June 2, 2001 -- Kevin Mitnick. Mafiaboy. Onel de Guzman. Alleged computer vandals.
But for a few brief days last month, Philippine police thought the “Love Bug” computer virus was written by Onel’s sister, Irene de Guzman. Their search inadvertently uncovered a group so elusive that it has fallen under the radar of sociologists; so rare that its inhabitants don’t often know each other exists.
“I found it very difficult to find any female hackers whatsoever,” said Paul Taylor, a British sociologist and author of Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime. According to the U.S. Commerce department, 28.5 percent of computer programmers are women, but their participation in the hacker subculture — a loose association of chat rooms, group meetings, Web pages and conventions by which hackers trade information — is reportedly tiny.
But female hackers do exist. They are queens of pirated software, anti-child-porn crusaders, political activists and leaders of private online vendettas. ABCNEWS.com spoke to more than a dozen of them from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Part of an underground society which often has the misogynistic stink of a high school boys’ locker room, these tough women show the guys they can match their game.
A note about names: Like most hackers, these women choose to go by online handles. Real names will be noted as such.
Hacktivists, Phreaks and Crusaders
“I know a few women who have been around for quite a while and are widely respected in the specific hacking scene,” said Courtnee, a 20-year-old hacker based in the Pacific Northwest.
The Electronic Civil Disobedience project, an online political performance-art group, called its 1999 attack on the Pentagon conceptual art. It said it was protesting U.S. support of the Mexican suppression of rebels in southern Mexico. A woman, Carmin Karasic (her real name), helped write FloodNet, the tool used by ECD to bombard its opponents with access requests in a symbolic, harmless version of the denial-of-service attacks that took down CNN and Yahoo this February.
“We do it to make a political gesture. We’re not cyberterrorists…but it showed that it’s possible to mobilize mass numbers of people around a particular cause virtually instantly,” Karasic said. ECD’s movement attracted 20,000 sympathizers, she said.
Karasic wasn’t the first woman to give the government a technological headache. Susan Thunder was one of the early “phone phreakers,” part of Kevin Mitnick’s crew who broke into phone lines in the 1970s to Ma Bell’s discontent.
A woman who goes by the handle Natasha Grigori (Bullwinkle’s nemesis in the classic cartoon) started out in the early 1990s running a bulletin-board system for software pirates. Now, at age “40-plus,” she’s the founder of antichildporn.org, a group of hackers who use their skills to track kiddie-porn distributors and pass the information on to law enforcement.
“Because of our tech capabilities, we have been able to develop some tools to help ferret out child porn. Law enforcement was just overwhelmed with it. In four hours, this [software] can glean 2100 different URLs” worth investigating, Natasha said.
More Than Just Flashy Tricks
Women have made their mark in non-technical realms of the hacker culture as well. “St.” Jude Milhon (her real name), a 36-year-old woman in Berkeley, Calif., helped found Mondo 2000, a major late-’90s tech-lifestyle magazine. Jennifer Grannick is an in-demand lawyer who explains hackers’ rights to them at conventions. A 19-year-old Midwestern law student who calls herself ViXen900 is a member of the HNC hackers’ group and advises them on legal issues.
“I take HNC to a place it has never been. I write as a female about things that most males don’t even think about,” ViXen900 said.
But hacking isn’t just about flashy tricks or political statements. It’s about basic knowledge, knowing more about the innards of a system than anyone around you. Courtnee remembered a time at a hacker’s convention when she solved a problem that stumped other tech experts.
“Hackers [had] crowded around someone’s Linux box trying to get a net[work] connect[ion]. I sat down and fixed PPPd [networking software] ... with some command line that apparently no one else had thought of,” she recalled. Solving technical problems elegantly is at the heart of hacking.
Just a Bit Different
Sociologists have said women are less likely to be “crackers” — dark-side hackers who illegally break into systems to vandalize them — than the average male.
British sociologist Paul Taylor and MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle have spun theories from the Freudian (crackers have a masculine desire to ‘penetrate’ into an unwilling system) to the sociological (men seek ‘hard mastery’ over abstract systems while women seek ‘soft mastery’ over social situations.)
Jane Del Favero, the network security manager at New York University, has read the riot act to plenty of students caught for breaking into machines. Not one of them has been female.
“I’m not sure if there is much about hacking that attracts the average teenage girl. My impression is that they’re not interested in the pointless glory of defacing a Web site,” she said.
The girls do say they’re a bit different from the guys. Chainsawkitten, a 21-year-old woman from Spokane, Wash. isn’t into the traditional long-term hacking sessions in front of a terminal with a bottle of Jolt Cola; she prefers a more balanced life.
“I just get a little stir crazy at times. My eyes start to hurt, and I get a headache. So it definitely helps to get out,” she said.
Milhon said that women are more common in “hacktivism,” hacking with an ethical or political end, than in other parts of the illegal hacking community. Blueberry, a 32-year-old hacker from Brisbane, Australia, went “white-hat” (a term for hackers who work entirely within the law) and teamed up with law enforcement to oppose child pornography with her volunteer group, condemned.org.
“We can focus the younger guys on something positive. You don’t have to do something illegal to achieve something,” she said.
The female hackers say they’re interested in technology for what it is or what it does, not so they can break it and watch people suffer. RosieX, editor of the Australian feminist technology magazine GeekGirl, said cybervandalism was a “masturbatory” activity she’d prefer to leave to the boys.
“I really abhor most of the crimes. I find them petulant and, yes, more male than female. I find nothing clever about dismantling an individual’s system,” she said.
Why They Hack
Most of the women ABCNEWS.com spoke to are fascinated by the same things that transfix top male hackers, the mastery of how things work.
“We share the basic interests of how things work, and how to break them as well as fix them … [Hacking] keeps you on your toes,” said Wen, a 24-year-old woman from Colorado.
Some of the hackers, like chainsawkitten, were shy girls who found refuge in computer systems. Others, like ViXen900, have always been gregarious, and were attracted by the ‘hacker ethic’ of the passionate pursuit of knowledge.
“Programming was so much less scary than people, and offered me an absolutism that the real world never can: a completely defined set of systems,” said Milhon.
Growing Up Hacking
Many women got into hacking in their late teens. Condemned.org’s Blueberry had never touched a computer before she bought one for her daughter; Blueberry was 29 at the time. And Courtnee said she’s been a hacker almost since birth.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still had ‘My Little Ponies’ and played with makeup. But I’m the only girl I know who constantly tore apart her father’s calculators and old electronics at kindergarten age,” Courtnee said.
Colleen Card, who used to edit a newsletter for phone phreaks (people who hack the telephone system), got into the scene through her husband. Retired from phreaking at 22 and living in the St. Louis area, Colleen is now raising a 21st-century techie girl, she says.
“My daughter is 4. She’s really into computers; she’s been able to operate a mouse since she was 2,” she said.
This is part one of a two-part series. Next Friday, come back to find out about “scene whores,” “elite skills,” and how women overcome the sexism in an almost all-male hacking culture.