A Woodstock For Hackers And 'Phreaks'

It was billed as Woodstock for the Nintendo generation. The techno-freaks who gathered at the Hackers at the End of the Universe conference in the Netherlands last week had at least one thing in common with their '60s counterparts: they believed rules were made to be broken. Example 1: Organizers labored to set up a sophisticated computer network at their campground outside Amsterdam. But just a half hour after the session opened, hackers had already cracked the network wide open, reprogramming the system to reject the selected password: guest. Example 2: A day later, other hackers tapped into the conference's phone system, leaving one line open to the United States for four hours without bothering to pay for the privilege. Not too nice, but what else would you expect? Even at a gathering of hundreds of their own kind from all over Europe, hackers are an anarchic breed, intent on outwitting any impediment to access. No code, even the most elaborate, is ever safe from their prying keyboards.

And that's the point. "Some people are just interested in breaking and entering into systems," says Richard Sewell, a 30-year-old British programmer. "But there's also a curiosity about how to work stuff without destroying anything. It's this fascination with how to make the machine do what you want it to do." Although on-line larceny wasn't the goal of most participants, the organizer, a Dutch computer magazine called Hack-Tic, said the conference was intended for "hackers, phone phreaks, programmers, computer haters, data travelers, electro-wizards, networkers, hardware freaks, techno-anarchists, communications junkies, cyberpunks, system managers, stupid users, paranoid androids, Unix gurus, whizz kids, warez dudes, law-enforcement officers (appropriate undercover dress required), guerrilla heating engineers and other assorted bald, long-haired or unshaven scum."

Who came? All of the above. Some were there only electronically, communicating through networks around the world. Physical presence is just another technicality in this crowd. The rest-the vast majority of them maIes in their late teens and early 20s--gathered in hundreds of multicolored tents clustered around power outlets and portable toilets in an area the size of six football fields. Many had computer terminals in their tents, with the monitors nestled between sleeping bags and guitars.

For three days, usually solitary hackers congregated at the main campground building, a barnlike structure filled with rock and jazz music. Sobriety was not a priority. The 24-hour bar provided beer, and wandering peddlers sold hash-laden "space cakes" and marijuana (drugs are no big deal in Holland). Computers were spread across a dozen large metal tables, and for each hacker on a keyboard, there were usually several others looking over his (and occasionally her) shoulder. Users could log on to the Internet, an international network; consult a computer astrology program; fiddle with electronic paint boxes, or show off their hand-eye coordination with video games that usually involved shooting moving objects. In between they exchanged tricks of the trade: how to make a system think you are an approved operator instead of an intruder, how to hide your tracks.

While some participants focused on the practical, others were more philosophical. At one panel session entitled "Networking for the Masses," hackers discussed using information from computers to fight government oppression. Another topic of debate: how hackers could help protect privacy by pushing for more secure codes. They talked a lot about revolution, too-digital as well as political. "I think a lot of people look at hackers and are sympathetic with what they do," says Emmanuel Goldstein, who publishes the American hacking magazine called 2600. "People see technology as something that, left unchecked, will enslave us. Hacking is a defense against that."

No one was surprised by the white van bristling with antennas that trolled up and down the road leading to the campground. Everyone seemed to agree that it belonged to the Dutch Secret Service; everyone also assumed the meeting was being monitored by the CIA and Britain's M.I.6. But no one knew for sure; paranoia is popular among hackers.

But the hackers kept talking frankly. At one lecture Rop Gonggrijp, a founder of Hack-Tic, and Bill Squire, a fellow hacker, displayed a wad of microchips wired up to a special radio scanner. The subject: how to fiddle with an ordinary pager so that it can intercept messages meant for other pagers. Other hackers debated the finer points of phone "phreaking" (breaking into telephone lines). This is usually accomplished with a device called a Demon Dialer that sells through the mail for about $200. One phreaker, who wanted to be identified only as Ivos, said getting into the inner workings of a technology as ubiquitous as the telephone is like being drunk at church: exhilarating mostly because you aren't supposed to do it.

Others just seemed to enjoy the company, in person and on line, and being part of an international community of technofreaks. Late one night in the main hall the rustle of fingers on keyboards was punctuated by static from radios scanning cellularphone frequencies. With a science-fiction book at his side, a 19-year-old Dutch hacker named Peter typed away at a small screen, bouncing through networks and laughing as he found familiar log-on names. He tapped furiously as he entered one electronic conversation about the conference. "The turnout is huge," he wrote. "The whole world is here." And in a sense, it was.

Join the Discussion