Apple Computer co-founder Stephen Wozniak was preaching to the choir on Saturday at a conference in Manhattan, recalling an era when the word "hackers" referred to technological wizards, not rogue computer users.
His choir was a group of self-described hackers, about 2,000 of them, listening to Wozniak's speech at the HOPE conference -- Hackers on Planet Earth -- sponsored by the hacker magazine 2600 News.
Wozniak described his relationship with John Draper, a man who became known as Captain Crunch 35 years ago when he showed how a plastic whistle that came in cereal boxes could be used to manipulate the national phone system.
Wozniak said he had not cared that the technology could save him a few dimes. Rather, he said, he found it wonderful that a simple tool, cleverly used, could control something complicated and powerful in a forbidden way.
In an interview before the speech, Wozniak, 53, lamented that people now "think of hackers as terrorists" and argued that this fear had caused the government to give undeservedly harsh punishments to violators of computer laws.
Wozniak supported this argument by describing many pranks he had pulled with his technical talents. For example, Wozniak said he once used his skills with the telephone system to place a free call to the pope. The hacking that many people fear, Wozniak said, "is often just some kid trying to do something funny."
Much of the conference was focused on making arguments for less government monitoring and control of computer networks. Speakers stood at lecterns in front of large red posters declaring "Big Brother is watching you."
Many sessions aimed to help hackers improve technical skills, like sending encrypted e-mail messages. Other events focused on tools that could help secure computer systems or break into them.
Many participants and speakers acknowledged that they had used their skills to violate the law. But they rationalized their actions, saying their main goal was to expose flaws in corporate computer systems to spur better data protection and thus privacy for everyone.
Draper, 62, said, "If a hacker breaks into a company's system and that system isn't properly secured, that company should be held liable."
But the illegality of hacking is also an attraction. "It's a game. You want to get into the best system, leave your mark" and then get out, said Jason Schorr, 18.
"There's always an attraction to being naughty," said Robert Osband, a hacker from Florida who had, like Wozniak, learned his skills on the old phone system.
Like many older hackers, Wozniak warned young people intrigued by the dark possibilities of hacking to avoid doing harm.
"There are two kinds of people here," said Mike Roadancer, the conference's head of security, while shuttling between hackers trying to break into the conference's computer network and others trying to protect it. "There are the old-timers. A lot of those guys are running their own venture capital operations or have made millions in the security business. Then you have the ones I consider to be kids that just really need to be turned over somebody's knee."
Dave Walker, 19, insisted that he was not one of the people attacking the conference network. But he did not deny that he might try later. "It's a hacker conference. At some point, you've got to try to hack the system," he said.
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