Zen and the Art of Hacking

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                        "Zen and the Art of Hacking"
                                     by
                               Richard Thieme

 Originally appeared in Internet Underground. This is one of the best pieces
   on hacking I have ever read. If you like it half as much as I did it's
definitely worth a read. Thanks to Richard for permission to put this on the
                                site. - Harl

Don't call them hackers, call them homo sapiens hackii -- human beings who
are "back-engineered" by their symbiotic relationship with computer networks
to frame reality in ways shaped by that interaction. They're not a new
species, but they are a new variety, and just like the Invasion of the
Bodysnatchers, they're everywhere. But how can you tell the real thing?

Looks, jargon, and hard-guy handles are too easy to imitate. Besides, real
hackers blend in well with their surroundings -- that's the point of social
engineering, after all -- and hide in large corporations, high-tech
start-ups and IT departments, and intelligence, security, and law
enforcement.

Some don't even use computers very much.

"I couldn't hack my way out of a wet paper bag," confesses William Knowles
who hangs out on a hacker listserv. "But information hacking, social
engineering, dumpster diving, yes -- and I'm a terror on the telephone. I am
the gatekeeper's worst nightmare!".

"It comes down to a common quest for knowledge," William says. "Why does it
do what it does? Who, what, where, when, why, how?"

Hackers are distinguished by a hunger for knowledge, for seeing things
whole, for knowing how things work. Their power derives from the critical
knowledge that leverages other knowledge, their enthusiasm from an
adrenaline rush that comes when they finally make that connection, solve
that puzzle.

When the door against which you've been banging your head suddenly dissolves
and you slip effortlessly to the next level -- that's the joy of hacking.
But the game isn't Doom or Quake, the game is life, and the playing field is
the infinity of the wired world which your mind explores in the night like a
stealth fighter.

Some hackers have been wired since early childhood; they see the world in
the image of networks.

["I started using computers when I was 8 on the local public library's Apple
IIe's. I can't remember not being able to program in AppleSoft. I still
recall these strange POKE locations ..." -- Attitude Adjuster.]

["One day I realized that I think like a computer, complete with IF, THEN
and GOTO statements. I react to a situation by finding the most logical
situation, then acting on it." -- Jaymz Tide]

When you learned as a child how to creep unnoticed into root under cover of
darkness, or hide in a sniffer that's a surrogate self so you can steal the
secrets of the rich and powerful or observe the hidden life of corporations
and governments, learn how it really is behind the fictions by which men
live, then steal away at dawn leaving not so much as a single track in the
melting snows of cyberspace -- then you know what hacking means.

Hackers are men and women who go where they must go to learn what they must
learn.

Often portrayed as rebellious heretics, hackers are in fact faithful
followers of three gods:

*Odin, who hung cold and alone in a windswept tree for nine long days and
nights, sleepless and single-hearted, in order to seize the knowledge of the
Runes. The Runes, symbols of what the Greeks called logos, the creative
power of the Word, the magic of consciousness acting on inanimate matter and
making it plastic.

*the trickster Coyote, who some call Pan, his wry humor a grin in the
shadows, his appetites and passions a firestorm of Dionysian ardor.

*Jesus the man, the earthy Jew, a real mensch rather than a dreamy-eyed
Nordic nanny-of-the-planet, who refused to knuckle under to convention or
the suffocating constraints of the lowest common denominator of the crowd.

Lighten Up

Hackers have a sense of humor.

Dr. Bergan Evans, an English professor at Northwestern, spoke with a chuckle
in the early sixties of a social worker's excessive worry about "juvenile
delinquents" stealing cars. He remembered how he and his boyhood chums stole
away in the night to loose the horses from a neighbor's corral.

"It wasn't called delinquency in my day," he said. "It was called, 'boys
will be boys.'"

We discover in the process of living life with gusto the boundaries we had
better not cross, then learn how to set limits from within. The risks must
be real or the rewards aren't real.

