Science & Ideas 10/19/98 CYBERSPACE A man-child messenger for the hacker world The computer terrorist's sympathetic ear BY BRENDAN I. KOERNER "Makaveli" was in some serious hot water. The FBI had fingered the Cloverdale, Calif., 16-year-old for hacking into military computer systems, and the feds had seized his most precious possessions--right down to his collection of rap CDs. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre called Makaveli's infiltrations "the most organized and systematic attack the Pentagon has seen to date." Despite his legal plight, the teenager was more distressed by the media coverage than by the threat of prosecution. The press, by relying solely on government officials as sources, was to Makaveli's mind offering an account of the "Pentagon break-ins" that was riddled with half-truths about the extent of the damage. Desperate to tell his version of events, he called the one man he knew he could trust: John Vranesevich, 19, founder of AntiOnline, an organization dedicated to computer security--and the people who circumvent it. Vranesevich, who founded AntiOnline as a 10th grader in Beaver, Pa., is the confidant of hackers who want to boast of brilliant exploits, gripe about FBI interrogations, or poke fun at the media. Deeply suspicious of the traditional press, hackers rely on Vranesevich to publish, without cant, their manifestos, anecdotes, and tips. "People trust him because he is a hacker," says Weld Pond, a member of the software security group L0pht Heavy Industries, which is famed for its password-cracking programs. "He grew up in the computer underground." For hard-core techies and casual observers alike, AntiOnline's Web site ( www.antionline.com) provides a Baedeker to the often shadowy world of network takedowns and software snatching. "America needs your journalism. Bad," one fan, who goes by the screen name "cesium356," E-mailed Vranesevich. Vranesevich insists he isn't practicing journalism. "When I get something from [a hacker], I don't turn it into a story, I don't chop up their quotes," he says. He made [He does exactly that. Trying to fit into mainstream journalism and even profit from it.] his underground reputation as co-developer of Muerte, a program that can crash machines remotely over the Internet. In 1998, he has landed several scoops, scoring interviews His reputation is based off a single program that is a Denial of Service attack?! Antionline.com was created on Sep 5th, 1997. It was months later that his site began to get any attention beyond the script kiddies that got press there. Looking for 'muerte', you can't even find it on www.anticode.com among other places. After eventually finding it, the credits say "Muerte V2.1 TANAKO Production firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 1997". No mention of JP, Antionline, etc. Oh, hackers don't become known for helping write a single DoS tool.] with such stars as "JF," a member of the "Milw0rm" gang that allegedly hacked India's Bhadha Atomic Research Center in June. But Vranesevich's biggest coup came on March 2, when he posted highlights from his chat with Makaveli on his Web site. Within days, the exclusive interview--in which the youth lashed out at Secretary Hamre's dire assessment as overblown--was being cited in the country's most venerable news outlets, without a hint of promotion from Vranesevich. Pentagon break-ins. Makaveli told AntiOnline that the real brains behind the break-ins was still at large; unbeknown to the press, he said, this Mr. X was the FBI's real target. On March 4, Vranesevich snagged the first-ever interview with that alleged mastermind, Ehud Tenebaum, an 18-year-old Israeli nicknamed "Analyzer" who claimed to "own" 400 Defense Department systems. When Analyzer was charged soon after with illegally accessing computer systems, the only place to read about the underground's reaction was on AntiOnline. Reporting from the cutting edge has even gotten Vranesevich into a freedom-of-speech scrape. In May, he received a message from a contractor with the Defense Information Systems Agency, whose network had been hacked by a gang called the "Masters of Downloading." The contractor told Vranesevich, who has interviewed MOD members, that he could be considered an accomplice for posting details about the break-ins and advised him to abstain from covering the attacks "for your own legal protection." Aside from providing an outlet for hackers to vent, one of AntiOnline's major goals is to demystify those who compromise computer security. "There are a few bad apples," says Vranesevich, "but there are others who are very ethical, who are doing something to help the technology evolve." One of his favorite exclusives is a tract written by "sn1per," a Yet Vranesevich reports on the bad apples too. Specifically a hacker who goes by 'Dethcraze' who maliciously deleted at least one system in his travels. member of the legendary Nod Crew, a gang renowned for its programming skills. "Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a normal kid and be on the baseball team and have my parents cheer me on," wrote sn1per, who was raided by the FBI in June. Most of the public, still fiddling with Windows 95, may see hackers as supervillains, maladjusted geeks bent on destruction. But Vranesevich says most are just kids--skilled, arrogant, and often reckless, but kids nonetheless. And even reckless kids need someone to talk to--especially when federal agents have just carted away their beloved PC.