ASCII by Jason Scott

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L0pht, Cracked —

There was an article that came out recently, describing in some level of depth and accuracy the story of the l0pht, a “hacker collective” that thrived from the early 1990s through to a purchase/merger by a rebranded security company called @stake, which for all intents and purposes killed it.

This is a somewhat jarring article to read, because I know pretty much everyone mentioned in it. Many are friends. Some are distant friends, some very close indeed. The BBS I founded, The Works, makes a mention (thanks, Weld) and the amount of facts or descriptions that are correct is quite amazing, considering the natural distrust of the press many members might have at this point of time.

I was on the outskirts of this beautiful and terrifying thing, this conflagration of technical types, weird-fits, buddies and folks who were all together the Boston-area “Scene” of the 1990s. From it came a rebirth of the Cult of the Dead Cow, the creation of the l0pht, the wide press, the cool BBSes… many many aspects of my past that have made me feel like my life hasn’t been wasted.

There’s been talk back and forth of writing a book. I’m a little worried at this point, with all my other stuff going on, that I may never be able to sit down and help with such a project. It would be quite neat. There’s the slight problem that some people within this social group would literally jump the table and strangle other people if put into the same room, so no group photos will be happening soon without a photoshop “crop” tool. The other problem is that there is this huge set of myths and stories that accompany everything, and many folks involved are of two sides about letting hair down. Then, eventually, you get to the point that nobody remembers anything at all, without it all having some sort of translucent silk of nostalgia and unruffled feathers on it. It’s a classic issue of historical narrative: the feelings are real, the hurt was real, the triumphs are real, and the protagonists/antagonists have a disinterest in dropping it all onto the page.

This entry is all too impulsive for me to sit here and write some massive narrative/historical perspective of my time on the outskirts of the Boston BBS scene and these many groups; but I suppose I can at least drop one bit of information that is relevant to the article.

The purchase of the L0pht by @stake was the worst thing ever.

I don’t mean that it was bad that members of the l0pht “grew up” and went professionally into a field they’d been working in as amateurs and making waves therein. And I certainly don’t mean it was bad they chose to do so under a corporate umbrella, working for a company seeking to enhance its brand by re-inventing itself as @stake (it had years of existence under some dreary, non-sexy name beforehand, which is very difficult to track down). All of this made sense for some of the folks, and their continued existence (and relevance!) in the security industry proves that it was a good move for them.

I mean that, in hindsight, the proper and right thing that would have saved an awful lot of headaches and despair (although not removed it completely) was to either to close down “the l0pht” officially as a group and have various members go off to join the professional world, or to have left “the l0pht” to the people who were not choosing to go into it professionally, so the collective could continue in some fashion, perhaps better or worse, not unlike the Chaos Computer Club which is not only still active but actually has founders who are dying of old age.

Instead, what happened was that this outsider organization, and a nexus of friendships and interrelations, was turned into a brand-name, a product for sale, a widget that could be plugged into the waiting socket of this heartless @stake company (now owned by Symantec, making it exponentially more heartless). This was because of money, obviously. The company wanted the cachet of “hackers” working for their good, thinking this would give them street cred in an industry. Unfortunately, that industry was very little interested in street cred, and in fact generally is not interested in disruption of any sort. So this backfired. And choices were made.

Because this was “the l0pht” in there, and not just “former members of the l0pht”, I got to hear of a lot of heartbreak, with friends betraying other friends over (normal) corporate choices, plus to hear as it became quite obvious that only the name of the l0pht was wanted, nothing else. This was a disaster.

The thing is… this had all happened before with the situation of the Legion of Doom becoming “Comsec Data Security”, a rebranded professional company intended to use the skills built up as non-professionals to work as professionals. It didn’t go spectacularly well, but as far as I know it didn’t result in life-long friends never speaking to each other again. Sure, the outside observers yelled “Sellout”, but that happens whenever money enters an equation.

But I still contend it was a lack of drawing the curtain on a “l0pht era” and trying to usher it into an “@stake era” that was by far the worst mistake made for everyone. It wasn’t evil, it wasn’t someone being a jerk; it was just a poor decision in hindsight, and if people could learn one thing from the whole deal, I hope it would be that if you bring a lot of money into your friendships, they are, more likely than not, never going to be friendships again.

That’s all I have until I help write a book or something. Long live the Lady of the Vax.

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  1. Ryan Russell says:

    You were in the 303 party running over people in your Segway with Mudge, Weld, Kingpin… and Brian? having an amicable chat, yes?

  2. the_syco says:

    Not being a “scene” person, always did wonder how @Stake came about.