by Christian Möller
One rather neglected chapter in the history of the Internet is the history of hackers. Basically hackers are computer specialists, mostly young people, with the goal to find security holes in computer systems, intrude in remote networks and then either vanish without a trace or claim the fame for their efforts. And whereas facts are scarce, myths, gossip and netlore bloom on the Internet. But while historiography on this topic is just aborning, Hollywood has already discovered computers and networks as a source of various plots from love stories to action thrillers, and some films even explicitly pick out hacking as their major theme.
Waitress: “You are reading about cyber-terrorists?”
Mitnick: “First Amendment Freedom Fighters!”
Waitress: “I think, this is like the Contras and the
Sandinists, it’s all a perspective thing.”
Mitnick: “Well, anything anti Big Brother is
probably good, don’t you think?”
Waitress: “Yeah, I have to agree with that.”
(Takedown, Joe Chapelle, USA 2000)
In 1972 Cap’n Crunch, whose real name is John T. Draper, got to be known as the first phreaker (the word is a combination of phone and freak) because he discovered that he could command the phone system of Ma Bell to connect a call by playing a tune on a toy whistle he found in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereals.
Although Draper eventually was sentenced for fraud by wire, phreaking and blueboxing – basically the manipulation of telephone systems with a little box that generates tones just like the Cap’n Crunch toy whistle – remained popular worldwide until the late 1990s when phone networks became digitized and more secure. While part of the blueboxing community just used their skills for late night chats with overseas friends or to call a random phone booth on the other side of the Atlantic, soon phreaking was interwoven to some extent with phone and credit card fraud, forming the criminal part of the transatlantic mailboxing scene.
The transition from the analogue to the digital world meant that now not only the phone networks themselves could be manipulated but, equipped with a computer and a modem, it also became possible to use the phone lines to access remote computers. One of the world’s most famous hackers, Kevin D. Mitnick, for example started to (mis-)use his computing skills in the early 1980s, first of all for pranks with telecommunication companies.
Yet soon he was reported for breaking into the Pentagon’s NORAD computer through the ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet, and was eventually arrested five times throughout the 1980s. When in 1992 he was wanted for violation of his probation terms he vanished as the FBI raided his place to arrest him and eluded an FBI manhunt for more than two years.
During this time Mitnick again gained access to confidential data of companies and offices like the Department for Motor Vehicles (DMV) as well as to telephone and cellular networks, eavesdropping FBI phone calls to stay one step ahead of his persecutors. He also stole thousands of credit card numbers but never used a single one of them.
With the help of another young computer expert, Tsutomu Shimomura, whose private computer Mitnick captured at Christmas in 1994 and who took up the personal feud, the FBI finally managed to arrest 31-year old Mitnick after a cross-country pursuit in 1995. He was released from prison in January 2000, and his last probation ended in January 2003. The story of Mitnick was motivation for numerous websites, bumper stickers (“Free Kevin!”) and even a movie, Takedown (Joe Chapelle, USA 2000), from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken.
Another startling story is the one about the German hacker Karl Koch, alias Hagbard Celine, who vanished on 23 May 1989 and later was found dead in a forest near his home town of Hannover. Police investigation said it was suicide. In the 1980s Koch hacked into a computer in the US and sold the information to the Russian intelligence service, the KGB.
Later on he was caught in a net woven by journalists scenting a scoop, state police accusing him of espionage and mental problems caused by the excessive use of drugs. This case, too, inspired a movie (23, Hans-Christian Schmid, D 1998) along with a number of conspiracy theories.
However, while part of the net community celebrates these hackers as heroes, modern Robin Hoods fooling the mighty and as fighters for freedom of expression, government officials tend to treat them as run-of-the-mill criminals. Or, as some critics say, courts even want to make an example of each hacker trial to get the message through to their comrades and scare them off, because they target the very economic core of the Internet: the normal user’s trust in security and integrity of the WWW.
Hacking goes Hollywood.
