Los Angeles Times

Thursday, July 24, 1997

Home Edition

Section: Life & Style

Page: E-1

'Hacking Ain't What It Used to Be'



It's 2 o'clock in the morning and up on the 25th floor of the Aladdin Hotel, Deth Veggie, who is 23, and Grandmaster, 27, are feeling their age. They're reminiscing about the good old days of computer hacking and they're growing rueful. Young hackers, they complain, have no idea what the older generation went through.

"In our day, you had to stumble onto the Net. Now, it's in your face," says Grandmaster, who in 1984 published one of the world's first electronic magazines from his Lubbock, Texas, bedroom by uploading his musings on life, music and hackers to pirate bulletin boards. "That's right," agrees Deth Veggie. "We had to walk 10 miles uphill through the snow to use the Net and then crank the handle, give a push and run and jump on. And remember when it was 110-baud, GM?"

Grandmaster shakes his head. "Yeah, man, it was bells and whistles and string and Pringles cans. Oh, we had it rougher than kids today." Grandmaster laughs at his geezer impersonation, but at the Aladdin on July 12, site of DefCon, the hackers' fifth annual convention, not all laments for the pioneering past are ironic. Often they preface ageless gripes about contemporary shortcomings.

"Kids today, they're in for the thrill, not the knowledge," says se7en, at 28 a veteran hacker from the Bay Area. "They don't want to spend 10 to 12 hours a day in a dark room for 10 years learning about systems. They say, 'Show me how to grab this file or crash that server. Oh, that's neat. Now show me something else cool.' "

Pot calling the kettle black.

Se7en's handle derives from seven-digit telephone numbers-he's an old phone "phreaker." In ancient times, more than 15 years ago, he'd sneak through phone lines onto the Internet, then the Department of Defense-funded preserve of Cold War eggheads.

This nickname was taken on shortly after the movie 'seven' was released.

Now point-and-click technology ushers millions onto the Net. Companies compete desperately to produce operating systems, servers, data bases. Kids today can "recipe hack"-instead of cooking up strategies, they download readily available hacker tools and then joy ride through systems.

"Hacking," se7en sighs, "ain't what it used to be." These days, he is not so much se7en, hacker, as Christian Valor, computer-security specialist, who is hired by companies around the country to break into their systems and show them how to plug the holes.

se7en has been on a SINGLE penetration contract, and was nothing more than an onlooker according to other team members.

Valor says he charges $2,800 a day. At least once a month, he says, an agent from the FBI's National Computer Crime Squad asks him to lunch and picks his brain. He goes, he says, "as a public service."

se7en's current rate is almost a third of this figure.


"You can be in St. Petersburg and attack Citibank," Schneier says, citing the case of Vladimir Levin, Russia's most famous hacker. "Things are nastier now that the Net allows you to automate your attacks. You don't need skills. What you need is ethics."

An unwritten code of ethics, in fact, does exist, says se7en / Valor, an apostle of hacker responsibility. Look but don't touch, that's the Golden Rule. Cruising systems is OK for knowledge, not for profit. Never destroy data. And, a nod to the younger generation, do your own work.

This coming from the person who claims to have hacked and deleted 100 systems in the fight against pornography. Hypocrite?

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