NEW YORK -- When thousands of young, hip and rebellious computer hackers - machines in tow - showed up for a three-day convention on practicing their craft, there was one Golden Rule: "If you hack someone else's machine, please don't do anything bad."
Just to make sure, organizers asked the telephone company to shut off the main room's phone jacks, removing a tempting route for attendees to freely hack into the outside world's computers.
Yet many of the techno-rebels at the Manhattan conference that ended Sunday said there was nothing to fear: Good hackers don't crash computers. Exposing flaws in high-tech security is more important than undermining it.
"Crashing the system should not be your objective. It had been in the past. That's the playground bully," said a veteran hacker known in the community only as Cheshire, sporting a big grin that tells you how he got his code name.
"Now it's no longer cool. Anyone can crash a system. It's more clever to find out how to make it NOT crash."
Such protests are routinely overshadowed by negative press. Technogeeks are accused of using their computer skills to post obscene messages on Web sites, launch attacks on e-mail services and even destroy computer files. Ever since the 1983 movie War Games depicted a boy cracking the Pentagon's computers - nearly dragging the world into a nuclear war - hacking has appealed to youngsters who may be too young to know when they're flirting with law-breaking - or too cool to care.
Balancing a more positive message against hacker mischief was a main challenge for organizers at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference.
When conference leaders showed, on an overhead screen, a Web site run by a sister conference taking place at the same time in the Netherlands, the presentation prompted laughter and applause from the audience.
It turned out the Web site had been broken into by hackers who altered its description of conference events. "All our computers were taken over by agents of a hostile power ..." said the site's text, painting a fictional takeover by aliens.
The dichotomy was evident inside the building's high-ceiling rooms, which were snaked with black cables that linked rows of computers for attendees to explore the limits of the internal network. Adorning the mostly twentysomething attendees were so many nose-rings, tatoos and black T-shirts that the place seemed more like a heavy-metal concert than a high-tech conference.
After informing hackers that the phone jacks in the main room were shut off - keeping them from hacking into the outside world - conference organizer Pamela Finkel recalls the response: "People said, `Where's the basement?"'
Many hackers began as teen-agers who preferred riding the Internet to riding their bicycles. They traversed the Web and shared computer codes with like-minded jocks, enabling them to visit forbidden places like e-mail data-bases. Some even changed what authority figures had created.
But after much negative press, hackers today like to think of themselves as insanely curious explorers whose antics help point out security holes in the World Wide Web and other systems. Anything less would be to wrongly lump them with "crackers" - hackers who have strayed into high-tech lawlessness.
"I kind of want to mock them in a way that's not morally wrong," said a 20-year-old hacker known as Rixoff, who also wanted to keep his identity secret. Rixoff was describing why he wore a Nynex hard hat at the conference when he doesn't work for the phone company, but it also described his attitude toward hacking.
All this and more is understood by veterans like Cheshire, who acknowledges that he himself had crossed that line of temptation.
His eyes gleaming like liquid crystal behind a mop of prematurely white hair, Cheshire admitted as much to the small crowd of kids that had gathered about in a corner of the room.
"I just don't believe that a computer is unhackable," he said. "It's just another machine."
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