In spite (or just because) of the ongoing discussion between proponents and adversaries of the hacking scene, movies are made that romanticize actual events – like Takedown does with the Mitnick case – or make up whole new stories. Naturally a movie is adopting a stance to the topic it deals with, intentionally or not. So, what answers do these films give to the question, of whether hacking is an honorable job, done by advocates of the idea of freedom of expression, a harmless prank or simply a crime.
First of all, computers and decentralized networks generally are not a new topic in television and cinema. As early as 1973 the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed Die Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, D 1973), a movie about a (fictional) computer program, Simulacron, which is able to simulate a full featured reality. In 1983 the world was on the brink of nuclear war, caused by an underage hacker who broke into NORAD’s main computer, mistaking real-time war room planning for a video game. At least this is the story told to us by the movie Wargames (USA 1983, John Badham).
But although hacking is used as part of the plot for this story, it is rather a film against the madness of thermonuclear warfare. Hacking is just used to trigger the story and in the end to save the world by teaching the computer that “the only winning move is not to play”. Not so much of a fight for freedom of expression but rather a plea against placing decisions in the hands of computers.
Depicting the Invisible.
Another kind of war is described by Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley, one of the main characters in Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, USA 1992):
“There is a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information: what we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about the information.”
The film, produced by the same people who did Wargames nine years earlier, now focuses not only on computer networks as a new way of communication but on the ability to access and exploit information. Information means control. And you need technical skills and knowledge to access this information.
The film does not criticize this knowledge as such, but the way it is used. While shifting money from the bank accounts of the Republican Party to the Black Panthers is regarded as a prank, the proprietary use of information technology is condemned, because it would lead to a dangerous imbalance of information “haves” and information “have-nots”.
Anyway, movies by nature have a problem to depict the exchange of information as such. Whereas a laptop or a computer terminal can be added easily to the mis en scène it is difficult to illustrate the work of a computer virus or hacker attack.
In Sneakers quite a number of McGuffin-like black boxes are used to translate cryptography and algorithms into Hollywood pictures. Just connecting one of the many black boxes – oblivious to problems with different interfaces of course – to either a CCTV camera or a bank’s mainframe enables you to gain control over the respective system. If there is a password required a large splash screen will pop up, asking you for the password and answering either with “access granted” or “access denied” in exactly the way the normal work station in your office won’t.
The 1995 movie Hackers (Iain Softley, USA 1995) chooses a new way of depicting the flow of data in computer networks and of visualizing computer networks. Needless to say that though these images are colourful and edited in quick succession they have nothing to do with reality.
Another fact far removed from real life is that the ability to type fast seems to be the basic skill which makes for the perfect hacker, as can be seen also years later, for example in a very explicit scene in Swordfish (Dominic Sena, USA 2001).
In opposition to so-called crackers, script kiddies and other firebrands, hackers stress that they have their own ethical and moral standards, obligation and sense of duty. They claim that they are just seeking to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, are not trying to get personal benefit from fraud, that they harm no one but instead are working to find security holes and to make the Internet a safer place.
While this is not easy to see in the cases of Kevin Mitnick or Karl Koch there are some hackers that became decisive interceders for the right of freedom of expression and privacy. The late Wau Holland, cofounder of the Chaos Computer Club, is one example.
From the very beginning, hackers surrounded themselves with the air of exclusiveness and secrecy, paired with a considerable amount of paranoia. In this way they built on their own myths like in the Hacker Manifesto, written by Mentor and issued in Phrack on 8 January 1986, that gives some impression of the hackers’ self-image as “computer samurai” or “keyboard cowboys”:
“[…] This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore … and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge … and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias … and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.
I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all … after all, we’re all alike.”
The film Hackers also establishes a new way of describing the hacking scene as a part of the youth culture with its own lifestyle and attitude. A clear segregation can be seen between the two semantic rooms of the classic understanding of crime and justice.
