>From the techno-anarchist 'Hacktic' to the Internet server 'XS4all'
An interview with Felipe Rodriquez and Rop Gonggrijp
By Shuchen Tan
Fist published in the daily "Trouw" (Amsterdam)
(Saturday 'Media' supplement, February 4, 1995)
It is only a few years ago that Rop Gonggrijp, the founder of Hacktic magazine, was organizing secret hacking parties in his bedroom, together with a few friends. By then, he was living in a flat in one of the drabbest complexes of Amsterdam concrete periphery, the Bijlmermeer. With him were a band of boys hardly past their twenties, all of them long-haired nerds with anarchistic ideas. Were those the times of wild, drugs-soaked parties then? "Forget that one" states Gonggrijp now "These were sedate get-togethers, with only chips and coke on hand. and the only thing we talked about, were computers."
Back in 1987 nobody knew what computer-hacking exactly meant. The Internet was something even less heard of. Hackers accessed this world-wide communication medium by establishing unauthorized connections. They would write about these feats in the hackers magazine Hacktic, which Gonggrijp started in 1989. But 'the magazine for techno-anarchists' was flush with tips about other topics also, such as how to make free phone-calls on the ptt-lines, how to crack pin-codes, and news about the latest software for entering companies' and universities' databases.
"The information contained in Hacktic is for education purposes only." was the proviso a prudent Gonggrijp put in the zine's colophon. "Making use of this information might be illegal/criminal/un-constitutional/nasty." The editors went on to "disclaim any responsibility following from the readers' use of information contained in the magazine." "It was still the Wild West at that time" says Gonggrijp today. "There were no laws on computer criminality, and nobody knew quite well what was on hand. It were only we, the hackers, who realised the immense potential of such a computer network."
In the meanwhile, technology has rendered the (concept of) Hacktic magazine out of date. It was formally disbanded at a big hackers party in the Paradiso in the middle of January 1995. Gonggrijp: "The paper medium is simply to slow to keep up with everything that happens on the net. By the time a discussion had been published in the magazine (whose appearance on the newsstands was notoriously erratic -transl.), the whole topic had already long petered out on the Internet."
But then, Hacktic, by now in its new guise of one of the largest Dutch Internet-providers, has grown into a respectable business, with a real office and seven full-time employees. In the stately 18th century building it occupies since a-year-and-half, the floor is covered with sawdust, discarded computers & screens, and bundles of telephone wire. "It's still something of a mess here" explains Gonggrijp - 26, long blond hair over his shoulders, and clad in jeans and a candy bar-coloured jumper - "The building contractor has had some trouble with the deadlines." Dozens of computers are purring in the 'office garden', while the hardware-room, Hacktic's backbone, bathes in a nervous light as hundreds of red lights flikker on ceiling-high rakes of modems.
For Gonggrijp, real hacking is now more or less something of the past. "I've never been a truly great hacker myself" he admits. "What matters to me, are the ideas behind hacking: free access to information for everybody. In our society, information is no longer stocked in libraries and archives, but is burrowed in databases and spread over the network. It is a knowledge machine which ninety percent of the population can never access. To us, this is a great injustice, and we already stated so in the final resolution of the Galactic Hacker Party in 1989."
To put these ideas in practice, Hacktic set up the XS4all foundation (speak: access for all) in 1994. XS4all runs a 'server' on which every computer-user can legally access the world wide Internet, for a fee of 25 guilders ($14) a month. Together with the 'Balie' cultural centre, the XS4all foundation was also instrumental in the creation of the 'Digital City" project (DDS). This initiative is backed by a 60.000 guilders ($ 33.000) subsidy from the ministry of economic affairs.
"From a band of infamous computer-anarchists we have evolved into very respectable citizens indeed" says Gonggrijp, not without some irony. "We are even considered important to the Dutch economy." Hacktic has worked purposely to bring about this swing in opinion, explains Felipe Rodriquez. He is part of Hacktic's core group since 1990 and he was closely connected with the establishment of XS4all and the Digital City project. Rodriquez: "A few year ago, if you heard the name Hacktic, everyone would think of dangerous terrorists. In the yearbooks of the Dutch internal intelligence service (BVD), we would be portrayed as a band of nefarious anarchists, bent on disrupting society. But now they have come to see that we are nice and quiet people really, with the best of intentions."
