HACKERS ON PLANET EARTH (H.O.P.E.)
Hotel Pennsylvania, NY, NY August 12-14, 1994
Review by Netta Gilboa
It never occured to me I wouldn't be going to Woodstock last summer. It was just going to be a tough choice deciding which of the two festivals to attend. Then Emmanuel Goldstein announced he was going to hold a Con in August in New York City. "Don't make it the same weekend as Woodstock,"` I said. He did.
I could have gone to Woodstock '94 with a press pass, free ticket and the ability to photograph some of the acts. I could have sold magazines there, attended a rave, seen CSN, the Band and run into lots of old friends. Or I could have gone to the site. The Yasgurs were my relatives and besides the nostalgia I would have gotten to see Melanie perform again, which alone would have been worth the trip. But I consoled myself I'd get tapes (where are they?!@#!) and that I could watch the pay-per-view on cable while at HOPE.
Yeah right. The truth is that when push came to shove I had to choose between my love for music and my love for hackers. I chose to spend the weekend at HOPE if`only because I'd have less trouble using the bathrooms and I was sure I could eat sushi at least once. The hotel chosen turned out to be directly across the street from Madison Square Garden and offered superb access to all of my favorite restaurants. Alas, I didn't get to them because there was so much going on at HOPE you didn't want to spend five extra minutes away getting food. I got a pretty rude awakening when not only did the hotel have no cable (which meant no MTV coverge of the weekend's festivals or CNN or anything really) but they had old style telephones which lacked plugs for modems! It was beyond conception to me that a hotel chosen to entertain phone phreaks would not have great wiring, but the 1000-1300 people who attended had so little trouble with the hotel that it was worth it. I opted not to even plug my laptop in which resulted in way more time spent with other people having conversations than I would have had otherwise. In retrospect, it was a good move.
As I checked in I said hi to Max-Q who was standing next to someone named Earle. Earle was joking he'd tell people he was Peaboy all weekend. Lame. I made a mental note that not everyone I would meet might be who they said they were and to be more careful than usual. Max-q didn't travel much and if he was here it was a good sign that HOPE was gonna be huge.
In the end it was so huge that hackers came from at least a dozen countries as well as from all sorts of active and defunct famous groups and publications including the Chaos Computer Club, Phalcon/Skism, Legion of Doom, MOD, Cybertek, NSA, Phrack, Hack-Tic and TAP. It was a gathering of the tribes. In fact, there were so many big names there that even if you were brand new to the scene and knew no one else when you got to HOPE, by the time you left you had made at least a few new contacts.
My date and I went upstairs to drop off the luggage and then off to eat. I wanted to stop at Macy's which was a block away. We were headed for the gourmet food department but on the way I passed a display of Peter Max T-shirts and posters and bought a bunch of stuff. My date, a 20-year-old hacker, had no real idea who Peter Max was and how rare seeing his old 60s artwork displayed for sale again was. I bought two T-shirts and two buttons and showed them off proudly for the rest of the weekend. Three or four people knew who Peter Max was, but the bulk of hackers, even those who still seek out LSD to trip on, are way too young to remember psychedelia. This was a crowd of folks who for the most part spend their acid trips calling friends, hacking systems or annoying phone operators, not going to Dead concerts or debating philosophy as the people I grew up with did.
I wasn't back in my room long before I got company including Ophie, Azriel, DiscoDan, Armitage, Stormbringer and Madcap. Madcap had very kewl T-shirts made but only brought 20. He sold nine in my room right on the spot after I made him go get one to sell me. I felt lucky to have one as over the next few days there were hundreds of people who would have bought one, at any price, if only he'd had more. On the front was a HOPE logo and on the back were some quotes from the famous Phrack article by The Mentor. I was most impressed that Madcap had asked permission from Emmanuel to make up a shirt and that he'd asked Phrack and The Mentor too. The ironic thing was that the article quoted from is one about the often radically different criminal ethics that hackers have. Yet, the person who made the shirt is one of the hackers I'd consider most trustworthy of those I've interacted with.
Some guy named Viper walked in out of nowhere and tried to join the group in my room. I forget whether he knocked or followed someone in. After a few minutes it became apparent no one knew him and that he was there to spy. Someone asked him who he was and he said he'd written some text files as his claim to fame. When asked to name them he couldn't. He was embarassed into leaving by my friends and apparently ran upstairs and shouted out my room number to all in earshot in the 18th floor's computer network room. Alas for him, he got my room number wrong <grin> . Alas for me too as there were some cool people up there when he did that, some of whom came down to try to find me, but I didn't run into them myself for hours or days after.
We went to Sbarro's for dinner and then to the lobby where someone had spread word we'd gather at 8 p.m. No one was there so we went to the 18th floor and found Jason Farnon, Ludichrist, Knight Lightening, Winn Schwartau, Bootleg, Particle and dozens of others talking. Along the walls from the elevator to the computer room someone had taped paper so that you could leave messages for people, dis your enemies and share your thoughts semi-anonymously. We started a +E list for people who had done, said or shown something eleet while at the Con. It caught on and grew until every inch of every section of paper was filled with people's BBS numbers, comments comparing this Con to Woodstock, people's handles, etc. Someone named Mike brought cases of free beers and soda for all. Too bad I don't drink either as the wait for one was non-existant and at Woodstock they would have been powerful trading items. I took a few beers anyway and they were consumed by those around me over the next few hours. Of all the equipment there (yes, hackers did bring their entire computer setups to show other hackers or simply because they don't know how to go away for three days without them), people were most attracted to some guy's Silicon Graphics machine. Personally I would have killed to use the one top-of-the-line Powerbook I saw there, but to each their own.