"The callbacks started to terrify me," admits Attitude Adjuster of his early
days of phreaking."I have a healthy fear of being busted. Thankfully I
didn't get busted, and I came out the better for it."

So let's lighten up. Hackers are not just whacked-out loners in darkened
bedrooms, cackling like Beevis and Butthead as they break into your bank
account. Hackers at their best are trekkers who hike the peaks and valleys
of the virtual world. The infrastructure of the world is a puzzle invented
to test their mettle. They fail into failure again and again before failing
into success: the non-pattern of chaotic data suddenly coalesces, the dots
connect, and anxiety vanishes.

You see how it works! Bingo! You understand how it all hangs together.

This is not the malevolent caricature invented by the media to feed the
fearful projections of those who don't know. This is humanity at its best.

So if my description evokes judgement, a desire to chastise these high
spirits like a stern schoolmaster, beat down that restless intelligence and
... control them, get them back into the box; then quit reading right now
and turn the page.

But if you know what I'm talking about -- if you have ever bent your back
too long under a low ceiling defined by the rigidly righteous and finally
had to stand up, your head crashing through plaster into thin air -- then
read on. This is a partial glimpse through the eyes of some of the best and
the brightest of the promise and possibilities of the wired world.

Living by a Vision

Technically, it's called "living proleptically" -- when a new possibility
breaks into the present with such compelling power that we have no choice
but to live out of that vision as if it's real. We adopt a new point of
reference, and by living as if it has already happened, we make it real.

Hang out with hackers and you'll find yourself moving toward their way of
framing reality. That's how we know that the tao -- the way things are
flowing -- is moving in that direction.

Example: a teacher I know was supposed to teach her fourth graders how to
use computers but didn't know how. She made a secret pact with her three
brightest students to meet with her after school to teach her computing so
she could teach the other students computing.

Of course many hackers are bored with school! They haven't the patience to
wait while the teachers catch up. They don't want information delivered at
the plodding pace of a curriculum through a command-and-control structure,
they want to get out there on the wires and get it themselves.

"The administrator that I work for at school," says Attitude Adjuster, "lets
me hack the system all I want. He doesn't interfere because he doesn't know
what I'm doing. Sometimes he asks me, what should I do next? I can't believe
what I'm hearing. I want to say, You mean you haven't figured that out yet
from the logical progression of things? I used to try to tell him what to do
next and he would ask, why? I stopped answering because any answer I gave
him, he couldn't understand. He could never see the Big Picture so the
details never connected in a way that made sense."

[It's not just teachers that younger hackers can't hack. It's authority
figures in government as well.

A US Senator's aide described one of the first interactive hearings in
Congress. They arranged a network of Powerbooks connected to the Internet.
The senator, a man of considerable power, came in after everything was set
up and they said, "Senator, begin your chat."

He looked at the powerbook and said, "Hello? Hello?" When nothing happened,
he asked the aide, "What do I do, talk to it?"

These are the people writing legislation about the Internet,
telecommunications, the ground-rules for the wired world.

The aide adds that two thirds of those in congress don't use e-mail.]

Se7en says, "There were a lot of great discoveries through the years, but
the greatest was how I grew in knowledge in my own eyes. The giant telephone
company and many of the all-knowing corporations really had very little clue
as to what they were doing. The all-powerful government -- starting wars,
controlling your life -- did not have a clue as to what a computer is or
what it can do."

A hacker and phreaker from the age of eleven, Se7en recently came up from
the underground, looking for a little light and air. Now he lectures
engineers in the aerospace industry on the psychology of hacking -- how to
tell from the tracks if an intruder is a trophy-hunting kid or an
intelligence agent looking for proprietary data.

"The realization that all these people that as a kid you're told to respect
and fear, in a lot of ways you're a lot smarter than many of these
people....You find out there's nothing special about these people. Here you
are, some little fifteen or sixteen year old kid, you can do things that the
phone company can't even do or the government can't even do."

