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Paranoia runs deep at hacker convention

Industry Standard

July 24, 2000
Web posted at: 1:35 p.m. EDT (1735 GMT)

NEW YORK (IDG) -- "I don't want to be recognized," says the guy in the yellow poncho and Groucho Marx glasses. "People at my office knew I wanted to come here, so I have to be careful."

"Here" is H2K, the convention sponsored by hacker bible 2600 and held in New York July 14-16. Despite a freewheeling, anti-authoritarian atmosphere in the Hotel Pennsylvania, paranoia at the event was palpable -- perhaps not entirely without reason. The gathering took place just days before opening arguments in the high-stakes copyright-infringement case that the Motion Picture Association of America has filed against 2600.

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Groucho is in the back of a conference room, taking a break between panels. He looks to be in his early 20s, sports wire-framed glasses behind the novelty specs and refuses to divulge even his nom de net, or "handle." Despite his elaborate disguise, Groucho produces an employee ID from a major Net-hosting firm -- careful to keep an index finger over the name on the card. "I'm on probation for downloading [pirated software] 'warez' on their bandwidth. So being here is the worst thing I could do."

Groucho's supervisors, though, shouldn't be overly concerned about what their errant techie finds at H2K. The first talk of the conference, "Selling Out: The Pros and Cons of Working for The Man," sounds like a '60s counter-culture revival meeting. But it soon becomes clear that the speaker, a network-security consultant named Scott Blake, is really here to pitch the largely teenage audience on, well, selling out.

"Business, government, even academia -- basically, collecting a regular paycheck, means working for The Man," says Blake, 28. Among the enticements he cites are benefits: "As some of you grow up - God forbid - get married and have kids, health insurance will become really, really important - trust me."; business cards: "Some of you laugh, but they're important!"; and "perquisites": "At some places you get, like, servants." His final selling point: colleagues. Regular contact with other people, he informs the audience, can be a good thing.

Next door in the Networking Room, Rob, who owns and operates 30 pay phones in Long Island, N.Y., sits at a display table behind a pair of semi-dismantled coin-operated phones. Thanks to their flimsy security, customer-owned coin-operated telephones, or COCOTs, are a favorite target of hackers and "phreakers" (people who hack phone systems). "I brought these in to let people see the inner workings," Rob says. "Other people here might own pay phones, too. But they probably didn't get them legally like I did, so they're not in a position to share them." As a local television-news camera crew approaches, Rob discreetly tucks a pair of cable-descrambler boxes out of sight.

In the center of the room, on a long banquet table, 15-year-old "Mr. Ohm" assembles nostalgia-evoking Amigas, TRS-80s and Commodore 64s for the conference's "retro computing network." The fact that most of the machines are older than he is, Ohm said, is half the appeal. "I missed out on a lot of these technologies," he says. "It's important to know your history."

As more of the 2,300 conference attendees arrive, they plug sticker-adorned laptops ("F*** the MPAA," "Knowledge Is Power," "Linux") into the blue Ethernet cables that snake across every available surface.

"Script kiddies!" spits John Draper, 57. "Think they're hot (stuff)." The grizzled veteran got his handle, Captain Crunch, in the early '70s, when he discovered that a plastic whistle from a cereal box emitted a tone crucial to phreaking. In 1978, Draper spent four months in jail for his illicit proclivities and these days, tries to stay legit.

"You should try one of my body tune-ups," he says. "It's a great energy boost." Indeed, he spends a good deal of the conference enticing young attendees back to his hotel room, where he offers full-contact "stretching" sessions. And the Captain seems to have absorbed the lesson of the "Selling Out" talk all too well. "Did you get my URL?" he says. " It's e-commerce for the rest of us!"

As the conference winds down, the terminals in the network room are being sold off at $25 a pop, and the script kiddies are packing up their laptops and heading home. A forlorn-looking Seattle hacker sits at a table piled with T-shirts that read, "I Did It at the H2K Orgy." The twentysomething hacker -- like Groucho, he won't give his handle -- spent more than $3,000 on a loft in Chelsea, N.Y., insurance and other expenses, with plans to stage a $25-a-head orgy. Instead, he says, "The FBI investigated us. We were going to let some 17-year-olds come, so we were crossing a state line with the intent of having sex with a minor."

Only two people showed up, and now the would-be Dionysus is trying to recoup some of his costs by selling the shirts for $15 each. In retrospect, he realizes the orgy was probably a bad idea from its conception. "The idea came out of a conversation on IRC [Internet Relay Chat]," he says. "We were bitching about how hackers never get laid." Even at an orgy.

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