We talked for hours, making a circle of chairs that different people joined at different times. During the lulls you could just sit and watch all sorts of legendary people meet each other for the first time. It was like a jam session at a concert for charity where people toss aside egos and just play together for that short time. Something very special went down at HOPE and I was positive I had made the right choice to come. My date and I were getting along great, so you can imagine how good the people we were talking to had to be for us to stay there instead of heading off to be alone. The party finally broke up at 4 a.m., hours before it needed to, because HOPE staff threw everyone out so they could "organize." We went to sleep.
The next day was the official start of the Con. You were supposed to pay $25, fill out a form and get your photo taken for your badge. It seemed really, really odd to me that the publisher of a magazine on privacy would want photographs of the attendees (some of whom were the most private people in the entire computer underground) and the badge also displayed people's E-mail addresses which seemed worse. First of all, some attending didn't own any legal Net addresses and secondly, if they did, it meant that every person who saw the badge might know how to find them again. But, there were more immediate problems to worry about because you couldn't even walk down the hallway to pick up your badge by the time I got there. Through no real fault of the HOPE staff, the combination of hundreds and hundreds of people trying to wait in a line for the same thing and the delay in taking photos and printing badges resulted in a mob scene. From out of nowhere, the staff came up with a solution and simply took people's money and gave them a number to walk around wearing. Many people kept wearing the number even when the line finally shortened the next day and others responded by having parts of their body photographed instead. I made plans for a kewl group photo for mine but it never happened. Later, 2600 printed the photos (which were stored on computer disk) were accidentally deleted during the Con. Hmn.
Once you got your badge, you could go hear speakers which ran non-stop till almost midnight. Or you could go to the film room and see films about hackers, phones and computers. Or you could go to the computer room and try to hack root to win a prize, buy T-shirts and magazines or talk with the many people who had their computers there in another corner or who were standing around chatting. I spent all of Saturday and Sunday in there selling hundreds of magazines as fast as I and my friends could carry them down there. Many of our readers came by, and my friends from IRC and people who found the magazine there by accident, etc. I spoke with a few reporters too and watched as a Details crew shot dozens of photos of those people who were dressed in a manner that could be merchandised. They wanted photos of the girls, and those with evil sounding handles, and especially those who would act up somehow for the camera. At moments when I saw what people were doing for their shot at being in Details I was revolted. I could only imagine the words they would choose to use around the photos. Some people were given their photos back, deemed unacceptable to even pass the first cut. The attitude seemed to be that Details was cool to hackers but I hardly thought so months later when their review barely mentioned HOPE and used none of the photos as it discussed Phiber Optik (who wasn't even there) and things about Emmanuel they could not possibly have learned at HOPE. But, you watch, the next time the media comes around people will stand in line again hoping to get their shot at fifteen minutes of utterly incorrect fame. Wired was also there en masse and they later wrote another piece Emmanuel hated. So was the local news, and people's home video cameras, and the daily papers, and what seemed like every reporter who wasn't at Woodstock.
The sessions addressed things like "Lockpicking," "Fun With Pagers," "Linux," "Foreign Hacking," and "Cellular." There was an opening address by Ex-CIA employee Robert Steele and a session on the N.Y.C. MetroCard and a contest to hack it (no winners).
I did go to one session on Saturday which featured Cheshire Catalyst talking about the early days when he used to publish a zine called TAP. Emmanuel spoke about launching 2600 and shared some of its growing pains over the ten years of publishing that HOPE was celebrating. He addressed some of the problems having a number for a magazine name has caused as well as being visited by the FBI, receiving threats from angry phone companies, and having the office hit by lightning in 1987.
Everyone in the room enjoyed this talk and as a fellow publisher there was much in it to interest me. With 2200 subscribers and newsstand sales of ten times that, hackers and those interested in hackers are clearly out there in sizable numbers. The highlight of the talk though was when Emmanuel used an overhead projector and analyzed the deep meaning in several 2600 covers. There were things put there no one in the room saw, things many in the room had seen but that Emmanuel said he never intended, and things that just simply needed an explanation in order to help the reader find them. After the session I went back to my table and stayed there until I was ready to pass out.
I was sorry I didn't attend every session but if I had I would not have spoken to a soul. Sunday had twelve more hours or so of lectures scheduled and it was just overwhelming to try to stop talking to people to attend them. HOPE could easily have lasted a week. It was shocking that the phone companies did not send their key employees to attend HOPE. If you want to amuse yourself some night, call the operator several times and see how many of the operators even know what a "phone phreak" is. By coming to HOPE they could have drastically curtailed fraud and theft and have trained their employees on what to look for. It was all openly discussed in the sessions.