Living as if the new world is already here.

For some, that vision begins with a blinding light; for others it just
happens to happen.

"My first computer was a Commodore 64," says DIALTONE_, who works for a
hightech Canadian company. "I started with games, but they bored me, so I
started looking into the works of the computer. It fascinated the hell out
of me!." After getting his first modem and being turned on to hacking by the
sysop of a BBS, he hacked into his first computer.

"As I was exploring. I had this feeling of ... it was a feeling you can't
explain, anxiety to get a hold and see everything I could. Sure I was scared
at first but that disappeared as I discovered what was in this machine."

Modify, a co-founder of Listed Black Communications, remembers it similarly.

"My first real hack was into the system of a nuclear engineering company. I
took the unshadowed password file, then went back to take a look at the
system itself ... wow, was it great! You're torn between two emotions: one
is, what if I screw up and leave my muddy footprints all over the computer?
The other is, what does this thing do? What information does it hold? You
are "god" over that machine."

For Attitude Adjuster, the interest developed more gradually through
conversations with kindred spirits.

"More than anything else it was something I talked about with other kids who
used public computers in the library. We'd sit around and speculate about
other systems, huddle around the single UNIX reference the library owned."

The Machinery is Always On

Hackers are need-to-know machines, obsessively searching for a way to
scratch that itch and gain momentary peace before it flares up again.

The popular perception of hackers as malicious warez kiddies downloading
someone else's code draws contempt from hackers who earn their knowledge
with sleepless nights and relentless exploration.

Use someone else's scripts to do something malicious or damage someone's
system?

"That's not hacking," says Yobie Benjamin, a respected strategic
technologies consultant. Benjamin has worked with Netscape, Sun
Microsystems, Boeing, Hewlett Packard and many others on prototyping,
project development, and design. He knows that many respectable names in
high-tech commerce earned their stripes as hackers.

"Sure, we all did some of that when we were kids, first starting out. Maybe
that's all you know how to do when you begin. But what moves me is, what's
out there? Hacking for me is more than a quest, it's THE quest -- the quest
for knowledge."

Listen to Modify: "When I went on to learn advanced programming languages, I
would sit in a bookstore until closing time and just read up on all types of
stuff -- circuits, DNS, TCP/IP, firewalls, UNIX, Java -- I have tons of
books all over the house and that's pretty much how I got into hacking,
feeding my head with knowledge from books and classes in schools."

Dark Tangent, the highly respected founder of DefCon, the annual summer
convention for computer hackers, security specialists, intelligence
personnel, journalists and IT professionals, reflected on what characterized
the best hackers. "The defining characteristic is they see the Big Picture,"
he said. "They have incredible amounts of knowledge and have gone into
things at incredibly deep levels. There is such an immense base of knowledge
about competing technologies, so if you can see the Big Picture ... there's
often a defining moment when you see the whole thing come together.

"Everyone specializes so much," he continued, "that it's important to know
people in all the different areas. You have to know what you don't need to
know and you have to know who you can call when you need to know it."

That doesn't sound like a loner who can't talk face-to-face with another
human being, does it?

"You need to surround yourself with intelligent people," DT adds. "You don't
need to be a social genius, but it's a lot more fun if you are. You can make
it just trading tokens of knowledge, the currency of hacking, and advance
through 'remote learning.' But the network is not just computers, it's
knowledgeable people connected by computers."

Do the Homework

Hackers have little patience with people who want to be spoon-fed
hard-earned knowledge and won't do the homework. A sure way to invite flames
is to ask on a listserv, "Can someone please tell me how to hack Windows
NT?"

Most "hacking sites" are dismissed as lists of links to other links,
although, according to Se7en, "There are some good things out there -- but
you have to know where to look."

Se7en, like most of the hackers with whom I spoke, connected with a mentor
at a critical moment in his career. That mentor taught him how to look
through trash for hours to find the few significant items that would gain
entry to the telephone system; more importantly, his mentor taught him by
example how to mentor.

