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Computing Chat

Matthew Skala

Computing chat to discuss the breaking of CyberPatrol

March 30, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – Computer hackers Matthew Skala of Canada and Eddy Jansson of Sweden figured out how to bypass a popular Internet filter from Mattel Inc. The pair created the "cphack" program to crack Cyber Patrol and posted it, along with a related essay, about four weeks ago. Mattel Inc. settled a civil case against the two on March 27, 2000. As part of the agreement, Skala assigned his portion of the copyright for the essay and the decryption software to Mattel, selling it for one Canadian dollar. Whether the company succeeds in shutting down mirror sites that have posted the utility depends on a legal battle involving copyright laws for open source software.

Matthew Skala is a 23-year-old Canadian in graduate school who has been active for many years in the youth rights movement. He is a mathematician interested in linear algebra. Skala joined the Computing Chat by telephone. The following is an edited transcript of the chat.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Matthew Skala, and welcome!

Matthew Skala: Hello, everyone.


Chat Moderator: Please tell us a little bit about your background.

Matthew Skala: Well, I'm a computer science graduate student and a youth rights activist. I've always been interested in cryptography and mathematics.

Question from RiffRaff: What do you feel about Mattel's reaction to your program?

Matthew Skala: Well, I was surprised but not very surprised. I think they hurt themselves a lot with the suit and I thought they would realize that before they started.

Chat Moderator: Why did you do it?

Matthew Skala: There are two sides to that: why reverse CP and why settle. We reversed CP partly for the intellectual challenge, partly to fuel the "e" debate on censorware, partly as an educational effort. As for the settlement, we felt we had made our point and didn't want further headaches.

Cyber Patrol hacker sells out for one dollar
Cyber Patrol settles with hackers, goes after mirror sites


Chat Moderator: Have you gotten much support from your peers?

Matthew Skala: Yes. Pretty much everyone I know has been supportive. We did draw some criticism by making the settlement, but not a lot. Most people I've talked to understand my reasoning.

Question from RiffRaff: What do you think about the judge’s ruling regarding the GNU licensing?

Matthew Skala: I'm not sure that the judge has actually ruled anything about GNU but I think it's a red herring. The software wasn't GNU.

Chat Moderator: Do you think CyberPatrol is a good program for parents?

Matthew Skala: Well, by comparison with others, it's better than some of its competitors but there's no substitute for supervising your kids. A software package can't do that for you and it's foolish to try. So, in summary, no.

Question from phlly: How do you feel about the overall implications of a company developing such a product which then can be used to selectively filter out sites beyond the initial role of the product's description?

Matthew Skala: It's a problem, especially when the product is used in a school or library, effectively setting public policy for the school or library.

Chat Moderator: What should parents do to keep their kids from the more sordid sites on the Internet?

Matthew Skala: It's not as big a problem as you think, first of all. I don't think any kids are viewing porn by accident. But people should be supervising their kids. Go on the net with your child instead of just putting them in front of a computer.

Question from trand: I heard there was a second cphack. Was there?

Matthew Skala: There was no second cphack -- only the one by Eddy. I wrote two programs called cph1_rev and cndecode.

Question from Haley: What does CyberPatrol block EXACTLY?

Matthew Skala: It blocks things in twelve different published categories including sex, violence, intolerance, drugs, etc.

Question from trand: How do you feel about the fact that you were made out to be just a couple of kids?

Matthew Skala: Well, I think it's silly because our ages are no secret, but I don't really care. I feel like I'm still a kid.

Question from trand: Why did you settle?

Matthew Skala: I had made my point and didn't want further hassle. Testing the legal issues of reverse engineering was never one of my goals.

Question from Friton: As a parent and a computer user, I wonder how people can say you must supervise your kids all the time. Isn't this a virtual impossibility? Not to mention, what child would want their parent watching them over their shoulders constantly? Granted the current solutions are inadequate and dangerously obscured in their methodology but even I've accidentally clicked a link that led me to porn spam.

Matthew Skala: Parenting is difficult, I'll grant. I'd sort of like to say that if you can't handle the responsibility then you shouldn't have children but I know that's easy for me to say. I think, though, that it's less of a problem than you think. Kids don't go looking for this stuff unless it's forbidden.

Question from trand: Are you working on any programs right now?

Matthew Skala: Yes, but nothing so exciting. This weekend I spent a lot of time on a graph theory project for school.

Chat Moderator: How has this incident changed your life?

Matthew Skala: It hasn't changed my life all that much The press coverage has been an experience and I've gotten a couple of job offers; also people trying to recruit me for various "31337 h4ck0r d00d" stuff, but it's basically business as usual for me.

Question from RiffRaff: How do you feel about the free speech implications of your case?

Matthew Skala: Well, I think it's unfortunate that a big company can silence critics this way but because the essay has been mirrored so much, that may not really be an issue.

Question from trand: What do you want to be doing 10 years from now?

Matthew Skala: I don't know and I'm trying to decide.

Chat Moderator: How many people were subpoenaed in this case?

Matthew Skala: I don't know. I'm guessing that a few tens of people got the e-mail "subpoenas". Whether those really count is up to the court to decide.

Question from trand: What is your opinion of the Wired report?

Matthew Skala: Wired did several reports and I don't know which you mean. I was sorry that they said it was GPL and other news sources picked that up even though it wasn't true, but Wired's heart is in the right place.

Question from Friton: Have you considered that by not being willing to suffer through a lawsuit, you are adding to the danger that more companies will seek to stifle important information this way?

Matthew Skala: Certainly, but I think that it's not really setting such a precedent and that concern wasn't enough to make me reject the settlement.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

Matthew Skala: Just that if my only accomplishment is to make linear algebra glamorous, that's worthwhile.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us!

Matthew Skala: Goodbye everyone. Thanks for coming!

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