When I came downstairs Sunday morning a few people were on computers and a dozen more were chatting nearby. Someone was napping on a table near where I set up and two more people were crashed on the floor. The day continued like the one before except that there were still hundreds of new people to talk to. I saw many senior citizens, and entire families of mother, dad and child. There were people of all races and ages and I wondered if these were mostly hackers or if these were the people who had only read about HOPE in the Village Voice. There was no way to tell who was who and, in fact, many people I spoke with showed me a badge that said one thing and then proved they were really someone else I knew. Hell, at one point, a bunch of people even walked around wearing masks of Kevin Mitnick's face.
I never saw any sign that tapes of prank phone calls got played as promised nor did the session "Leeches, Lamers and Losers," on ethics in the community, materialize. This pissed me off as although a talk about what actions hackers do that cross a line might have become nothing more than a shouting match between rivals, it is a subject no one in the community dares to address. I beg people to write on this for us and they won't. It is almost entirely absent from the literature in the field. Emmanuel advertised that he would devote 90 minutes to it and he didn't which was a shame.
On the bright side however, he did deliver two phone calls from Phiber Optik who was in jail at the time. They were worth sticking around for and occured right at the end of the Con which was the unfortunate time slot that ethics had been alotted.
A number of the sessions changed times and it was difficult to show up to hear something and have it happen then. But I told a whole bunch of people I simply had to hear the session on social engineering and when it finally went down they came to get me.
Emmanuel, Supernigger and Cheshire Catalyst led this session. Cheshire defined social engineering: "When you take a phone, get someone dumb as a bull on the other end and churn it. Social engineering is making them believe you are who is supposed to be receiving the information." Several live demos occurred and the standing-room-only crowd was treated to everything from hearing Emmanuel ask an operator what the difference between directory assistance and information is and to explain New York's various area codes (legal, but pretending to be stupid can be very funny) to a call to the area code 313 CNA operator to show how phreaks access unlisted names and addresses by pretending to be phone personnel in other areas of the company. That particular call was cut off for legal reasons before the information was given out, but SN did such a great job despite being slightly nervous that the operator fell for it hook, line and sinker. Of all the sessions at HOPE, this had to have been the best. I heard there are 26 hours of official video footage, at least some of which will be available soon. If you want to see phreaks at work safely, buy this tape.
Lots of other things happened at HOPE which I did not personally witness. These include IXOM arguing with a speaker he didn't like in real life, Erik Bloodaxe being physically approached by two other hackers who don't like him, candy machines being vandalized, Elite Entity being thrown out, hackers hitting the Times Square porn district, someone got arrested, etc.
And some great things happened that I did see. Several people brought me snacks such as coffeeand donuts without being asked to do so. People of all ages stood in small groups and shared ideas with others without regard to who was who. Often, afterwards one would ask another his handle and they would both realize they knew each other well online even though they had just met. Bernie S. brought an actual Clipper chip to show the crowd and donated it to the four people who had successfully hacked root (twice!). They proceeded to blow it up which was fun indeed.
As you can imagine, in any crowd of that size there were a few jerks. One brought anti-Nazi flyers and asked the phone phreaks in the room repeatedly to screw with or advise him how to screw with a neo-Nazi group's phone number. Initially, a lot of people spoke with him and took his flyer but he simply didn't know where to quit and lost all support. Another person, who later turned out to be a writer for Wired (!) screamed repeatedly during a session on cryptography "But where's the crime?" Talk about the press trying to create a story where none exists. He was so verbally abusive with his heckling that several people approached him to physically escort him out. And there was one female there who just didn't get it (no matter what topic "it" was at the moment) and felt free interrupting every speaker to interact with them. Each of these people drove me crazy.
As to crime, I saw very little. I heard the hotel's phone system was taken over and returned intact at the Con's end. I saw a few people display toll fraud devices, some candy stolen from the vending machines and some recreational drug use. HOPE attracted a sophisticated audience who came to learn and to share, not to break the law together. Also, those people hacking privately in rooms simply got lost in the sheer number of attendees.
HOPE pulled in a ton of money (staff paid to get in). At $25 a head plus T-shirts and back issues for sale I'd guess the Con took in $30,000 or so. Emmanuel took a lot of grief for this on IRC because many hackers are under the delusion anything to do with hacking should be done for free (which often means someone else just picks up the tab). He reported that he lost money on the Con because his arrangement with the hotel was for some free lodging in exchange for every 50 rooms booked. The hotel claimed there were less than 50 rooms booked by all of us. I still don't see where all the money got eaten up, nor do I see why Emmanuel (or anyone) shouldn't be allowed to make a profit (even a hefty one) if they organize something voluntary and take the initial risks. HOPE actually came about because the person who organized previous SummerCons didn't want to organize them anymore. He felt the element of destruction in the community had reached a point where he did not wish to risk any liability for it. So Emmanuel threw HOPE instead and it was also decided Erik Bloodaxe would throw a Con in 1995. If Emmanuel ever throws another Con (which he's promised to do, but not anytime soon) be SURE to attend if you've read this far and are even mildly interested.