Online with the Superhacker (c) Copyright 1993 by Michael E. Marotta email@example.com He calls himself "The Knightmare." He is one of a new breed of computer security crackers. He hasn't read HACKERS by Steven Levy or Tracy Kidder's THE SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE. He doesn't particularly like Chinese food and doesn't know too much about old technology. He hasn't read any books by William Gibson and he hasn't seen SNEAKERS or LAWNMOWER MAN. But he can break into a computer system and find out anything he wants to know. We never met. I've never seen him. We exchanged email. Our conversation took six days. My 1000-byte questions were answered with 10K-responses. I used a local commercial site on the Internet while he came to me from an Ivy League school. Proves nothing. There's even an internet node in Antarctica now. He could be anyone, anywhere. He first used a computer in the fifth grade. "That's when I became a _computer_ hacker," he wrote. "I've been a hacker all my life, of course." Today, he programs in C, C++ and Basic on an IBM PS/1 and a laptop. I asked him about changes in computer technology. The GUI (Graphical User Interface) has had two effects. It has made it easier for anyone to use a computer and it has made it harder for hackers to get around. With a GUI, you use a mouse to point and click at something. If a command isn't allowed, there is no way to call it. You can't hack them. I could almost hear The Knightmare's keys clacking. "Did somebody say 'can't'? 'You _can't_ do that'? That's what the hacker thrives on! If there's no immediate access to a command system, perhaps there's an account that allows such access. If not that, there will be hackers who will get in touch with the people who work at the company, or get a job there themselves." mercury: "I collect old computer stuff. I have a Scientific American from 1949, conference proceedings from 1962..." The Knightmare: "I collect useful stuff that I've found in the trash (and through other sources). I have a huge collection of security manuals, including a very nice set from AT&T. I also have various electronic components, printouts, disks, tapes, microfiche, books, and in-house journals and directories. Most of this stuff has been useful in one way or another, sometimes offering means to a hack; other times, in other ways." One of the ways it was useful was that it lead him to write SECRETS OF A SUPERHACKER for Loompanics. It took him a year to gather his thoughts and a summer to put them out via Wordperfect for Windows. The book is written in colloquial American, just the way a smart person would talk. Bill Landreth's OUT OF THE INNER CIRCLE and the movie WARGAMES typified the 1980s. This book will join the movie SNEAKERS in defining the 1990s. He says that his handle doesn't mean anything to him, that he made it up to play a computer game and that he can't understand why people confuse him with Craig Neidorf who is known as Knight Lightning. mercury: "What would the world be like if everyone were like you?" The Knightmare: "I don't think I'm doing anything bad; I really don't. And I have a high sense of moral values. I'm not an 'anarchist techno-guerrilla', and I'm not recommending nor suggesting nor _teaching_ that behavior. If everyone in the world were hackers in the broadest sense, we'd be more independent, more curious, and more concerned with the world--because we would realize what control we individuals can have over it. But I'm talking about people who hack responsibly. If people start World War III or insert your favorite hacker horror story... then obviously we've got problems. mercury: "Loompanics hired two different data processing professionals to review the manuscript for technical accuracy. What was the result of that?" The Knightmare: "A good number of comments, questions, and concerns came up. Usually things were added to the text, to make it easier to understand. I think it was very helpful to hear outside comments, because it made the book a better book." He denies being an anarchist techno-guerrilla but he calls the NREN data superhighway a "sham... just one more instance of government trying to control every facet of our lives.... People all over the world are exchanging information, and the government is pissed because they don't have the ability to regulate it, infiltrate it, intercept it, and promulgate their own fabrications. ...There are plenty of CIA and NSA thugs sitting around in leather chairs somewhere, masturbating to the thought of complete and total access to every electronic transmission nationwide." Yet, that description applies to hackers, as well. It seems that what we have is an open competition for access to information. Call it Spy vs Spy or Pudknocker vs Pudknocker. mercury: "What do you see as a Good Hack in the year 2001? When the Net carries video and voice along with data, what opportunities open up for hackers?" The Knightmare: "I think satellite-based technologies will take over those sorts of roles long before corporations and government can agree on NREN and video transmission protocols and how many secret police they'll need to govern the highway. I don't think the technology changes the way hackers work, but it changes what they will work _on_." Joseph Weizenbaum is one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, a pursuit he all but renounced. The Knightmare has never read COMPUTER POWER AND HUMAN REASON and so he falls right into the pits marked by Weizenbaum. According to The Knightmare, "The hacker believes he has the