A neo-institutionalist study of the computer hackers of Sydney, Australia




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1 Although hacker paper-back journalism suffers for being faithful to crime fiction, these books provided comparative sources on computer undergrounds overseas, with extensive interviews, police data tap conversation logs. Most useful were Slatalla & Quittner’s Masters Of Deception; Levy’s Hackers and Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, and Dreyfus’ Underground, which documented the 80s Melbourne computer underground.

2 And it was very brief. Janine Goldpac’s Masters Thesis, ‘An Investigation of the Applicability of a General Theory of Crime to Computer Crime’, looked at whether the sex and age of misdemeanors on BBSs agreed with normal rates of age and sex distribution for kinds of crime, showing teenage boys are the most likely to offend.

3 For the purposes of economy, in this paper the use of the term ‘hacker’ will apply to members of the computer underground hackers, phreakers, pirates, crackers. The distinction between hacking and cracking (see Appendix) will be elided here because of the parameters of the study and the character of sample group (each respondent was unique in activity, skills and conception of what hacking means). However, as this is a study of the Sydney computer underground, hacking understood as programming is given less attention. See Appendix J for a definition of terms: the article, ‘Hacking versus Cracking,’ is used by many hacking-related websites.

4 Literally. Allucquere Rosanne Stone (1993) ends her talk on “Habitat 2.1” by discussing the cartoon icon of hacker wired up and floating off the ground. This was an image from the first international conference on cyberspace, which was stormed by a group of hackers. The conference had no T-shirts of its own, so the hackers came in with T-shirts that they had printed. Stone observes the picture was of a boy, in typical hacker-form, jacked in, plugged in, and out in the network. He has a physical body, but he's left it behind. The image on the T-shirt codes this sense of leaving the body behind by showing a hacker floating in space. What the image says is that for all intents and purposes his body doesn't exist. He's left his body, and he's out somewhere in the network, by means of his goggles, and his electrodes, and his gloves (19). Stone closes her lecture on virtual environments by remarking that the hacker exists in an imaginary community, where he can negotiate his identity at will, where sex and gender don't mean what they mean to us - for better or worse - where his body shape is changeable at will, and where if he doesn't like the person he's talking to, he can switch over, change channels, or log out (20).

5 and the formation of culture, ceremonies, and reproduction of hacker culture generally

6 Another example of a hacker phrase which carries over CMC experience:

dictionary flame: n. An attempt to sidetrack a debate

away from issues by insisting on meanings for key terms that

presuppose a desired conclusion or smuggle in an implicit premise.

A common tactic of people who prefer argument over definitions to

disputes about reality

7 The definition of virtual community becomes earnest when the Vatican II decrees mass can be administered online. The highly metaphorical world of a Christian church that can conjure that (virtual) body of Christ anyplace “where two or three are gathered together in [Jesus’] name” (Matthew 18:20) (Wilbur 1997: 10). Baptism nor the sacrament cannot be administered virtually.

8 Gelleschaft refers to impersonal contractual and legal relationships, based more upon mutual need to achieve specific tasks or general goals

9 The sociological opposition between community and society sees community as characterized by social relationships of loyalty, honor, intimacy, moral commitment, social cohesion, emotional depth. Relationships are primary; i.e., relationships of solidarity, cooperation, and fellowship. (Gimenez 1997: 2)

10 Susan Herring’s (1993) study of two academic discussion electronic lists showed women participant’s messages followed a pattern of: attenuated assertions, apologies, explicit justifications, questions, personal orientation, supports others. Whereas men used strong assertions, self-promotion, presuppositions, rhetorical questions, authoritative orientation, challenges others, and more use of humor/sarcasm.

