Female of the Species Hacker Women Are Few, But Strong

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Female of the Species Hacker Women Are Few, But Strong

By Sascha Segan

June 2  Kevin Mitnick. Mafiaboy. Onel de Guzman. Alleged computer vandals. All men. But for a few brief days last month, Philippine police thought the Love Bug computer virus was written by Onels sister, Irene de Guzman. Their search inadvertently uncovered a group so elusive that it has fallen under the radar of sociologists; so rare that its inhabitants dont often know each other exists. I found it very difficult to find any female hackers whatsoever, said Paul Taylor, a British sociologist and author of Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime. According to the U.S. Commerce department, 28.5 percent of computer programmers are women, but their participation in the hacker subculture  a loose association of chat rooms, group meetings, Web pages and conventions by which hackers trade information  is reportedly tiny. Female hackers do exist. (PhotoDisc) But female hackers do exist. They are queens of pirated software, anti-child-porn crusaders, political activists and leaders of private online vendettas. ABCNEWS.com spoke to more than a dozen of them from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Part of an underground society which often has the misogynistic stink of a high school boys locker room, these tough women show the guys they can match their game. A note about names: Like most hackers, these women choose to go by online handles. Real names will be noted as such. Hacktivists, Phreaks and Crusaders I know a few women who have been around for quite a while and are widely respected in the specific hacking scene, said Courtnee, a 20-year-old hacker based in the Pacific Northwest. The Electronic Civil Disobedience project, an online political performance-art group, called its 1999 attack on the Pentagon conceptual art. It said it was protesting U.S. support of the Mexican suppression of rebels in southern Mexico. A woman, Carmin Karasic (her real name), helped write FloodNet, the tool used by ECD to bombard its opponents with access requests in a symbolic, harmless version of the denial-of-service attacks that took down CNN and Yahoo this February.

We do it to make a political gesture. Were not cyberterroristsbut it showed that its possible to mobilize mass numbers of people around a particular cause virtually instantly, Karasic said. ECDs movement attracted 20,000 sympathizers, she said. Karasic wasnt the first woman to give the government a technological headache. Susan Thunder was one of the early phone phreakers, part of Kevin Mitnicks crew who broke into phone lines in the 1970s to Ma Bells discontent.

A woman who goes by the handle Natasha Grigori (Bullwinkles nemesis in the classic cartoon) started out in the early 1990s running a bulletin-board system for software pirates. Now, at age 40-plus, shes the founder of antichildporn.org, a group of hackers who use their skills to track kiddie-porn distributors and pass the information on to law enforcement. Because of our tech capabilities, we have been able to develop some tools to help ferret out child porn. Law enforcement was just overwhelmed with it. In four hours, this [software] can glean 2100 different URLs worth investigating, Natasha said.

More Than Just Flashy Tricks Women have made their mark in non-technical realms of the hacker culture as well. St. Jude Milhon (her real name), a 36-year-old woman in Berkeley, Calif., helped found Mondo 2000, a major late-90s tech-lifestyle magazine. Jennifer Grannick is an in-demand lawyer who explains hackers rights to them at conventions. A 19-year-old Midwestern law student who calls herself ViXen900 is a member of the HNC hackers group and advises them on legal issues. I take HNC to a place it has never been. I write as a female about things that most males dont even think about, ViXen900 said. But hacking isnt just about flashy tricks or political statements. Its about basic knowledge, knowing more about the innards of a system than anyone around you. Courtnee remembered a time at a hackers convention when she solved a problem that stumped other tech experts.

Hackers [had] crowded around someones Linux box trying to get a net[work] connect[ion]. I sat down and fixed PPPd [networking software] ... with some command line that apparently no one else had thought of, she recalled. Solving technical problems elegantly is at the heart of hacking.

Just a Bit Different Sociologists have said women are less likely to be crackers  dark-side hackers who illegally break into systems to vandalize them  than the average male. British sociologist Paul Taylor and MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle have spun theories from the Freudian (crackers have a masculine desire to penetrate into an unwilling system) to the sociological (men seek hard mastery over abstract systems while women seek soft mastery over social situations.)

Jane Del Favero, the network security manager at New York University, has read the riot act to plenty of students caught for breaking into machines. Not one of them has been female. Im not sure if there is much about hacking that attracts the average teenage girl. My impression is that theyre not interested in the pointless glory of defacing a Web site, she said.

The girls do say theyre a bit different from the guys. Chainsawkitten, a 21-year-old woman from Spokane, Wash. isnt into the traditional long-term hacking sessions in front of a terminal with a bottle of Jolt Cola; she prefers a more balanced life. I just get a little stir crazy at times. My eyes start to hurt, and I get a headache. So it definitely helps to get out, she said.

