Hackers Ball

Computer Securitys Worst Nightmare comes to OC

Flea is a systems engineer who likes guns and hates both authority and vegetables. Mainly vegetables. He really hates vegetables.

"I fucking hate vegetables," the 32-year old says. "I want them to die. I want to eradicate them, so I became a vegetarian."

If Flea seems, well, nuts, it's because he is. He's a computer hacker, which should make it obvious why he'd want people to call him "Flea" even though he's not currently a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Flea and a half-dozen of his fellow hackers gathered for a press conference at Boeing's Connexion facility at the Irvine Spectrum on May 21 in preparation for that night's fourth annual Orange County Hacking Summit on computer network security—or lack thereof. Actually, "press conference" is too grandiose, given that the only media present were two reporters from computer-security trade mags, a cameraman from Fox's local affiliate and yours truly.

The very word hacker conjures images of pale nerdy guys who prefer rummaging around the Internet trashing web pages or stealing how-to-build-a-doomsday-machine manuals to flirting with pretty girls. The word made summit-organizer Ken Halbeck, who didn't feel the need to use a codename, somewhat defensive.

"These guys are the smartest engineers I know," said Halbeck. "These are the good guys—the guys who catch the bad guys. Their mindset is pushing security beyond what we know today. We want to dispel the myth about what hackers are."

Actually, for a bunch of anarcho-radical-computer hackers who wade through computer code for fun, they pretty much looked and dressed alike. All seven were white guys, aged 23 to 32, with closely cropped or short hair. A few had goatees, but most were clean-shaven. Nearly all wore red T-shirts advertising the Association of Internet Professionals (AIP), the summit's sponsor. Those not in jeans wore black cargo pants.

Despite their considerable technical sophistication, they insisted that a lot of what they do to harden computer networks is simple—even though they also insisted that no one can ever make any computer network completely safe. "A lot of this stuff is so easy monkeys can do it," said a hacker who identified himself as CHS.

"Okay, monkeys can't do it," Flea immediately retorted. "Well, maybe a million monkeys."

The Connexion facility—where Boeing is developing a computer satellite network to provide Internet access to commercial airliners—is the latest firm to host the hacking summit. According to Halbeck, his hacker group has been banned from each previous year's host within 30 days of the summit. Someone mentioned video footage of someone "jimmying some door locks." The hackers, of course, denied any wrongdoing.

"We have a pretty rowdy group of friends; sometimes they tend not to differentiate between right and wrong," said Flea. "But when they're wrong, they're not maliciously wrong."

Halbeck then thanked Boeing, saying the company was at least "aware" of security's importance. That was immediately countered by hacker Eecue.

"Uh, these are paper!" he said, showing the Boeing "non-employee" badge he was handed on the way in. Everybody, including a couple of Boeing managers off to the side, laughed.

The hackers insisted they were normal, everyday guys—mowed the lawn, had mortgages, stuff like that. Then a reporter asked about their outside interests.

"Arclight and I built a complete foundry in his backyard," said CHS. "We literally melted down a few hard drives into aluminum ingots. We said it was the best way to erase a hard drive. That actually got us onto slashdot.org."

Arclight added that although he doesn't like to read technical manuals, he did once take a welding class at his local community college simply because he wanted to learn how to weld.

To guys like Arclight and CHS, learning about anything isn't a hobby—it's all part of the hacker life. "When we work, we work our asses off," said Flea. "Forty-hour work weeks? Those are vacations to us. But we would be these people even if we didn't have jobs."

Jsyn agreed. "Only by being curious, by totally understanding something, can you secure it," he said.

The last question dealt with which entertainer the hackers would rather see: Pamela Anderson or Bruce Lee. To a man, they went with Bruce Lee.

 
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