Chapter 14

Within computer culture, and especially hacker culture, women are rare. Among the phreakers, there were (and perhaps still are) a few women, maybe because telephony is normally considered a female profession. (most switchboard operators and such are women). Rave culture is a little more equal, with about a third of the audience being female. Among the hobby hackers and the criminal hackers, there's only the occasional female enthusiast. Fortunately (I think), more and more women, especially at the universities, have discovered computers through the Internet. Often, someone starts out using the computer as a typewriter, then she hears of online discussion groups and forums for her major, and once she's tried communication over the Net, she's bitten.

The most famous female hacker went under the pseudonym Susan Thunder. (Allow me to jump back and forth a bit between the themes of the book). Susan was a textbook example of a maladjusted girl. She'd been mistreated as a kid, but was of the survivor kind. She became a prostitute as early as her teens, and earned her living working LA brothels. On her time off, she was a groupie, fraternizing with various rock bands. She discovered how easy it was to get backstage passes for concerts just by calling up the right people and pretending to be, for example, a secretary at a record company. She became an active phreaker at the very end of the 70's, and was naturally an expert at social engineering.

Soon, she hooked up with a couple of guys named Ron and Kevin Mitnick, both notorious hackers, later to be arrested for breaking into the computers of various large corporations. Susan's specialty was attacking military computer systems, which gave her a sense of power. To reach her objectives, she could employ methods that would be unthinkable for male hackers: she sought out various military personnel and went to bed with them. Later, while they were sleeping, she could go through their clothes for usernames and passwords. (Many people kept these written down on pieces of paper in order to remember them). Susan therefore hacked so that she could feel a sense of power or influence in this world, despite her hopeless social predicament. For her, hacking was a way to increase her self-esteem.

She was determined to learn the art of hacking down to the finest details. When her hacker friend, Ron, didn't take her completely seriously, she became angry and did everything she could to get him busted. Another reason for her anger was, supposedly, that she had had short relationship with him but he had chosen another, more socially acceptable girlfriend over her. It was probably Susan who broke into U.S. Leasing's systems and deleted all the information off one computer, filling it with messages such as "FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU", and programming the printers to continuously spit out similar insults. Among all the profanities, she wrote the names Kevin and Ron. The incident led to the first conviction of the legendary Kevin.

When Ron and Kevin were arrested, Susan was given immunity from prosecution in return for witnessing against them. Later, she referred to herself as a security expert, and conspicuously demonstrated how easily she could break into military computers. It is beyond all doubt that Susan really had enormous capabilities, and that she really could access top-secret information in military systems. It is less certain that she could fire nuclear missiles. It is clear that she couldn't do it using only a computer. Possibly, with her access to secret phone numbers, personal information, and security codes, she might have been able to trick the personnel at a silo into firing a missile. I really hope that she couldn't. Stories about hackers like Susan provided the basic idea for the movie War Games. Susan has currently abandoned hacking in favor of professional poker playing, which she engages in with great success.

However, Susan is more of the exception that confirms the rule when it comes to hacking as a male endeavor. This phenomenon has lots of candidate explanations, ranging from moronic propositions that computers are unfeminine because they were invented by men (like the sowing machine, the coffee maker, and the telephone), to suggestions that women are somehow alien to the internal competition for status and arrogance that characterizes hackers. All of this is naturally bullshit.

The real reason to the inequality within the computing world is probably that many women are raised to fulfill passive roles. While men learn to passionately engage themselves in discussion over, for example, things on the TV screen, women learn to passively observe and act as social complements on the sidelines. Passion, assertiveness, and arrogance, all typical characteristics of hackers, are seldom encouraged. Women are taught a superficially passive demeanor, in which their only possibility for action is by entrusting it to the hands of men. All exploration of new territory apparently has to be done by men. (Preferably young men). As an example, look at our traditional way of handling emotional and sexual relations, where the general trend is still that men take the initiative and women should provide the passive, nurturing factor. Another factor is that men are more solitary than women. It's an open subject as to why this is, but it is obvious that it is incredibly difficult to break this pattern.

Since hackers are normally of an age in which it is very important to externally display one's gender identity, many women distance themselves from computers out of fear of seeming "unfeminine". This act, which is perceived as an autonomous decision by the individual, is actually part of the social indoctrination of traditional gender roles. Parents and relatives add to this by giving computers almost exclusively to boys, and almost never to girls. Among the home computer hackers during the period of 1980-89, about 0.3 % were female, according to rough estimates. In the U.S., there was a female Apple II cracker who managed to liberate around 800 games from their copy protection. In Europe, the most famous female hackers were part of the TBB (The Beautiful Blondes) group, which specialized in C64 and consisted of four women under the pseudonyms of BBR, BBL, BBD, and TBB, of which BBR and TBB were programmers. They became known on the Scene through a number of demos toward the end of the 80's. Cynically enough, both BBR and TBB died in 1993, not even reaching the age of 20. Among today's Amiga and PC enthusiasts, the proportion of women is a little higher, somewhere around 1% (Source: The Mistress in Skyhigh "17, 1995).