Hacktivism Milhon said that women are more common in hacktivism, hacking with an ethical or political end, than in other parts of the illegal hacking community. Blueberry, a 32-year-old hacker from Brisbane, Australia, went white-hat (a term for hackers who work entirely within the law) and teamed up with law enforcement to oppose child pornography with her volunteer group, condemned.org. We can focus the younger guys on something positive. You dont have to do something illegal to achieve something, she said. The female hackers say theyre interested in technology for what it is or what it does, not so they can break it and watch people suffer. RosieX, editor of the Australian feminist technology magazine GeekGirl, said cybervandalism was a masturbatory activity shed prefer to leave to the boys.

I really abhor most of the crimes. I find them petulant and, yes, more male than female. I find nothing clever about dismantling an individuals system, she said.

Why They Hack Most of the women ABCNEWS.com spoke to are fascinated by the same things that transfix top male hackers, the mastery of how things work. We share the basic interests of how things work, and how to break them as well as fix them  [Hacking] keeps you on your toes, said Wen, a 24-year-old woman from Colorado.

Some of the hackers, like chainsawkitten, were shy girls who found refuge in computer systems. Others, like ViXen900, have always been gregarious, and were attracted by the hacker ethic of the passionate pursuit of knowledge. Programming was so much less scary than people, and offered me an absolutism that the real world never can: a completely defined set of systems, said Milhon.

Growing Up Hacking Many women got into hacking in their late teens. Condemned.orgs Blueberry had never touched a computer before she bought one for her daughter; Blueberry was 29 at the time. And Courtnee said shes been a hacker almost since birth.

Dont get me wrong, I still had My Little Ponies and played with makeup. But Im the only girl I know who constantly tore apart her fathers calculators and old electronics at kindergarten age, Courtnee said. Colleen Card, who used to edit a newsletter for phone phreaks (people who hack the telephone system), got into the scene through her husband. Retired from phreaking at 22 and living in the St. Louis area, Colleen is now raising a 21st-century techie girl, she says. My daughter is 4. Shes really into computers; shes been able to operate a mouse since she was 2, she said.

This is part one of a two-part series. Next Friday, come back to find out about scene whores, elite skills, and how women overcome the sexism in an almost all-male hacking culture.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 05, 2000

-- Wonderin (who@comes.to.mind), June 07, 2000


I guess it is the same old thing, just with different toys, it used to be taking cars to the limit, now it is the same with computing. cybervandalism was a masturbatory activity shed prefer to leave to the boys. That says a lot. I don't know which is worse, the teen years or mens second childhood/male menopause.

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), June 07, 2000.


Wednesday June 7 2:37 PM ET

Holbrooke Warns Against Male Control of High-Tech

By Deborah Zabarenko

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. envoy Richard Holbrooke warned women on Wednesday not to let men control new computer technologies, lest they suffer as earlier generations did when innovative farming methods were introduced.

``The new technologies are a chance for women to close the gender gap of the Third World, but they're also a danger,'' the U.S. ambassador told a forum at a global United Nations meeting aimed at achieving equality between the sexes.

``Don't let the men control the process, because for explicit or implicit, conscious or subconscious reasons ... if men control who goes to conferences on the use of new technologies, men are going to give it to their friends and they're not going to invite women,'' Holbrooke said at a forum on the digital divide.

Holbrooke said that the agricultural revolution of 30 years ago, which introduced such technologies as irrigation and fertilizers to the developing world, was expected to benefit women, but had the opposite effect.

``The women really got the short end of the stick in every way: if there was any leisure time, the men absorbed it all; the women continued to work just as hard,'' he said. ``If the international community ... had a training program for the new technologies, the men took all the positions in the classes. It was stunning and nobody saw it coming.''

He said such results were less likely to occur in the case of the new communications technologies, because by definition they were likely to be made available to people with more education, who would aggressively pursue the new technology.

Holbrooke praised one pilot program that enables women artisans in the African nation of Cameroon to market their wares on the Internet.

The program is a partnership between the Canadian-based Chell.com, which gives computer users access to applications like accounting software and databases on the Internet, with a women's entrepreneurial organization in Cameroon.

The Cameroon group, ASAFE, charges members a fee to join and also requires them to pay for the support services they provide, which include training, counseling and marketing. ASAFE also takes a percentage of what they sell, said the group's executive director, Gisele Yitamben.

The Chell.com investment in the program is $40,000 to get ASAFE's members a satellite connection to the Internet, said the firm's chairman, Cameron Chell.

``Without the satellite connection, the market for their products is limited to whatever they can sell to their communities ... How many pieces can a Cameroonian artisan sell in a community that includes many other artisans? Maybe a few dozen. But make that Internet connection happen and suddenly her market has grown to 275 million potential customers.''

Yitamben said her group plans to upgrade facilities to include a four- floor office building, to provide a public ''cyber boutique'' and a computer training center.

-- (in@the.news), June 08, 2000.

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