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Cyberspace on earth

HIP 97 must have been the most hi-tech campsite in Europe. Along with lock-picking, all the tricks of the hackers' trade were on show.
Hackers, those moles of the digital underground, rarely see the light of day. But last weekend nearly two thousand of them dug their way up into the scorching sunlight of a campsite on the outskirts of Amsterdam, for HIP 97, the Hacking in Progress festival. They came from all over the world, bringing tents and millions of pounds worth of equipment, to meet kindred spirits and share tricks of the trade.

The scene was more Club Med than computer chaos, with orderly rows of tents, up-market catering and the cleanest loos ever to be witnessed at a festival. But unlike a normal campsite, wires spewed from every tent and fibre-optic cables ran across the fields, linking the computers up to form a massive "ethernet". Hackers sat sweltering under canvas, eyes glued to blinking monitors. Others attended lectures, on cryptography and anonymous e-mailing, in a circus tent. Like students on any university campus, they took notes and asked questions.

"Hackers have nothing in common except hacking," everyone said. But hackers of all nationalities look roughly the same - in shorts, flak-jackets and T shirts, with "We Want Bandwidth" slogans. Men outnumbered women, but not by much. The Dutch Web Girls had hung motherboards line outside their tent. The "hippers" were mostly in their 20s, but a few children and elderly hackers were wandering around. The foreigners could be distinguished by their eagerness to make the most of Holland's relaxed drug laws. The Dutch by their bravery, jumping into a nearby murky canal. Their liberal attitudes raised a few eyebrows - one girl sat, topless, at the lectures.

But compared to DefCon, an annual convention held in Las Vegas, these hackers were exceptionally well-behaved. DefCon's delegates routinely wreck hotels, "phreak" the phones and indulge in wild drinking and gambling. HIP 97's organisers had warned everyone against illegal hacking, given the number of journalists, business representatives and Dutch policemen who had come along, marked out by bright badges. One of the many conspiracy theories circulating was that the police were recording all the data traversing the fields, for post-festival analysis. But the police looked relaxed, drinking beer, one complimenting a passer-by on her "I Love Feds" T-shirt.

It was hard to tell whether talk of illegal hacking was nothing more than boastful bravado. There was some minor frolicking: the HIP 97 web site was hacked and a local pirate radio station, broadcasting the event, was continually knocked off air by hackers crashing their computers. A kindly hacker advised me to delete my name and details from the registration database: "You'll get arrested at the airport for a terrible crime, or get home and find you're suddenly married".

The businessmen were there to check out the enemy. Some were looking for new recruits, but most of the hackers already had jobs in computing. For all the friendly camaraderie, there was evidently a hacking hierarchy. A bearded Californian wandered by, to a chorus of whispers: "That's Bill, the famous phone phreaker!" At the lower end of the scale was Peter, a Dutch 16-year-old "Nijntje", who was giving a workshop on a recent hack he had done into a company's web site and how he had been caught red-handed. "It was cool because we got a lot of publicity," he said. With much booing and hissing, he was accused of breaking an ethical code - hackers should do their utmost to remain anonymous and never seek publicity. Worst of all, his methods were "so 1996".

Everyone wanted to stress that hacking is not just about breaking into systems. "It can be a wonderful thing", explained Zooco, a member of the CypherPunks. "Pretty much every useful aspect of modern computing was devised by hackers - like the Internet and e-mail." Few were willing to give real names, only "handles" like Lucky Green and Brian Oblivion. A group of English hackers known as Lunch Out, X and Cybernetik said they were fed-up with being portrayed as wrong-doers. "Hackers do good stuff", said Lunch Out, a New Ager with dreds. "I have a friend who monitors people looking for child pornography." X, with long black nails and a pierced tongue, said phones were his speciality: "I once changed the answerphone message of the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Callers were surprised to hear he had become a militant black activist".

But more than anything, he said, hacking is about "finding information we have a right to know, but governments and companies don't want to tell us". Yet their biggest concern seemed to be what organisations knew about them. "I'm sure MI5 know all of us", said one. They never talk freely on the phone, say that all faxes are monitored and would never give their details to creditors or supermarkets. "They can track you anywhere", says Lunch Out.

X said that hackers are defined by their curiosity and desire to take things apart. Lock-picking is another common sideline and some Germans were giving tutorials in their tents. Their pupils sat, fiddling with padlocks and smoking joints. Further insight into the hacking mentality came from Carey Young, an artist and Internet consultant, who was asking people to mould clay in the shape of cyberspace. "It's an art therapy technique used for people who have suffered traumas or aren't very verbal", she said. Judging by some of the mumbling lectures being given, hackers are not verbally adept. But few of the sculptures indicated trauma, mostly peaceful symbols of communication - one had two hands clasped together. But it was not all love and peace. On Saturday evening there was a mock funeral for Bill Gates. The crowd gathered round a tombstone, engraved with the epitaph: "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" After a minute of silence, a toast was raised to his death.

Later, as the sun went down, the fields were illuminated by flames and twinkling monitors. Some were evidently going to hack the night away. Others went in search of parties. At a makeshift observatory, a group sat and star-gazed, stoned but still discussing the merits of PIC chips, PGP and Perl.