GeekDad Interview: Emmanuel Goldstein

Reading Time: 11 minutes

EgEgI interviewed Emmanuel Goldstein as part of my review of his book, The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey.

JB: Is it possible The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey is the first history of hacking written by hackers?

EG: It’s certainly the largest compilation ever of pieces written by hackers. I’m hoping that it reaches a lot of people in the non-hacking world who may finally get the chance to see our perspective and share our enthusiasm. But there have been other books put out by hackers that cover some of this stuff. I was pretty surprised though at how much material we wound up with and how the history unfolds through it all.

JB: Why now? 2600 has been around 24 years, why did you wait so long to write a book?

EG: It was purely a motivational thing. There are so many things I want to be doing but never get around to starting. But when it comes and bites you in the ass, you tend to take notice. When the whole Kevin Mitnick story exploded in 1998, that was the time to make a movie about it. It was either then or never. So we did that. In this case, Wiley came to us with the offer and we said either we do this or we never do it. It was a ton of work and I’ve read these articles more than any human should have to, but the time was right for this project. And I also learned a hell of a lot about how it all progressed over time. You don’t think about that on a day to day basis but when it’s all there in front of you, it kind of slaps you in the face. And I learned by looking at all of this material that even though the technology has changed so thoroughly, the one thing that has remained throughout all of it has been the hackers themselves. The hackers are the constant. Technology is in a perpetual state of flux. I’m sure I had that in the back of my mind all along but it still kind of surprised me when this fact spelled itself out so clearly while we were putting this book together.

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JB: Why have hackers always been so eager to share their knowledge? 2600 would not exist without all these writers’ contributions. Why not keep all these techniques and vulnerabilities secret?

EG: That goes against a very basic premise of hacking. Information should be shared. Here in New York, the authorities have plastered propaganda posters everywhere that say "If You See Something, Say Something." But hackers have been living by that philosophy forever. This is also why we’re such a thorn in the side of those in charge, whether they’re school principals or presidents of large countries. Revealing the stuff we find and figure out is often an embarrassment to people who haven’t been doing their jobs or who have something to hide. As for our own techniques, keeping them secret would be self-defeating. When people understand how to achieve an effect rather than just having a list of the results, then they have a much better chance of being the person to figure out the next step.

JB: I love the articles in 2600, but I also like things like the letters, puzzles, payphones, cover art and even the classifieds — stuff that didn’t make it into the book. Where you tempted to include those elements? What made you decide to only have articles?

EG: The fact that we initially only had 360 pages to work with made it impossible to include anything other than articles. Then we were given close to 600, and finally just under 900 when it became clear how many really good articles there were to choose from. Wiley deserves a lot of credit for realizing this. It would have been really sad to leave out as much as we would have had to in order to make it all fit into the initial amount of pages. But there was obviously a lot more we could have put in if we had gone beyond articles. I’d love to see a book with just letters. Or maybe a book of payphone photos. There really are a lot of possibilities, especially if this one does well.

JB: You probably had more material for the ’90s than for either the ’80s or ’00s, simply because it was the only full decade (so far) during 2600‘s run. Did you have to make some difficult choices to balance that decade with the other two? What were some important stories that didn’t make it in?

EG: I’m not going to make everyone feel worse by citing the stuff that we couldn’t get in. Suffice to say, we had to make many painful decisions but that’s the nature of the beast. We obviously had to cut a bit more from the 90s since that was the longest of the decades but I think overall it was fairly balanced. Setting the tone in the beginning decade was tough as was having it all make sense in the current decade and somehow reflecting back on the beginning. The 90s were more or less the bridge between the two, not only in a technological sense but in a social one as well.

JB: The section on the ’00s is subtitled "A Changing Landscape" — did you have a hard time defining the decade, seeing as we’re still in it?

EG: It wasn’t too difficult, seeing as how so much has already changed since 2000 on so many levels. We still have a little bit to go so it’s also the only decade with a hint of the unknown to it. So the changing landscape theme seemed entirely appropriate for this.

JB: Many hackers have gotten their start very young, in their teens or even younger. What about the phenomenon do kids find so fascinating?

