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By Kelsey McClure
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Long before the dot-coms invaded the World Wide Web, even before the Internet acquired its current name, Spuds had begun navigating cyberspace. In 1979, at age 7, he disassembled his first IBM PC and then put it back together -- much to the relief of his panic-stricken grandparents. It wasn't long before he discovered how to dial up electronic bulletin boards and communicate with other explorers. Over the years, his computer skills have taken him places online that he is reluctant to divulge. He blames past transgressions on youthful indiscretion and a misplaced sense of power. Spuds now holds down a legit job as a computer engineer for an Internet-service provider in the region. He has been promoted twice in less than a year, receiving a hefty raise. Not surprisingly, his recent career successes have tempered his views. Spuds now regards malicious hackers -- those who deface Web sites and spread computer viruses -- with total disdain. He labels such acts déclassé.
"I would never sic a virus on somebody else," he says. "It's like blowing up somebody's house. Destruction is stupid. It's an inelegant way of going about something. Spreading viruses is like getting drunk on Boone's Farm Strawberry [a cheap wine]. If you're going to do something, than do it right, be classy about it. To deface someone's Web site is not classy at all." Spuds expresses similar opinions toward other forms of electronic vandalism. Many hackers should be credited with pointing out weaknesses in networks instead of being condemned for discovering them, he says.
One of the most common hacker stunts is overloading a Web site with requests. In such "denial of service" attacks, hackers unleash programs that enlist the support of innocent third-party computers -- called "zombies" -- who then are directed to simultaneously log onto the same Internet site. When sites are "pinged" in this manner, they crash or slow to a glacial pace. Because denial-of-service programs can be downloaded readily from numerous hacker Web sites, it's relatively simple for inexperienced hackers, or "script kiddies," to disable an Internet location with a few keystrokes.
Malicious hackers who dabble in these nefarious deeds are known as "black hats." Their exploits are the stuff of legend, ranging from reports of widespread electronic credit-card fraud to linking the CIA's home page to a porn site. The Pentagon alone estimates that hackers assault its computer network about 250,000 times a year. A 30-second public-service spot that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years ago showed two Russian nuclear-missile crewmen questioning the credibility of a launch order. Uncertain as to whether the instructions were the work of a hacker, they decided to push the button anyway.
Spuds contends that such sensational portrayals are misleading. Rather than being a part of a unified horde of anarchists, nihilists and Luddites, most hackers are individuals who "have a good reason why they do the things they do -- and it's not an illegal reason." They are driven not by inherent evil, says Spuds, but a desire to understand how something works: "If you never open the hood of your car, you don't know where the dipstick is. It's not a magic trick. There are people out there who can get into anything, given enough time. But it's got to be worth their while." Sought-after information must be vitally important, or the hack itself must be sufficiently difficult to challenge the hacker's skills, to garner serious attention. "I know that I could stop all your e-mail from flowing to you forever. Why don't I do it?" asks Spuds. He answers one rhetorical question with another: "What's the point?"
The origins of hacking stem from research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s, when scientists at the school's artificial-intelligence lab began pushing computer programs beyond what they were supposed to do. Hackers were then considered the test pilots of the computer world, esteemed by their colleagues for their ability to quickly and efficiently decipher complex codes and detect glitches. These early whiz kids were responsible for the stereotype of a computer nerd with horn-rimmed glasses, a slide rule and a plastic pocket protector full of pens. By the early 1970s, the geeky image had been altered a tad by the more rebellious phone phreaks who tapped into Ma Bell. Phreakers included Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, the founders of Apple Computer Inc. The most notorious phreaker, however, was Captain Crunch, who discovered that a give-away whistle from a cereal box could be used to mimic the precise tone needed to make free long-distance calls.
Hacking didn't become inextricably tied to terrorism until a decade ago, when the mainstream press began reporting on Operation Sundevil. The bust involved 28 search warrants in 14 cities that netted the seizure of 23,000 floppy disks and about 40 computer systems. The younger hackers at the 2600 meeting aren't aware of the bust, even though important elements of the saga took place in St. Louis and at the University of Missouri-Columbia, but Spuds' memory of those days has influenced his worldview.
The rear of his Ford Focus is covered with bumper stickers supporting 2600'slatest free-speech battle. In January, the Motion Picture Association of America sued Eric Corley, the magazine's publisher, for posting a source code on the 2600 Web site (www.2600.com) that allows DVD video disks to be played on Linux operating systems. The computer program that descrambles the DVD encryption code was devised by Jon Johansen, a 16-year-old hacker from Norway. The motion-picture industry is concerned that mass dissemination of the software on the Internet will lead to widespread pirating of movies in the same manner Napster has led to the wholesale pirating of music.