By Bri Wagner
By Phoenix (stylized PHX) 2600’s definition, a hacker is on a quest for information and innovation. Hacking is their tool to bend programs to their will for a sprawling range of reasons. As they modify these programs and write code from scratch, these people are “as close as they’ll be to a God,” by member Zac Borders’ definition.
Hackers make the tools of their trade from nothing but ones and zeros, arranging commands in the foreign languages that will our technology to work. To Borders, making programs do things they were not intended for and building programs from the ground up is a digital creation not unlike that of the “Book of Genesis.” While PHX 2600 and the hacking community as a whole have a vision and a definition, from the outside looking in, things are not always as clear.
PHX 2600, the local branch of the national 2600 hacking organization, mirrors the ideals of its parent group stating in its first code of conduct on their site, “We meet in a public area. Nobody is excluded. We have nothing to hide and we don’t presume to judge who is worthy of attending and who is not.”
Despite the call for transparency and promise of warm welcomes, there is still a misunderstanding of the hacking community according to several members of the group including Borders and Timothy Li. The technological jargon paired with digital languages make bridging that gap between the public and PHX 2600 difficult for the group—even with their transparency policy.
HTML. IRC. The hat spectrum. The words are English, the letters clearly written. And yet, the definitions for such terms are not always plain as day. To understand what hacking means to a member of PHX 2600, there are first languages to be learned.
HTML stands for “Hyper Text Markup Language,” otherwise known as the coding language that makes up almost every component on the very webpage you’re reading. It works by using a chain of different commands to structure the text and photo content on sites. From font type and alignment to photo positioning and sizing, HTML determines nearly every aspect of webpage design.
Another acronym finds itself in the world of hacking with IRC or “Internet Relay Chat.” While most who frequent the internet may be familiar with direct messaging systems found on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, IRC is for the tech savvy individual who prefers a minimalist layout. While still in use in some circles (including PHX 2600 via freenode.net), IRC offers both group chat and private messaging in a bare bones format.
The Hat Spectrum
Labelling hackers as inherently good or bad can be inaccurate as with most people. No matter the interest or cause, people and their actions are judged on a subjective basis—what one sees as a justifiable or necessary action may not be acceptable to the person next to them. In the hacking community, a hat color system is used.
The spectrum goes from black hats (those who do hacking based things things that are immoral or illegal to cause general chaos or personal gain) to white hats (those who do legal or moral hacking based things for the sport of learning or to help better programs). But what about those who fall in the middle?
Someone who hacks to better programs or counteract the actions of black hat hackers without permission may cross moral/legal boundaries and are considered the middleground, grey hats. Within the community, even the middle ground of grey hat hackers skew closer to one of the two poles (black or white) on a case by case basis.
“Hacking to me is innovation,” Timothy Li, PHX2600 member and ham (amateur and without commercial purposes) radio enthusiast, explained.“A lot of technology that is out there today would not be a reality if it wasn’t for people that hack things, people who try to change the status quo.”
For most members of PHX 2600, Li’s description of what it means to be a hacker stands true, they see it as a quest for knowledge, a means to progress as a society technologically and build something from scratch in a programming language they’ve invested years into.
According to Donovan Sanchez, another member of the local hacking group, the community strives for freedom of information and a relationship with each other that fosters such an environment by “sharing our stories, our tips, our little codes to gain just a better understanding of how this all works, how this world works.”
The portrayal of hackers as malicious in mainstream media and on the news with the rise of “black hat” and troll groups like LulzSec or Anonymous has fostered a generalization that hackers are a “criminal element,” Li observed. With these developments, PHX 2600’s mission to build bridges instead of walls between the community and those looking in has proven to be a struggle.