Hacker Perspective: Antonio Ortega, Jr.
In the 1980s, my mother brought home a Commodore 64. Cutting edge external 170k floppy drive technology and commands in BASIC introduced a 10-year-old kid to the world of computers. Reading and math were no longer new to me, but this box upset the "normal" order of numbers and letters. Commands in BASIC were disruptive. The promise of video games was the entire motivation of unraveling this new language. This was not only the most effective way to force a 10-year-old into typing, but gave me a clear goal. Still typing LOAD "*" was not hacking. It was, however, the beginning of a curiosity on the secrets and limits of what a few keystrokes could unlock. What followed was an exploration into the exciting world of making words run down the screen, having other characters run down the screen, and other thrilling combinations of white and blue results.
Finding my own way to get results was just how computers always worked in my world. They didn't do a whole lot practical except for some games. The promise of networking to BBS games was interesting as it took computers to a more social level. As fun as it was commanding a spaceship I couldn't see to a fake planet for the mining of a material I could then sell to someone I didn't know (and all in text), it did lead to boredom. Here we have my introduction into hacking. Cheating at games. Harmless and fun at first, it soon became apparent that these hacks ultimately led to me not having to play at all. Then Doom came and WADs went flying. Diving into mods was more interesting than the game itself. Understanding what was going on behind the graphics was part of the game experience. The BASIC code of the Commodore was gone, but the curiosity was there. The results were typical. More explosions and finding what would crash a 486.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that looking at everyone's code become an interest. Talking with the world at large about HTML code and protocols for the first time showed me that most computer users weren't interested in learning how to utilize their computers to a fuller potential. The curtain pulled back by the Commodore and Doom mods for me still hung for most. Interest in the enlightenment that comes with hacking through yourself was minimal. People still wanted results, but with a shortcut. For those willing and able to hack through the chat rooms and under construction banners, there was still little left to gain. The beginnings of the Internet offered little reward for hacking other than exploration. Pushing what you knew and could do with these languages and systems was its own reward. What it meant to hack for the sake of hacking, to explore how far we could impose our commands, became public. The Internet finally offered something many of those who hacked felt they never had: recognition. The awkward and nameless nerds that went to your high school had used computers to fetch a result they had little of and always wanted. Recognition for their work. Even if they only vandalized your Angelfire and GeoCities sites. You knew there were hackers out there.
The term hacking was gaining ground in pop culture with the release of the 1995 Angelina Jolie movie and came to mean cheating the system or breaking and entering with a computer. This never seemed accurate to me. I was 19 and the heater core in my car broke, spilling radiator fluid everywhere and stranding my girlfriend and myself. Having only a few tools, rerouting the radiator hoses to bypass the heater core got us home just fine. I was seen as clever. Rerouting any capabilities from one computer to another was seen as a hack and shady. Obviously hackers had created all computer problems. From Michelangelo to Melissa - and clearly hackers caused your screen savers to freeze. Solutions in real life were not hacks. My applying the same logic to any problem on a PC or in my car only meant I was clever enough to be a mechanic. Computer hacking was seen as being done with malicious intention and would only result in trouble.
Hacking had a name and I didn't want anything to do with it. I still hacked. I just wouldn't draw attention to it. There was never a need to. Exploring different hacks was just what I had always done. It was a normal and entertaining way to solve problems. The self-described hackers I had contact with were searching for an identity. Even if only "cyber bad boy," it was something. If being a hacker meant some kind of computer thug or a malcontent with an agenda, then it was not what I had been doing. Finding potential and resolving issues within everything I came across was what hacking meant to me. It was a way of looking at behaviors and a deeper understanding of their ability to furnish a result. Being a hacker should have been seen as resourceful and inventive, but instead viruses and misunderstanding resulted in fear.
The stigma attached to hacking survived into the 2000s. Threats of cyber crimes like information stealing and identity theft had everyone worried about hackers and the media played up those fears. My interest in being known as a hacker were zero. My interest in hacking and the utility I gained, however, was steady as ever. My landlord kept forgetting to authorize my MAC address on the apartment Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi was included in the rent, so I was without a service I was paying for. Some packet sniffing and spoofing my MAC address seemed the logical solution. Nobody thought me clever. Rather, I was a hacker and dangerous. The fact that I only accessed a service I was paying for meant nothing. It was a hack. What that meant to me was that I now had the Wi-Fi access that was promised me. I told my landlord I had broken in and I would cease my spoofing when he authorized the MAC addresses of my devices. After an explanation of what all that meant, he asked if I could optimize the struggling Wi-Fi network. Short of blocking MySpace, there was little to be done with his wireless network, but for once someone saw positive potential in hack. There was even talk of a small discount in rent. This resulted in my interest in being known as a hacker equaling more than zero for once.
