The Hacker community looks at the end of their era. The reason is not the always-propagated 1985 type of government, which we surely see in many places being perfected. Neither is it the big evil corporations hunting down and suing all the hackers, preventing freedom of speech and teaming up with the evil governments. The reason is something so simple that most of the people in the community would never notice it: there is no young blood to speak of. The entire community ages linear with the people who developed it to what it is now. At the same time, the technology and the respective hacker techniques get more complicated, complex and demanding, so that there is almost no chance any more to grow apprentice hackers.
I call myself a hacker. It�s a title I carry with pride. It�s a title I looked up to when I wasn�t entitled to name myself one. I decided for myself when I was ready for the title, and honestly, I don�t remember anymore when and why this happened. There will always be people who do not think I�m worth the title and there seam to be some thinking I am.
The term Hacker has many sides and facets and everyone likes some of it and doesn�t like others. There are the aspects describing wizard like handling of technology, the black magic of breaking into computers and networks. There is the question of using these skills to do good or evil and the definition of what good or evil is. For many people, especially in what they call the scene, there is also the lifestyle.
It doesn�t matter if you think of hackers as the ones who write viruses and worms, the ones who wear black all the time and are rarely seen without their laptop computer, the people who publish security issues with all kinds of software and make the companies fix them for free or the ones who protect your personal data from being distributed all over the government and industry by showing the same that it�s not secure to do so. You might even think of hackers as the ones who broke into all your web sites and replaced the start page with an ugly text making fun of you.
At the end, it doesn�t change the fact that the hacker community did have an important role to play in the rise of the Internet (no, not just the Web). It�s hard to say what the whole Dotcom time would have been without people constantly breaking all the fancy new stuff. Or do you want to drive a car where only the manufacturer tested it and told you it will be perfectly safe for you. Ford Explorer anyone?
Anyhow, for the purpose of this text, think of hackers as renegade computer experts and take my word for it that we need them. If you don�t, there is no point in reading the remaining text.
The following is a list of random observations, just to draw the sceptic reader into the picture:
- <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>The last hacker event I attended (less than a month ago) had an average age of almost 30 and people were congratulating each other for still hacking. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>From all hackers I know personally, only two or three are less than 20 years old. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>On a closed, so-called �elite� email list, a fellow hacker was celebrated for solving a simple task in Visual Basic. Any junior hacker proposing the same would have been crucified for it. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>All new members of established hacker groups I heard of in the last two years were over 25 years old. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>Everyone I know trying to get into hacking has the primary goal of writing buffer overflow exploits. Most of them don�t actually know why this is their final goal and almost all give up before reaching it. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>Every presentation I did on the topic of hacker development had an audience full of 30+ people. <LI style="mso-list: l1 level1 lfo2; tab-stops: list 36.0pt" class=MsoNormal>Every young hacker I know either got tired of the community and left or stopped hacking in favour of just hanging out and talking.
- There hasn�t been any groundbreaking works in the last two years, except for one technique, which was developed by a teenage hacker.
If you don�t see a pattern emerging or don�t think this pattern has a bitter taste to it, you should probably consider reading something else now.
Some will now question if there is really a problem and if my random observations actually reflect the real world. The only thing I can say is: look around you. How many speakers at conferences you visit are younger than 22 years? Only a few years ago, I attended conferences with more than 5 speakers being teenagers. Today, there are none. That alone should speak for itself.
Unsorted list of reasons
So the obvious question is: why is the community aging so badly and why don�t we see smart, aggressive, young blood taking over from the old farts?
One of the more obvious reasons may be the age at which people start hacking. Although all the old farts in the scene will state differently, hacking has its peak of fascination when you are a teenager, and that�s not a bad thing.
Teenagers can dream a lot more than people in the twenties can. There is still time to think about the boring parts of life later: learning, graduating, finding a job and earning money. Getting into hacking is almost completely different than getting seriously into computers. But both have something in common: you need to play around a lot, which takes a lot of time and dedication. This dedication is hard to muster when you are an adult. But the dream of having the power to access any computer system on earth you want can result in a lot of dedication in a teenager. And, this dream is a lot more realistic than becoming a rock star.
There is also the fact that nobody really knows how one learns hacking from the ground up. The teenage hackers just play around and after a couple of years they suddenly are hackers. When being asked how to become a hacker, many people just don�t have any answer. Those of us who spent some time thinking about it will answer with a list of skills you need. This list tends to be large enough to keep a reasonable intelligent person busy until retirement. Interestingly enough, following such a list does not produce hackers.
The third advantage for teenagers is knowledge or the lack thereof. It is common wisdom that knowledge and experience gets in the way when you try to be creative. People tent to imitate themselves when they found something works. Teenage hackers don�t have this limitation. Teenagers developed many of the great breakthroughs in attack techniques on all fronts. Often in computer security, the trick is to be not impressed with the defences or the odds of getting in. If you think you know how much work a specific attack is, you either don�t do it because it�s trivial or you don�t do it because it�s too much work. But if you don�t know, you just do it.
Fact is, very little teenagers are getting into hacking in the last five years, and if they do, other aspects prevent them from becoming any good. Keep reading.
Interestingly, some of the old farts actually realise the problem, but offer an easy excuse why it exists and why they cannot do anything about it:
"The young hackers did not build their first computer, but got it for xmas with Windows preinstalled and a lot of computer games. They cannot understand the fundamentals, therefore, they cannot become good hackers."
This is arrogant bullshit. Just because a young hacker startet with Windows98 and his first programming attempts were in HTML, it does not mean anything. It's a different way to get startet, not the wrong way. Besides, the old farts stating something like that wouldn't be able to program for shit, even if their life would depend on it. So why bother listening to them.
A commonly agreed upon fact is that the hacker community is a meritocracy. This means that your rank in the community depends mainly on how much �magic hacker points� you collected. It should be obvious that I�m not referring to an official counting scheme but rather to a rating in the perception of other hackers.
There is a major problem with that approach: the jury. The community is clustered around a relatively small number of fairly well known people. These people almost exclusively influence the joint opinion of the community. But these people are all part of the old farts club. For an apprentice hacker, it�s hard or almost impossible to be recognised as good or outstanding without impressing the old farts club.
Now, the established leaders of the hacker community often have very little interest in .....................