Notes From the Underground:
A Conversation with Jim Thomas,
Moderator of Computer Underground Digest



Jim T. Jim Thomas answers the phone distracted. As he roams the house, trying to get his cordless in range, he mutters that he's trying to fix a problem--a user has locked herself out of her account in a particularly clever way. I find myself confused; I thought that I had called to talk with an editor, not a sysop. After a moment, Thomas pronounces the problem solved and turns his attention to our interview, modestly explaining that his life involves wearing three different "hats." From his home base at Northern Illinois University, Thomas rotates between the duties as a system administrator, a sociologist/criminologist and moderator of Computer Underground Digest (sun.soci.niu.edu/~cudigest/), a "more-or-less weekly digest/newsletter/journal of debates, news, research and discussion of legal, social and other issues related to computer culture" which is read by upward of half a million people.


INTERNET UNDERGROUND:
HOW WAS CUD BORN?

Jim Thomas:
CuD started back in 1990, at the time of the initial so-called "hacker crackdown." A fellow who [former co-editor] Gordon Meyer and I knew, called Craig Neidorf, was putting out Phrack, and he was one of the people busted. The issues surrounding the bust struck a lot of us, who were both into the computer aspect and also into criminal justice, as a strange kind of bust, because they essentially nailed him for publishing what you could buy across the counter for 13 dollars. Also, just the Draconian measures--they were sending this guy up for potentially 50 years. Of course, that wouldn't happen in real life, but the rhetoric surrounding the process, how they were demonizing the poor guy for essentially doing nothing more than publishing synopses of publicly available documents, bothered us a lot. We were contributing an occasional post or two, as appropriate, in TELECOM Digest, but it wasn't really appropriate for this type of discussion. We offered to publish the overflow.


IU:
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE NAME?

JT:
With a sense of irony, we called it Computer Underground Digest--in part because of the hyperbole of law enforcement: "A computer underground ring!" But also, we meant "underground" in a good sense, as in the underground press, the alternative media.


IU:
HOW HAS CUD CHANGED OVER THE LAST SEVEN YEARS?

JT:
Some people have criticized us, rightfully, for what they see as being overly broad and losing our focus. But the whole nature of the so-called "underground" has changed so dramatically. What I was trying to do as an academic, in the first couple of years, was to create a resource for other academics, researchers, scholars, so they could get a sense of what's out there in computer culture. But the culture has changed so much; what they perceive as the lack of focus is more that we've embraced the diversity. We cover law, the underground of hackers and phreaks. We include legal issues, copyright infringement, intrusion, both civil and criminal issues, civil rights, the First Amendment, freedom of speech--all of these are very broad issues in and of themselves.


IU:
AND THE WHOLE CULTURE HAS BECOME SO MUCH MORE ACCESSIBLE.

JT:
Yeah, any 6-year-old kid can get on #hack in IRC. It's very accessible, and that's both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that you get more diversity, more ideas, but the weakness is that it tends to get watered-down and diluted in many ways.


IU:
WHAT ARE THE REPERCUSSIONS OF HAVING SO MUCH INFORMATION OUT THERE?

JT:
The whole notion of information overload... I've been in a lot of classes, and it's one of the problems the students have. They're not really able to filter, to screen the noise from the signal, the wheat from the chaff.


IU:
WHAT'S THE CHARACTER OF CUD; HAS IT STAYED TRUE TO ITS ORIGINAL CONCEPT AS AN ACADEMIC TOOL?

JT:
One of the problems of CuD right now is the direction. I think when we were at our best is when Gordon and I were doing our soapbox, doing a little bit of investigatory stuff. But I've just been too busy to do any writing for CuD, so I've relied very heavily on stuff other people have done. We've really become what somebody--it's a left-handed compliment, really--called the "electronic version of USA Today." (Laughs.) I still think we are a nice resource for information on the major computer crimes, or hacking crimes that go on out there, like Johnny Xchaotic (the mailbomber) or media reports of computer crimes.


IU:
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON COMPUTER CRIME, ON THE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN HACKING AND CRACKING?

JT:
I tend to subscribe to Bob Bickford's philosophy that a hacker is anybody that derives pleasure from the joy of exceeding limitations. Very broadly, we define a hacker as anybody who tries to muck about with programs or computer stuff...but in practice, these people are usually defined as computer intruders who use their skills to crack into systems. I don't find those distinctions all that useful. The one thing that bothers me is how the term "hacker" has changed from the broader term to the more narrow "intruder" term. And I don't think the word can be regained. I think we've lost it forever.


IU:
WHY ARE YOU EXPECTED TO HAVE A PUBLIC STANCE ON THE ETHICS OF HACKING?

JT:
[There are people who say] that it's irresponsible for criminologists to support hackers. Where else are you going to have criminals who have their own supporters and newsgroups and constituency? It's precisely because of that attitude that you want to defend these people, who aren't major felons. They are doing something that pisses people off, or can be a nuisance--but at the same time, we aren't talking about Charles Manson.
We're not defending any kind of predatory activity. But we will not be part of this incredible demonization of hackers.
 

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