The finest hour came undoubtedly when CRI Inspector Harry Onderwater himself gave acte-de-presence at Hacktic's magazine farewell-party (CRI, the criminal investigation unit of the national police, co-ordinates computer-'crime'-fighting in the Netherlands. -transl.). Gonggrijp is not overly surprised: "We have come to know each other better over the years and the hostile image we had of each other is simply becoming untenable. Better still, they even quite admire what we are doing." The line between hacker and security expert is a thin and difficult one to draw, according to Gonggrijp. "Basically, we spring from the same nest. I know personaly of a number of security experts who were subscribers to Hacktic. That's because in order to secure effectively, you first must be able to hack. It is a cat-and-mouse game, and we both know we are dependant upon each other."
The most important thing about hacking is the 'mindframe' you have when looking around you", says Gonggrijp "Was it only because there's a lot of things wrong with the technology we trust so much. When the Dutch Telecoms bring a new invention on the market, like the digital telephone guide last month, we are the first to show the flaws in the system (Hacktic immediately spread a programme uncovering the purportedly hidden address-information contained in the digital phone guide, eds.). You would never get this kind of information from big corporations. Never, never take what is written in the users manual for granted is another of our paroles. Hack it. And only then you'll know how secure it is. I myself always take a look at where the weak points of a system might be. The whole world around us is fast changing into systems. It is important that we learn to think about it for ourselves, and not to trust blindly that small self-appointed elite that allegedly knows-it-all."
While the average computer-user is quite satisfied if sHe manages to get an access into the Internet, Hacktic is already immersed into the problems of the 21st century. Main concerns here are cryptography and privacy protection. Gonggrijp: "Basically, the whole discussion about privacy in the network is something of the past. Due to the massive use of credit and bank cards, all kind of personal information is already floating in the network. Marketing specialists are able to get any kind of intelligence about you they want: what's your car make, where did you eat out last week, what kind of stuff did you buy in the K-mart yesterday."
Gonggrijp singles out the "Airmiles" (recently introduced in the Netherlands with much fanfare - and very scant information. -transl.) campaign as the "biggest 'privacy-scam' of the century". "It is about time we would simply come to terms with the fact that privacy in the general sense does not exist any longer. The only privacy that exist is the privacy you create for yourself."
This is the reason why Gonggrijp is strongly in favour of cryptography - and the government so much against it. This is a kind of electronic code that enable sender and receiver, and them only, to decipher the content of a message. Rodriquez, on his side, is more concerned about the "pollution" and "over-exploitation" of the Internet. Rodriquez: "I tend to visualise the Internet as an ecological system. It has all the characteristics of a living organism, that is constantly adapting itself to changes in its environment. We are technology's biologists." Henceforth, Rodriquez intends to concentrate on enhancing the quality of the Internet. "Just like you cannot go on cutting down the Amazon forests, you cannot go on overloading the network. We must realise that we cannot go on forever using the network, without ever giving it something in return."
Rodriquez: "Many people still tend to see the Internet as yet again a new mass-medium. I rather would see it as a natural evolution in human communication. Here you have, at long last, again a medium with which people can communicate with each other." Gonggrijp: "The time of the mass-media, whereby one provider is going to decide what everyone else is going to see, that time is gone now. for a bleedin' half century we have been looking at sitcoms like zombies! That's not to-day's world any longer, the people want to decide for themselves what they are going to look at, and they want to become providers. The Internet can play an important role here, because it is in itself an anarchistic system, without central authority. The mass-media are still working in terms of that big, middle-of-the-road cluster. The media are tame because they believe their public is tame.
It's about time we put a bomb under those 'keep-it-tame' filters."
translated by Patrice Riemens