June 14, 1998
New York Hackers See Breaking Into Computers as a Healthy Thing
By ANTHONY LAPP
In a crowded East Village restaurant called Mekka, Emmanuel Goldstein, 38,
is quietly eating chicken wings at a table with nine raucous guys, most of
them teen-agers. One of them is on a cell phone that he has programmed to
monitor other people's calls. "Hey, listen to this one," he says, passing
around the phone. An actress's manager, obviously stressed out, is on the
line, discussing the prima donna's rehearsal schedule.
These young men are hackers, part of a global tribe whose bond is a shared
obsession with exploring telephone and computer networks. Almost every
week, this group dines out with the brooding, long-haired Goldstein, the
publisher of 2600, a quarterly magazine named after the frequency of a dial
tone that is the bible of hackerdom, and the host of a call-in radio show,
"Off the Hook," on WBAI. They share news, hacking tips and tales of their
exploits, which can include illegal acts like stealing phone service and
breaking into computer networks.
The guys also have their own clubhouse, which they call Notwork, in a loft
on East 28th Street. They share the hacker hangout with Goldstein. Some of
them are also regulars at the Friday evening hacker meeting organized by
2600 and held weekly in the food court of the Citicorp Building in midtown.
Similar 2600 meetings take place around the world, from Moscow to London to
But New York has been a major center of the hacker universe since the
mid-80's, spawning personalities like the notorious Phiber Optik, who
pleaded guilty to breaking into the computer system of Southwestern Bell
and served 10 months in Federal prison.
"New York is a flash point," said Victor Gonzalez, the special agent in
charge of the criminal division in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's
New York office. "It is home to a lot of talent."
Now a new generation of New York hackers is coming of age, kids who grew up
with computers. Though most of them are male, they are diverse in class,
race and family background. And though they are not organized in any formal
way, they seem to be united by a belief that delving into telephone and
computer networks -- like military data bases, government voice mail and
corporate Web sites -- is not only fun but crucial for a free society.
To many of them, Goldstein is something of a technological pied piper, a
hacker with a vision. An outspoken proponent of what's called the hacker
ethic, he maintains that hackers should not destroy systems they crack or
profit from their adventures. And he argues that hackers perform a public
service by testing the electronic systems that people rely on, that they
are a check on corporate and government power. (Emmanuel Goldstein is his
nom de guerre, taken from George Orwell's "1984." Goldstein's real name is
"There will always be hackers, people probing where they aren't supposed to
be, spreading information around and not being quiet about it," Goldstein
said. "It's a healthy sign that people are trying these things."
Jourdon F., 17, a hacker from Queens who uses the nickname, or handle, Bell
Boy, and counts Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary among his heroes, sees
hacking as a way to expose the fragility of everyday technology. "If we
wanted, we could cause hell or cause peace," he said, speaking on condition
that his full name not be used. "We are just trying to get people to wake
As Prof. Ken Perlin, head of the New York University Center for Advanced
Technology, sees it: "Whenever you have a situation where technology is
rapidly changing, you are going to have young people ahead of the pack.
It's a wonderful buzz that you can do what an adult can't. I bet there were
hackers in ancient Egypt, kids breaking into the temple, moving idols
around and then leaving their mark."
Some hackers, like graffiti writers, are driven by a passion to leave their
stamp, sometimes through pranks like seizing control of a chain store's
public address system or putting links to Playboy on the Central
Intelligence Agency Web site.
Others have explicitly political agendas. In December 1996, obscenities and
anti-Government messages were posted on the home page of the Air Force. And
the Department of Justice home page was altered by hackers, to read
"Department of Injustice," against a background of swastikas.
Yet there are also hackers who insist that their motives are altruistic,
including groups that break into corporate or government computer networks
and then post warnings to administrators about security weaknesses.
But Brian Gimlett, who used to track down hackers in New York for the
Secret Service's computer crime task force, scoffed at the notion that
hackers were helping society. That, he said, is "like saying you are only
speeding to see if the highway patrol is paying attention: it's a great
The 1983 movie "War Games," about a teen-ager who inadvertently brings the
world to the brink of global nuclear war by fooling around on a computer,
introduced the notion of a hacker menace to a wide public. Since then, the
growth of the Internet and the increasing dependence of corporations and
government agencies on computer networks have brought new concerns about
security. Last month, members of a Boston-based hacker group called LOpht
(pronounced loft) testified at a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
hearing that they could bring down the Internet in 30 minutes.
