The Computer Underground


NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF THE COMPUTER UNDERGROUND
A THESIS SUBMITTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL IN PARTIAL
FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE
MASTER OF ARTS
DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY
BY
GORDON R. MEYER
%CompuServe: 72307,1502% %GEnie: GRMEYER%
DEKALB, ILLINOIS
AUGUST 1989


ABSTRACT

Mame: Gordon R. Meyer Department: Sociology
Title: The Social Organization of the Computer Underground
Major: Criminology Degree: M.A.
Aproved by: Date:
_____________________________________ ___________
Tesis Director

NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY

ABSTRACT

This paper examines the social organization of the "computer underground"
(CU). The CU is composed of actors in three roles, "computer hackers,"
"phone phreaks," and "software pirates." These roles have frequently been
ignored or confused in media and other accounts of CU activity. By
utilizing a data set culled from CU channels of communication this paper
provides an ethnographic account of computer underground organization. It
is concluded that despite the widespread social network of the computer
underground, it is organized primarily on the level of colleagues, with
only small groups approaching peer relationships.

Certification: In accordance with departmental and Graduate
School policies, this thesis
is accepted in partial fulfillment of degree
requirements.

______________________
Thesis Director

______________________
Date

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
FOR CRITIQUE, ADVICE, AND COMMENTS:
DR. JAMES L. MASSEY
DR. JIM THOMAS
DR. DAVID F. LUCKENBILL
FOR SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT:
GALE GREINKE
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
D.C., T.M., T.K., K.L., D.P.,
M.H., AND G.Z.
THIS WORK IS DEDICATED TO:
GEORGE HAYDUKE
AND
BARRY FREED

Introduction

The proliferation of home computers has been accompanied by a
corresponding social problem involving the activities of so-called
"computer hackers." "Hackers" are computer aficionados who "break in" to
corporate and government computer systems using their home computer and a
telephone modem. The prevalence of the problem has been dramatized by the
media and enforcement agents, and evidenced by the rise of specialized
private security firms to confront the "hackers." But despite this flurry
of attention, little research has examined the social world of the
"computer hacker." Our current knowledge in this regard derives from
hackers who have been caught, from enforcement agents, and from computer
security specialists. The everyday world and activities of the "computer
hacker" remain largely unknown.

This study examines the way actors in the "computer underground" (CU)
organize to perform their acts. The computer underground, as it is called
by those who participate in it, is composed of actors adhering to one of
three roles: "hackers," "phreakers," or "pirates." To further understanding
this growing "social problem," this project will isolate and clarify these
roles, and examine how each contributes to the culture as a whole. By doing
so the sociological question of how the "underground" is organized will be
answered, rather than the technical question of how CU participants perform
their acts.

Best and Luckenbill (1982) describe three basic approaches to the
study of "deviant" groups. The first approach is from a social
psychological level, where analysis focuses on the needs, motives, and
individual characteristics of the actors involved. Secondly, deviant
groups can be studied at a socio-structural level. Here the emphasis is on
the distribution and consequences of deviance within the society as a
whole. The third approach, the one adopted by this work, forms a middle
ground between the former two by addressing the social organization of
deviant groups. Focusing upon neither the individual nor societal
structures entirely, social organization refers to the network of social
relations between individuals involved in a common activity (pp. 13-14).
Assessing the degree and manner in which the underground is organized
provides the opportunity to also examine the culture, roles, and channels
of communication used by the computer underground. The focus here is on the
day to day experience of persons whose activities have been criminalized
over the past several years. Hackers, and the "danger" that they present
in our computer dependent society, have often received attention from the
legal community and the media. Since 1980, every state and the federal
government has criminalized "theft by browsing" of computerized information
(Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce, 1988, pp.101- 102). In the media, hackers have
been portrayed as maladjusted losers, forming "high-tech street gangs"
(Chicago Tribune, 1989) that are dangerous to society. My research will
show that the computer underground consists of a more sophisticated level
of social organization than has been generally recognized. The very fact
that CU participants are to some extent "networked" has implications for
social control policies that may have been Implemented based on an in-
complete understanding of the activity. This project not only offers
sociological insight into the organ- ization of deviant associations, but
may be helpful to policy makers as well.