"I tell people to learn the way I learn," Se7en said. "Read read read, learn
learn learn. Do everything you can to answer your own questions first. Get
good books on UNIX or Windows NT security or TCP/IP, then come to me with
the questions you can't answer."

By being available to provide information at the right moment to enable a
learner to leverage what he already knows, Se7en defines the ideal coach.

"That's why I surround myself with intelligent people," Dark Tangent said.
"My friends all know things I don't. I never answer email that says 'teach
me, teach me.' The knowledge is out there for anyone who is committed. Give
the word "hack" to a search engine and start plowing through the thousands
of hits you get." Modify remembers staying up all night coding text games
and debugging others' programs, learning by doing, One of his early
connections was Ruff-Neck, who told him, "Learn as much as you can and don't
think of problems as problems. Think of them more as challenges."

DIALTONE_ adds, "I'm not unwilling to help others, but I'm not going to
teach a kid to hack. There's no future in it and often someone who is just
starting is focussed entirely on "illegal hacking" and will end up getting
busted."

He gives the example of a student at the high school where he works. Lots of
people want to "run the network," he says, but "she's the only one willing
to do what it takes to learn about it. She started asking specific pointed
questions about networking. That earned her my undivided attention and
assistance in learning."

Artimage says, "Many people complain that older hackers won't teach them
anything or answer questions. First, these people taught themselves, no one
gave them the information. Second, if you have researched your question to
the best of your abilities beforehand, and it is a specific question it will
most often be answered.

"Hackers teach themselves. That's the whole point... If you want to crack
into systems, you can have someone show you how, but to be a hacker means
that you explore the system on your own..."

And finally, listen to Rogue Agent set someone straight on a listserv.

"You want to create hackers? Don't tell them how to do this or that. Show
them how to discover it for themselves. Those who have the innate drive will
get the point and find tutorials written by experts or dive in and learn by
trial and error. Those who don't fall by the wayside, staying comfortable
within the bounds of their safe little lives."

The Journey Becomes a Quest

With power comes responsibility.

I was talking with Dead Addict about the adrenalin rush that comes when you
discover valuable information and are tempted to use it. "That's the trouble
with being God," he said. "You can look but you can't touch."

Maybe that's what Dark Tangent means when he speaks of keeping your balance
and "managing your ego," which DT does by hanging out with smart friends.
That keeps the limits of his own knowledge in perspective.

Perspective is needed as you move down the hacker's path. You discover that
the fact of hacking makes a commitment for you to pierce the veil of
illusion and discover the truth. That can be lonely. It get cold out there,
hanging night after night in a windswept tree.

"Your perspective changes as a result of learning how things really work,"
DT observed. "I have had to recognize that my perception of reality is
fundamentally different than that of people who don't want to know how it
really is. You can come off sounding cynical, but it isn't cynicism, really,
it's just that you have had experiences they haven't and that deeper reality
becomes your point of departure and your point of reference."

That's why hackers necessarily build a community founded on camaraderie,
mutual respect, and enough trust to get the job done balanced by a healthy
dose of paranoia. That community is regulated by an informal system of norms
and shared values, a Code derived from experience. Like all Codes, the
Hackers' Code is a plumb line enabling hackers to "true themselves up" when
they get off track.

"The ethic is there -- it really is," insists Attitude Adjuster. "There will
always be malicious kids who don't understand, and maybe all of us were
there at one time, but evolution will single them out. They'll either get
busted or close enough to being busted (like I was) to get scared back onto
the right path."

DIALTONE_ and his cohorts in =x9= drew up a code of ethics that reveals why
the world of hacking can look so different inside than from outside. The
Code is proscriptive (don't do it) about intentional damage to others'
systems but pragmatic as to how to protect yourself when crossing the
borders that must be crossed to hack in the first place.

