February 1997

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Notes from the Underground

An Interview with Se7en

by Richard Thieme

Why did Se7en come out? Why did he leave the relatively secure darkness of his underground burrow and tunnel up at the age of twenty-eight into the bright lights of camera crews?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA--At DefCon IV, the annual computer hackers' convention in July, they called him "Se7en." He's twenty-eight years old, an old man of the hacker scene, and he has just "come out" into the public eye after seventeen years underground. Getting into hacking and phreaking at eleven didn't stand out at DefCon. "Barcode" started when he was four. "Satan" was six when he wrote a program for Pong but his computer lacked a hard drive so he left it on for weeks before he finally threw the switch, killing off his electronic companion.

Those days are ancient history for Se7en. It's the second day of DefCon and Se7en has already given more than a dozen interviews to television crews. The attention is wearing him down.

"Don't call me Se7en," he said as we entered Spago's, an upscale restaurant in Caesar's Palace for dinner. "I don't want to be hassled."

"What should we call you?" I said. "Ni9ne?"

Before he could answer, a young waiter approached our table.

"Good evening. Are you all here for a convention?"

"Yes," we said, opening our menus. Nothing unusual there. Vegas is full of conventions, even when the temperature reaches 116 degrees Fahrenheit--in the shade, if you can find shade.

The waiter leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I understand the elevators at the Tropicana [site of DefCon III] still don't stop at the right floor. The blueprints for the Monte Carlo [this year's hotel] disappeared two weeks ago. The management is in a panic."

So much for anonymity.

Waiters, taxi drivers, desk clerks--everybody in Vegas knew that DefCon was back in town.

Se7en had been playing around with the idea of retiring for a long time. Contrary to the image of hackers as anti-social evil geniuses huddled alone in darkened bedrooms, Se7en is gregarious, extroverted, likeable. It was getting lonely down there in the dark.

Isolating, he said. Very isolating. He lost track of what else was going on in the world. He felt like he was in his own world, and that world was shrinking. In fact, it was disintegrating. His colleagues were retiring, going above ground, disappearing from the virtual world.

He wanted to mentor younger hackers, and he couldn't do that online the way he wanted. Plenty of others had mentored Se7en and he wanted to give something back. Be a feedback loop back into the system.

He knew a lot of people by their handles, but he wanted to know them face-to-face. He wanted them to know who he was too as they spoke to him. He met people at DefCon he had known for years as an email address.

Besides, Se7en is smart. He has a lot to say and he couldn't do it incognito. He wants to speak and write about the world of hacking.

As in professional sports, a generation in the world of hacking lasts about a decade. Many hackers go on to work in security, intelligence, or business. One debate at DefCon focused on whether or not a hacker needs a university degree. Some said yes, but many felt that whole-hearted participation in the hacker community, with its rigorous code of ethics, networks of mentors, and accumulated expertise is the only way to learn what no university knows how to teach.

Se7en got his first computer, a TRS-80. when he was eleven. He used it to play games. Recreational computing was brand new then. All you could really do with home computers was play games. He had no interest in programming. His TRS-80 was a fancy expensive toy, not something to use to balance a checkbook or communicate with others.

He discovered modems around 1982, using an Apple IIe. He heard you could call up other computers and talk to them. Excited by the possibility, he got into game cracking and bulletin boards.

Se7en remembers messing around with machine language with very little knowledge of what he was doing. He cracked his first game by accident. He had been playing with different call registers and suddenly, bingo! he was inside the program.

He remembers the power rush as if it were yesterday.

Se7en and his friends hung around a mom-and-pop Apple Computer store. Those neighborhood stores are gone now. Before there were franchises or chain stores, kids went there because they hosted Apple clubs. One group talked about new hardware, another software. They argued about language and coding. A little circle of "warez kiddies" developed, copying games they had cracked. Copy protection was simple then, but the kids didn't know that. To them, it felt like they were moving mountains.

Those groups were the precursors of hacking and phreaking groups and 2600 meetings.

No one thought of hacking as a crime then. Computers were more like toys. The move from cracking games to cracking programs to cracking systems was gradual and inevitable. Each new challenge was part of a large complex puzzle to solve. It was just a question of how big a chunk of the puzzle a kid wanted to tackle.

Se7en met his friends at school or through bulletin boards. They never thought of themselves as hackers or crackers, a conspiracy, or "the underground." They thought of themselves as friends.

In retrospect, he can see they were a little mini-software piracy ring. They weren't after defense secrets or corporate secrets; they thought no more of emailing games to each other than photocopying an article for someone else to read.

That's where many of our best engineers got started. Wanting to break open a game led to wanting break an entire system. The bottom line was, they wanted to know everything about it. Se7en and his friends never called themselves hackers. All they knew was, the system was a challenge and they were going to get into that system, --no matter what.

Richard Thieme ( is a professional speaker, writer and business consultant.

Copyright © 1997 by Richard Thieme. All Rights Reserved.

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