Space Rogue








The Difficulties 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.

Unfortunately it 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 community.

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 in print.

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 informative stories.

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 worst offenders.

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.