So Microsoft's internal network, the world learned Friday, has been vulnerable for an indeterminate period of time to mysterious outside forces who seem to be operating, at least at one level, from a computer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. At first glance, it has all the ingredients of a good cyberpunk science fiction thriller or a bad James Bond flick. The systems of the world's mightiest software corporation have been rummaged through like a basket of used toys at a flea market -- its crown-jewel source code laid bare for the taking.
And so far, we don't have a clue as to who was responsible. Are Russian mafia figures actually involved, or is the St. Petersburg data point just a link in a chain that leads elsewhere? Is this a case of industrial espionage or juvenile delinquency?
Or is it freedom fighting?
The antagonistic dynamic that exists between Microsoft and free-software hackers is unavoidably obvious to anyone who has been following the growth of open-source software over the past few years. At one point, arch open-source evangelist Eric Raymond was even linking to a picture of Bill Gates in Nazi regalia from the opensource.org Web site. In Europe, distaste for and distrust of out-of-control American capitalism are widely acknowledged motivating forces for free-software hacking. Open vs. proprietary -- it's the good vs. evil foundation of the hacker worldview. Hatred of Microsoft keeps some hackers up at night, plotting their own software-led world domination.
But would a subset of hackers go so far as to crack Microsoft itself in an effort to liberate source code? It's not inconceivable, though the most dedicated free-software hackers would no doubt turn up their noses at such behavior. Most hackers want to beat Microsoft through the strength of their code and the superiority of their development model. Stealing Microsoft's code would be cheating -- not at all the sort of free-market proof of open source's innate excellence that libertarians favor.
But one has to wonder: Even though Microsoft is now speedily engaged in spin control -- and is declaring that the source code to its operating systems and office suites is unharmed, unchanged and still under lock and key -- suppose the code has escaped? Suppose, even now, crypto-libertarian cyberpunks are stashing Microsoft source code in data havens, and dedicated hackers have begun to worry away at it, seeking out its secrets, striving to undermine Microsoft's proprietary competitive advantage?
Would they be any real threat? The challenge of discerning useful data in the hundreds of millions of lines of code that make up Windows 2000, Windows ME and Microsoft Office is daunting to the point of impossibility. And the legal wrath that would face any above-ground software developers whose code could be provably traced back to stolen Microsoft source would undoubtedly be ferocious and awe-inspiring.
But if open-source hackers, as Raymond insists, are really a tribe, then Microsoft is their tribal foe. And when emotions get heated in tribal warfare, logic and sense tend to be the first casualties. With all the flame wars that rage in cyberspace every time Microsoft and free software get mentioned in the same breath, would it really be a surprise to see some actual heat get generated?