February 1997

Root Page of Article: Notes from Underground, An Interview with Se7en by Richard Thieme

Hackers are need-to-know machines. They want to know how the infrastructure works. They want to understand the connections in the new nervous system our planet is growing.

That's not so threatening, really, now is it?

Se7en's speaking career has taken off. He speaks to military groups, intelligence groups, businesses. He defines the various types and sub-types that the media labels hacker, cracker or "phreaker." He describes each group in terms of motivation and likely behavior, how they differ from one another, their ideologies.

One recent talk was for engineers in a space program. Se7en was delighted when he entered and heard someone say that "UNIX and security are an oxymoron." That meant they knew that UNIX was inherently weak, that security and functionality were always a tradeoff. He gets tired of listening to people who don't understand computers scream about hackers and the need to fix security,

UNIX is insecure, period, says Se7en. End of story.

So how did he help those engineers in the space program?

They had handled security by being as obscure and hard-to- find as possible. They wanted to be invisible. They could do that because their systems weren't even on the books. As far as the public knew, they didn't exist.

Their program is about to get a lot of attention, however, so they need to tighten their system up as much as possible. They know that some people will still get in, but they want them to be real hackers talented enough to do it, not some "warez puppy" stumbling into a hornet's nest. That's where Se7en's lectures come in.

Se7en teaches them how to distinguish trophy-hunting hackers from crackers out to sabotage the system, steal state secrets, or wreak havoc. What is the hacker's intention? Is he proving his prowess as an ueberhacker, or is it someone working for another government, looking for intelligence? Se7en shows them how to evaluate the hacker's moves and make an educated guess.

You can usually tell what a hacker's after from what they do when they get in. If they look for certain directories, stay on task, and move through the system in relentless pursuit of particular knowledge, you may have a problem. On the other hand, some kid who downloads the plans for a Stealth fighter and puts them on a diskette so he can say, 'Hey, I got a trophy!' isn't going to be a spy. He wouldn't know where to go even if he wanted to.

Se7en was known in his day as an elite "phreaker," someone who travelled the telephone systems of the world as an uninvited guest.

His introduction to the world of phreaking came through an older friend. One night he called Se7en and said, "Hey, we're going to go dig in the trash bins of the telephone company." Se7en laughed. "What the hell for?" His friend said, "Trust me. This will blow your mind."

It did, Se7en says. It blew his mind for the next ten years.

As they rummaged through the trash, all he saw was paper, rotting food, garbage. He was not impressed. But his friend was focused, sorting through the papers and saying, "OK, these are good, these are bad, these are good." He was trying to get Se7en interested, but at fifteen, Se7en thought it was a waste.

The next evening, however, we went to his friend's house.

"Remember that paper I grabbed?" his friend said. He showed Se7en that he had found a dial-up and within minutes they were into the telephone system.

His friend showed him how to explore the system, how to get more information, how to put it all together. He wasn't out to make trouble, however. His lectures on the hacker ethic were stern. "Lusers" are looking to make free calls or steal information, he told Se7en. They weren't lusers.

"Learn how it works," he concluded. "Be one of the elite who learns how it works."

Need-to-know machines: hackers are need-to-know machines. They just want to know how it works.

Se7en's activities were considered normal teenage behavior then, no more than teenage pranks, Behavior that was amusing then is now a felony. Talk to others about what you've learned now and you're part of a conspiracy. Times have changed.

Se7en knows they'll try to make an example of you and send you to jail or confiscate your equipment. That's another good reason to come up for air. They like to use one to scare a thousand. But tactics like those can have the opposite effect. Some hackers like members of the Legion of Doom returned from doing hard time with an attitude. Se7en doesn't think it's a good strategy in the long run, taking elite hackers and putting them through the mill so they come out of jail with an agenda. Short- term thinking, he calls it. Se7en has grown up. He thinks of consequences now, what skills society needs.

Se7en learned a lot in his seventeen years underground, but the core of it all was power. More than feeling his adrenalin pumping when he solved a puzzle or overheard a conversation, he grew in knowledge and power in my own eyes as he matured. Through a child's eyes, the telephone company, giant corporations, even the government were all-powerful. They controlled or seemed to control his life. Yet there he was, just a kid, a little kid, finding out that he was a lot smarter than people he had been taught to fear and respect. In a nutshell, they didn't have a clue what computers could do, and he did.

"Yes, it's a power rush," he said. "Here you are, a fifteen or sixteen year old kid, and you can do things the phone company can't do, the government can't even do. The phone company doesn't even know what you're talking about when you tell them what you've been doing for years.

"That's the greatest discovery," he concluded. "That's what I take into the rest of my life. Real power today belongs to people who have knowledge, who know how to use it to do things. The rest are hiding behind an illusion. We were willing to do whatever we needed to do in order to learn what we wanted to learn. That's the kind of passion the world needs and the world respects." [TOC]

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