Welcome to the world of the closet

Yetzer-Ra, a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound giant of a man, paces between his “subjects” in the smoke-filled Goth club Click + Drag, located in the old meat-packing district of Manhattan.

Inside the club are leather-clad, black-lipped females and young men dressed in women’s underwear.

Yetzer’s a hacker and an acknowledged “social engineer” with curious nocturnal habits. There are thousands of people like him, who by day are system and network administrators, security analysts and start-up co-founders. When night comes, they transform into vampire wanna-bes, hedonists, Goths, cross-dressers and sadomasochists.

These are the self-proclaimed freedom fighters of cyberspace. They’ve even got a name for it: hacktivism. And political parties and human rights groups are circling around to recruit hacktivists into their many causes.

In July, for example, the Libertarian Party set up a table at the HOPE 2000 (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) collected donations. And members of civil-rights groups, including the Zapatistas, a Mexican rebel group, spoke up at one of two sessions on hacktivism.

But even without such civil-liberties groups trying to organize them, hacktivists have been busy on their own. They have formed privacy-related software companies like ZeroKnowledge Systems USA Inc. in Montreal. They’re developing anonymous, inexpensive e-mail and Web-hosting services through the DataHaven Project Inc. (www.dhp.com). And they’re trying to get the Internet out to Third World human rights organizations through groups like Cult of the Dead Cow Communications (cDc; www.cultdeadcow.com/hacktivismo.html).

In fact, Yetzer said he feels hacktivism’s pull so strongly that he makes a dramatic claim: “The Internet is the next Kent State, and we’re the ones who are probably going to get shot.”

Like any social engineer, Yetzer exaggerates. Except for the four-year jail terms handed down to Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen, sentencing for even criminal hacking in the past two years has been relatively light (mostly probation and fines) because of the suspects’ young ages.

But the comparison to the psychedelic hippies of the ’60s who spoke out against the Vietnam War may not be so far off the mark. Only this time, the hackers are Goths and hedonists. And they’re using the Internet to rid the world of tyranny.

“The government tries to put electronic activism into the peg of cyber-terrorism and crime with its Infowar eulogies. But E-Hippies, cDc and others aren’t criminals. The Internet just multiplies our voice,” said Ricardo Dominguez, who edits a Zapatista revolutionary publication and operates the Electronic Disturbance Theater (www.thing.net/rdom).

Dominguez has been working with the Zapatista rebels in Mexico since 1994 to develop non-violent direct-action tools and spread information about conditions in Chiapas, a mountainous state in southern Mexico, where for the past five years the Zapatistas have clashed with the government.

“I want to bring the net.hacker, net.activist and net.artist into a dialogue about what we can leave to the future for those without a voice and without power – something the Zapatistas can teach us all,” Dominguez said.

Another group reaching out to hackers and technologists is the EFF, which last year successfully argued in the infamous Bernstein ruling, which stated that software code is protected as a form of speech.

Robin Gross, the EFF’s lead attorney in the case of the Encino, Calif.-based Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) vs. 2600 Magazine, an on-line hacker quarterly, said hackers are naturals for political activism.

“[Hackers] question conventional models. They don’t just look at technology and say, ‘This is how it works.’ They say, ‘How can I make it better?'” Gross explained. “They look at society that way, too – their government, their schools or their social situation. They say, ‘I know how to make this better,’ and they go for it.”

In the MPAA case, staffers at Middle Island, N.Y.-based 2600 Enterprises Inc. were threatened with imprisonment if they didn’t remove a link on the 2600 Web site to the code used to crack DVD encryption.

“It’s all about greed,” Yetzer said.. “But we have a fundamental right to watch our movies whatever way we want and share our music with who we want.”

The Libertarian Party also recruits hackers and technologists. At HOPE, the party’s New York State committee (www.cownow.com) handed out fliers, signed up recruits and took a “sticker” poll of party affiliations.

“The poll got hacked, but I’d say about half the stickers were yellow – for libertarian, anarchist or independent,” said Bonnie Scott, who heads the Libertarians’ New York state committee under the hacker handle Rabbit.

According to Scott, many party members are programmers. “We’re trying to rally hackers around encryption, privacy and freedom-of-communication planks,” she explained. “Hackers can offer us…freedom, because the Internet routes around tyranny.”

But hackers have ways beyond the Internet to electronically spread their message.

Take a young man named Numeric Overflow, for instance, who late one night broke the lock to a lit-up roadside-construction sign and reprogrammed it to read, “Hack Planet Earth” in support of the 2600 Magazine staff. But then, he also said he likes to use his reprogrammed garage-door opener to pop open his neighbour’s garage doors.

Sounding a lot like Yetzer, 21-year-old Numeric justifies this in the pedantic hacker way. “One of my friend’s mothers sees me later and said, ‘Oh, don’t let that guy come over again,’ like I’m some hoodlum or something,” Numeric said. “But isn’t it better that I showed them before someone else did it and stole their stuff?”

Growing up

This moral confusion is typical of the younger hacking crowd. But Stanton McCandish, advocacy director at the EFF, said most of the older hackers (28 years and up) have grown up.

“I saw disillusionment in the mid-1990s, as more bleeding-edge hackers ended up going to jail for cracking. That bummed out their whole theme,” McCandish said. “But now they’ve learned some limits, and they can still operate within them.”

That means the older hackers do develop some scruples. For example, McCandish recounts that the EFF Web site (www.eff.org) was a popular target of punk hackers back in the mid-’90s, with hacks and defacements occurring weekly. Now, it’s been six months since the last attack on the EFF’s site, he said. When the site did get hacked, McCandish posted a message about it on 2600’s bulletin board, and the “hackers who responded called that hacker a lamer,” he said.

A Windows NT administrator by day, Yetzer, 28, said he can’t stand that his former employer, an East Coast-based Web-hosting firm, lies to its customers.

“My leader, the grand Bruhaha, had this ethical dilemma. We had this three-hour power failure. When clients called in, I told them the truth: that we’d had a power failure. I got demoted for that. My co-worker told them we got struck by lightning. He got a promotion.”

Yetzer later quit without leaving any logic bombs or Back Orifices on the network. “Would serve them right,” he said. But Yetzer, the grown-up with scruples, adds, “Of course, if I did anything like that, I’d never work again.”

There are even more mature hackers ahead of Yetzer who have grown into heavy hitters in the information technology community. Hackers like Yobie Benjamin, 40, a partner at New York-based Ernst & Young International.

Infamous hackers Mudge, Weld and Hobbit are another example of maturity, having spun off a venture capital-backed consulting services firm called @Stake Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., which now has five offices around the U.S.

McCandish said this growth process is no different than the hippies who spun off their surfboard and T-shirt shops into big businesses after they grew up.

“The process that turned the dope-smoking hippie of 1968 into the employed investor of 1985 is similarly going on here today,” said McCandish. “I just hope that the hippie-to-yuppie disillusionment that took place historically doesn’t happen to hackers, too.”