EG: It’s like anything else that’s new and different. Computers, phones and technology in general represent something that parents, teachers and the status quo simply don’t "get" or appreciate. This naturally draws kids in just like anything else that’s discouraged or even forbidden. Add to that the power and the mystique that goes with mastering technology and the whole thing is almost irresistible.

JB: Has this changed? Is hacking still a young person’s realm?

EG: I believe more people are aware of hacking now but it’s still primarily something young people are drawn to for a number of reasons, including the adventure aspect, the hint of rebellion and mischief that the world of hacking represents, and also the fact that those of us with jobs and families to support simply don’t have the time to be playing around with machines and code, figuring out all sorts of subtle nuances and creative ways of shaping technology.

JB: A fifth-grader I know was busted at school for gaining admin privileges on the school network. It was nothing technically sophisticated, the teachers had written the password down. What suggestions would you have for encouraging a young person’s sense of exploration and technical curiosity while making him or her aware of the legal/disciplinary ramifications of getting caught?

EG: The people who need the most guidance here are the administrators, who need to learn that someone figuring out how to defeat their security is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s this fear of losing control that leads to so many irrational actions and exaggerated punishments. As far as what students and other users should take into such situations, the simple premises of not causing damage, using information to their advantage in an unfair way, and sharing what they’ve learned are all good starts that should guide them through any similar situations. But that’s no guarantee that the reaction will be at all rational.

JB: A lot of the articles in the magazine involve techniques that simply don’t work any more. For instance, blue boxing. What do you miss the most?

EG: What I miss the most is the close knit community we once had where literally everyone knew everyone else. Since so few people were interested in what we were doing, it meant a whole lot more when you actually found someone who shared your interests, or who could at least appreciate them. In this, I suppose we were victims of our own success. We were obviously on to something really really cool and eventually the rest of the world figured that out. But at least some of us got to experience it when the whole thing was literally the playground of a few developers and mischief makers. And of course, the other thing I miss a lot is the old technology itself where things were sometimes clunky and slow. It somehow meant so much more when the technology advanced, even a little. Nowadays nothing seems to surprise us anymore and somehow a lot of the romance has been lost. Again, the price of success.

JB: How would you draw a distinction between hackers and "makers" or DIYers a la MAKE magazine?

EG: We all definitely share the same spirit of building and developing. And a lot of our people are also into MAKE and I’m good friends with senior editor Phil Torrone (who used to be our webmaster by the way). I think what they do is a bit more in the mainstream in that their projects tend to draw families and a lot of what we talk about is seen as tantamount to the destruction of civilization by more than a few. Building a project from a kit is fun and educational and I don’t think anyone can see anything wrong with that. But telling people the inner workings of a major phone company and showing how all of our data is out there for anyone to look at – you don’t get the same warm, fuzzy feeling from that. Which is fine because we’ve never really been about the warm and fuzzy stuff anyway. It doesn’t necessarily make us evil, just not as popular and a bit misunderstood. We’re the people your parents
warned you about.

JB: The 1990s saw PCs become a household staple. How do you think the average hacker felt about this ‘revolution’?

EG: I think there was a mixture of resignation and disgust. Most of the early PCs weren’t looked upon all that favorably by hackers who had spent their
time playing with mainframes and minis (albeit without permission) and the spectre of all sorts of "clueless" people getting involved in "our world"
led to a lot of eye rolling and sighing. But how could anyone possibly have stopped it? I think we all knew this was how things were meant to go.

JB: Other than your book, what books have you read that capture the true spirit of the hacker phenomenon?

EG: Well, the usual like Neuromancer and Snow Crash plus a lot of Arthur C. Clarke stories really got me into the whole exploration and technology scene. But as the hacker thing got more and more serious, I started to really take an  interest in the books that actually focused on our community: Masters of Deception, Cyberpunk, The Cuckoo’s Egg. I think the one that got it right more than any other and which survives to this day is Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown which was the right book to come out at just the right time. It was an especially historic period then and this had to be documented. We’re lucky that it was.

JB: How did the 2600 meetings get started and how did the idea get picked up by so many people worldwide?

