Hack Mentality

At 28, Spuds has become a cybersage for the young and the reckless. Now he's gone straight.

Corley has long cast himself as a combatant on the frontlines of cyberspace. He uses the pen name Emmanuel Goldstein, after the shadowy figure who opposed the totalitarian rule of Big Brother in George Orwell's novel 1984. In this case, he has some powerful allies, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the New York Times and legal scholars from the country's top law schools. Nevertheless, in September, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in Hollywood's favor. The case in now on appeal.

"Just because hackers can do something doesn't mean that they do," says Spuds. Xerox machines and VHS video recorders both allow users to infringe on copyrights, but they haven't been outlawed, he adds. In Spud's opinion, a software program is comparable to a work of art: "It's like a person who goes out and paints on a canvas. You can say, "That's a bad code' or "That's a good code,' but it's all expression. I absolutely believe that it should be protected under the First Amendment." As it stands, computers loaded with Microsoft Windows or Apple Macintosh operating systems are the only ones capable of playing DVDs. Linux-driven machines are excluded. "That's wrong," says Spuds. "They don't give us the freedom of choice that we want."

In July, Spuds attended the HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) 2000 conference in New York City, which was sponsored by 2600. Hackers from around the world gathered at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan to hear Jello Biafra give the keynote speech. The former singer for the punk-rock group the Dead Kennedys is now a self-proclaimed media critic and opponent of censorship. Panel discussions at the conference included such topics as "Selling Out: The Pros and Cons of Working for the Man" and "Hacktivism: Terrorism or the New Hope."

Spuds is the dean of the St. Louis chapter of 2600.
John Montre
Spuds is the dean of the St. Louis chapter of 2600.
Spuds, Emmanuel and Jello Biafra at the Hope 2000 conference in New York City.
Spuds, Emmanuel and Jello Biafra at the Hope 2000 conference in New York City.

Activist hackers, or "hacktivists," as they are called, are becoming an increasingly larger presence on the World Wide Web. Last year, 2600 estimates, more than 350 high-profile Web sites were hacked. Thousands of other hacks are never reported, making it impossible to gauge the total volume. Just how many hacks are politically motivated is uncertain as well. But it's clear that politics is playing a larger role. Online political activism gained prominence in 1994, when Zapatista backers formed an online support network to help spread information about the plight of the rebels in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. In 1996, hackers rewrote the CIA's Web page to read "Central Stupidity Agency," then linked it to porn sites. In Romania, opponents of former leftist President Ion Iliescu earlier this year linked a site favorable to him to the FBI's Most Wanted list. Moreover, the continuing conflict in the Middle East has provoked a cyberwar, with pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hackers defacing Web sites in an effort to distribute propaganda.

Two of the oldest and most notorious groups still "hacktive" are Germany's Chaos Computer Club and the Cult of the Dead Cow in the United States. The Chaos Computer Club's exploits date back to 1987, when the group broke into NASA's computer, revealing the inherent weaknesses in the space agency's security system. Andy Mueller-Maguhn, the 29-year-old radical leader of Chaos, was recently elected to an indefinite term as the European representative on the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The nonprofit organization, which was set up by the United States in 1998, has the influential duty of assigning domain names on the Internet.

In the United States, the Cult of the Dead Cow has been around since 1984. Its ranks are filled with members who use online handles such as Dildog, Oxblood Ruffin, Nightstalker, Tweedy Fish and Death Veggie. The group's latest mission is to break through the electronic firewall that the communist Chinese government has installed to shield its population from Western culture.

Each summer, members of the Cult of the Dead Cow and thousands of other elite hackers converge on Las Vegas for the annual three-day Def Con conference, the world's numero uno hacker convention. Def Con also draws an assortment of Defense Department and CIA officials and private security spooks, who are there to both spy on the proceedings and recruit new employees. Law-enforcement and espionage agents are so prevalent at Def Con that the convention's organizers hold a "Spot the Fed" contest. The feds gravitate to such hacker conclaves out of respect and fear, because they know that the people who attend these meetings have the power to seriously upset Internet business.

"Once you attend one of these conferences, your name is on a list," says Spuds. "You've got an FBI file; you got to know that from the beginning. I would find it hard to believe that attending 2600 meetings for 10 years straight wouldn't get you on a list somewhere." Whenever Spuds speaks to a fed at a conference, he says, he is careful to preface whatever technical advice he provides with the word "theoretically."

One of the means by which Spuds can theoretically "own" someone else's Web site is called "blackholing." To demonstrate this technique, he logs onto the Internet, and, with a few keystrokes, hijacks all traffic destined for a government intelligence agency's Web site to his own Web site (www.wearehope.com).

« Previous Page
Next Page »