Computers: Motley bunch hack at end of universe: Cyberpunks, spooks and spotty youths met in a Dutch field last week to exchange the latest tricks. Rupert Goodwins tuned in

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The Independent Online
IN A BLUSTERY Dutch field, four metres below sea level and miles from anywhere, a man from the CIA was preaching last week to an audience of anarchists, hippies and computer security consultants.

Around them, hundreds of tents communed electronically with the rest of the world through telephone cable and sticky tape. Stories of global mayhem and local area networks mixed with Hendrix and Kraftwerk: 'Hacking at the End of the Universe', the Hack-Tic computer club's 1993 Summer Congress, was underway.

The call to attend went out earlier this year across the Internet, the giant computer network which links academia, industry and individuals across the world. The intended recipients were those who inhabit the shadier areas of that network. Hackers, techno-anarchists and communications junkies were all specifically invited, as were the more esoteric 'warez dudes' - software pirates - and 'phone phreaks' - who make free telephone calls without the aid of 0800 numbers.

But anyone who got the message could come and security experts, police officers and others were made welcome. Between 500 and 1,000 members of this most improbable mix of people turned up from across Europe and the Americas. Spotty youths from Nottingham, interested in swapping numbers and tales of adolescent vandalism; slightly odd professional programmers; balding Dutch hackers in their thirties and forties, more interested in international public access data communications than online credit card fraud; corporate Americans in smart casuals and official haircuts, on expenses; long-haired goths in black leather, on grass.

A hallmark of the event was the male-to-female ratio: running at roughly 100:1, it did not bode well for the demise of the anorak. Even so, there was some evidence of the emergence of a hacker chic, with one of the few women sporting jewellery made from watch parts and hair decoration courtesy of an eviscerated floppy disk.

Efforts were made to address this problem: there were lectures in social engineering: 'the skill of manipulating people within bureaucracies', according to the congress programme. This started with the basic theory that to get people's trust you had to smile and be pleasant and, if you were going to lie, you had to be consistent.

More advanced material was quoted from How to Win Friends and Influence People. 'It was really teaching introverted hackers how to be normal human beings and get themselves laid,' an English attendee called John said approvingly. Although English was the lingua franca, discussions blew up in three or four languages at once - when you are arguing about Unix and Ethernet it scarcely matters whether you are all speaking the same tongue.

Names were optional. Once your 100 guilder ( pounds 36) entrance fee had been paid, a computer took your picture and printed it out on a badge; no further identification was required. There were two main strands to the event and by rights neither should have worked.

The technical side was a thing of wonder - a high-speed datalink to the Internet ran into a catholic collection of elderly hardware in a barn. PCs, Macs and Acorn Archimedes machines were linked to a vintage Sun workstation and thence out to the 'Intertent', the 'first local area network installed in a field' according to the organisers.

Strands of telephone cables snaked from tent to tent, across trees and down paths, providing those who had brought their own computers with a free Internet connection. For some this was enough - one group of English hackers was content to stay under canvas for the entire three days, communicating with their fellow cyberpunks entirely through electronic mail.

The random nature of the wiring and the unhealthy generator which powered the whole exercise made this a haphazard affair; at times, only one call in five could get through. If anything, the social side for those who left their tents was even more unlikely. For once, the idea of a global community seemed to work: litter was picked up, toilets cleaned and hands freely lent whenever the need arose.

There were about 120 computers on site, many of them exquisitely portable, yet not one theft was reported. Dutch common sense and amiability pervaded the event. Each day, four or five lectures, workshops or round-table discussions took place, ranging from computer art and law to radio networks and using digital telephone exchanges in inventive ways.

The impromptu workshops were as interesting to many as the scheduled events. Someone would sit down at a terminal and tap away for a few moments; a nugget of information would attract a gaggle of hackers who would gather around, scribbling in notebooks. Then they would break up and rush back to their tents, eager to try out the latest discovery.

One of the stars of the official show was Robert D Steele, ex-US Marine officer and ex-CIA operative, who wandered around the site in a green Chairman Mao cap with a Red Star badge.

He turned up as part of his campaign to persuade the US Government to spend a quarter of the CIA's budget on developing and supporting a public-access database filled with as much encyclopedic information as possible. His thesis, that the CIA does not know what data to gather and loses it anyway, was popular; the surreal aspects of watching him give a talk with a flipchart to a marqueeful of sundry hackers were heightened by the knowledge that he had given much the same lecture to large US defence companies and been funded as a result.

By bringing together the computer underground and mainstream, he contended, there would be a valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas. 'But the CIA are bastards]' yelled one young Dutch hacker from the back of the room. 'Look at the Bay of Pigs] If we take their money away and put them out of business they'll hunt us down and kill us]'.

This mixture of paranoia and idealism was reminiscent of the hippy Sixties, as was the sharp anarchist commercialism that characterised the T-shirts, magazines and stickers on sale next to the beer and Jolt double-caffinated cola.

One T-shirt's design was the complete circuit diagram for a 'blue box', an illegal device for making free telephone calls, another proudly advertised a US hacking group with their slogan 'Indict The Very Best]'. Grand ideas were in the air along with the occasional puff of hash smoke and the chatter of cellphone radio scanners.

In UK such a motley bunch of travellers would be shown the gate before they had unpacked their modems. Their image of themselves is of an international elite, unbounded by borders or irksome local rules; when someone who would have trouble getting served in a pub with a 'No Travellers' sign can demonstrate his home-made secure radio data network - every bit as good as commercial products - it is hard not to see their point.

Like the hardware hackers of the Seventies who built the first personal computer, these new-age cyberpunks and digital crusties are pushing technology into the public arena as hard as they can.

Rupert Goodwins is a technical editor of PC Magazine.

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