of Reporting the Underground
By: Space Rogue
June 7, 1999
The computer underground
is a complex world that can pose many challenges to the mainstream reporter
attempting to accurately write about the activities within which that
effect a larger group of people. It is a world made up of hackers, crackers,
fakes, security specialists, cryptographers, programmers, virus writers,
frauds, warez traders, electronic hobbyist, cyber libertarians, radio
aficionados, wannabes, and other seemingly disparate persons.
This wide cross section
of technologies, motivations, political affiliations, and ideologies may
be overwhelming to the beginning or the experienced reporter whose job
it is to report on events that break out of this culture to effect a wider
more mainstream population.
appears that many media organizations assign new inexperienced journalist
to cover this area and usually not as their primary responsibility. This
can leave the reporter bewildered without a clear course to follow when
an important story breaks. While a degree in computer engineering would
not hurt it is not necessary for a journalist to become an expert. A firm
understanding of how technology works and what is and is not possible
will however be of immense help.
Unlike other topics
that have a clear cut avenue of approach the computer underground can
seem scary and intimidating to some. For example if the space shuttle
blows up the reporter will obviously contact NASA, if the stock market
takes a dive then questions posed to financial analysts would be appropriate.
When a new virus is discovered or a high profile web site gets defaced
where does the reporter turn. Who should they talk to?
Things are little
more complicated in the cyberspace ghetto. Charlatans and snake oil salesmen
abound. Normally these frauds are disguised as straight forward business
people or even respected experts who hide behind the publics lack of knowledge
about the product or subject they are trying to peddle.
The deeply ingrained
culture, slang, strong attitudes, disrespect for authority, and other
aspects seemingly separate this world from the outside. This makes it
extremely difficult for the reporter to break into this supposed closed
It is important for
a journalist to find accurate and respected sources that they can call
upon when a story breaks. It is important to cultivate these relationships
long before they are needed. When a deadline is two hours away and you
need a quote immediately sending a blind email is not going to garner
the best or even accurate response.
While every profession
has its unintelligent members who are just seeking fame it is none more
prevalent than in the cyberspace wasteland. Script Kiddies, wannabes,
and snake oil salesmen are everywhere. They will tell you that they can
move satellites, that their product is 'unhackable', or that they have
complete control of classified networks just to get their handle or company
in the news.
As with any type
of reporting, outrageous claims should be questioned, verified, questioned
again and confirmed prior to going to press. If you don't understand the
technology then find someone who does. While this may seem like it is
direct from Journalism 101 it is amazing how often this does not happen
and inaccurate or just plain wrong information gets put on the air or
Avoid the temptation
to sensationalize. While this is more prevalent in local TV News broadcasts
every reporter has an editor who wants the "Hackers are evil and will
cause the end of the world" story. This type of story does nothing than
make you look like a fool and an idiot to those who know and will ruin
any chance you have of finding a reliable and accurate source for a future
story. Hackers have long memories and while you may not remember that
article you wrote that appeared in the local Saturday edition of a rural
newspaper, we do.
Be careful how you
use the word 'hacker'. Many have given up trying to correct the media
in the denomination of this word, others have grown to accept it, and
others still get violently ill when the hacker=criminal analogy is made
in the mass market. Personally I suggest any clear substitute such as
computer intruder or cyberspace vandal. These work just as well. If you
feel that you must use the word 'hacker' get your point across make sure
that your meaning of the word is clear.
Do your research
before the story breaks. If you have no idea what a word macro is find
out. It is not necessary to know how to write one but understand how they
work so that when the next Melissa strikes you are ready to immediately
dismiss the charlatans and crackpots and will be able to report accurate
Be very careful about
getting to involved in a story. Be sure to keep a safe distance between
you and any illegal acts that may be committed. If a new exploit becomes
available be sure you understand the implications before you point and
click on that 'test script' that was just mailed to you. Don't be responsible
for taking out a major section of the internet backbone or executing a
DoS attack against the FBI.
It is very easy to
get too close to the story. This is one of the biggest issues that I face
with HNN almost everyday. It is a fine line between observing and participating
and very easy to cross. While I have never been in a position where my
action may have prevented illegal activity it is understandable how easy
it would be to cross such a fine line.
Realize that almost
all hackers have a serious distrust of authority. They have been portrayed
inaccurately in the media for so long they are hesitant to speak. They
become wary or impatient when people start asking what they seem to them
as irrelevant or simplistic questions. This can create a rather large
obstacle but if relationships are cultivated prior to needing them this
can hopefully be avoided.
As mentioned earlier
hackers have long memories, not only of the bad but also of the good.
If your reporting is accurate and not sensational you might find people
seeking you out specifically so that you can tell their story. Don't believe
me? Think this is all bunk and that anything and everything written by
a reporter is true and come direct from the Almighty? Then take a look
at this Eratta. These are just the
Do your research
early. Of course I personally recommend the reading of HNN every day.
There is no better way to keep abreast of what is happening in the underground
and the issues that effect it on a daily basis. As a bit of historical
perspective I recommend the book Hackers;
Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. He remarkably describes
three separate cultures from which hackers where originally born. I also
recommend the print verion of The
New Hackers Dictionary. This book is available online as the Jargon
File but you will learn so much more (and laugh quite a bit to) by reading
this book from cover to cover and then refering to it from time to time.
It is filed with old jokes and anecdotes that make it a pleasure to read.