Gay Talese’s Basement
|2600: The Hacker Quarterly
by Asa Fitch
During the halcyon days of hacking in the late 1990s, corporate brass would often wake to find political screeds, pornography and d1g1Tal-speak shout-outs marring their homepages. It was in the era preceding and during this boom time, before the Feds started throwing hackers in jail and before Internet security was anything more than laughable, that 2600: The Hacker Quarterly found its audience.
Clearly, the current climate is far less hospitable to hackers, and the hacking community—and 2600—now finds itself in something of an identity crisis. Some hackers have gone the turncoat route, taking jobs with Internet security firms. Others have moved on to new careers or found other hobbies. Still others are in jail. These changes presented 2600, the self-appointed voice of hacking, with a challenge: how to speak to the new hacker while not abandoning the edge-of-legality spirit that made it such a compelling read.
The magazine responded by attempting to redefine the hacker ethic. Once a digital miscreant of vaguely Robin Hoodesque sensibilities, the new hacker is a hobbyist who likes tinkering—harmlessly, we’re told—with telecommunications systems, the Internet, gadgets and, well, the world in general.
The redefinition is manifest in 2600’s pages. A writer known as “mirrorshades”—all writers in 2600 go by handles—complained in a recent issue that “the media tells you that ‘hackers’ are either unsupervised teenagers who break into computer systems and steal credit card numbers to use at pornographic websites, or scum-of-the-earth anarchist rebels who write viruses designed to destroy ATM networks and shut down the ‘evil corporate system.’ The truth is that ‘hacker,’ as a title, is dead.”
“Hacking” may indeed be dead, but 2600 is far from abandoning the term, or, for that matter, any of its questionable associations. Granted, many of the articles in 2600 these days are standard nerd-magazine fare (how to get rid of spyware, novel ways of programming your remote control), but the choicer bits still verge on the illegal. One recent article, for example, told readers how to navigate the touch-screen menus of an automatic DVD rental machine in such a way that you might—just might—be able to retrieve credit card numbers. Another article, “A Peek Inside a Simple ATM Machine” might be useful to thieves.
Yet another, helpfully titled “Forging an Identity,” gives out tips on how to fabricate birth certificates and Social Security cards to get photo IDs. To really do it right, “SistemRoot” tells us, forgers “would need to find information on a person who was born around the same time as they were and died under the age of six months or passed away in a different state from their birthplace. Because of this, there wouldn’t be any state or work records of them being deceased. This information can be found at the library’s newspaper archives under the obituary section.” Thanks, SistemRoot!
Eric Corley, a hacker whose specialty is phone systems, started 2600 in 1984 and runs it from Middle Island, N.Y. Corley is credited on the masthead as Editor-in-Chief “Emmanuel Goldstein,” a reference to the reactionary leader of that name in Orwell’s “1984.” The magazine’s name came from phreakers—telephone hackers, basically—who discovered in the 1970s that broadcasting a 2600-hertz tone over a special long-distance line gave the caller access to a powerful “operator mode.”
Under Corley’s direction, 2600 clings to a decidedly underground aesthetic: page after page of small print and an apparent ignorance of graphic design. The cover is glossy and in color, but the inside pages look as if they were composed by a math geek using a clunky open-source version of PrintShop. No ads grace 2600’s pages, but the magazine manages to stay afloat on a $5.50 cover price and the production economies of a smaller-than-usual size—about 5-by-8 inches.
One of the funniest parts of the magazine is its “Marketplace” section, in which people sell and ask for goods and services, some of which are probably illegal. “Need some assistance removing negative items off credit reports,” one ad says. “Will pay. All agencies.” “LEARN LOCK PICKING,” another begins. “It’s EASY with our book and new video.” Then there are the “personals,” most of which are pleas from hackers in jail for letters. “Known as Alphabits, busted for hacking a few banks and unauthorized wire transfers,” one reads. “I’m extremely bored and in desperate need for stimulation.”
The personals, not to mention the tone and content of the magazine, tell us that 2600 remains unwilling to disinfect the air of cool that still surrounds illegal hacking. There are caveats—in the article on DVD rental machines, the author piously pronounces that “Companies need to be more diligent in securing machines that process sensitive information before leaving them in a public place. ...” But such sentences ring a little hollow given what a hacker could do with the substance of the article.
If free speech is the main legacy of the American experiment, magazines like 2600 might be called its difficult stepchildren. Like the infamous Anarchist Cookbook of times past, 2600 occupies an uncertain ethical space—somewhere between recipe for crime and cry of freedom. The magazine revels in this limbo, and in doing so places itself in the chorus of fringe voices that Americans have tolerated, sometimes grudgingly, for centuries. Certainly, the magazine shouldn’t be ordered out of existence or sued for what readers do with its content, as Soldier of Fortune was in 1989 after it published an ad for a mercenary whom a reader hired to kill his wife. The magazine’s right to exist, however, does nothing to counter the moral argument against it. 2600 is an interesting read mainly because it deals in taboo subject matter, and arguably it will remain interesting only as long as it stays that way. As long as it does, though, there is little moral justification for it.