Hackers are the gremlins of the of the '90s

Phiber Optik Sounds Off
By Maitland McDonagh

Phiber Optik -- real name: Mark Abene -- is the hacker even computer illiterates have heard of, the one who got sent to jail for a year and a day for messing around with the phone company, the kind of whiz kid the FBI would have us believe is single-handedly going to bring down the information superhighway. So who better to give us the scoop on HACKERS vs. hackers?

Do you call yourself a hacker?

Yeah, sure, despite the way the word has been twisted around. I don't think I could get rid of the term if I wanted to. The media uses it to mean whatever they want -- it's like they have the copyright on the word "hacker." Most anything at all that they consider to be in the least clever that involves a computer is a hack.

Do real hackers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get free services through computer manipulation?

Listen, if you use other people's credit card numbers to buy merchandise, that's obviously stealing. The FBI likes referring to people like that as hackers, and the media picks it up because it makes good headlines. They're not going to say, "A bunch of criminals using computers were using credit cards and getting stolen merchandise," because somebody reading that will come away saying, "What a bunch of thieves." But if you put the word hacker in there, they come away thinking about hackers. Once someone crosses over to the point where they're doing things that are completely immoral -- illegal has nothing to do with it, because there are lots of stupid laws that I'd prefer to do without -- you could call them a bad hacker. But I'd go a step further and just call them a bad person.

Why do technophobes blame hackers for everything?

It's like when something went wrong with military equipment during World War II, it was the gremlins. Fortunately for the gremlins, there weren't any, so they couldn't be persecuted and thrown in prison. When something goes wrong with computers, it's hackers. And there really are people called hackers. Hackers are the gremlins of the '90s, and the only thing working against them is that they're real people.

[In the movie] Dade Murphy and his friends put a call up on the Internet for help and are joined by hackers from all over the world in their battle against corporate intimidation. Could that really happen?

No, afraid not... not at all. There's what's going on online, and then there's what's going on in your apartment -- how much food is in the freezer, what's on the television. In reality, it's not like it's the Alamo and everybody's going, "Let's go help the general and the state of Texas."

In general, how authentic is the look of the computer imagery we see in HACKERS?

WARGAMES was probably closer to the truth of what things look like. They couldn't afford to do all this flashy graphical stuff, so it was all text on the screen, which was much closer to reality than all this Hollywood stuff. Of course, at the time we complained that WARGAMES didn't look right.

Dade and Kate Libby challenge one another to torment FBI agent Richard Gill via computer in the movie. How many of the things they do to him could a hacker do in real life? Could they cancel his credit cards?

Yeah, but anybody can do that -- all that entails is impersonating someone on the phone. You can't go into a system and delete them.

Hack into the Department of Motor Vehicles and add dozens of violations to his driving record?

You can get into Motor Vehicles -- you can subscribe to it, the way a lot of private investigators do -- but the most common access is just for looking up license plate numbers in the database. You can't do much else.

Alter a newspaper personals ad to solicit embarrassing calls from transvestite dominatrices?

Why wouldn't they just phone it in? That's a pretty standard prank -- you phone in an ad and give someone else's name and number. No computer needed. It's easier if you don't use one.

Change his personnel records to declare him dead?

I guess you could do that in theory, but how much trouble could you cause? All the guy has to do is call up and say, "I'm not dead." Just because the screen says you're dead doesn't usually carry too much weight.

The character of FBI agent Gill is spoken of as "hacker enemy No. 1." Is there a real No. 1 enemy of hackers in the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

One person, no. But there are lots of people like him.

When Dade is sentenced for his computer transgressions, he's forbidden to own or even touch a computer or a Touch-Tone phone. Did that happen to you?

No, not to me. But [that does happen to people].

And would an FBI agent burst into his bathroom, guns bristling and arrest him in the shower?

That's not the way it happened to me, but it's happened to other people.

Evil-hacker-turned-corporate security officer The Plague (Fisher Stevens) sends superhacker Dade a laptop containing a proposal. Has a corporate hacker ever contacted you with an offer you couldn't refuse?

I've never been contacted by a corporate hacker, and I never had anyone send me a message by mailing me a laptop, either. I think I'd just delete the message and keep the computer. That's a pretty expensive way to convey a message.

What's the biggest misconception perpetuated by Hollywood cybermovies?

I saw THE NET, and the movie was really entertaining, but it's completely implausible. Not everything is interconnected to everything else, so that somebody can just access the machine. The message is that you should be afraid of technology because you could really get screwed up if machines did something wrong. That's silly. I said this to a Daily News reporter, who went to Irwin Winkler, who said, "Oh no... we went to the FBI and they told us everything in the movie was certainly possible." Well, that's totally self-serving. What are they going to say? "No, it's not possible and you don't even need us anymore. Everything's safe." They want everyone to think that there's some pretty dangerous stuff going on out there and that it could happen to you -- so that's why they need to stress the importance of their existence.

So people really don't have to worry about their lives being ruined via computer?

When cars first came out -- you know, "horseless carriages" -- people weren't all standing around saying, "Oh, don't get in there. It might drive off without you." Or, "It might drive you somewhere you don't want to go." I mean, I'm sure people were afraid of them, but they got used to them because they saw them as a means to get from point A to point B. I think the learning curve is just a little steeper with computers. Maybe this fear will go away in 10 years or something, and computers will be [viewed] the same as cars.