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Protecting the Net

Hackers sign on in Israel, say they can save the Internet

by Avi Machlis

April 20, 2000 | 8:00 pm

It is hard to take seriously a conference that provides free pizza and Coca-Cola to participants wearing tags with names like Nothingmuch, Cyphunk and Blacktiger. But for more than 350 computer geeks who came out of the cybershadows to participate in Y2hacK, an international hackers conference in Tel Aviv, this gathering was no laughing matter.

"Hackers are very important for the Internet community as a whole, because they are the ones that will be buttoning up holes in the system," said John Draper, also known as Cap'n Crunch, a 57-year-old hacker guru from California.

"Governments should be a little more tolerant to what is going on, and hackers should be willing to contact a company and say, 'I found bugs in your system.'"

Draper holds a place of honor online in the hackers hall of fame for his discovery in the 1970s that a toy whistle from a Cap'n Crunch cereal box could be used to break into telephone networks. He has since reformed his ways and used the conference as a platform to condemn destructive hacker activities, such as assaults that briefly crippled leading Web sites like Yahoo! and eBay in February.

It was these attacks that lured the media spotlight to Tel Aviv's exhibition grounds last week. Although hackers regularly stage conventions in the United States and Europe, it was the first such gathering in Israel aimed at galvanizing local hackers -- and the first since the recent string of highly publicized attacks.

Indeed, Michael Eitan, a Likud Party Knesset member and former science minister, appeared at the convention and told the hackers to make sure they do not put their talents to illegal use.

Many participants said it is time for authorities to stop hunting them down and to start listening to what they have to say. The conference was sponsored by People and Computers, an Israeli technology magazine, and Netvision, a leading Israeli Internet service provider.

It was organized by Neora, a veteran Israeli hacker and software programmer. In 1993 -- way before the Internet reached the masses -- she published a novel about an online Israeli-Palestinian love affair. Neora today lectures about cyberculture at Tel Aviv University.

Y2hacK provided a rare glimpse into the secretive and somewhat anarchic world of people who are seen as the archenemies of the new world order of dot-coms and e-commerce. Participants were challenged to break into certain sites offered by companies who wanted to prove their cyberdefenses were sound.

And all eyes were peeled for camouflaged agents believed to be milling about in a lively offline game of "Spot the Fed," borrowed from U.S. hacker conferences.

At this hackers gathering, some participants wore yarmulkes, but the hacking scene -- complete with an afternoon break for meditation -- seemed to be devoid of the religious-secular tensions that are commonplace in Israeli society.

"I'm a wannabe hacker," said Inbal, a 16-year-old high school student from Ra'anana who, like many participants, gave only her first name or screen alias. Inbal, who attends a religious youth group, was knitting a kippah while listening to lectures given by veteran hackers.

"I once broke into a system by mistake, and the company offered to pay me so I could tell them how I got in," she said. "I thought that was really cool. But I think the people who cause damage are stupid -- they are just showing off."

Even before the Israel event, the Jewish people had a prominent representative on the international hacking scene in the form of Kevin Mitnick, who spoke to the convention via teleconference.

Mitnick, 36, spent nearly five years in prison for breaking into the Web sites of leading companies. During his sentence, he asked to be transferred because the facility he was in did not serve kosher food. The best-selling books "Cyberpunk" and "Takedown" and a forthcoming Hollywood movie are based on his story.

Mitnick was released from a federal prison in California in January and recently testified in Congress about the need to beef up cybersecurity. He is banned from touching a computer keyboard or using a cellular phone.

Hackers at the conference tried hard to explain that there is a difference between constructive "white hat" hackers who can help improve security on the Internet and destructive "black hat" crackers, the word for those who want to wreak Web havoc.

For example, conference organizers used their skills to conduct a survey of Israeli Web security. Even though some big Israeli companies warned them not to publish the results, they discovered that 28 percent of the Israeli Internet is vulnerable.

Neora was kind enough to leave her telephone number wherever she broke in so systems administrators could contact her for details.

Nothingmuch, a 14-year-old from Be'ersheva with a blond ponytail, considers himself to be a good guy even though he shares the anti-establishment sentiments of the crackers.

"I'm an anti-monopoly type of guy," he said. "I hate any major company. One of the ways I work against them is by using a Mac instead of a PC.

"Hackers are people who make systems do what they want to do, and it does not matter whether it's a computer or a calculator," he said.

"Most Israeli hackers are 'packet monkeys' who just cause damage, and I hate that," he added, using a term for destructive hackers.

Indeed, Israelis hackers have a bad reputation, said Gilad Raz, a 26-year-old software programmer and "white hat" hacker who did not attend the conference.

"Israelis are among the best creators of viruses in the world," he said. "They are good at writing anti-virus programs, too."

Raz, who is setting up a start-up company, said the army often scouts for hackers to use their abilities in intelligence units. Often, the army helps hackers reform themselves, and they refocus their skills in positive directions upon their return to civilian life.

But, said 501, a hacker who recently moved from the United States to Israel, once a hacker, always a hacker.

"Most of us have had some fun," he said.

501 works as a software programmer, yet he sometimes cannot resist the urge to peek into other people's computers.

Once he even intercepted a colleague's résumé en route to potential employers and inserted some unflattering comments of his own.

Behind the fun and games and 14-year-old computer whizzes, 501 conceded that few people realize just how vulnerable the Internet is, nor do most surfers realize to what extent hackers pose a threat.

"There are a few people who can take down the entire Internet in a matter of minutes, and it will take the world two days to figure out what is going on," he said.

Even Cap'n Crunch admitted that the generation of hackers he inspired may have gotten a bit out of control.

"Hacking is all about the challenge," he said. "But unfortunately, today hackers have gotten a little more bold and are doing more damaging things -- which kinda sucks, really.''

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