The Best of 2600 - Emmanuel Goldstein

This was a fantastic birthday present from a friend, and a rare example of seeing history written by the losers! Specifically, this is a collection of articles from around 25 years of archives from the 2600 security hacking/cracking magazine. It's a family-pack of nostalgia, especially as it's a near primary source for the period (albeit with some editorial selection).

The articles from the '80s are particularly impressive, painting the hackers as self-entitled, uninformed and arrogant. More specifically:

  1. They seemed to believe it was a right to hack into systems (for fun, you know, not profit - that'd be bad!). I guess the justification in those days was that there wasn't really much other way for a random person to play with complex networked systems and computers bigger than a micro.
  2. The articles make you realise how poorly knowledge spread before the internet. The technical level, quality and accuracy of the early articles is unimpressive to put it mildly.
  3. Despite really shonky ethics and surprisingly shallow knowledge, the general self-impression of the hacker community as being intelligent and worthy is pervasive.

The '90s section covers a dramatic shift. After all, by 1995 it wasn't exactly astonishing for a teenager to have a Unix box (with source) and Internet access. The 'educational' excuse for rooting Unix servers had really started to tarnish. A few of the technical articles in this section start to show an overlap with the proper (non-security-cracking) hacker spirit - the communities are not totally distinct after all - but the major emphasis on this section was the crack-downs and raids.

There were, surprisingly, some positive effects from the raids on the hackers - the Secret Service overreacted and hassled completely innocent people, leading to the formation of the EFF. On the other hand, 2600 eventually started treating the EFF as sell-outs, as they focused on digital rights issues people actually cared about, rather than trying to defend digital vandals.

For the most part, though, the magazine's defence of these poor persecuted hackers was 'Their only crime was to... er, commit a crime. But they didn't really didn't like the law, so why should they be held up to it?'. They also keep emphasising that the crimes being committed didn't profit the hacker, almost as if making money non-criminally is worse than committing a crime in a non-profit fashion.

The shrill and distorting defences in the articles are like the Cory Doctorow writing of their day, but the details they provide show how seriously the 'hacker ethic' is taken, and how they're all just in it to learn. Take, for example, the case of 'Bernie S', a regular writer for 2600. The ins and outs are long, and it sounds like the people in the prison system were playing unpleasant games, but his original arrest was for selling crystals. More specifically, he sold devices for committing phone fraud, that needed crystals to work, and the crystals. He presumably thought he wasn't selling devices designed solely to commit fraud, just two things that, used together, could. But he wasn't telling people how to combine them! On the other hand, such information was freely available in such resources as, er, 2600. Honorable not-for-profit hacker ethic? Yeah, right.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm not a fan of what are now called 'black hat' hackers. This is based on my experiences with student web servers in the '90s. I had a server. It got hacked. Friends had servers. They got hacked. Not surprising, as we were all running lots of services and new security bugs were continually being found. This was the fabled 'non-profit' hacking. I'm sure 'no damage was done', but of course any responsible admin still has to do a full reinstall, plus a decent amount of forensics. I also got DoS'd purely because a friend was (quite legitimately) IRCing through that machine, leading to conversations with our college computing admin.

I'm sure there are those who'd claim such hacking is not in keeping with the the 'hacker ethic' spirit of 2600. On the one hand, we've seen such an 'ethic' seemed to get ignored by the participants anyway, and on the other, it's a pretty loose spirit, as it seems to allow for harassing strangers for fun, and theft and vandalism as long as it's 'in a good cause'.

Fundamentally, though, the 2600 self-image during the '90s was about freedom fighters in a semi-totalitarian state, battling against loss of privacy and spreading information, building the 'net. In practice, they were invading privacy by hacking machines and goading litigators and law enforcement officers into heavy-handed action. Far from building the free and open 'net, they're the reason why externally-facing servers run so few services, and there are so many firewalls. They're not the Linus Torvalds, the Tim Berners-Lees or the Richard Stallmans of the world (even with RMS's view of security and openness) - they all make real constructive contributions.

The 2000s section shows the articles (or at least the selected articles) getting a bit more diverse. The disclaimers about 'don't use this knowledge for evil' are starting to get a little more convincing, too. The editor has put a fair chunk of emphasis on the DeCSS saga, and 2600's fight against DRM. As (I hope) a sane person, I'm also against DRM, so I should be cheering them on. As it is, though, fighting DRM probably best inherits from the copy-protection-breaking crowd, and... the book mentions absolutely nothing about them before DeCSS. Ho hum.

I guess one of the interesting things is the events that have unfolded since the publishing of the book. These 'guardians of freedom' kept harping on about the dangers in the commercialisation of the web. Within the last year, we've had several revolutions coordinated through the internet. And the kinds of tools at the centre of it? Google, Twitter and Facebook. Any help from the hackers? Not noticably.

So, what's the book like? It may be 800 pages long, but it's pretty light reading. Generally, the writing quality of the articles is hideous, and the technical explanation is bad and occasionally wrong. Many hacks are depressingly trivial. On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I didn't learn anything, and a few articles are real gems. Mostly, though, it's a fascinating sub-cultural time capsule.

Posted 2011-05-24.