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[] Stakes Higher for Hackers After Sept. 11 [],

Stakes Higher for Hackers After Sept. 11

By Elinor Mills Abreu, Reuters, August 11, 2002 01:42 PM, ET

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In 1997, a teenager who hacked into a Bell 
Atlantic network inadvertently crashed the computer, leaving 600 homes, a 
regional airport and emergency services without phone service and disabling 
communications to the air traffic control tower for six hours. The teen 
pleaded guilty and received a sentence of two years probation, a $5,000 
fine and community service. But in the near future, that scenario could 
land someone in jail for life if a death were to result from a plane crash 
or a delay in reaching medics on the phone. "That is a realistic scenario," 
said William Reilly, an attorney at San Francisco-based Cyber Security Law. 
U.S. prosecutors and judges are cracking down on cyber crimes more 
aggressively than ever, Reilly said. The airplane hijack attacks in 
September have been used to justify harsher treatment for computer crimes 
in the name of national security, Reilly and others said. That reality 
dampened the mood at the 10th annual DefCon hacker conference held in Las 
Vegas last weekend, despite diversions that included "Hacker Jeopardy" 
games, a techno music dance party, cheap beer and private strippers. The 
event is the world's largest gathering of computer anarchists and rogue 
programmers, who prefer to operate under aliases. "The act of hacking 
itself has a political dimension," said Richard Thieme, an author, former 
Episcopalian priest and father figure to many hackers. "Before Sept. 11, it 
could not be defined in and of itself as an act of terrorism." While most 
hackers at the event maintained their instinctual distrust of authority, 
some have been quietly offering their skills to the U.S. government since 
the attacks, experts said. "There is more of an awareness that we're all in 
this together," said Thieme, who spoke at the conference. "They're much 
more realistic. They've lost their dream."


Of concern to many hackers is the U.S. Patriot Act enacted late last year 
and a new bill called the Cyber Security Enhancement Act overwhelmingly 
approved by the House of Representatives last month. The Patriot Act raised 
the maximum sentence for breaking into a computer network from 5 years to 
10. The Cyber Security Enhancement Act calls for up to life imprisonment 
for hackers who recklessly cause or attempt to cause someone's death. "What 
was a misdemeanor pre-Patriot Act could be a felony now with a five- to 
10-year sentence," said Simple Nomad, a DefCon speaker who works for 
security company BindView Corp. "That scares a lot of people." As a result, 
hackers who formerly acted out of boredom or to seek a challenge are now 
directing their energy into "hacktivism," the use of computer hacking for 
political purposes, he and others said. For example, there is more research 
into protecting anonymity on the Web. Such technologies include "digital 
drop boxes" and steganography, which is the science of hiding messages in 
things such as digital images, Simple Nomad says.
Pursuits of such evasive technologies even further pits hackers against law 
enforcers who in the 1990s all but lost the battle to prevent the 
widespread availability of strong cryptography, used to keep messages 
secret. The FBI and other agencies have stepped up their monitoring of the 
Internet after finding Internet-related information on computers seized 
from Al Qaeda, the group blamed by the Bush administration for the Sept. 11 
attacks. Hackers now "are more concerned about the political fall-out and 
that the government will take away more of their rights," hacker Rain 
Forest Puppy said.


For some, however, the Sept. 11 attacks prompted a renewed sense of 
patriotism. For example, Thieme says he knows of several hackers who are 
using their skills to aid U.S. intelligence agencies. "There was a huge 
surge to do the job," he said. "Suddenly the CIA and all those (federal) 
guys weren't the enemy anymore." "There have been flares and flashes of 
patriotism that I think a lot of hackers hadn't experienced before," Simple 
Nomad said. At least one U.S. federal official concurs. "I'm guessing 
you'll see some of that because the computer underground tends to be pretty 
patriotic," said Don Cavender, a supervisory special agent in the FBI's 
computer training unit. "In the three months (immediately) post-Sept. 11, I 
could have reached out to the underground community and gotten a better 
response than before," said Cavender, one of the few federal agents at 
DefCon who wasn't in stealth mode.

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