While some experts saw the Boston hackers' claims as inflated, Pentagon
experts, law enforcement officials and industry watchdogs generally agree
that hackers, even those armed only with software downloaded from the
Internet and little programming expertise, can wreak havoc on many of the
basics of modern life, from phone systems to credit card accounts.
But some of New York's young hackers say that even if they have
occasionally crossed the line of legality, they are using their
technological skill in productive ways.
Eugene Tawiah, who goes by the handle Mantis, is an 18-year-old high school
junior who secretly works with law enforcement authorities to track down
pedophiles on line. John Egan, 19, known as Shamrock, is trying to get
inner-city teen-agers interested in technology through a talk show on the
Web that combines the bravado and thumping beats of hip-hop with technical
discussions of computer hacking. David Levy, 18, whose hacker name is
Wicked, has ambitions of starting his own computer security firm.
"These are the brightest people around," Goldstein said of the new crop of
hackers. "We can learn so much from people like them."
Wicked Dreams of a New Trans Am
It's late on a weeknight, prime hacker time at Notwork, the headquarters of
Emmanuel Goldstein's inner circle.
David Levy, 18, a.k.a Wicked, and Marko Bukvic, 20, are installing an
operating system on a computer that Wicked has put together from various
The ramshackle loft resembles a cross between the bedroom of a teen-ager
whose mother long ago abandoned hope of ever seeing it clean and a
graveyard of chip-based life forms. There is no working telephone, but a T1
line gives them superfast Internet access.
In one corner, stacks of unused monitors almost reach the ceiling. The
shelves are crammed with old telephones, transistors and circuit boards. A
half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sits forgotten on a desk. Computers in
various states of disrepair, some of them relics of bygone eras, cover the
desks and floors. A map of the "Star Trek" universe adorns a wall in the
workroom, and back by the kitchen, above a couch in the "crash room" is a
poster of the actress Nastassja Kinski with a python entwined around her
Wicked, who lives in Riverdale, and Marko, a Lower East Sider, take a break
and dream of their new lives once they have set up the ultimate hacker
fantasy that Wicked is planning: their own computer security company. "I
want to get that new Trans Am," says Wicked, who is small, wiry and intense
and always wears black.
"You're too small," teases Marko, who has a mustache, a slight Croatian
accent and a cutting sense of humor. "You won't be able to see over the
They have all the talent lined up, Wicked says, but there's at least one
snag. "We're waiting for one guy to graduate from high school so we can
finish the business plan," he says. That's the guy with the business savvy,
but he's had academic difficulty and is taking night classes to catch up.
Wicked, who is a freshman at the Polytechnic University downtown Brooklyn
campus, got his first computer when he was 11. "Somehow, over the course of
a summer, he knew more than anyone," says his father, Leon Levy, a
stockbroker. "He wasn't a great student," Levy says, but he showed a lot of
promise with his new toy.
At 15, Wicked started going to SoHo after school to work for an Internet
service provider, the Internet Channel. He taught himself various
programming languages, and the powerful Unix operating system. Two years
ago, he hooked up with Emmanuel Goldstein and became part of the 2600 crowd.
That's when his real education began, he says.
One of the first things he did was hook up a high-speed Internet connection
so that Goldstein, who was speaking at a hacker conference, "Beyond Hope,"
sponsored by 2600, could simultaneously address European hacker brethren at
a conference in Amsterdam.
His father says he sometimes worries about him. "I don't know much about
2600," he says. "I told him to keep a low profile: people can get caught up
in something and be guilty by association."
These days, Wicked says, he's pulled away from hacking. But his grades
aren't good, and he's not enthusiastic about college. His father is pushing
him to finish. But he also seems to understand the realities of the world
of computer technology.
"It's very competitive out there," Levy says. "If he isn't getting it all
in school, and he has to get it on the so-called streets of the computer
world, so be it. If they offer him knowledge, I don't mess with it."
Bell Boy's Line: 'Information Is Our Money'
It's a warm Saturday night and the sidewalks around Astor Place are teeming
with young people en route to revelry. Inside Barnes & Noble, Bell Boy and
Vertigo, 15, are cruising the aisles searching intently for nothing in
The two hackers hunch forward, weighed down by backpacks each holding more
than 3,000 pages of prized text, like various computer coding manuals,
Einstein's "Ideas and Opinions," "The Vampire Book" and Nuts and Volts
In the world of teen-age hackers, the more pages you pack, the cooler you
"Information is our money," Bell Boy says. He is wearing baggy jeans and a
Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. His long hair is pulled back in a pony tail.
