Chapter 4-6
Hacker Crackdown

Go to Table of Contents

Another early and influential participant in the controversy
was Dorothy Denning.  Dr. Denning was unique among investigators
of the computer underground in that she did not enter the debate
with any set of politicized motives.  She was a professional
cryptographer and computer security expert whose primary interest
in hackers was SCHOLARLY.  She had a B.A. and M.A. in mathematics,
and a Ph.D. in computer science from Purdue.  She had worked for SRI
International, the California think-tank that was also the home of
computer-security maven Donn Parker, and had authored an influential text
called Cryptography and Data Security.  In 1990, Dr. Denning was working for
Digital Equipment Corporation in their Systems Reseach Center.  Her husband,
Peter Denning, was also a computer security expert, working for NASA's
Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science.  He had edited the
well-received Computers Under Attack:  Intruders, Worms and Viruses.

Dr. Denning took it upon herself to contact the digital underground,
more or less with an anthropological interest.  There she discovered
that these computer-intruding hackers, who had been characterized
as unethical, irresponsible, and a serious danger to society,
did in fact have their own subculture and their own rules.
They were not particularly well-considered rules, but they were,
in fact, rules.  Basically, they didn't take money and they
didn't break anything.

Her dispassionate reports on her researches did a great deal
to influence serious-minded computer professionals--the sort
of people who merely rolled their eyes at the cyberspace
rhapsodies of a John Perry Barlow.

For young hackers of the digital underground, meeting Dorothy Denning
was a genuinely mind-boggling experience.  Here was this neatly coiffed,
conservatively dressed, dainty little personage, who reminded most
hackers of their moms or their aunts.  And yet she was an IBM systems
programmer with profound expertise in computer architectures
and high-security information flow, who had personal friends
in the FBI and the National Security Agency.

Dorothy Denning was a shining example of the American mathematical
intelligentsia, a genuinely brilliant person from the central ranks
of the computer-science elite.  And here she was, gently questioning
twenty-year-old hairy-eyed phone-phreaks over the deeper ethical
implications of their behavior.

Confronted by this genuinely nice lady, most hackers sat up very straight
and did their best to keep the anarchy-file stuff down to a faint whiff
of brimstone.  Nevertheless, the hackers WERE in fact prepared to seriously
discuss serious issues with Dorothy Denning.  They were willing to speak
the unspeakable and defend the indefensible, to blurt out their convictions
that information cannot be owned, that the databases of governments and large
corporations were a threat to the rights and privacy of individuals.

Denning's articles made it clear to many that "hacking"
was not simple vandalism by some evil clique of psychotics.
"Hacking" was not an aberrant menace that could be charmed away
by ignoring it, or swept out of existence by jailing a few ringleaders.
Instead, "hacking" was symptomatic of a growing, primal struggle over
knowledge and power in the age of information.

Denning pointed out that the attitude of hackers were at least partially
shared by forward-looking management theorists in the business community:
people like Peter Drucker and Tom Peters.  Peter Drucker, in his book
The New Realities, had stated that "control of information by the government
is no longer possible. Indeed, information is now transnational.
Like money, it has no `fatherland.'"

And management maven Tom Peters had chided large corporations for uptight,
proprietary attitudes in his bestseller, Thriving on Chaos:
"Information hoarding, especially by politically motivated,
power-seeking staffs, had been commonplace throughout American industry,
service and manufacturing alike. It will be an impossible
millstone aroung the neck of tomorrow's organizations."

Dorothy Denning had shattered the social membrane of the
digital underground.  She attended the Neidorf trial,
where she was prepared to testify for the defense as an expert witness.
She was a behind-the-scenes organizer of two of the most important
national meetings of the computer civil libertarians.  Though not
a zealot of any description, she brought disparate elements of the
electronic community into a surprising and fruitful collusion.

Dorothy Denning is currently the Chair of the Computer Science Department
at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.