'I'd like people to experience the thrill of hacking'

Not all hackers are criminals and computer terrorists, says Emmanuel Goldstein, creator of 2600, the American on-line underground magazine.
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Emmanuel Goldstein looks a little like a battered Arlo Guthrie, and he answers journalists' questions with all the enthusiasm of Arlo facing the draft board. He gives his age as 35, and is vague about other details, although he has lived in the New York area all his life. But his name is known among hackers all over the world.

As editor and publisher of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, Mr Goldstein feels he has an important role to play. He wants the public to get a more balanced view of what hackers really do, in the face of media representations classifying arrested hackers as computer terrorists. "I'd just like to have people experience the spirit of hacking for themselves and understand the thrill of discovering something and why that's not inherently a bad thing, why it's actually a very good thing," he says. "But you can't really understand that unless you experience it yourself."

The title of the magazine is a reference to 2600 hertz, the tone frequency that used to make the US phone system give you free phone calls. Hackers like to know such things, sometimes for practical benefits, sometimes to know when their and our privacy is at risk, but often purely to gather knowledge. But as Mr Goldstein told "Access All Areas", a hacker conference in London earlier this month, "hacking is about learning, not about giving people free passes". He deplores wannabe hackers and phreakers who just want codes for free access to on-line services or phone calls, and are not prepared to find out the underlying structure of the system.

The magazine itself has grown from small beginnings. "We were afraid we were going to be arrested," Mr Goldstein says, recalling the night in 1984 when he sent out the first 25 copies of his new magazine. Media hacker mythology concentrates on computers, and crime, but hacking is older than computing; most of today's computer underground derives from the earlier, phone-phreaker days, and they're interested in how everything works. So 2600 ranges far and wide. Recent issues have included articles on how to beat the password-protected screensavers that high-street shops use, common misconceptions about ATM cameras, and an analysis of telephone cards, heavily illustrated with technical diagrams. It requires skill and knowledge to do anything with this information. Mr Goldstein, however, is studiedly vague about its circulation. In some ways, its existence is more important than how many people see it.

That was also true about another publication, though that was fictional. In Orwell's 1984, there is The Book, the "compendium of all the heresies", written by the person branded by the all-powerful Party as the hated "Enemy of the People" - Emmanuel Goldstein. Later, the reader discovers that The Book was written by the Party's inner circle. This Emmanuel Goldstein, however, is unlikely to be working for the United States National Security Agency, although he has testified in Congress (whose knowledge of technology he compares unfavourably to that of the staff of Geraldo, the American TV show that often prefers shock value over content).

You realise that the New Yorker's given name was not parental clairvoyance when passing friends call him Eric Corley. "Different names for different people," he says, shrugging. Earlier, with friends in the hall, he talked about his house (which has a water well) on Long Island, and how difficult it is to find because it's not on a road; looking around, he stopped suddenly: "I've probably said too much."

He's not hard to find. Every week WBAI-FM, one of New York's long-established independent stations, airs his show Off the Hook. Tune in, and you get music, telephone interviews, calls from listeners complaining about phone booths that don't allow (legitimately) toll-free calls, and, mostly, monologues from Mr Goldstein. The week after his trip to London, he spent as much time complaining about our different names for familiar sweets as he did about the security cameras in Piccadilly Circus.

He is an entertaining speaker. His background includes no formal instruction in computers; he was an English major in college, although he discovered computers in secondary school after years of playing with telephones. He started the magazine because he got involved with the underground community and bulletin board services. "I thought it would be nice to have a printed forum for these people." Besides putting hacker knowledge into the public domain, he contends that his work is developing into consumer advocacy. Hackers can point knowledgeably at phone company practices like charging an extra monthly or quarterly fee for the one-off task of typing in the command for touch-tone service, or making a phone number unlisted.

Being printed, rather than electronic, has probably helped 2600. The printing press is protected by the US Constitution's First Amendment, though that's not the reason Mr Goldstein says a UK hacker magazine, which he believes this country needs, should choose print: "Most of the people who read 2600 aren't on the Net."

Mr Goldstein draws the line at crime, which he defines as "benefiting financially from something - selling something, or actually physically taking something away". But that's not the law: some states assume that possession of more than a certain number of credit card numbers or access codes indicates intent to commit a crime. "That's a big assumption. I think the assumption should be changed. Possessing knowledge is not in itself a crime."

Nonetheless, several contributors to the magazine have served jail time, including technical consultant "Phiber Optik", whose one-year sentence (essentially on a hacking charge) Mr Goldstein deplored in an editorial. But most at Access All Areas would agree with him. One young hopeful named Zap tried to explain Mr Goldstein's stature in the computer underground. "2600 is our bible," he managed, eventually. ''So I have met God."

'2600' is available in the UK from Tower Records, 1 Piccadilly Circus, London W1V 9LA (0171 439 2500) and from AK Distribution, 22 Lutton Place, Edinburgh EH8 9PE (tel. 0131 667 1507).

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