At MIT, the cradle of hacker culture, there weren't any women at all. There were female programmers who used the machines, and even really good ones, but they never developed the obsession found among the young men at MIT. These hackers thought it had to be a matter of genetic differences that caused the women to not fall into this obsession. This is a dangerous opinion and absolutely untrue. According to statistics, most boys who become intensively engaged in computing are around 14-15 years old. The same preoccupation occurs in women too, but usually about two years earlier, since their biological clock dictates it. Most people know what 12-year-old girls can get caught up in with such intense interest that they forget social duties and just concern themselves with the hobby for its own sake. The women's (or, rather, the girls') equivalent of the rather fickle but enchanting object known as the computer, is another object with similar characteristics - a four-legged one, which we usually call a horse. In many cases the similarities are striking, even though it is difficult to prove that the same mechanisms lie behind it. Programming a computer is really not that different from teaching a horse to jump fences. It includes the same measure of competition, control, and ceremony. With the boys in front of the computer, there's an almost empathic passion, just like it is with the girls in the stables.

It's completely obvious that if this trend continues, men will acquire the power in a future society largely built on computer technology. It would be a good thing if more women used computers. Even hackers are generally positively of a positive attitude towards seeing more women in their male-dominated fields. The few women that exist on the Scene have been very successful, and received lots of attention as "exotic" phenomena. The respect for female hackers is very great. Supposedly, there are also female hackers who have hidden their gender and are assumed to be male by their hacker friends. The thrill of playing out such a role isn't hard to understand. For the first time in history, it's been possible to assume a gender opposite of one's own without great difficulty, and for a woman to really be treated like a man.

The German police sometimes use this respect for female hackers to bust hackers and software pirates. By publishing posts and ads on BBSs and in computer magazines, using female names, they attract the attention of their targets. It is a matter of argument whether it's ethically correct to exploit people's emotions in this manner in order to fight crime, and it obviously does no service to equality. It becomes even more difficult for women to break into a sub-culture where they might be suspected of being law enforcement moles.

Pornography, etc.
One cannot fail to note the preponderance of male chauvinism on the Internet and in the home-computing world. Basically, it all started with the game Softporn for the Apple II, by the Sierra On-Line computer company, and the even more successful sequel for the IBM PC: Leisure Suit Larry. The object of the two games is the same: getting women into bed. The fact that the Internet is crawling with soft- and hardcore pornography doesn't help things either. Whether or not this is a sign of a screaming need for sexual stimulation among male computer users is hard to say. (In any case, there's no shortage of pictures of naked men). Naturally, it's less embarrassing to download pictures to your computer than going out and buying porn mags - since no one can see what you're doing. (As far as you know, at least).

A large part of the pictures available on the Internet are marketing tools for different pay-BBSs, from which you can retrieve even more pictures - if you pay… As usual there is, in the porn industry, a ruthless commercial interest in the Internet. Sex sells, and the Net is used as bait in a new and lucrative market. I'm going to emphasize that this is mostly a trend in the U.S. I have yet to hear of a Swedish BBS that works this way - instead, in Sweden it's free to download the pictures, which the users engage in with abandon. A few porn magazines have opened their own Internet zones which users have to pay to gain access to.

Some PC enthusiasts have gotten a bug for collecting porn pictures, and collect them in the same manner as others collect stamps or trading cards. Actually, this hobby isn't anything strange. During the early years of hacking, many collected thousands of computer games just to have them. It was forbidden, since the manufacturers claimed that copying the games was prohibited. Pornography is both taboo and copyright-protected, since they are almost always scanned from porn magazines. It should be added that the porn industry is less than pleased with this type of distribution.

Censoring these pictures on the network is virtually impossible, and not necessarily desirable. The Internet is based on the supposition that you search for the information that you're interested in, and that you thereby bypass information that you find irrelevant, and this is the philosophy that colors the attitude of those who maintain the network. Whoever publishes the information holds the responsibility, and the middleman cannot be blamed for anything. It would be just as consistent to accuse Telia or the postal service of being accessories in crime for not conducting enough surveillance and letter-scanning. Communication should be free.

SUNET (Swedish University NETwork), under the command of Björn Eriksen, distributes the Internet in Sweden. They have so far consistently refused to interfere with the flow of information. (And I hope they never will). Individual universities, however, have (following public awareness) started to block certain discussion groups with themes such as piracy, sex, suicide, and drugs. Blocking pictures in general, however, is much more tricky, not to say impossible. If someone encrypts the pictures, it becomes completely impossible to stop them. The only thing you can do is monitor the pictures stored on the computers inside your own organization, which has led to public intervention against pornography at the Lund and Umeå universities, among others.

If you really wanted to crush the market for the porn industry, you could simply remove its entitlement to copyrights for its products. This would immediately ruin the market for the established industry, and force the companies to go bankrupt in just a couple of years. I will, for the sake of clarity, add that most women who are actively involved with BBSs and the Internet take the whole thing in good stride. If someone insults them with profanities, they usually respond with the text version of a pat on the head - "There, there, calm down now", or something similar.

Even if cyberspace is male-dominated, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the world's first programmer, George Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, was a woman. Ada was a real hacker, by the classic definition. She was the product of a failed marriage between Byron and Annabella Milbanke. Just like many contemporary hackers, she escaped painful emotions by dedicating herself to the natural sciences together with her friend Charles Babbage, and completely immersed herself in the quest to construct the analytical machine.


Design and formatting by Daniel Arnrup/Voodoo Systems