Cybernetic Notes: Battle of the black and white hats
Saturday 14 November 1998
Two whey-faced, bespectacled hackers currently dominate the electronic pages of the world's virtual newspapers. One is Bill Gates, the Henry Ford of the personal computer industry, chairman of the software giant Micro-soft Corp, to some the devil incarnate for making the cyberworld Windows-shaped. He's the white hat. The other is Kevin Mitnick, unemployed, one-time fugitive from justice and the longest- serving detainee at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles. He's the black hat.
Both Gates and Mitnick are wrestling with an American justice system that wishes to make examples of them both. Whereas Gates is feared because his phenomenal success in the highly competitive computer business has given him the wealth and power of a nation state and a de facto monopoly of the world's most widely used business tool, Mitnick is feared because of what people imagine he might do, and others like him, when Gatesworld is wired up, and relies on being safely and securely so.
Bill Gates has deep pockets to pay the phalanxes of lawyers and spin doctors he needs. He will probably not end up in gaol even if it is proved that he is a black-hat businessman and his company broke the laws of capitalism and ruined its competitors. Were it to be proved, then his fortune and his company would be hostage to the lawsuits that would follow, all based on estimated losses of victim companies.
Kevin Mitnick is being accused of causing his victims losses of a mere $80m and is facing a 200-year sentence for his crimes which, on closer examination, amount to theft of telephone source code (computer instructions which determine how a system behaves), which he kept to himself - the worth of which is debatable - and a few hours of free mobile-phone calls.
Hijacking source code is not as shocking as it might appear. Computer companies whose patents have been infringed go to court only if they see their technology being exploited successfully by their competitors and a deal between them cannot be struck. Cases are almost invariably settled by commercial arrangements that, they hope, are mutually beneficial.
Mitnick refused to plea-bargain and has now been in federal custody for nearly four years awaiting trial. He has spent time in solitary and his reputation for electronic wizardry is so feared, the authorities' ignorance of electronics so great, that he was once deprived of a Walkman in case he used it to bug his warders.
Thanks to the laxity of its original design, the Internet retains its potential for accessible free speech. Mitnick incarcerated, though broke, is not without a voice. He has his own website. His supporters continually lobby for his freedom. Whatever Mitnick did, they reckon, isn't worth what he's got. As a consequence, websites, including that of The New York Times, have been regularly targeted by hackers and their pages overrun with slogans, scribblings, spoof threats, and juvenile smut in order to raise the profile of Mitnick's case and attack anyone else they feel has offended them.
A long sentence for Mitnick would ensure that hackers, however they are motivated, would be more likely to plea-bargain in the future. The defence thinks it suits the government to portray Mitnick as a dangerous public nuisance in order to justify its own agenda for regulation and control of the Internet and the telecommunications industry.
But Mitnick pursued his hacking career, rather typically, for knowledge and control. He did not have the criminality to sell trade secrets in Taiwan nor the white-hat profit motive to exploit what he found. If he had done so, he might, like Bill Gates, have got himself the best justice money can buy.
Denise Danks's latest novel, `Phreak', is published by Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three-year-old boy shoots pregnant mother and father in New Mexico
- 2 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 3 Jewish community urged to boycott Cornwall village after residents vote for 'Hitlers Walk' sign to be reinstated
- 4 Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing gay-rights campaign snubbed by Prince William and Kate Middleton
- 5 Kim Sears responds to swearing controversy with 'parental advisory' T-shirt at Andy Murray's Australian Open final
Daniel Radcliffe deemed 'not marketable' without his English accent
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
As Better Call Saul launches, here are the other spin-off shows we need to see
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
President Putin is a dangerous psychopath - reason is not going to work with him
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign