It may surprise no one that there are reams of information about them in a multitude of electronic databases maintained by large corporations and government agencies. But is restricting access to those records by the public doing anyone any real good?
Steve Rambam doesn't think so. At least not in all cases. The private investigator based in New York owns Pallorium Investigations. The company's PallTech online database service provides access to more than 600 different electronic databases to private investigators and law enforcement agencies around the world. Rambam addressed hackers on July 16 at the Hackers on Planet Earth 2000 (H2K) weekend-long conference at New York's Hotel Pennsylvania, across the street from Madison Square Garden. The conference--the third such event hosted by the publishers of 2600 Magazine, a quarterly publication on computer hacking published in Setauket, N.Y., since 1984--attracted roughly 2,300 people.
Restricting access to electronic databases, Rambam says, ensures only that average citizens cannot act as their own private investigator, by accessing information that may be essential, without first having to get a legal subpoena or hiring a private investigator. That can make it harder, he says, for people to obtain the information they need for legitimate purposes like collecting unpaid debts, or doing a basic background check on people they hire.
"The only people who are going to be affected by privacy regulations are honest people, who would benefit enormously by leaving the records open," he says.
There are many examples of cases where someone hired has turned out to have an arrest record. One state bar association, for instance, admitted a lawyer who had an arrest record in another state. Other cases involve school bus drivers, housekeepers, teachers, child-care providers and office workers.
"If you hire a nanny, you should have the right to check and see if she's ever been arrested, or pull her civil record to ensure that she's never been sued by a previous employer, "Rambam says.
Many states have restricted public access to motor vehicle records, voter registration information and property ownership files. In each case, the potential for abuse overrides the needs of people who really need access to the information. He says that should these records remain open, more than 99% of the time the information would not be abused.
A federal law, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, already
restricts access to motor vehicle and driving records. To get
the bill passed, the Clinton Administration cited a series of
incidents in which anti-abortion activists copied down the license
plate numbers of cars parked at abortion clinics, then contacted
the owners of the cars and harassed them. "Instead of doing
what any sensible legislative body should have done and made
it a crime to harass (those) people, they threw the baby out
with the bathwater and closed all driving records to all people,"
Retrocomputing Gains Popularity
Whereas the latest, fastest computers running at speeds of at least 1 gigahertz are the latest must-haves among self-proclaimed geeks, it is becoming increasingly popular among those who eat, drink and breathe computing to break out the old home computers of their youth, or in Mr. Ohm's case, toddlerhood. While the average PalmPilot carries more raw computing power than a TRS-80, seasoned computer users are finding a new love for the dusty Commodore 64, Apple Computer's Apple II or even the various videogames and computers from Atari previously relegated to the junkyard.
Several aged--dare we say it?--antique computers found their way to a hodgepodge display at the conference and were the topic of a panel discussion on retrocomputing. Among them four Commodore machines--two Amiga's, a C64 and a VIC-20; a Coleco Adam--Coleco's home computer that also played games from its ColecoVision game console; a Timex Sinclair; and two Atari game consoles--one a 1980s-vintage 2600, the other an original Pong console from the late 1970s.
While many computer users have denigrated the TRS-80 line of computers to the point where they are only somewhat affectionately called the "Trash-80," Mr. Ohm defends it, saying that it supported a Windows-like operating environment--coincidentally called OS9, the same name as Apple's current operating system--that was two to three years ahead of Apple's Macintosh.
"Maybe RadioShack stole that idea from Xerox PARC [Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center] the same way Apple did," Mr. Ohm says, referring to the infamous incident when a young Steve Jobs hit upon the concept that would lead to the Macintosh and eventually Microsoft's Windows.
Nearly every other walk of life has its nostalgia-seekers, so why not computing?
Hacking For A Cause?
Probably not, but there are many who would like them to. Count Jello Biafra, former front man for the punk band Dead Kennedys among them. In his keynote address, Biafra went on a two-hour anti-corporate rant. Once a candidate for president under the Green Party banner, Biafra railed against "corporate rule" and mainstream news media outlets, which he views as deliberately ignoring significant news stories in favor of celebrity-driven content.
While his comments merited cheers, it left many of the young hackers cold. A common observation among many conference attendees: The entire conference program was long on political messages and short on technology.
"Hacking is about exploring, it's not for political causes," says Codelynx, a 19-year-old woman. "I have nothing against making a political statement, but most people get into hacking for the challenge."
Many hackers will claim an anarchist bent when asked about their political beliefs. But when their undeniable skills lead to well-paying jobs in the business world, they'll often find themselves inching toward a political viewpoint that resembles mainstream, not long after they reach voting age. A strong economy tends to have that effect.
The Orgy That Wasn't
One of the unofficial events organized by a trio of attendees of the H2K conference, was an honest-to-goodness orgy for consenting adults.
The rationale was simple, says one organizer, TProphet, a 20-something hacker. Judging by the content of their conversations in the chat rooms of the Internet Relay Chat network, hackers can be a lonely bunch, TProphet says. The number one topic on many an IRC channel is the lack of a busy sex life, he says.
Fueled by heady late-night discussions on IRC, the H2KOrgy was born. A loft in lower Manhattan was rented for the weekend, commemorative T-shirts were printed and a Web site was created explaining the reasoning behind the event.
Three interested people actually showed up. So did the FBI and NYPD, who were concerned that minors might be involved or that some illegal activity might take place.
Eventually, something sexual involving four people did take place, TProphet says. No one was arrested, as no laws were broken. But he was out more than $1,600 in expenses, and he had little else to show for his efforts than a box full of commemorative T-shirts, which no one seemed eager to buy, and memories.