Dan McLean: Hacker Hall of Fame reveals rogues

It was some thirty years ago that American Vietnam veteran and computer nerd John Draper carved an infamous place in IT history as arguably the world’s first modern-day IT hacker.

Draper’s claim to fame was an ingenious discovery in 1972 that the plastic prize whistle found inside boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal could actually help him make free phone calls. The whistle, you see, produced a 2,600Hz pitch tone that provided access to phone company internal authorization systems and the ability to place long-distance calls without being charged.

Draper, who came to be known as Cap’n Crunch, was a builder of blue boxes – not the recycling container, but rather a handheld device that produced a variety of telephone system access-granting signal tones.

Discovery Online lists Draper among the nine members of its Hackers’ Hall of Fame, an infamous lot which also includes Robert Morris, author of the Morris Worm, which in 1988 brought down one-tenth of the Internet and crippled more than 6,000 systems. There’s also Kevin Mitnick, the reputed “Lost Boy of Cyberspace” and a former FBI’s Most Wanted alumnus who was particularly adept at snatching credit card numbers from a variety of online databases.

Among those other hacker legends are Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Kevin Poulsen, Johan Helsingius and Vladimir Levin.

The hacker community during the past 30 years has included the likes of cheaters, scammers, anarchists and a veritable rogues gallery of criminal types. They’ve also included academics, inventors, IT corporate leaders and idealists.

Take the case of the aforementioned Richard Stallman. Admittedly a hacker and pirate software distributor, Stallman’s more legitimate endeavours included developing and distributing free source code for Unix derivatives and critical elements of the kernel for Linux (thousands of lines of code that he personally authored are an integral part of that OS).

He’s regarded as the father of the free-software movement who spearheaded efforts to promote such thinking among developers and corporate bigwigs. He inspired a generation of like-minded programmers to author and distribute free software and open-source code, upon which others might leverage and improve. Stallman’s efforts through open-source computing user groups he helped form or participated in resulted in the creation of countless freeware and shareware applications.

Free to Stallman meant freedom and a belief that the inherent right of computer users is to use and share, copy and change any code they please, for whatever purpose they desire. To this day, Stallman leads a fight for the free(dom) computing cause.

Some of today’s respected IT leaders and innovators have their roots in hacking. Those who’ve dabbled in the black art include Apple computer founders Steven Wozniak and Steve Jobs, two John Draper disciples, who received his personal instruction on how to build blue boxes. Wozniak allegedly sold his manufactured wares to earn spending money for school. Draper once recalled that “Woz’s first (illegal) phone call was to the Pope. He wanted to make a confession.”

The legion of more notorious legendary hackers includes Canada’s own MafiaBoy, who during the week of Feb. 6 to 14, 2000, shut down Amazon.com, eBay and Yahoo, with computer script that clogged networks with garbage data that made thousands of phoney information requests. The efforts of MafiaBoy, among other things, brought to light both the vulnerability of and need for comprehensive security in e-business.

Then there’s Mark Abene – aka Phiber Optik – the prototype modern-day hacker, who learned his trade from other online like-minded types, and was the first hacker sentenced to jail in the U.S. Abene learned his trade by gleaning information from Internet bulletin boards, where he obtained the necessary instruction, guidance and posted access phone numbers that allowed him to remotely configure carrier telephone switches and obtain free telephone and other communication services. Those he met on bulletin board services taught him everything he knew about hacking his way into telephone networks around the world.

Abene, like many of his ilk, claims his dalliances in hacking were inspired not by personal gain, but rather by personal interest and the “intellectual rush.”

In his heyday, Abene was able to obtain free communication services from nearly every carrier in the U.S. In 1992, he was indicted in Pennsylvania and served 10 months in prison. He eventually walked the straight and narrow path, becoming the president of Crossbar Security. However, that company went out of business in 2001.

Thirty years of electronic hackers, among other things, shows that it takes all kinds of people to drive IT forward, even those whose intentions may be dark and insidious. The exploits of hackers since the ’70s have revealed mostly what’s wrong with computing: that it’s unreliable, fraught with vulnerability and, with a bit of resourcefulness, is relatively easy to compromise. But the likes of Jobs, Wozniak, Stallman and Dennis Richie, who’s credited with authoring the C programming language, have provided important innovation, too.

Revered by cyber outcasts and outlaws and reviled by IT’s establishment, hackers have during the past 30 years carved a dark place for themselves in the continuing evolution of computing.

McLean is director of outsourcing and IT utility research for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. He can be reached atdmclean@idccanada.com.