My choice for a ‘book’ to read this week was not actually a book but a collection of my copies of 2600 Magazine. Also known as ‘The Hacker Quarterly’, the grey hat publication had an important impact on my childhood, being a basis for my liberal opinions about the sharing, dissemination, and freedom of information in a digital age. Re-reading random selections from my 2600 collection provided a stark reminder of its great influence on me.
How Far Have We Come?
I want to share with you a quote from an article in 2600 regarding the FBI seizing computer equipment during simultaneous raids of the homes of fifteen people:
At a December 16 meeting of the Long Island Computer Association, this topic was addressed. Some members could not understand the rationale for taking away the computers in the first place. "It sounds like scare tactics to me… to keep these kids off of computers," one commented. "To hold the equipment seems like something that should be unlawful and it’s something that the public should look at. If it’s not justified, we should say that we won’t put up with it anymore and to return the equipment." He did not elaborate on precisely what kind of action a computer group such as L1CA could take.
…What had members there worried was the way in which the investigation was being carried out. When dealing with computers as evidence, different rules apply, rules that for the most part have not been written yet. "Data can be manufactured just as easily as it can be erased from a personal computer," one member commented. "And the longer that they have the computer in their custody, the less likely that the information that they claim is on it was actually there. Because, as we know, you could enter any date, any time into the computer and have it date and time-stamp the files."
The above may not sound like a big deal to some people, and I can understand why many would not care that much. But there is a reason that I find this quote unsettling: The quote is from January 1984. You will find it on the third page of 2600’s first issue. That was written five months before I was born. But how many of you would have believed me if I’d said the quote came from a newspaper article written today? I have a strong feeling I know the answer, and that scares me.
Activism, Education, and Terrible Hollywood Films
Given the above, obviously I was not a 2600 reader from the start of its publication. My introduction to the magazine happened in 1995, triggered by the intersection of two events:
I had been studying computers and programming for two years when ‘Hackers’ came out in theaters, and it instantly became a favorite of mine and one of my best friends. We weren’t even teenagers though, so our taste in movies was unrefined—that sounds appropriate. The film has Fisher Stevens riding around on a skateboard calling himself ‘The Plague’ for God’s sake. Nonetheless, my friend and I could recite more of that movie’s script than we would ever care to admit.
This new-found juvenile enthusiasm in hacking quickly led to the discovery of 2600 Magazine at a local book store. I was expecting to find a flashy culture of tech geeks as seen in the movie. Instead I came face-to-face with a culture far more serious, educational, and inspiring. It all started with 2600’s coverage of Kevin Mitnick’s arrest and the subsequent ‘Free Kevin’ campaign that took place.
You will find the story of Kevin Mitnick on the link above and so I’m not going into the details, except to point out what aspect of the case had a personal impact on me: Mitnick spent four and a half years in prison before his criminal trial even began. I didn’t honestly understand anything about the U.S. legal system, but even as a pre-teen I could not comprehend how Mitnick’s crimes justified his treatment. Everything about it felt inherently wrong. 2600’s coverage of the events surrounding Mitnick, and later Kevin Poulsen, instilled in my mind a reality where ethereal bits of data traveling across the wires of my computer and phones was ammunition for a social and ideological weapon of incomprehensible scope.
Before 1995 I loved my computer because Doom was just too damned fun. After 1995 I started to see my computer as part of a world where information had the same importance as oxygen and all the dangers of heroin. There was still a tremendous amount of things I didn’t understand, but by then 2600 Magazine had irrevocably affected my views about technology.
As I write this eighteen years later I’d like to believe that I have a better understanding of ‘the real world’ and the role of technology in modern society. However, reading 2600 Magazine still continues to challenge my views and opinions, and remains a source of educational material. If it were not for 2600 I seriously doubt that I would have my current appreciation and concerns regarding the freedoms surrounding technology.
I also probably wouldn’t know anything about sockets. And I definitely would have never vandalized the pay-phone at my middle school so I could rip out parts to build a blue box. In my defense, I did eventually return the parts by leaving them next to the phone in an unmarked brown paper bag—my community had no history of students making bomb threats, thankfully, otherwise I’d be in prison or dead.
Next Book of the Week
Next week I am reading through ‘Introduction to Operating System Abstractions Using Plan 9 from Bell Labs’. That title ought to be a little longer, I mean…. Anyways, the draft is (apparently) freely available, so consider giving it a read if you have an interest in the technical details of operating systems. As for 2600, buy one issue the next time you see the magazine. The price is a bargain when weighed against what you can get out of it; and if you don’t like it then you’ve only spent a few dollars, so why not?