional, founded Def Con a decade ago, when the Internet and exotic operating systems such as Unix used on college computers led curious kids to break in to those systems, largely in a quest for knowledge. But part of the hacker culture was based on the ability to inflict damage on enemies. Attacks on the corporate structure were part of the mythic culture surrounding the scene, an intoxicating political manifesto for the young men who make up the core of hacker culture.

To a 14-year-old, the world really is a crypto-fascist state, especially for a bright kid who has enormous capabilities. Can't work. Can't drive. Can't do much about the bullies of the world either. It's easy to develop a premature cynicism. And watching too many movies about hackers battling the evil corporate entities that secretly run our lives doesn't help.

But speakers at Def Con these days emphasize that life is not a movie. Respected computer hacker Shatter tells a rapt audience of hackers and wannabes how best to avoid jail: "Don't break the law."

Many Def Con attendees get the message, but plenty of people remain members of what security specialists delicately refer to as the intruder community and like to break stuff. Today's "script kiddies"--people with limited computer skills but with access to software that can hunt for security holes in computer systems and exploit them--have enormous destructive power.

And the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old.

Which is why a lot of people come to Def Con as a defensive measure. Michael Johnston, an information technology director for a nonprofit, came in part to help protect his systems from kids who haven't gotten the message. "I wanted to learn about the threat," he says.

Because one thing hasn't changed. Hackers are still noble explorers, clever folks with a knack for figuring things out. Or they're rapacious, destructive pests with no respect for anybody else. It all depends on your perspective.


* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A.; T8

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