Social Hacking, Revisited
1) What is a hacker? The same question was brought up in 1999 in Cornelia Sollfrank's lecture at the next Cyberfeminist International in Rotterdam, and answered, provisionally at least, with the nine definitions of the Jargon file, the famous self-written Internet dictionary of computer hackers:
1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
3. A person capable of appreciating "hack value".
4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently works with or on it; as in "Unix hacker". (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an "astronomy hacker", for example.
7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
8. (deprecating) A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence "password hacker", "network hacker". The correct term for this sense is "cracker".
Sollfrank observes that at least definitions no. 6 and 7 are not restricted to computer technology, thus allowing "to expand the term to include all kinds of systems." *1 One could also draw the opposite conclusion and regard computer hacking as a fairly young specimen of the old art of trickery and manipulation of systems. In that light, the hacker self-definitions no. 6 and 7 wouldn't be expanded to the others, but the latter would just be special cases of the former; a reading supported, for example, by the most ancient western emblem of system manipulation, the Trojan Horse, as it was described by Homer, and whose general meaning hackers described in definition no. 8 supplied with the more special concept of a computer program which, secretly slipped into a computer from the outside, camouflages itself as a system program to spy upon confidential user data.
What is, then, a "hack"? Just as the term "hacker" describes various kinds of people who handle systems in unconventional ways, "hack" describes this very activity itself, be it as a trick or deception, as an efficacious but conceptually unclean intervention (like a "patch" or a "bugfix"), or as a solution that is at once ingeniously simple and elegant, absorbing an abundance of issues in the most dense form possible. Since, as a "hack", Ulysses's wooden horse in fact didn't exist outside the medium of language and as an artistic product of Homer's epic, it comes as no surprise that the theory of the art of language and oration was likewise the first to put down a theory of the "hack". It is telling that, 250 years after Homer, the same topic of the Trojan War was chosen for this purpose. One of the two still known orations of Gorgias of Leontini, who brought the art of rhetoric from Sicily to Greece in the fifth century BC, is the "Encomium of Helen". By acquitting the person who was guilty of the Trojan War and thus refuting the historical common sense with seemingly striking arguments, the speech is a demo program for the power of persuasion. Gorgias's actual "hack" is his use of recursion: Helen, he argues, might have been persuaded to act the way she did, with language being too powerful for humans to easily resist it:
"Their persuasions by means of fictions are innumerable; for if everyone had recollection of the past, knowledge of the present, and foreknowledge of the future, the power of speech would not be so great. But as it is, when men can neither remember the past nor observe the present nor prophesy the future, deception is easy; so that most men offer opinion as advice to the soul. But opinion, being unreliable, involves those who accept it in equally uncertain fortunes." *2
Persuasion is used here as an argument to win the audience over. Thus the power of language becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a claim embedding its own performative proof. This "hack" has the philosophical implication that truth is a mere effect, generated by speech, manipulations, art. In his posthumous fragment, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, the classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche argues:
"What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms - in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins." *3
But Gorgias's oration demonstrates more than that. Coupling rhetorical persuasion with recursive logic, it extends beyond the limits of its discipline. Not accidentally, recursive loops - i.e., procedures which proceed themselves - are a legal part of all programming languages and play a central role in such attempts at mathematical aesthetics as Douglas R. Hofstadter's book Gödel Escher Bach. Likewise, the Jargon File contains entries on "recursion", which is simply a cross-reference to itself, on "recursive acronyms" and "tail recursion". Asked in an interview why hackers love recursion, MIT hacker and Free Software evangelist Richard Stallman replied: "Because it is sort of paradoxical that you can successfully define something in terms of itself, that the definition is actually meaningful". *4
A "hack" therefore combines elegance of logical construction with the rhetorical force of what Latin rhetoricians first called "stupor", a force which itself cannot be described in purely logical and mathematical terms. In the Renaissance, "stupor" became a crucial term for the rhetoric and poetics of "acumen", i.e., a wit driven by "ingenium". While 17th century theory still conceived of "ingenium" as engineering, something that, like all rhetoric, could be taught by instruction, one hundred years later the term mutated into the romanticist "genius" which could no longer be learned, but was a gift of nature. What happens then if hackers become the new role model of the artist? Does it mean a return to an aesthetics of artistic genius not only in theory, but also in practice, given the cults surrounding prominent hackers like Richard Stallman or crackers like Kevin Mitnick - despite all efforts of modern art and art theory to overcome this thought pattern? Or does it, on the contrary, mean to disenchant the artistic genius and redefine it in the sober terms of technical ingenuity?
2) The first well-known and to date most successful act of sabotage against the Internet happened in November 1988 when the Computer Science graduate student Robert Morris Jr. wrote a computer program which endlessly replicated itself through the Net and thus brought countless network servers to halt. While the consequences for Morris was a three-year probation, four hundred hours of community labor and a sentence of 10,000 US dollars, the case became very expensive for the federal government of the United States. Still in the same year, funds of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were used to reshape the Computer Emergency Response Team of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, into the research center CERT http://www.cert.org. Since then, CERT systematically collects information on security holes in computer software to document them, along with bugfix recipes, in its "Advisories". To this day, CERT Advisories are mandatory reading for computer security experts and system administrators all over the world.