Like many hackers, Bell Boy is bored by school. While he can tell you about
life in Pol Pot's Cambodia one minute and break into a description of
Einstein's theory of relativity the next, he's a year behind and is
struggling through 10th grade. He includes diagrams and charts on English
papers, but math gives him trouble. "Man, school is like a psychic
dictatorship," he says.
Bell Boy grew up in Buffalo, where he had some run-ins with the law. After
his father died last December, his mother sent him to live with his aunt, a
Harvard-educated lawyer for New York City who lives in a quiet neighborhood
in Queens. (She would not discuss him or the family.)
For Bell Boy, hacking offers a challenge the nonvirtual world seems to
lack. His expertise, he says, is in what hackers call "social engineering,"
conning people into giving up passwords and codes that are keys to secure
systems. His specialty is phone systems.
But while he enjoys breaking into telephone networks, he says he would
never destroy data or wreck a system. "Kids who are writing viruses should
have their fingers broken," Bell Boy says. He and Vertigo are working to
create a Web site to promote what they call ethical hacking: hacking to
expose holes rather than to do harm.
"People don't understand the vulnerabilities of their lives," Bell Boy says
as he sits on his bed strumming "Purple Haze" on an old Gibson acoustic
guitar, a Jimi Hendrix screen saver glowing on his computer monitor nearby.
"It's a shame what the Government doesn't tell you."
Hackers can open doors to information that are inaccessible to most people.
But Bell Boy says they are also missing something. "We are throwing our
lives at computers," he says. "You lose a lot of contact, physical contact
with people. We are the future. We are the ones that will be running this
world one day. We say we want to learn everything, but we are only learning
Mantis Skips School; There's a Spyfest in Town
Eugene Tawiah, a.k.a Mantis, a skinny high school junior from Woodside,
Queens, is in a hotel conference room full of private investigators,
military intelligence officers, corporate espionage experts and other
shadowy characters who are paid to be paranoid.
"I'm just your average high school student," the 18-year-old hacker says.
"I come home, do my homework and get on my computer."
But Mantis is far from average. He may well turn out to be a rising star in
the fast-paced business of computer security.
At the hotel, the Crowne Plaza near the United Nations, Mantis is playing
hooky from school and blowing off studying for the SAT's he'll be taking
the next day.
Instead, he's giving a presentation at SpookTech 98, a one-day conference
Mantis's mother, Ann-Marie Bourreau, a manager at a nursing home who is an
immigrant from Ghana, sits in the back of the room watching. "I think he is
nervous," she says softly.
But at the front of the room, her son, in a baggy white shirt and a
multicolored tie with little computers on it, seems unfazed.
He breezes through a discussion of his work with Ethical Hackers Against
Pedophilia, an informal group that uses "unconventional and legal means" to
help law enforcement authorities nab pedophiles on line. "E.H.A.P. is about
putting our skills together to give something back," he says.
Mantis said in an interview that he met in secret with a Federal agent
about every two weeks to share information, and had been involved in
several cases in which suspected pedophiles had been caught. Spokesmen for
the F.B.I. and the Postal Inspection Service said they were unaware of the
hacker group. The Customs Service would not comment.
The audience at the Crowne Plaza is waiting for the "live hack" Mantis has
promised, to show how easy it can be to crack a supposedly secure system.
Displaying each step on a large-screen projection behind him, he coolly
gains control over the computer operating system of a hacker he knows. It
takes just a few minutes, using a program he downloaded from the Internet.
"Now, say this was TRW," the credit-reporting company, Mantis says with a
sly grin, pausing for dramatic effect. "My credit is clean." The audience
breaks into laughter. His mother smiles.
Afterward, Mantis is invited to do a similar presentation at InfowarCon 98,
a major computer security conference to be held in September in Arlington,
Va., and is chatted up by two crew-cutted officers who say they are from
Air Force intelligence.
When Mantis started hacking about five years ago, he said later, it was
like an addiction. "It was a rush," he said. "I couldn't think about
What he has learned, he said, is that there is a moral universe for
hackers. "There are black hats, gray hats and white hats," he said. Black
hats are those who destroy or crash systems they break into. Gray hats may
use some illegal means to get into a system, but generally will not do harm
once they have gained access. A white hat doesn't break the law. "I'd say I
am somewhere in between white and gray," Mantis said. "I don't encourage
people to hack something and destroy it."