This is represented by FBI agents and business people on the one hand, and on the other by the hacker gang, in which people have pseudonyms like Crash Override and Cereal Killer, which stands for the emerging new world of computer networks and information technologies with their own laws and values. For example, a strong position against all kinds of hacking attempts for example is represented by the FBI agents, who refer to the Hacker Manifesto as “commi bullshit”:
“Hackers penetrate and ravage delicate public and private computer systems, infecting them with viruses and stealing sensitive materials for their own interest. These people are terrorists.”
The hackers of course have a different understanding of what they do and finally succeed in proving their innocence by disabling a dangerous computer virus in a concerted action by the global hacking community.
Again the best hackers enjoy the highest status and court indictments even heighten their prestige. But while the hackers that are described in this movie are oblivious to laws and police they do have their own ethical standards: triggering the school’s sprinkler for fun is OK, sinking an oil tanker to blackmail a company isn’t.
Soon the whole plot of the movie comes back to the fight of good against evil, which is transferred from the scenery of the Wild West to modern computer networks.
Takedown, the movie based on a book by Kevin Mitnick’s opponent Shimomura, at first glance presents an unbiased view of the hunt for Mitnick from the time when he violated the terms of probation until his arrest in 1995. The ambiguity of hacking is described in a conversation between Mitnick and a waitress he meets in a bar:
Mitnick: “I think the First Amendment is pretty significant. It has value.”
Waitress: “I’m not quite sure what hackers breaking into the DMV or whatever has to do with the First Amendment.”
Mitnick: “Well, I think the public has a right to know what’s going on. With everything. I mean, who you gonna trust? You gotta trust Big Brother, you gotta trust corporations. Think they’re looking out for you. Think of hacking as a public service.”
Waitress: “If I knew all hackers were altruistic, I would.”
Taking a closer look, however, the position taken by the film can soon be recognized. While Mitnick is described as a shy computer genius Shimomura is depicted as a keen show-off who enjoys being in the spotlight of congress hearings and media interest. But he also keeps back information for his own advantage instead of making this public as hackers should.
Again, as seen before, the story soon boils down to the fight of two individuals. Rather than bargaining the pros and cons of hacking the film judges the personal integrity of its characters: hackers can be a watchdog regarding freedom of expression and data protection as long as they stick to their own high moral standards. But once they disobey these standards they will become corrupt and dangerous, as the example of Shimomura shows in this film. Although in the end Mitnick is arrested, the film depicts Shimomura, even though he worked together with police, as the moral loser – from a hacker point of view.
Caught in the Matrix.
The film Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, USA 1999) paints the picture of a world where access to networks is highly restricted and mankind is in fact an organic part of this network without knowing it. All surroundings, friends, jobs, basically the whole of life are just a computerized simulation.
People lack the ability to see more than those in Plato’s cave metaphor. To see the situation clearly from a meta level and to escape the matrix physically, hackers are once again needed, who can freely act in both the digital simulation of the Matrix and the tattered remains of the real world.
Intellectual skills are translated into the ability to move within virtual realities, thus creating a new symbiosis between man and machine. But while Neo and his hacker companions strive to enable people to emerge from their immaturity others try to get back into the comfortable simulation rather than living in the hostile environment of a world dominated by machines. One question that remains is whether we really want to know each and everything, even if it might scare us.
All in all in the films about the computerized world, and especially about hacking, “information” is regarded as one of the most important assets of today. In general the unhindered access to all kinds of information is preached, but often problems arise where there is an imbalance of those who are in possession of information and those who are not.
What is more, people with access to restricted information tend to misuse their knowledge for their own advantage. Or in other words: the danger lies not so much in information as such, no matter how scary it might be, but in the deficiencies of individuals. While at first sight this seems to plead for the unrestricted access to every bit and piece of information for everyone, conversely it could be interpreted that because of the dangers of the human factor there is a sound reason to keep some information well hidden.
In a perfect world there won’t be a need for hackers then, but as the world is far from perfect there must be at least a couple of upright heroes protecting us from the bad guys, who are misusing information. In Hollywood hackers seem to be seen as “keyboard cowboys”. However, they are surely pranksters, sometimes criminals, but whether they are really “first amendment freedom fighters” is a question that has yet to be answered.