The contextual shift through which our culture is moving is immense. Hackers
live in the gray areas that MUST exist as we redefine ourselves. Many began
hacking when there was nothing illegal about cracking games, copying an
article, or singing campsongs without a permit.

Intellectual property rights? International traffic in digital goods? The
ownership of a link?

"How clearly are these boundaries defined?" laughed Tim Muth, an attorney
who specializes in cyberlaw. "Come back in five years when we've had some
cases. I'll tell you then."

The Spirit of Hacking

Hackers refuse to be defined by conventional wisdom, conventional behavior.
In the sixties the hackers at MIT became known for a spirit of exploration
as the virtual world became an emergent reality on mainframes. Then media
skewed the image of hackers toward the criminal misfit and forced the
distinction between hackers and crackers, those who use hacking skills to
cause damage or steal secrets. Hackers are fighting a battle they may have
already lost to save their name.

If the best hackers are not hanging porno on government web sites, what ARE
they doing? Where is the "redeeming social value" in all this?

First, many who make their living in computer security, military and
civilian intelligence, and law enforcement learned their craft as hackers or
hire hackers.

Secondly, hackers provide value for the computer industry by identifying
bugs and security holes. Many software companies count on hackers to work
free to locate holes in their applications. What else is a beta version? Why
else do manufacturers of firewalls offer cash to penetrate their systems?

Yobie Benjamin, working with cohorts from the l0pht and the DoC group,
discovered several serious holes in Windows NT 4.0, not the least of which
was the ability to steal passwords in an entire NT domain and capture all
the traffic in an NT network.

Unlike criminals intent on exploiting these flaws, their exploits were
shared with Microsoft and the public.

"The only thing the public knows about hackers is how they defaced some web
page or crashed a server," says Modify. "They never hear about the hacker
that emails an administrator about the holes in his security or fixes
security breeches for a system administrator."

Third, hackers engage in wide-ranging projects that have great promise for
future applications. Yobie Benjamin identifies the essence of hacking as
trailblazing.

"Take the challenge of parallel processing," he says. "Every day, there are
thousands of computers sitting idle while projects that could use their
power or schools that don't have access to networks sit idly by. We're
exploring ways to link those computers, align that processor power for
parallel processing."

Benjamin is also fascinated by applying the command-and- control model to
the current multiplicity of digital interfaces to assist the convergence of
electronic appliances and software applications into a single networked
entity.

"I took apart one of my remotes, rewired it and plugged it into a parallel
port so I could program my VCR over the Internet.

"Now, why," he continued, "shouldn't all of the arbitrary devices that
constitute digital interfaces be linked in the same way? Why not develop an
application for power companies, for example, as they bundle products in a
deregulated environment?"

Benjamin is committed to developing applications that empower people to
build their own virtual spaces, enabling them to interoperate and
intercommunicate through an infrastructure that already exists. Benjamin's
vision is a world of consumers able to control their own futures in
cyberspace.

The Hacker's Code is an affirmation of life itself, life that wants to know,
and grow, and extend itself.

Hackers are threatening because they live like spies, appearing to play by
the rules but given secret sanction to break them. Sanction comes not from a
central government, however, but from the facts of paradigm change,
hierarchical restructuring, and exponential change itself. The evolution of
a single global economy mandates that every business behave as if it's an
independent country. Every enterprise must manage its proprietary data and
master the craft of intelligence and disinformation. Information is
currency, and those who know how to get it and integrate it into meaningful
patterns are the new Masters of the Universe.

The skills of hackers -- a love of adventure and risk, a toleration of
ambiguity, an ability to synthesize meaning from disparate sources, a
commitment to knowledge -- are skills needed in the next century. Hackers
are the pathfinders of the wilderness called the future toward which the tao
is flowing like a river, flowing and branching fractal-like, flowing in the
tracks of hackers.

                                    # # #

               (c) Richard Thieme 1997. All rights reserved.


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