The beginning of the electronic communication revolution that started
with the public use of telephones to the emergence of home computers has
been accompanied by corresponding social problems involving the activities
of so-called "computer hackers," or better referred to as the computer
underground (CU). The CU is composed of computer aficionados who stay on
the fringes of legality. The CU is composed of relatively intelligent
people, in contrast to the media's description of the ultra intelligent and
sophisticated teenage "hacker." The majority have in common the belief
that information should be free and that they have "a right to know." They
often have some amount of dislike for the government and the industries
who try to control and commercialize information of any sort. This paper
attempts to expose what the CU truly is and dispel some of the myths
propagated by the media and other organizations. This paper also tries to
show the processes and reasons behind the criminalization of the CU and
how the CU is viewed by different organizations, as well as some of the
processes by which it came into being. What the CU is has been addressed
by the media, criminologists, secuity firms, and the CU themselves, they
all have a different understanding or levels of comprehention, this paper
attempts to show the differences between the views as well as attempt to
correct misunderstandings that may have been propagated by misinformed
sources. The differences between the parties of the CU such as,
"hackers," "crackers," "phreaks," "pirates," and virus writers have rarely
been recognized and some deny that there are differences thus this paper
attempts to give a somewhat clearer view and define exactly what each
party is and does as well as how they relate to one another.
Every individual in the CU has a different level of sophistication
when it comes to computers, from the height of the advanced virus writer
and network hacker to the pirate who can be at the same level as a novice
computer user. The prevalence of the problem has been dramatized by the
media and enforcement agents, and evidenced by the rise of specialized
private security firms to confront the "hackers." The average person's
knowledge about the CU has been derived mostly from the media. The media
gets their information from former CU individuals who have been caught,
from law enforcement agents, and from computer security specialists. The
computer underground, as it is called by those who participate in it, is
composed of people adhering to one or several roles: "hacker," "phreaker,"
"pirate," "cracker," and computer virus developer. Terms such as these
have different meanings for those who have written about the computer
underground, such as the media, and those who participate in it.
The media's concept of the Computer Underground is the main cause of
the criminalization of the activity and has largely occurred as the result
of media dramatization of the "problem" (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988).
In fact, it was a collection of newspaper and film clips that was
presented to the United States Congress during legislative debates as
evidence of the computer hacking problem (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988,
p.107). Unfortunately, the media assessment of the computer underground
displays a naive understanding of CU activity. The media generally makes
little distinction between different types of CU activity. Most any
computer- related crime activity can be attributed to "hackers."
Everything from embezzlement to computer viruses have, at one time or
another, been attributed to them. Additionally, hackers are often
described as being sociopathic or malicious, creating a media image of the
computer underground that may exaggerate their ability for doing damage.
The labeling of the CU and especially hackers as being "evil" is well
illustrated by these media examples. The first is from Eddie Schwartz, a
WGN-Radio talk show host.
Here Schwartz is addressing "Anna," a self-identified hacker that
has phoned into the show: You know what Anna, you know what disturbs me?
You don't sound like a stupid person but you represent a . . . a . . . a .
. . lack of morality that disturbs me greatly. You really do. I think you
represent a certain way of thinking that is morally bankrupt. And I'm not
trying to offend you, but I . . .I'm offended by you! (WGN Radio, 1988)
Another example is from NBC-TV's "Hour Magazine" featured a segment on
"computer crime." In this example, Jay Bloombecker, director of the
National Center for Computer Crime Data, discusses the "hacker problem"
with the host of the show, Gary Collins.
Collins: . . . are they (hackers) malicious in intent, or are they
simply out to prove, ah, a certain machismo amongst their peers?
Bloombecker: I think so. I've talked about "modem macho" as one
explanation for what's being done. And a lot of the cases seem to involve
proving that he . . . can do something really spiffy with computers. But,
some of the cases are so evil, like causing so many computers to break,
they can't look at that as just trying to prove that you're better than
other people. GC: So that's just some of it, some kind of "bet" against
the computer industry, or against the company. JB: No, I think it's more
than just rottenness. And like someone who uses graffiti doesn't care too
much whose building it is, they just want to be destructive.
