One of the sharpest stones to leave a hacker's sling is a program called Back Orifice 2000. Developed by a group called Cult of the Dead Cow, Back Orifice is a highly sophisticated hack for Windows NT. The program can be loaded stealthily on a Windows network and gives a remote user control over the network. Why develop such a weapon? In the current environment of ubiquitous distributed computing -- that is, networks and nodes everywhere -- the hackers argue that no operating system provides a good solution to the problem of stealthy executables like Back Orifice. So the program is a form of shock therapy. It jerks Microsoft into action, stirs an indolent industry into making the Internet more secure. The upgrades that come as a result benefit all the companies relying on Windows NT.
As a culture we are just beginning to recognize this dynamic. One of the first hacker groups to benefit from our grudging acceptance of the craft is LOpht, which crossed over from the computing underground to the mainstream after finding flaws in Windows NT. Their transition has been so successful that when Congress conducted an investigation into Internet security, it asked two LOpht members, Mudge and Weld Pond, to come to Washington for a briefing. Who better to map the territory than the original explorers? Now LOpht has teamed up with executives formerly with Cambridge Technology Partners, Forrester Research and Compaq Computer to form @Stake, a computer security firm that has the media and Wall Street swooning.
So when is a hacker not a felon? When he receives $10 million in venture capital? When Congress invites him to a hearing?
When we lump all hackers into a criminal class we are liable to forget their essential role as architects of the information age. Edward O. Wilson said that scientists are characterized by a passion for knowledge, obsession and daring. Hackers share that passion, the hunter-gatherer gene for restless wandering, wondering what's beyond the next hill. They hack because it's fun, because it's a challenge, and because the activity shapes their identity. Their strengths -- love of risk, toleration of ambiguity and ability to sift meaning from disparate sources -- power the very network we all rush to join.