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Why it's a 'Summer of Hacking'
By Joel Deane
ZDNet News
July 12, 2000, 5:00 PM PT

If you want an exercise in semantics, randomly ask five wired people to define the term hacker.

Their answers will vary wildly, I guarantee. An old school techie may insist a hacker is a black-belt computer programmer or engineer. A belabored Webmaster may look upon the barbarian hordes trying to stymie his site with denial-of-service attacks as hackers. An AOL user may consider hackers to be Lex Luthor-like super criminals, such as how Kevin Mitnick has been popularly portrayed. Law enforcement, depending on its point of view, may consider hackers to be the proxies of corporate spies and nefarious foreign governments or modem-enabled gangsters. And a journalist, being a journalist, may throw up his or her hands and say, "They're all of the above."

Whatever definition you chose, you're spoiling for a fight.

Click Here.

ZDNet News, for a number of reasons, and to the chagrin of some of our readers, does not use the term "cracker" or "cracking" to refer to illegal hacking activities. Instead, we call it hacking, or, depending on the story and our access to a thesaurus, cybercrime, computer crime, electronic theft and the like. Naturally, some devotees of old school hacking are not amused by such muddying of the sacred waters; as a writer and editor I've received more than one e-mail that, much as an adult would to a dimwitted child, explained the difference between hacking and cracking.

I appreciate the remedial e-mails, but, info-catholic that I am, refuse to divide the hacking universe into good and bad, hacker and cracker. Hacking, to me, is a broad church that can and does incorporate everything from such alternative coding houses as the Cult of the Dead Cow and the L0pht to the most juvenile of script kiddies. It can be outside the law, but, more often, is a diverse counterculture operating outside the tech mainstream.

Or is it?

During the next 16 days, at the apex of summer, thousands of people will attend two of the world's biggest hacker cons, in New York and Las Vegas. Starting Friday, H2K, 2600 Magazine's biannual shindig in the Big Apple, will be a continental affair, with a sizeable European contingent visiting from across the pond. At the end of the month, DEF CON, the annual bacchanal in Vegas, will be, well, DEF CON (read: utter chaos). And, sandwiched between H2K and DEF CON, there'll be the Black Hat Briefings -- the corporate stepchild of DEF CON.

You'll find all kinds at those three gatherings. Corporate types with surgically-implanted Nokias, script kiddies in Chekovian black T-shirts, mild-mannered sys admins, a busload of evangelical feds, more journalists than you'd see at a free buffet lunch and, maybe, just maybe, a real old school hacker like Mudge. And expect H2K and DEF CON, these supposedly alternative high-tech conferences, to gather more mainstream media attention than just about any corporate show on the calendar.

It's easy to see why hacker fests like DEF CON have galvanized the media. They are simply the best conferences on the high-tech circuit -- give me a choice between a Bill Gates demo of Windows 2000 and the Back Orifice 2000 launch and I know where I'll be.

Invariably, important, if not core tech issues, are raised at these supposedly alternative conferences. Issues -- such as digital privacy, regulation of the Net, corporate responsibility for shoddy software, and electronic piracy -- that are often shafted at product-focused conferences. With that in mind, ZDNet News has launched Summer of Hacking -- a special report in progress that will cover the hacking culture in general and H2K, Black Hat and DEF CON in particular.

We could have called it Summer of Hacking and Cracking, but I'd miss the e-mail.

Joel Deane is senior executive news producer of ZDNet News.

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