TO THE EDITOR:
While managing to convey some of the facts concerning the Pentagon City Mall hacker incident on November 6, "Hackers Allege Harassment at Mall" (November 13, page A1) fails to focus on the startling revelation of federal government involvement and the ominous implications of such an action. The article also does little to lessen the near hysteria that is pumped into the general public every time the word "hacker" is mentioned.
Let us take a good look at what has been confirmed so far. A group of computer hackers gathered at a local mall as they do once a month. Similar meetings have been going on in other cities for years without incident. This gathering was not for the purposes of causing trouble and nobody has accused the hackers of doing anything wrong. Rather, the gathering was simply a place to meet and socialize. This is what people seem to do in food courts and it was the hackers' intention to do nothing more.
When mall security personnel surrounded the group and demanded that they all submit to a search, it became very clear that something bizarre was happening. Those who resisted were threatened with arrest. Everyone's names were written down, everyone's bags gone through. One person attempted to write down the badge numbers of the people doing this. The list was snatched out of his hand and ripped to pieces. Another hacker attempted to catch the episode on film. He was apprehended and the film was ripped from his camera. School books, notepads, and personal property were seized. Much of it has still not been returned. The group was held for close to an hour and then told to stay out of the mall or be arrested.
This kind of treatment is enough to shock most people, particularly when coupled with the overwhelming evidence and eyewitness accounts confirming no unusual or disruptive behavior on the part of the group. It is against everything that our society stands for to subject people to random searches and official intimidation, simply because of their interests, lifestyles, or the way they look. This occurrence alone would warrant condemnation of a blatant abuse of power. But the story doesn't end there.
The harassment of the hackers by the mall police was only the most obvious element. Where the most attention should be focused at this point is on the United States Secret Service which, according to Al Johnson, head of mall security, "ramrodded" the whole thing. Other media sources, such as the industry newsletter Communications Daily, were told by Johnson that the Secret Service was all over the mall that day and that they had, in effect, ordered the harassment. Arlington police confirm that the Secret Service was at the mall that day.
It is understood that the Secret Service, as a branch of the Treasury Department, investigates credit card fraud. Credit card fraud, in turn, can be accomplished through computer crime. Some computer hackers could conceivably use their talents to accomplish computer crime. Thus we arrive at the current Secret Service policy, which appears to treat everybody in the hacker world as if they were a proven counterfeiter. This feeling is grounded in misperceptions and an apprehension that borders on panic. Not helping the situation any is the everpresent generation gap - most hackers are young and most government officials are not.
Apart from being disturbed by the gross generalizations that comprise their policy, it seems a tremendous waste of resources to use our Secret Service to spy on public gatherings in shopping malls. It seems certain to be a violation of our rights to allow them to disrupt these meetings and intimidate the participants, albeit indirectly. Like any other governmental agency, it is expected that the Secret Service follow the rules and not violate the constitutional rights of citizens.
If such actions are not publicly condemned, we will in effect be granting a license for their continuance and expansion. The incident above sounds like something from the darkest days of the Soviet Union when human rights activists were intimidated by government agents and their subordinates. True, these are technology enthusiasts, not activists. But who they are is not the issue. We cannot permit governmental abuse of any person or group simply because they may be controversial.
Why do hackers evoke such controversy? Their mere presence is an inconvenience to those who want so desperately to believe the emperor is wearing clothes. Hackers have a tendency of pointing out the obvious inadequacies of the computer systems we entrust with such a large and growing part of our lives. Many people don't want to be told how flimsily these various systems are held together and how so much personal data is readily available to so many. Because hackers manage to demonstrate how simple it is to get and manipulate this information, they are held fully responsible for the security holes themselves. But, contrary to most media perceptions, hackers have very little interest in looking at other people's personal files. Ironically, they tend to value privacy more than the rest of us because they know firsthand how vulnerable it is. Over the years, hackers have gone to the media to expose weaknesses in our credit reporting agencies, the grading system for New York City public schools, military computer systems, voice mail systems, and even commonly used pushbutton locks that give a false sense of security. Not one of these examples resulted in significant media attention and, consequently, adequate security was either delayed or not implemented at all. Conversely, whenever the government chooses to prosecute a hacker, most media attention focuses on what the hacker "could have done" had he been malicious. This reinforces the inaccurate depiction of hackers as the major threat to our privacy and completely ignores the failure of the system itself.
By coming out publicly and meeting with other hackers and non-hackers in an open atmosphere, we have dispelled many of the myths and helped foster an environment conducive to learning. But the message we received at the Pentagon City Mall tells us to hide, be secretive, and not trust anybody. Perhaps that's how the Secret Service wants hackers to behave. But we are not criminals and we refuse to act as such simply because we are perceived that way by uninformed bureaucrats.
Regardless of our individual outlooks on the hacker issue, we should be outraged and extremely frightened to see the Secret Service act as they did. Whether or not we believe that hackers are decent people, we must agree that they are entitled to the same constitutional freedoms the rest of us take for granted. Any less is tantamount to a very dangerous and ill-advised precedent.
Editor, 2600 Magazine - The Hacker Quarterly
(NOTE - 2600 Magazine coordinates monthly hacker meetings throughout the country.)