EG:  The meetings were directly influenced by the old TAP meetings that were held every Friday in New York City throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I saw an interesting way that people could meet face to face and add a dimension to what it was that drew us all together. Originally our meetings were weekly too but we soon realized that making it a monthly thing would turn it into more of an event and people would make more of an effort to come. At first we didn’t think it would go beyond New York. But meetings soon started in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia. But the whole meeting phenomena really took off in the early 90s after our Washington DC meeting was raided at the direction of the Secret Service.
We basically caught them doing this and trying to cover it up. It got a lot of media attention and people were so outraged that more meetings than ever started to spring up. That is the true hacker spirit. When something bad happens, we do what we can to turn it into something good and to grow stronger as a result.

JB: Do you see any value in the whole white hat vs. black hat or hacker vs. cracker dichotomies?

EG: None at all. Making simplistic categorizations accomplishes nothing except to stick an image into people’s heads and in all likelihood sell some kind of a product to them. There are no black and white issues here except to those who have no interest in learning more than what they already know. We need to dig deeper and understand what goes on in the mind of a hacker and how we can learn from that, rather than simply condemning him, whether by laws or by words, as a criminal. And of course giving a free pass to all of the corporate giants is another mistake. A lot of what goes on "legally" is quite simply wrong and needs to be challenged. The way our personal data is left unguarded is about as criminal as you can get. And the whole hacker/cracker thing is really silly. There are some people who believe they’re "good" hackers so they decided to make a new word to categorize all of the "bad" hackers. So some hackers began calling other people crackers, thinking that would solve the problem. It didn’t. All it did was make every non-hacker confused. And by attaching this negative connotation to something mysterious, they were basically doing the same thing the mass media had already done to the word "hacker." And you could prove this quite easily. Some of these people didn’t believe Kevin Mitnick was a true hacker and so they labeled him a cracker. And the response of those who subscribed to these definitions was predictable. As soon as they heard someone was a cracker, they lost all sympathy in them. Except there was one thing left out. They never found out WHY they were labeled in this way. If you call somebody a
criminal, people will ask what he did. But calling someone a cracker, you just make assumptions as to what he did and never actually ask the question. There are already plenty of words to define criminals and they’re all fairly descriptive: thief, fraud artist, etc. Cracker brings the condemnation but not the description which is why it’s a bad thing.

JB: What did the Attendee Meta Data project at The Last Hope teach you about the realities of ubiquitous RFID chips?

EG: They can be used for good or for evil. This is really something a lot of us already knew but it was fun to put it into practice and be able to follow someone’s movements. You can play games with this technology and use it to explore an area like we did with the hotel. But at the same time it can be used without your knowledge and all of a sudden it’s not so much a game but a real privacy intrusion. So by actually having the technology to play with and imagining the possibilities, our attendees were able to take in the whole
picture and hopefully come away with a much better understanding of what’s out there.

JB: It seems that hackers are the enemies of "security by obscurity" — witness Rop Gonggrijp investigating electronic voting machine insecurities, or Barry Wels blowing the whistle on lock bumping. What drives them to joust with corporations this way?

EG: It’s an inevitable confrontation. What Rop and Barry do is what they’ve always done: play with their particular technological interests, learn as much as they possibly can, tweak things a bit to see what might be possible that others haven’t yet thought of, and share their results with the whole world. It’s that last bit that really rubs certain powerful entities the wrong way. They want control — they want to be able to dictate terms. That flies in the face of what hackers are all about. It’s not as if hackers set out to piss off large corporations. They just represent two entirely different sets of values and oftentimes they come up against each other. The reactions these confrontations inspire are what determine history.

JB: What is the future of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly? Do you see any changes anytime soon? What will the magazine be like 20 years from now?

EG: I doubt anyone (myself included) expected us to last this long so whatever I say about the future will undoubtedly be completely inaccurate insofar as what our role will be. But what I do know is that there will always be hackers and that they will always be a fundamental part of any development of technology, society and overall advancement of the human race. You need free spirits, independent thinkers, individuals who believe in sharing information and figuring out how things work, despite all of the people and entities who really would prefer that they didn’t. So while I have no idea at all where we will be as a magazine that far into the future, it’s a safe bet that the hacker world will thrive for as long as the human race survives.

For more hacker goodness, see my review of Emmanuel’s book The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey.

Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid (cc)

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