pulled in an estimated two thousand hackers, ex-hackers, security pros and
activists to swap war stories and tips, hack the venue and each other, and
engage in some navel gazing on their subcultures' place in the post dot-com
As in years past, the bi-annual gathering at the gloomy Hotel Pennsylvania
provided hackers with an anti-establishment alternative to the bigger,
brighter and more commercial DefCon convention that takes place in Las Vegas
later in the summer. Short on technical talks and tee-shirt vendors, long
on lefty political philosophy and fiery manifestos, the conference was
exemplified by one of its keynote speakers: Aaron McGruder, writer and
illustrator of the often-controversial nationally-syndicated daily comic
strip The Boondocks.
Last year, McGruder used his space in the
funny pages to criticize the motion picture industry for its legal efforts
to squash DeCSS, a computer program that defeats the scrambling system on
DVD movies. His talk Saturday was peppered with biting humor, as he railed
against the Bush administration, corporate-controlled mass media, political
corruption, financial scandal and U.S. foreign policy, declaring that
nothing short of a revolution could restore honesty to government.
Evoking the anti-war movement of the 1960s, McGruder compared the activism
of that era with the original Star Wars trilogy -- spirited rebels advancing
their cause though the sheer power of their numbers. But the future, he
said, could be seen in a more recent sci-fi franchise. "The new parable for
our time is The Matrix," said McGruder. "Five people, but five people who
are really good at computers. That seems to be the only battlefield where
the revolution can actually be won."
McGruder's talk drew a rare standing ovation from the hackers packed into
the conference hall. But in other sessions, the attendees themselves had a
less romanticized view of their world. San Francisco hacker and activist
"Gweeds" slammed those hackers who traded their anarchistic ethic for jobs
in the "military industrial security complex," i.e., the raft of computer
security companies that sprang up in the dot-com era.
After joining or starting security firms, hackers invariably support the
agendas of law enforcement, defense and intelligence agencies determined to
hype the hacker threat and increase their own budgets, Gweeds said. "They're
making money, sure, but they're also extending the reach of the Federal
police state," said Gweeds.
Gweeds' sermon triggered a twinge of conscience in 24-year-old "Sloppy,"
formerly a member of Hagis, a hacking group that enjoyed notoriet
y in the late 1990s after defacing NASA, Yahoo, Greenpeace and other
sites with messages protesting the imprisonment of hacker Kevin Mitnick. "I
identify with Gweeds on a lot of this," Sloppy said after the talk.
Sloppy now works for a respected computer security firm, which
SecurityFocus Online agreed not to identify, and he says he sometimes does
forensic work on systems that have been hacked. He admits to mixed feelings
about working in the industry. "When they hired me, they asked, 'With your
hacking background, how would you feel if it came up that you had to testify
against another hacker?''" says Sloppy. He recalls reluctantly answering
that he'd testify in his professional role, if he had to. "I said, I
wouldn't lie or anything."
"It's hard to make a living unless you're with a security company," says the
Gweeds admits he doesn't have a good alternative for hackers determined to
make a comfortable living. "I just think that it's dangerous, because you
don't think of your friend who might go to jail," he said after the talk. By Kevin Poulsen