right to be God over other people's worlds. Your passions supply your life algorithms. The photographer mentally clicks some snapshots. I look at a lot of life events AS IF THEY WERE PROGRAMS to be tweaked, poked at, the bugs removed. But I also see it from other perspectives as well." Those other perspectives include playing piano and guitar. When he writes about music, it sounds like when he writes about hacking. The Superhacker: I compose in my head. Sometimes I'll just be driving or in the shower or something, and a "song phrase" will pop into my head. I don't know if that's a real concept, but I define a song phrase as a bit of lyrics and music that works together perfectly. I sing the phrase so I don't forget it, and I add on a second phrase or two. Usually I get a couple lines and then I'm stuck. I repeat those constantly so I don't forget... (man, I really should practice notation)... then one day I do forget what I've written. But the next morning I wake up and the song is just pouncing through my brain. And it just flows out. I write down the lyrics, sing the song, and its mine. As I keep singing it and thinking about the finished song, I begin to learn things like how the bass line should play, and different ways to add newness to the song. On the matter of right and wrong, he concedes that other hackers "will give you any sort of argument to tell you that what they're doing is okay. Perhaps we're doing it _because_ it's wrong." And yet he backpedals, claiming to to introspective and moral. For The Knightmare, morality is not damaging the system you have just broken into. This is, in fact, in line with the "classical tradition" of hacking. According to The Knightmare "Design is rules. Design is thinking. I don't want to be bothered with pre-planning and pre-design. I want action and I want it now." (He also hasn't read ATLAS SHRUGGED.) This underscores the preference that hackers have for absurdly powerful handles like Doktor Deth and The Grim Reaper. Hackers are in fact nerds. It's just that they are seldom constrained by any pretense of morality. Cyberspace is a new world and in it the hacker is a datalord, a baudrate barbarian who takes what he wants. The Knightmare: "I always stumble across little leads and ideas to get into systems, like maybe I wake up one day and realize I've never broken into the New York Stock Exchange computer system. So my goal for the day becomes, 'break into NYSE'. In short, I hack a particular system because I see an experience I've never had before. mercury: "Is there some way that finding the New York Stock Exchange computer network is like writing a fortune cookie program in 20 bytes?" Knightmare: "A person who writes tight code has much in common with a person who breaks into computers, but there is a big difference too, sure. We can call both people 'hackers', and they'll be happy you called them that. All hacking, no matter if it's good or bad, hacking or cracking, all hacking is connected in that regard." The Knightmare wants people to learn from him how to break into systems. Then they can understand how to protect their own. He intended his work start from the wrong side of the law. He knows that his SECRETS OF A SUPERHACKER is "a really great book" because it includes anecdotes that reveal what's beneath the surface, the unseen, and because it provides "the resources to continue on your own after the book is over." The Knightmare's first hack involved guessing a password by looking around a grown-up's office, seeing a calendar with boats on it and trying BOAT. He prides himself on his empathic ability to put himself in your shoes and feel what was going through your mind at the time. Silly as this sounds at first, it is indeed the intuition that deftly turns a genius onto the correct track of an investigation. He flatly denies relying on the grinding trial-and-error described in THE CUCKOO'S EGG and CYBERPUNKS. At one point he interrupts himself in lieu of interrupting me -- a quirk of working via email, where immediacy is lost. He emphatically denies once more ever relying on repetitious trial and error. Then he denies the denial. mercury: You deny relying on the grinding repetition of trial and error so stereotypical of hackers. The Knightmare: No I don't! I don't deny that at all! Sometimes it is necessary to repeatedly try things until something finally works. ... And some of them might have to be repetitions themselves. We try not to do that. You're right, traditionally we think of hackers grinding away at the computer. But look, part of being a hacker is that you want to use the computer in the fastest, most efficient way possible; like you said, generating a small program was your favorite hack. Efficiency in action is as stereotypical as its opposite that you mention. mercury: Would you call hacking an art? The Knightmare: No, I wouldn't call it an art unless the hacker wants to call some growth of his hacking "art". mercury: "Do you see a future for hacking?" The Knightmare: "Sure. Maybe it won't be computers. Edison hacked the light bulb, and aren't you glad he did? There's always something to hack. Sometimes there's something new." mercury: "Your book is going to wake up a lot of people. Would you say that after 1995, any system you _can_ break into isn't _worth_ breaking into?" The Knightmare: "But you don't know if you can break into the system until you try! That means there will always be systems to hack, and there will always be hackers to try their hands at hacking those systems." "That's a thirty," said Les Nessman.