In my life, the title hacker has meant more to those with little to no computer skills than those who could hack into a network. It means more to the ignorant public. The people I have known to perform a hack of any sort were more interested in the hack itself. "Can I" was the question asked in a hack. Can I crack my own passwords? Would this run in Wine if I did this? Could I get OS X on my PC? The general populous, meanwhile, saw hacks as a "Will they" as in will they get me. Most anyone I know, from those who know a few simple hacks to those who can get machines and software that were never meant to cooperate to play nice, have no interest in "getting" anyone. Also, the people I have known with this fear have often had nothing to "get." It's only within the past few years that anyone seeing me as a hacker has become positive. A growing number of people see the ability to hack anything as being a part of a secret world. The world exists behind a Windows logo and is only accessible in a text prompt. Movies and television reinforce this idea and the final result is me being asked if I could remotely blow up the computer of this jerk on Craigslist.
I like hacking. I have hacked into networks and hacked into accounts. I have hacked software and hardware. Never with any malicious intent. To this degree, I am a hacker. It means exactly what it implies. I am one who hacks. Never will it mean I am out to get anyone as a result.
A new generation of hackers is out there hacking away. It has been said that knowledge not earned will ultimately be abused. Jeff Goldblum's rant in Jurassic Park will remind you. Those with little skills and understanding beyond the use of YouTube are now able to perform hacks in minutes and on a whim. In no time at all, anyone with the motivation and an hour's patience can be a hacker on the Internet, building on information and techniques laid out before them. Having the Internet as a starting point, hacks with childish vandalism are often the results.
The power behind that label has gained value, however. More and more are willing to pay for the skills of a hacker or for protection against being hacked. In a time where your formal education level is the biggest indicator of the income you will receive, computers remain result-oriented. If you have the chops to hack or stop a hack, there is value in your skills. In my hacking to solve my problems - and often a friend's problems - potential employers have taken notice. The ability to go beyond what software Best Buy has and to get more utility from the machines and software a business already has is appealing to small business owners especially.
I have never been more encouraged to hack. Employment is finding me and friends are seeing the ability to do more with their devices - even those looking to start something new. Buzz phrases like "going viral," "Internet startup," and "search engine optimization" have planted the seed of enterprise in many and, while they dream big, they hack small. From web development to system networking to hardware maintenance, employers are looking for more than just a one trick pony.
Hacking has come around and found a new legitimacy that makes the idea of being a hacker acceptable - and in some cases even marketable. I'm now able to share the ideas of how to hack, free from the suspicion of the 1990s. It means something new to be a hacker. Finally, the stigma is falling away and the truth is coming out. Hackers in general are resourceful, clever, and often very helpful. They are also a useful ally in our lives which are ever-increasingly involved with technology. Sure, there will always be punks and vandals, but the same is true in almost any group.
With new legitimacy, hacking has found new voices. Ever vigilant in her nerding, once again it's my mother showing me the way, this time turning my attention to the publication 2600 - hacking out in the open and accepted. Over 25 years after being introduced to computers, I can say I hack. After all the exploring and hacks I have attempted, admired, and had success with, it's O.K. to tell people. Not everyone gets what it means to be a hacker yet. Not everyone needs to. It's enough to have a place to enjoy it out in the open.
The world of hacking into anything on the screen is still as challenging and engaging as that blue screen with the white letters from the 1980s that I would try to get to react in an interesting way. Knowledge is scary for some. To others it is a liberating way of life. I'm not a hundred percent sure my mother had the goal of raising a child with a tendency to hack his way through obstacles in life. I have solved problems for myself and others by knowing a few simple hacks. I have amazed and frightened others with the possibilities of a few more complex hacks. I have admired the elegance and intelligence of hacks I would have never dreamed of. All of these results are what keeps me and other hackers going. It has proven to be a better way to live.
Antonio Ortega, Jr. reads comic books and codes in his spare time. He is currently working as IT support for a software company in Eugene, Oregon.