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Outlaws on the Cyberprairie

Categories: History, Meetings

I came across an interesting San Francisco Chronicle article titled Outlaws on the Cyberprairie published on April 02, 1995. The article is interesting from a historical perspective as it captures one reporter's view of San Francisco 2600 meetings of more than a decade ago. Let's look at the article and see how much have things changed in 15 years.

Near a row of pay phones in an Embarcadero Center plaza, the early birds are hovering over white picnic tables wedged between a Mrs. Fields and a wine bar.

Today, the meeting still takes place in Embarcadero 4 plaza. However, pay phones have long made place for wall advertisements. There are no longer any picnic tables and a wine bar is long gone.

Mostly young men, they wear the grunge fashions of plaid shirts, ski caps and baggy pants. They show off cellular phones, hand out copies of pirated software and swap stories about how to add value to a BART card without paying. A few older men sport survivalist wear -- army fatigues and fly-fishing jackets. The men with natty blazers and polished shoes are computer security specialists.

The audience haven't changed much in years, most attendees are in their teens and twenties with a few older members. Although most of us have jobs and prefer regular jeans to baggy pants and army fatigues. People are still showing off their cellular phones loaded with the latest and greatest iOS, Android, and other variety. There is no longer any need to exchange pirated software as most of the interesting titles are available for free with complete sources. The "men with natty blazers and polished shoes" no longer attend 2600 meetings to learn about the latest and greatest attacks on their networks. The security industry has grown exponentially since mid-90s. Today's security professionals have their own professional information security conferences (RSA) and meetings (baysec).

In keeping with the anarchic hacker ethos, the meeting has no agenda. Conversation among the 25 hackers turns to one of their own who made it to the front page of the New York Times: Kevin Mitnick, the reputed "Billy the Kid" of the Internet...

The number of attendees stayed roughly the same and so did the agenda - everyone is free to share whatever topic they are interested in.

An hour into the hackers meeting, the information begins to flow like beer at a keg party with little concern for legality or ethics -- or whether a cop mingles with the throng. A high-tech show-and-tell begins spontaneously. Some refer to textbooks they've brought along: "Introduction to Computing" and "Cellular Phone Principles and Design." Security experts trade information with young hackers.

While there is indeed a free flow of information over the years the topics tend to steer clear of something outright illegal or unethical. This is partially due to the learning to hack process no longer requiring "borrowed" powerful computers from corporations. Today an entire complex network of systems can be virtualized on a single reasonably powerful desktop computer. Hacking has never been more about the pursuit of knowledge as it is today.

At the end of the hackers meeting, a few head out to Harry Denton's for post-meeting drinks. Others go home to parents for dinner or to their bedroom computer to try a few new tricks. As they bade each other farewell, an Embarcadero security guard in a brown uniform cleaned up the litter of milk cartons and cigarette butts.

We call it 2621 aka 2600 for 21+ year olds, but the idea is the same. I have never seen anyone drink milk during the meetings, but then again times have changed ;-).

The article has some hints of sensationalism especially in its coverage of Kevin Mitnick saga; however, in retrospect this serves as another pointer of the long gone era.

Posted by iphelix on May 01, 2011
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