Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 160

Cyberpunk. (Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, authors Katie Hafner and John Markhoff)(column) (Interview)

The authors of Cyberpunk appeared on America Online shortly after their book hit the stands. Here's some of the conversation that ensued.

Question: Do you think that a false sense of security was the principal culprit in the hacker cases you have reported?

Cyberpunk authors: That's one element, but we were trying to get at what we see as an emerging global culture based on computers and networks. The companies are generally asleep at the switch, however. Digital Equipment would never discuss any of the cases with us, although it was involved in each story we wrote about.

Q: Your book seems to be about criminals. Is this your definition of a cyberpunk?

Cyber: To us, cyberpunk is defined by the intersection of high technology and outlaw society. There is a great debate among science fiction buffs about what it really means, but we decided that it was the best word to capture what we were trying to describe. It's about an underground as much as the idea of criminals.

Q: To what extent do you think Bill Gibson and Bruce Sterling's books encouraged the subculture to develop?

Cyber: The subculture was already definitely there, but it might have encouraged a new generation of explorers.

Q: Are you concerned that people will "get ideas" from books like yours? You made parts of the culture seem pretty attractive in a downbeat kind of way.

Cyber: One of the reasons Digital wouldn't talk to us is that it was sure that we were writing a recipe book. But it's not recipes. It's about people and what they did. You can't avoid these things and hope they will go away . . . and [we] didn't glorify any of this.

Q: Is computer crime really "the perfect crime"? Are people getting away with it?

Cyber: Well, . . . cops say that you only catch the dumb ones, and in computers there are no dumb ones. We tend to think that computer crime is the most underreported crime because corporations tend to cover up the fact that they are victims. The people we wrote about weren't criminals in the traditional sense. They weren't out (for the most part) for profit. . . .

Q: Did you ever do any hacking of your own?

Cyber: What? Us? Can you imagine a New York Times reporter doing such a thing? Actually, Katie says that Pengo [one of the German hackers caught by Clifford Stoll] offered to show her how one night, but when they got to his apartment, he couldn't find his modem.

Q: You mentioned a burgeoning international network. Where do you think this cyber-culture is going? What do you think its values will be?

Cyber: The internet is absolutely exploding (the internet is a collection of 2600 networks linking colleges, corporations, the government, and increasingly, the public as well). Cyberpunks will remain a part of this just as criminals [remain] in the rest of society, but increasingly, there is going to be this virtual world out there. Electronic communities like [America Online].

Q: How do you see virtual reality and hyperreality figuring into the world of the cyperpunk?

Cyber: We recommend that you read Vernor Vinge's science fiction novel True Names, which takes today's BBS society and computers and assumes infinite bandwidth and MIPS. It's the best description of the way the future network world will look.

Q: What are the officials doing to prevent illegal hacking?

Cyber: There are efforts to create new laws, and there are also some special investigative task forces. But all in all, [officials are doing] very little. There are some vivid descriptions of authorities' ignorance in the book. In one case Kevin Mitnick fooled a task force of police and telephone investigators into raiding a house in Malibu. When they arrived, they broke in on an Iranian short-order cook who was drinking beer and watching television. Imagine his surprise! In another case, Digital actually gave up trying to keep Kevin and Lenny [DiCicco] out of its computers. Some managers were furious. Kevin and Lenny were only caught because they quarreled and Lenny were only caught because they quarreled and Lenny snitched on Kevin. [We] need to educate young people about being good network citizens. Many people have no understanding of the damage that can be done via a computer network.