GC: You're talking about a sociopath in control of a computer! JB:
Ah, lots of computers, because there's thousands, or tens of thousands of
hackers. (NBC-TV, 1988)
The media's obsession with the computer underground, that is generally
labeled as hacking, focuses almost entirely upon the morality of their
actions. Since media stories are taken from the accounts of the police,
security personnel, and members of the computer underground who have been
caught, each of whom have different perspectives and 20 definitions of
their own, the media's definition, if not inherently biased, is at best
Criminologists, are less judgmental than the media, but no more
precise. Labels of "electronic trespassers"(Parker, 1983), and "electronic
vandals" (Bequai, 1987) have both been applied to the CU's hacking element
specifically. Both terms, while acknowledging that "hacking" is deviant,
shy away from labeling it as "criminal" or sociopathic behavior. Yet
despite this seemingly non-judgmental approach to the computer underground,
both Parker and Bequai have testified before Congress, on behalf of the
computer security industry, on the "danger" of computer hackers.
Unfortunately, their "expert" testimony was largely based on information
culled from newspaper stories, the objectiveness of which has been
seriously questioned (Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce 1988 p.105).
Computer security specialists, on the other hand, are often quick to
identify the CU as criminals. Similarly, some reject the notion that there
are different roles and motivations among the computer underground
participants and thereby refuse to define just what it is that a "hacker"
or "phreaker" does. John Maxfield, a "hacker expert," suggests that
differentiating between "hackers" and "phone phreaks" is a moot point,
preferring instead that they all just be called "criminals." The
reluctance or inability to differentiate between roles and activities in
the computer underground, as exhibited in the media and computer security
firms, creates an ambiguous definition of "hacker" that possesses two
extremes: the modern-day bank robber at one end, the trespassing teenager
at the other. Thus, most any criminal or mischievous act that involves
computers can be attributed to "hackers," regardless of the nature of the
Participants in the computer underground also object the overuse and
misuse of the word hacking. Their objection centers around the
indiscriminate use of the word to refer to computer related crime in
general and not, specifically, the activities of the computer underground:
Whenever the slightest little thing happens involving computer security,
or the breach thereof, the media goes fucking batshit and points all
their fingers at us 'nasty hackers.' They're so damned ignorant it's sick
(EN, message log, 1988). . . . whenever the media happens upon anything
that involves malicious computer use it's the "HACKERS." The word is a
catch phrase it makes mom drop the dishes and watch the TV. They use the
word because not only they don't really know the meaning but they have
lack of a word to describe the perpetrator. That's why hacker has such a
bad name, its always associated with evil things and such (PA, message
log, 1988). I never seen a phreaker called a phreaker when caught and he's
printed in the newspaper. You always see them "Hacker caught in telephone
fraud." "Hacker defrauds old man with phone calling card." What someone
should do is tell the fucken media to get it straight (TP2, message log,
The difference between the different elements of the computer
underground has been generally obscured by the media. Terms such as
Cracker, Phreaker, Pirate, or Virus writer have been generally replaced
with the all encompassing word "HACKER". Each element is associated with
the computer underground and some are bigger players than others but none
of them can qualify individually as the total sum of all the elements.
There are major differences between the elements of the CU that is rarely
understood by someone on the outside.
The use of the word "hacker", which is now generally accepted to be
part of the CU, has gone through drastic changes in definition. "Hacker"
was first applied to computer related activities when it was used by
programmers in the late 1950's. At that time it referred to the pioneering
researchers, such as those at M.I.T., who were constantly adjusting and
experimenting with the new technology (Levy, 1984. p.7). A "hacker" in
this context refers to an unorthodox, yet talented, professional
programmer. This use of the term still exits today, though it is largely
limited to professional computing circles. The computer professionals
maintain that using "hackers" (or "hacking") to refer to any illegal or
illicit activity is a corruption of the "true" meaning of the word. Bob
Bickford, a professional programmer who has organized several programmer
At a conference called "Hackers 4.0" we had 200 of the most brilliant
computer professionals in the world together for one weekend; this crowd
included several PhD's, several presidents of companies (including large
companies, such as Pixar), and various artists, writers, engineers, and
programmers. These people all consider themselves Hackers: all derive
great joy from their work, from finding ways around problems and limits,
from creating rather than destroying. It would be a great disservice to
these people, and the thousands of professionals like them, to let some
pathetic teenaged criminals destroy the one word which captures their
style of interaction with the universe. (Bickford, 1988).
The more widely accepted definition of "hacker" refers to one who obtains
unauthorized, if not illegal, access to computer systems and networks.
This definition was popularized by the movie War Games and, generally
speaking, is the one used by the media. It is also the definition favored
by the computer underground. Both the members of the computer underground
and professional computer programmers claim ownership of "hacker," and
each defend the "proper" use of term. However, since computer break-ins
are likely to receive more media attention than clever feats of
programming, the CU definition is ...