Silicon Graphics. It's what you do with it.

It takes a hacker to catch a hacker

Part 1: Security experts flock to Las Vegas to recruit hackers
Part 2: Beyond the pranks
Part 3: Merging with the enemy
Part 4: In full swing

Published: August 10, 1997

BY JONATHAN LITTMAN
Special to the Mercury News West magazine


Merging with the enemy

Minutes later, we've got a table at a Vegas facsimile of an English pub, brimming with fish and chips, lager and nearly a dozen hackers and hangers-on. A clean-cut guy who looks as if he stepped out of a '70s frat house pulls up a chair and orders a beer. He's Fred to the hackers. Fred works for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.

``I do penetration and probing,'' he says before apologizing to one of the two women at the table. Fred loves Def Con. ``Sometimes it's over my head,'' he admits, ``but I come back with great stories for my talks.'' Fred had barely walked into his first Def Con conference a few years back when someone pointed at him and shouted, ``Fed!'' Fred said, foolishly, that he could neither confirm nor deny the allegation. ``What a mistake!'' he says now. ``Nobody talked to me for the rest of the conference.''

Chris, a twentysomething Def Con veteran, is warming to a leggy, dark-haired woman from Santa Cruz and talking about the commercial prospects for today's top hackers. One of Fred's competitors ``offered me 170 grand a year, six to seven weeks' vacation,'' Chris says, flashing plastic fangs. ``Fifty percent of my time can be spent on research.'' He grins as he lingers on the words, his hand working up his companion's thigh.

Back at the hotel bar, I have a drink with one of the hackers I met at the pub. After he's carded, he tells me his story, the one he's hiding from his fellow conventioneers. Upon graduation six years ago -- from high school, of course -- he was an intern for Microsoft. Soon he was consulting. Microsoft never suggested he finish his degree and he didn't see the point. He's happily married now with a kid, and just signed onto the Mother Ship, confidentiality agreements up the wazoo.

Microsoft wouldn't be too happy about his attending Def Con, he says, twisting his backward baseball cap. He has a handle in the underground and knows major vulnerabilities in Microsoft software but now he's got a hefty salary and stock options he figures will mushroom to a third of a million in a few years -- well before he's 30. The newest Microsoft Man, famous for not sleeping through the entire hacking convention, sighs, his puppy dog eyes melancholy. ``This is probably my last Def Con.''

Hackers at Def Con V Mercury News photo by Michael Rondou
The lobby of the Aladdin's casino is filled with young hackers -- some of whom try to use their computers to beat the casino.

A power issue

Friday afternoon, the convention yawns to life, the great hall thick with teenage boys sprawled out on the floor tapping on laptops and earringed vendors hawking T-shirts with slogans like ``Microshit. Be Our Slave'' or ``Big Brother Inside'' and used cell phones at $10 apiece. The usual paranoid books are for sale -- ``How to Investigate Your Friends, Enemies and Lovers.''

Since yesterday I've been trying to corner this platinum blond, sunglassed, major-pumped dude by the handle of Route. He edits Phrack, a popular underground 'zine, and from the official Black Hat program I read that yes, he performs ``tiger team analysis of corporations.'' I've checked with Mudge and others who give the Walnut Creek coder a thumbs up talent-wise, but Route is hard to track down.

Now that the legions of hackers, wannabes and leather and chains have arrived, the media have, too. The longer or more neon the hair, the more journalists line up to interview and take photos.

Finally, I spot Route's chiseled form, and ask him if he's got a minute. But he's striding fast. ``We'll talk later,'' he says with a wave. ``ABC is waiting.''

An hour later, I hop in the front seat of a hacker's rented white convertible Mustang ($170 a day, plus insurance) and we cruise into the cartoon backdrop of the Strip: three hackers, myself, and a female reporter squeezed between a couple of hackers in back, positioned on the trunk like a girl in a parade. Rich, a 23-year-old with a strut who does the suit thing at a major New York bank, explains what makes Bob -- the clean cut tiger tester next to her -- so cool.

``He's God. When a hacker breaks in he leaves a signature. Bob finds that signature.'' The female reporter is impressed. ``It's rad,'' Rich says, cranking up the Jones Girls' ``Nights Over Egypt,'' until we feel the bass. ``He's the best.''

At the fashionable Mirage Resort & Casino we stroll over to a restaurant table and the subject is starting your own company. ``I have people lined up to give me money,'' Bob says, already the beneficiary of one public offering. His face glows as he describes the benefits of founders' stock.

``Watching 10 of your friends become millionaires,'' he says quietly, ``is a quasi-religious experience.'' Rich tosses up a company idea and Bob shoots it down like a target in a video arcade. But the kid bounces back. He floats his other idea for a company, and this time Bob is impressed. ``I've got the same idea,'' Bob says, pausing dramatically. ``Add one piece and you have the potential to take over the world.''

Rich grins broadly and orders his steak medium. But all the talk of easy hacker money doesn't kill the darkest fear of even the best hacker. Somebody new is always hoping to bump you. ``I love what I do,'' Rich, who was once known as Master Chemist, says earnestly. ``I anticipate I'll be doing it till the day I die. But I'm worried about the kid in the ninth grade. By the time they graduate [from high school] they know access.''

``You're saying that soon these kids will be the equivalent of unskilled labor,'' explains Bob.

``I'm saying someday I'll be old and slow.''

Bob tells him not to worry. ``The people they're turning out [from school] are idiots.''

So what then does today's earnest young hacker need to get ahead? To make it as a corporate hacker, my lunchmates say, all you've got to do -- along with being a crafty coder -- is know the computer buzzwords and fudge your résumé -- usually by lying about your age.

Rich says, ``My job before -- I can't say the name because I'm under an NDA [non-disclosure agreement], I got it through a body shop [a computer consulting firm] -- I was the CIO [chief information officer]. I told them I was 28.''

One thing these guys won't lower themselves to is a programming test. ``It offends my sensibilities,'' Rich says. His line when he's switching body shops? ``You're not going to make me fill out a form, are you?'' Nick is a slick, cigarette-puffing 18-year-old New York sophisticate known for donning several thousand-dollar Italian suits at Def Con; he was recently featured in a Details magazine on hackers. He says simply: ``You walk in and say your number [hourly rate], and if they don't want it you walk out.'' ``Because I am that Ninja,'' jives Rich, adding with a chuckle: ``I am mission critical.''

Outside, artificial mist cools the broiling desert air as we wait for the valet to bring the white Mustang. Talk turns to the chains, spikes and leather that are so much a part of Def Con, the celebrated hackers who openly flaunt their fondness for S&M and bondage.

Rich explains it: ``Hacking is a power issue,'' he says, waving the tip he's about to hand to the valet. ``People need you.''

Part 4: In full swing

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