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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

Hackers: the good, the bad, the ugly

hacker staring at a computer September 3, 1998
Web posted at: 12:12 p.m. EDT (1612 GMT)

LAS VEGAS (CNN) -- Computer hackers normally shun the spotlight, but many of them came out into the open for the recent Defcon convention in Las Vegas, offering outsiders a rare chance to glimpse their distinctive subculture.

While most of the year, hackers connect via modems and e-mail, here they met face-to-face. Fueled by cigarettes and caffeine, they huddled in groups around computers, swapped strategies, exchanged tactics and briefed each other on the latest technological developments.

No business clothes here. The standard apparel was T-shirts and shorts (and forget about those name tags saying "Hello, my name is ..."). Others opted for an in-your-face look: a spiky dog collar here, a punk hairdo there; miscellaneous pierced noses, tongues and other appendages.

spiked hair and pierced guy
Some of the more colorful attendees  

"The staples, the stitches, they're meant to hurt," said one hacker.( 140K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Just as in cyberspace, the hackers are known only by their screennames; "Reverend Greed," "Despair," or "Opus," to cite a few.( 112K/6 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

They start early

Most hackers start practicing their craft by tinkering as kids.

One hacker said he got his start at age 13, when he broke into a credit card database.

"I knew I shouldn't have been doing it. But I figured: I'm under 15, I can't get in that much trouble, can I?" he said.

The hacker community is divided into two categories. The "white hat hackers" are those paid by corporations and the federal government to legally break into systems to find vulnerabilities in computer software and then fix the flaws.

The other group, known as "black hat hackers," are malicious: They break into networks illegally to steal bank account numbers or credit cards in order to make money.


Windows Media 28K 56K

This hacker calls himself a security expert
Windows Media 28K 56K

Chasing thrills

Many hackers say they do break-ins because it's addictive, a thrill -- and one feels the "power at the fingertips."

"It's so many things at the same time: you want the knowledge, you want the power -- you just want to be there. You don't want to miss out," one of the few women hackers said of her experience.

A hacker's idea of having a good time is a race to see which team can be first to break into a computer network. The winning team gets a cash prize.

"We own every one of these machines. It's on our network, not the Internet. So this is completely legal," said one convention-goer.( 112K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

From outcasts to experts

Even though they were once considered outcasts, many hackers now hold critical and high-paying jobs with corporations and governments.

dancing at the convention
The Hackers Ball  

One group of hackers, called Lopht, even appeared before Congress recently to explain flaws in computer security.

"It was actually a pretty monumental step forward to see the Senate and large legislative groups almost embracing hackers and saying: 'Hey, you guys have something that you're actually bringing to the table,'" said Dr. Mudge, a member of the group.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.

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