A new teenage wasteland?

Script kiddies, Web site defacers, chat-room gangsters: Today's digital troublemakers get a bad rap. But in "The Hacker Diaries" we learn that they're really all right.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 5, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Behold the glory of the "Web site defacement," a truly modern act of juvenile delinquency. Ludicrous (replacing a Baptist Church Web page with an invocation to Satan, for example) and yet troubling in their signal of arcane technological mastery, Web site defacements are apparently all the rage among angry young computer users.

In the wake of real terrorist acts -- anthrax sent through the mail, jetliners piloted into buildings, suicide bombers -- messing with a Web site's HTML shouldn't rank very high on the list of threats to the public safety. To compare a requirement that one perform five defacements in a week before being granted entry into an "underground" gang to a similar Mafia mandate to commit murder before becoming a "made man," as author Dan Verton does in "The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers," is absurd overstatement. Nor does, say, an exploitable bug in Microsoft's Front Page HTML coding application add up to a threat to the command-and-control infrastructure for nuclear weapons in the United States.

And yet, for the teenagers profiled in "The Hacker Diaries," Web site defacements are symbolic acts of power, statements of real political purpose and rage. There is something going on here, and it deserves attention. Once upon a time, alienated teenagers acted out by racing cars or doing drugs. Now they go online and look for software vulnerabilities to exploit (some still race cars and do drugs, too). The biggest headline-getters, like the infamous Mafiaboy, whose denial-of-service attack on the Web's largest sites in June 1999 went beyond petty defacement, achieve what can almost be considered "real" damage.

"The Hacker Diaries," though flawed, is a worthy stab in the service of understanding what motivates today's generation of online saboteurs. Most valuable for the details it provides about actual teenagers (though often identities are disguised by pseudonyms, and in some cases one wonders how specific sections of dialog were captured), "The Hacker Diaries" manages, for the most part, to avoid demonization. The language does get a bit purple and breathless at times; Verton has difficulties maintaining a stance that is supposedly at odds with mainstream media's sensationalist treatment of "hackers" without at the same time succumbing to the tendency himself.

But for the most part, Verton succeeds in portraying these young men (and one woman) as real people: not freaks, not madmen, not aliens from the cyberspace dimension, but real human beings, products of broken families or loving parents, motivated by truculence or patriotism or passion.

In a culture increasingly dominated by digital technologies, by computers and networks and code, it should be no surprise that acts of information violence attract more attention than graffiti on subway cars or actual street-gang rampages. But the significance of teenagers parading through chat rooms with nicknames like "Noid" or "Genocide" or "RaFa" is not how much supposed financial damage they do, or whether the rise of "script kiddies" is a sign of the decline and fall of Western culture. It's that, to paraphrase Pogo yet again: "We have met the hackers, and they are us." When computers are everywhere, everyone becomes a geek. These kids are our sons and daughters or brothers and sisters, children, as are we all, now, of the information age.

Verton's greatest mistake is his failure to properly ground the concept of "hacker" from the get-go. This is always a tricky business, because even the people who proudly call themselves "hackers" often mean very different things -- as do a number of the subjects profiled in "The Hacker Diaries." What makes Verton's treatment especially confusing is that several of these teenagers he talks to do express a clear understanding that there is a difference between "hackers" who just like to understand the intricacies of their computers, and "crackers" who are intent on breaking into closed systems. But the narrative itself never achieves clarity on this point.

And almost wholly missing from the bulk of the book is the sense of the hacker as someone creative, as a programmer who comes up with solutions to a problem rather than just exploring a network, or using code nabbed from somewhere else. "The Hacker Diaries" would have benefited immensely from at least a dabble in some of the historical ground covered in Steven Levy's "Hackers" or the huge wealth of commentary inspired by the rise of the free software/open-source movement as an outgrowth of hacker culture. Instead, repeatedly, the term "hacker" is used indiscriminately, grouping together people who trade in pirated software, who deface Web sites, who want information to be "free" and who are simply really, really good with computers.

The contradictory impulses continue right to the end of the book. In the afterword, Verton writes:

"Teenage hacking, particularly the act of defacing public and corporate Web sites, is a cultural phenomenon that knows no borders. The roots of teenage hacking run deeper than any one celebrity hacker or group. As a result, it is a phenomenon of the information-age culture, and not any one country or geographical area. Thousands of Web sites run by governments, businesses, churches, schools, and nonprofit organizations are defaced every year."

But a few pages later, after essentially equating Web site mayhem with hacking, an equation that thousands and thousands of proud programmers would scoff at, Verton suddenly explodes into encomium:

"Teenage hackers are the great explorers of the Information Age. Some will stop at nothing to discover the possible in that which others say is impossible. These are the minds that have given the world great things, and the minds, unblemished by wisdom, that are still courageous enough to see the world in terms of right and wrong. And these are the minds that have the unique ability to think digitally, the minds that breathe life into silicon, though yet still inexperienced in the ways of the world and in need of a moral compass ... '[Their] goal is to change what needs to be changed: their lives, their world, or the Internet. And in a world where nothing is beyond hacking, they just might do it."

So what is it? Are hackers simply passionate people who are good with computers, or are they a threat to society, capable of doing vast damage to the world's technological infrastructure? By the end of the book, I was convinced that Verton himself had a more subtle understanding of the term, and that his intent was not to demonize, but to understand and appreciate. But his failure to be clear initially about what he is doing raises plenty of doubts along the way. And unfortunately for those who might pick up the book in a store and just glance at the first few pages, Verton's decision to open the book with a fabricated diary entry by a convicted "hacker" hits every sensationalist button and rings completely untrue -- the voice captured by the diary entry sounds nothing like an actual teenager.

But the book is still a good read, particularly for those of us who are interested in what kids are up to these days. As usual, some of the brighter of them are causing trouble. What's different about this generation as opposed to generations past is its access to powerful computers and the existence of a world-spanning Internet.

One consistent theme in the profiles is that even kids growing up in low-income situations find a way to get their hands on a computer. The earliest generations of hackers -- the people who populate Levy's "Hackers," for example -- didn't have it so easy. It was usually the truly extraordinary mind that found its way into the heart of the digital machine 20 or even 30 years ago. But today, the digital machine is everywhere. Computing is easy. Access to a wealth of software, constructive and destructive, is, literally, child's play.

This shouldn't be as much of a cause for alarm as the mainstream media makes it out to be. We live in technological times, so many of our earthquakes are going to be technological in nature. If our computing infrastructure has vulnerabilities that 16-year-olds can exploit, we should be able to fix them. One of the intriguing things not really explored in "The Hacker Diaries" is that Mafiaboy's legendary romp through the biggest names on the Internet -- Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, CNN, eTrade -- three years ago hasn't been duplicated to the same extent since. It might have been easy for him back then, but apparently it's not so easy for today's ornery young men.

The real lesson of "The Hacker Diaries" is that some verities are truly eternal. Kids who grow up in families where parents take a real interest in what they are doing, and inculcate real moral codes, tend to grow up into adults who are not doing time for bringing Yahoo down for a day. Verton includes examples of such kids in "The Hacker Diaries" and they are surprisingly refreshing. Parents need to pay attention. Instead of reading newspaper accounts of the latest horror perpetrated by a foulmouthed high schooler who's got a Pentium 4 and knows how to use it, they should be exploring the digital world with their offspring.

Call me conservative, but when the FBI comes knocking at my door to tell me that my daughter has just replaced the Web page for the Securities and Exchange Commission with a picture of a fornicating Pokémon, I'm going to feel like I screwed up, and not her.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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