Three days a week, after classes at the High School of Economics and
Finance in the financial district, he walks across the street to
Application Resources, a multimedia company that maintains more than 300
corporate Web sites and offers Internet access to individuals, among other
things. He makes $7 an hour helping run the company's network and offering
"He's one of my top people," said Andrew Berkowitz, 25, the president of
the one-and-a-half-year-old company. "Sometimes Eugene has better
trouble-shooting ideas than 30-year-olds I am paying $90,000 a year."
Berkowitz said he often came across hackers who worked in computer
security. "They are smarter than you," he said. "You are sitting there in a
meeting, and they look like homeless kids. They got dirty fingernails, but
they got this twinkle in their eyes like they know your whole credit
history." Apart from a few pranks that Mantis has played on him -- "one
time I was talking with a client and he made it appear like my whole system
was crashing" -- he said Mantis had not violated his trust.
Berkowitz met him at a seminar he was teaching at the high school and was
immediately impressed by his curiosity.
He offered Mantis an internship and took him under his wing. "He's a kid
from modest means who has the chance to really excel," Berkowitz said. "The
market is so good for people like Eugene; if he keeps out of trouble, he'll
be making six figures by the time he is 21."
Mantis says he wants to go to college to study computer science. "I'm
hoping that whatever happens," his mother said, "he gets a scholarship."
Showtime on the Web, Shamrock in the Spotlight
John Egan, known as Shamrock, is on a mission. "I am trying to squash the
image of the weak geek that gets stepped on," he says.
His vehicle is a talk show called "Parse" that is sent out live over the
World Wide Web and fuses hip-hop and hacker culture.
"This way you can use your mind," says Shamrock, 19. "You can have that
glamour of gangsters and still learn."
Shamrock, who lives on his own in an attic apartment of a house in Prospect
Park, Brooklyn, grew up in Michigan. He left home three years ago, he says,
after getting in trouble at school and with the law. "It was time to go,"
he says. He's got the swagger of a rapper, but his ambition is to be a
system administrator, someone who is in charge of a company's computer
network. "That's where the money is," he says.
With barely two minutes to showtime, Shamrock's Ed McMahon, a free-style
rapper who calls himself Prolific, walks into the small studio in a loft on
lower Broadway. Shamrock, in a Yankees cap and a Brooklyn baseball jersey,
frantically types his final preparations into a computer monitor embedded
in a circular table. From the control room, the countdown starts. A
thumping bass line kicks in, and Prolific unleashes his rap version of
"Here's Johnny . . .," a manic deluge of nonlinear word combinations, chock
full of expletives: "Consume, doom, time for the torrential monsoon. I surf
tsunamis. . . ."
"Yo, yo, on today's show we are going to talk about Unix," an excited
Shamrock cuts in. "Also how to keep yourself invisible and how to destroy
evidence when you are logging into systems and screwing around."
"Parse," one of the new Web-based programs offered by Pseudo, a multimedia
company where Shamrock works, reflects a part of the hacker world that
mimics the bluster and mystique of the hip-hop and graffiti subcultures. As
personal computers become more affordable, the profile of the hacker is no
longer the geeky suburban kid. Urban teen-agers are discovering hacking and
bringing urban attitude to it.
"In graffiti they talk about bombing the system," says Prolific, who would
give only his first name, Manuel. "In hacking you blow up an exploit, for
instance a PBX," a kind of telephone exchange many companies use that a
hacker can manipulate for free long-distance calls. He continues: "You get
fame off that. Yo, look what I did. I got in, I blew it up and I gave it
out. So now the info has been disseminated and a corporation is getting a
Like rapping or spinning turntables, hackers compete for respect for their
skills. "Everyone is striving for precision," Prolific says. "It's like
every sport: surfing, skating."
During the show, Shamrock spotlights a group of "girl power" female hackers
named the GPhoes. "You're not on any take-over-the-world thing are you?" he
asks one of them playfully when she calls in.
"Oh, no," says the hacker, who calls herself Sector. "Out there in the
hacking community, girls don't get that much respect. This is just a place
where girls can get together and learn from each other. It's a really good
"Yo, all right," Shamrock says. "We respect the females for doing their
Shamrock is aware that he is walking the fine line of legitimizing, even
encouraging, lawbreaking. And he says some kids "may get hooked on the dark
side, the illegal aspect" of hacking. But like Goldstein, he sees the
hacker's role as constructive.
"The more people you have exposing exploits," he said, "the more secure you
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company