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NNN Today's News

Chaos at the crossroads

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From Netly News Writer David Hudson

As Chaos Computer Club spokesperson Andy Müller-Maguhn wrapped up his year-end review at the 14th annual Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, he highlighted the gaping security holes found in Microsoft's ActiveX controls and the more recent extraction of personal identification numbers from Eurocheque ATM cards. All the while, Wau Holland, who founded the CCC way back in 1981, sat cross-legged on the floor in a far corner of the stage. He'd been listening patiently as Müller-Maguhn ticked off all the conferences he'd attended, the trials and hearings he'd been an adviser for, and when the 25-year-old spokesperson called for questions, Holland, 45, was the first to rise.

Balding, yet decked out with a bushy beard and bulky overalls crammed with electronic gadgets, Holland dropped his usual garden-gnome grin: "We have to be careful not to become 'die Trüffelschweine der Industrie'."

Trüffelschweine are those pigs that rustle through the morass of undergrowth on the forest floor, snuffle up precious truffles and trot the plunder back to their owners. Holland is concerned that all the attention -- and worse, respect -- paid to the CCC over the past few years has the current leadership trading its hacker soul for the media spotlight. Just a week before, however, Müller-Maguhn was fretting that the early founders with their "'68 generation" ideals have lost touch with the realities of a massively expanded new media landscape. It's a classic clash of founding father idealism versus young Turk realism.

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Not that the club was ever renegade, mind you, but things were different 10 years ago. In 1987, a small group of Chaos hackers wrote a little Trojan horse program called the Loginout patch and used it to collect passwords throughout NASA's network. Instead of wreaking havoc, Holland and fellow founder Steffan Wernery's first impulse was to say, Houston, you have a problem. Neither NASA nor Digital Equipment Corporation would admit to being hacked until German television broke the news. Had DEC faced facts they might have avoided Kevin Mitnick's reverse engineering of the Loginout patch, which he used a year later to steal some of the company's precious source code.

These days, people take heed when Chaos hackers uncover security flaws. In fact, nary a Net-related headline slips through the German mainstream media without a quote from a CCC representative. The German parliament regularly calls on the CCC for advice in shaping official new media policy and club members are called to court to testify in high-profile cases such as the Angela Marquardt trial. They were even the subject of fashion spread for the premier issue of big budget German cyberculture magazine Konr@d. In short, the CCC is a club of hackers that has become part of the establishment.

But how closely can they cooperate with the authorities before slipping into bed with them? Consider the layout of the Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg. In three smoke-choked rooms lined with every variety of computer, hackers fueled with Coke, chips and cookies exchanged everything from simple passwords to smart cards for decoding satellite signals. The IP address of the sole NT server was chalked up on the board with the message, "Viel Spass!" (Have fun!).

Meanwhile, in the main auditorium, presentations, videos, films and overhead projections documented the sure march of the CCC toward the mainstream. A few years ago, the appearance of a representative from Deutsche Telekom, the very beast itself, would have been a genuine jaw-dropper. But there he was, 60-ish, suit and tie and nervous as hell, explaining what the fifth largest telecommunications company in the world was doing to guard itself against the sort of "social engineering" hackers have perfected over the years -- for example, a hacker, pretending to be a phone company grunt, might call a secretary to get him to pass on his boss's user ID.

This was the hacker's dilemma writ large: Deutsche Telekom stumping in the auditorium while hackers in the next room are probably trying to break into Deutsche Telekom. Ostensibly, all parties concerned share the same goal: safe networks, secure software, technology people can use with confidence. But the ideal of free access to all information, the very foundation of the CCC as stated in the preamble to its charter, runs counter to the aims of an industry seeking to cash in on the telecommunications boom.

Whether the CCC confronts or conforms to this paradox will most likely be determined by whoever emerges as the real face of the club once it overcomes its current identity crisis.

The Netly News updates daily on the Pathfinder network

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