Only two and a half years after the Morris worm, CERT issued a warning which didn't concern machine codes of computer software and network protocols. In its Advisory CA-1991-04 Social Engineering http://www.cert.org/advisories/CA-1991-04.html, the institute warns of telephone calls and E-Mail which, by means of rhetorical tricks and self-disguise, persuade users into leaking their confidential access data. A typical and still popular method of crackers is to pass themselves off as service technicians and, for an alleged maintance routine, ask company or university employees for their user passwords. *5 The Social Engineering FAQ, written by the anonymous entity bernz, therefore defines "Social Engineering" as "cracking techniques that rely on weaknesses in wetware [- i.e.: the brain, FC - ] rather than software." *6
All technical definitions of social engineering or social hacking are based on the assumption that social manipulation is only a means to the end of technical manipulation. John Palumbo's standard paper, Social Engineering: What is it, why is so little said about it and what can be done?, puts it this way:
"Social engineering: An outside hacker's use of psychological tricks on legitimate users of a computer system, in order to gain the information (usernames and passwords) he needs to gain access to the system." *7
When Palumbo flatly identifies every "hacker" as male, his assumption oddly meets with Cornelia Sollfrank's feminist empiricisms. Sollfrank, a member of the German hacker organization Chaos Computer Club (CCC) since the 1990s, gathered from her own research that hacking continues to be dominated by males. In issue no. 66 of the CCC bulletin Datenschleuder (Data Catapult), she writes of the "few representatives of the species 'female hacker' that I found", and quotes two American experts with their "strange explanations why they [female hackers] don't exist." Computer technology, she writes, is a "resort [...] where virtually no women are around." Sollfrank addresses this problem artistically, with a double strategy of documentarism and fiction. In 1999, she invited female hackers she had met during her research - among them the long-time CCC activists Rena Tangens and Barbara Thoens - for a Women Hackers day during the next Cyberfeminist International in Rotterdam. In the same year, she shot a video interview with the pseudonymous female hacker Clara S0pht http://www.obn.org/hackers/claint.htm which, when it had its debut screening at the annual CCC convention, created outrage in the audience. Sollfrank later described the situation as follows:
"It was pretty well attended, including a lot of men, who watched everything and then attacked me for not defending sufficiently Clara SOpht's privacy, because she had stressed that she did not want details about herself to be publicized." *8
As a matter of fact, Clara S0pht didn't exist but was a fiction created by the artist Cornelia Sollfrank. The whole interview was simulated, all questions and answers had been made up:
"At the end of the event I mentioned casually that the woman did not exist and that I had invented her. Some people were gobsmacked. Quite unexpectedly they had experienced art, an art which had come to them, to their convention, and talked in their language."
At the same convention, Sollfrank left an electronic birth control device for women as a fake lost-and-found item. As she had hoped, this hardware created confusion among the (male) CCC organizers; unable to figure out what it was, they prominently featured it on their lost and found web page. Both manipulations are not just art intervening into the hacker self-perception of the Chaos Computer Club, but also interventions of hacker methodology into the art of Cornelia Sollfrank. Her interest in hacker culture is thus not simply a sociological but a systemical one. She used the videotape and the birth control device as small Trojan horses, subliminal tools which leveraged the hacker convention against itself, deconstructing its discourse. The alleged experts for the subversion of systems turned out to be blind to the system they had created themselves.
Could both interventions thus be called classical "social hacks", i.e., "hacks" in the medium of interpersonal communication instead of hacks in the medium of program code? Suspicions that fusing art and hacker culture is the ideal of Cornelia Sollfrank's art are fed by her website http://artwarez.org which tries to combine art and hacker/cracker culture with its very name and the typgraphical ASCII Art borrowings, as well as with her project Liquid Hacking Laboratory which in 2000 drew both hackers and net artists. According to her ideal, Sollfrank doesn't aim for a certain social habitus and peripherally at best for common political standpoints, but for elective affinities of the conceptual. Some passages of the Social Engineering FAQ could be read as a characterization of Sollfrank's art:
"Hacking takes more advantage of holes in security while the social engineering takes advantage of holes in people's common sense." *9
Still, there's a difference in targets. Even a "social engineering hacker" would rarely use holes in people's common sense to exactly expose those holes and the cracks of common sense in general. For Sollfrank, however, social structures are not a vehicle, but the target of the intervention. To reveal the cracks in common sense is her serious philosophical endeavor, the experiment and perpetual labour of her art, to be critical without falling into essentialist traps and self-reflexive without ending up as a merely pleasant postmodernism. Depending on the situation, Sollfrank employs digital or non-digital means for her hacks. Still, they remain "social hacks" even when they involve computer programming. The net.art generators for example, commissioned by Sollfrank and programmed by Ryan Johnston, Luka Frelih, Barbara Thoens and Ralf Prehn, are "generative art", but not in the form of purposelessly beautiful algorithms, but as devices for intervening into social systems. In female extension, for example, they were employed to automatically generate art which Sollfrank entered under a number of false female artist identities into a competition, successfully bluffing the jury into the essentialist fancy of a "female aesthetics" in Net art.
