Hacking Away, Long Before There Were Hackers

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THE curious thing about the new film “Catch Me if You Can” is how
contemporary it seems. Curious because this tale of Frank W. Abagnale
Jr. – in real life a teenage con artist who cashed millions in fake
checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor and a prosecutor
– is set in the swinging 60’s.

In those days few mortals had used a computer, and Internet wasn’t
even a word. But the young Frank Abagnale seems an eery prefiguration
of a very modern character: the hacker.

Like them, he discovered a vast and arcane system held together with
technology – in his case, the nation’s network of banks. He worked
tirelessly to understand its every facet, from the codes used by the
Federal Reserve system, to the special paper and ink and machines used
to make checks. And he exploited the system with a teenager’s
limitless energy – and limited morality.

Like many of today’s hackers, Mr. Abagnale – who is currently
unavailable for interviews, said a spokesman, having just completed a
publicity tour for the film – finally went legit. He crossed over from
committing crimes to solving them – first for the F.B.I., and these
days as a consultant to the industry he once defrauded. In this, too,
he was ahead of his time. In January 2000, the computer security firm
known as stake hired the seven members of L0pht Heavy Industries, a
hacking collective in Boston. Two years before, a member of L0pht
(pronounced loft) had bragged about the group’s skills to a Senate
committee, saying that any member could take down the Internet within
30 minutes.

Chris Wysopal, who attended that hearing as a L0pht member and is now
the director of research and development for stake, says that while
his firm doesn’t go out of its way to hire hackers, it values
“learning how the systems work through exploration.”

Kevin D. Mitnick, perhaps the nation’s best-known hacker, served five
years in prison on charges of computer and wire fraud and is currently
trying to reinvent himself as a business consultant. He has started a
company, Defensive Thinking Inc., and has written a book on computer
security, “The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of
Security,” with William L. Simon.

Hackers have always been with us, said David J. Farber, who helped to
develop electronic telephone switching when he worked at Bell
Laboratories in the 1950’s and 60’s, and went on to pioneer many of
the technologies underlying today’s networked computers.

“There’s been a big history of – let’s call it hacking,” said Mr.
Farber, citing tricks like using magnets to guide slugs through Coke
machines, and getting free phone calls by turning the telephone
company’s own technologies against it. “I don’t remember doing
anything particularly onerous,” he said, and joked that his memory
might be clouded by the fact that “I don’t know what the statute of
limitations is.”

Broadly defined, he said, it is a fundamental urge to game the system.
“If you could find the records and dug back far enough, it was
probably going on in ancient Rome,” he said.

In that sense, the hacker really is a species of trickster. And as the
“cyberpunk” novelist Neal Stephenson wrote in “The Diamond Age,” the
trickster is universal, but varies in guise from culture to culture.

“The Indians of the American Southwest called him Coyote, those of the
Pacific Coast called him Raven,” Mr. Stephenson writes. “Europeans
called him Reynard the Fox. African-Americans called him Br’er Rabbit.
In 20-century literature he appears first as Bugs Bunny and then as
the Hacker.”

OF course, hackers may have another, less mythological reason for
embracing Mr. Abagnale as one of their own. In the movie, at least, he
is an infallibly successful seducer of women – a particular sort of
con at which the stereotypically male hacker is proverbially inept.

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