11 The hacker culture of competitive coding/hacking until total physical exhaustion.

12 Interestingly, despite the masculinist culture of hacking (Turkle, 1984), representations of the hacker’s bodies have been noticed to use feminine imagery (Kroker 1994; Sofia 1993; Lupton 1995). As with the female body, hackers on the page are soft, sleek, sensuous, hedonistic, vulnerable yet dangerous, ‘They aren’t hard to pick out; they’re the pale shifty ones [and] all about 20 pounds overweight” (New Scientist). They’re association with the feminine micro-movements of computer technology, hackers are seen as lethargic but quick and delicate; Time Australia described the trial of Kevin Mitnick with him standing in handcuffs, “unable for the first time, to feel the silky click of computer keys’ (quoted in Lupton: 102).

13 Personal home pages show less anonymity and more social embeddedness, and in many cases more integration of facets, than everyday life does (Wynn & Katz 1997: 23-24). Pertinent details of what is important to the host, as well as links to other topics, are typical of home pages. It is curriculum vitae, personal advertisement, reflective medium, and art all rolled into one presentation. In this way it is more integrative than conventional media. Many home pages seem to be written in a group context, addressed to a peer or colleague group, and presume the social conventions of those environments.

14 Users with accounts on well-established systems such as the Well, or those with accounts at prestigious research universities are accorded more status than those using commercial systems such as Delphi or America Online, or hobbyist systems such as FidoNet (Lawley 1994: 17). Underground BBS entrance gate-keeping techniques including screening questionnaires, asking newcomers to list “personal references”, mean for a caller to successfully enter, they must display an awareness of hacker culture and technical skill in the computer underground enterprise (Meyer 1989: 51). There are several different levels of access on underground BBSs, with only trusted users able to read messages and get files in high access or elite areas that are unknown to the uninitiated.

15 However, much like other institutional fields, it can be considered as a number of fields. Phreakers, pirates (or as they are more commonly known, warezd00ds), crackers, and hackers form separate communities that are clearly bounded, each substratum has it’s own ethics, it’s own style and argot, dress, practices, initiation ceremonies, and each is self-regulating. (Meyer & Thomas 1990)

16 Marcel Danesi (1994) posits that ‘coolness’ is a signifying symbology that is adopted by mimetic and osmotic processes that have the definition of desirable style (cf. Clark et al. 1975) forever changing to serve the function of distinction (cf. Bourdieu 1984/1988 ).

17 Stolen credit card numbers. “Carding” is mostly restricted to the warez or pirating community. Although Meyer (1989) observes, groups often consist of four to nine beginning phreak/hackers who will assist each other in obtaining telephone credit-card numbers. By pooling their resources, a large number of illicit "codez" can be obtained and shared with others (70-71; my emphasis)



18 documented in Bruce Sterling’s book, Hacker Crackdown and in Master of Deception; The Gang who Ruled Cyberspace by Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner. ‘History of Hacking,’ www.AntiOnline.com: in 1990 Legion of Doom. feuded with a rival group, the Masters of Deception, engaging in two years of online warfare - jamming phone lines, monitoring calls, trespassing in each other's private computers. The “gang war” resulted in the arrests and gaoling of MOD.

19 Chris Coggins, sometime leader of LOD, Legion of Doom, publishers of PHRACK

20 As well as these technically oriented journals, there are zines whose status ‘informative’ is dubious indeed, eg. ThE HaX0R bRoThErS NeWzLetTeR

21 War Games is often cited as exploding the size of the computer ground. (Apart from cameos in almost every spy thriller) later, Sneakers depicted an enviable work group of hacker specialists. Recently, teenage flick Hackers depicts a group of attractive highschoolers.

22 Cassell and Symon (1994) understand this limitation of qualitative research as being inherent in the difference between positivist and contructivist accounts of social action, where qualitative researchers have to justify their research in terms of an inappropriate paradigm, “defending their research in the context of positivist notions of reliability, generalisability and validity” (8). This problem is exaggerated for neo-institutionalist organisation theorists because of the need to be able to produce causal explanations using an interpretivist framework.