Redefining the "social hack" as a hack of the social, and choosing the art system and computer culture as its playground, Sollfrank's art targets two specific social systems which, since Duchamp and since the emergence of computer hackers from the student model railroad club of the MIT around 1960, have been characterized by their playful manipulations of systems in general and themselves in particular. As a conceptual artist, Sollfrank locates herself within a history of artistic fakes and pranks *10, something she makes prominent in her installation Improved tele-vision which exposes the consecutive manipulations of a grammophone recording of Arnold Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht through Nam June Paik, Dieter Roth, and finally, Cornelia Sollfrank. Critics have liked to call such tactics and manipulations "situationist" since the revival of Guy Debord and the Situationist International in the late 1980s and early 1990s; however, the situationists themselves - post-surrealist avant-garde late-comers who started off gathering third-class abstract expressionist painters and later ended up as a Marxist political sect - hardly ever practiced such activities.
When, in turn, reconstructing the beginnings of German hacker culture, whose focal point since 1981 has been (both in positive and negative terms) the Chaos Computer Club, an evident resource is the first volume of the CCC "Hacker Bible" which, in turn, lays out its historical self-perception by including a complete reprint of the 1970s American underground newsletters YIPL und TAP. Not surprisingly, YIPL, a.k.a. Youth International Party Line, was one of the projects of Abbie Hoffman, the 1960s counter-cultural YIPPIE prankster. But unlike his other publications like Steal This Book!, YIPL was exclusively about "phone phreaking", applying technical tricks to telephones to achieve free phone calls. While this type of hacker, the "malicious meddler", descredited in the eighth Jargon File definition, still coincides with his hostile colleagues in that his activity had been anticipated, practically and theoretically, in classical Greek epics and rhetoric, he differs from them and by this coincides with conceptual artists where he or she (a) actually aims at social structures (although with a sometimes simplistic political worldview), (b) is, like Gorgias and Nietzsche, aware also of the ontology of code manipulation and (c) camouflages his or her identity.
In the early 1990s, Cornelia Sollfrank, as part of the artist group -Innen, experimented with a radical exercise in identity as it would later be practiced at first on the periphery and later in the very center of net art by the Luther Blissett project and the pseudonymous entity antiorp, alias Netochka Nezvanova. But, as the example of Netochka Nezvanova, who carries out a sort of secretive marketing for the audiovisual software she's written, shows, pseudonymity and the cult of the programmer-genius are not necessarily opposites, but rather, mutual attractors. On close examination, the same holds true for the contradictions of the "hackers" self-image as machinists, either in terms of functional elegance or functional disruption, two sides of the same coin, when they, like Gorgias, are joined in the medium of recursion; recursion, which is just as much an elegant problem-solver in an elegant programming language such as LISP can be as it is a motor of self-replication of a viral code. To combine elegance and disruption in a playful way is what makes up Cornelia Sollfrank's hacker ethics. But it's the tragic irony of her art as it branches out to Chaos Computer Club conventions that it can succeed as a hack in reality only because its ideal, a radical philosophical fusion of art and hacker culture, fails.
*1 Cornelia Sollfrank, Women Hackers - a report from the mission to locate subversive women on the Net, in: 'next Cyberfeminist International', Rotterdam 1999, http://www.obn.org/hackers/text1.htm
*2 Gorgias, Encomium on Helen, in: Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948, 131-33
*3 Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Compiled from translations by Walter Kaufmann and Daniel Breazeale, http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/tls.htm
*4 The quote continues as follows: "People assume that if you define something in terms of itself that you fail to define it all. But thats not always true. The fact thats not always true, that you can define something in terms of itself and have it be well defined, thats a crucial part of computer programming." Richard Stallman interviewed in MEME 2.04, http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/cybereng/ebooks/stallman.htm
*5 This form of 'social engineering' is extensively described as well in 'RFC 2504', the security user manual of Internet standardization organizations, http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/rfc2504.html
*6 bernz, THE COMPLETE SOCIAL ENGINEERING FAQ!, http://www.morehouse.org/hin/blckcrwl/hack/soceng.txt
*7 John Palumbo, Social Engineering: What is it, why is so little said about it and what can be done?, http://www.sans.org/rr/social/social.htm
*8 'Hacking the Art Operating System', Cornelia Sollfrank interviewed by Florian Cramer, "http://artwarez.org/aw/content/rot_flo.html
*9 Anon., THE COMPLETE SOCIAL ENGINEERING FAQ!, "http://www.morehouse.org/hin/blckcrwl/hack/soceng.txt
*10 Like they were, in a first and still very incomplete attempt, researched by Stefan Römer in his [German] book 'Fake', Cologne: DuMont, 2001