23 By way of example, when Meyer and Rowan claim, “delegation, professionalisation, goal ambiguity, elimination of output data, and maintenance of face are all mechanisms for absorbing uncertainty while preserving the structure of the organisations” (41) serving to “increase [the organisation’s] legitimacy and survival prospects” (58), they infer that the ‘real function’ of these kinds of “ceremonial management” differs from the understanding the participant’s have of the meaning of these practices.

24 In my case, I knew what I was looking for but I didn’t know what I’d find. What I found had its own influence on the actual development of the theory. At the start I had a general idea of what the aims of the study were, but this was more of an inkling, some suspicions, a direction. Although most of the thesis proposal has survived intact in the Chapter 1, as I did the interviews, these ideas began to take form. The reading defined the ideas more and more tightly as I went; I made discoveries, links appeared, ideas fell into place. Apparently, the interviews had their own direction and I started to notice unexpected themes that were unsolicited from the subjects. Meanwhile, as I read, I began to get a feel for a strand of arguments that kept appearing amongst diverse theories in the most unusual places and their significance started to press at the corners of my perception. Then I came across key articles, bits and pieces on Giddens’ work and finally, very late, I came upon Nigel Thrift’s essay on economics. Everything previous just congealed in the space of ten minutes. I recognised all of the interview data in this article I had accidentally read from an unrelated field. Following that the results developed those ideas further. I really do feel that this development was most important because I was studying a deviant subculture that was otherwise opaque and to which I brought all kinds of prejudice and the expectations I had from the existing literature. This unplanned process of discovery meant I found results that contradicted the writing on hackers and on computer-mediated communication. If the interview data did not itself press so forcefully upon the theory, I would have accepted all the reading on virtual communities.

25 Another concern is the fact that electronic media present their own problems for research. The opportunities for research and perils of using the Internet for sociology students are catalogued by Rob Kling (1997) ‘The Internet For Sociologists’. Robert Alan Jones (1994) ‘The Ethics of Research in Cyberspace’ addresses whether the issues of privacy and dignity in virtual communities are significantly different from their non-virtual counterparts and offers ethics guidelines for research in cyberspace. These concerns become prohibitive when studying hackers and participant observation was discounted.

26 HPAP stands for Hacking – Phreaking - Anarchy - Piracy (or sometimes Pyrotechnics), Cryptography can be added. This term evolved from section names on BBSs, can be used for e-lists and magazines and the computer underground counter-culture in general.

27 Sysops: System Operators.

28 Additionally, after meeting the sysops, being able to mention initially that they had met with me, helped establish my own integrity with the subject.

29 I myself was stalked. Only open e-mail from the hackers known to you. It is also a good idea to improve your security and update anti-virus programmes.

30 Sysadmin is the title of the Systems Adminstrator

31 It should be clarified, the dark end of the spectrum were half expert coders and the other competent. Also, of the coder-end, half were purist white-hat hackers, and the other half had mucked around with illicit uses of computers. Even the two purists had both illegally accessed systems (but to check their HSC results).

32 But not career because, despite an average of bad TERs (and some excellent ones), total lack of university qualifications, the majority had excellently paying jobs, or hope of the same in future.

33 For example, when I asked a subject which programming language he preferred, although he was discussing computing just then, and not hacking, his answer about why he likes Pearl may illustrate the way hacking ethos pervades technical process (this answer was the least technical though, for comprehension’s sake):

Why I like it is because it’s so dynamic. C and C++ are strongly tight languages where you have to be very formal. So you write out stuff and do it in two lines without having to conform to any standards these languages set down for, you can be as loose and as fast as you want. You can get yourself into a lot of trouble but you can also do stuff very quickly rather than treating you like a baby. Like C or C++ would, like it treats you like a novice where a lot of things are strictly enforced so you don’t make mistakes But if you know what you’re doing you can break out of those rules.

It’s important to understand that this is where hackers express
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