May 4, 2001
Hanging with Hackers Puts
Computer Crime in Focus
What makes a hacker tick? While other
law enforcement professionals theorize about these sneaky
technopros who can't resist poking around in other people's
computers, Kall Loper went to the source - the hackers themselves.
"Up until now there's been a lot of hand-wringing among
criminal justice experts about 'how little we know.' And they
don't know," says Loper, a CSUS criminal justice professor,
because they didn't have access to hackers. "Previous
research focused on college students, assuming the motivations
of students mirrored the motivations of hackers. No one had
talked to hackers."
So Loper did just that, hanging out with hackers through e-mail
lists and attending hacker gatherings.
Loper's interest in computer crime grew out of a college job
as a computer system administrator. "I enjoyed it and
thought it was a shame I couldn't do both corrections and
technology," he says. Then he hit on the idea to study
hacker behavior, which became the basis for his dissertation.
That computer expertise is one reason Loper thinks he's gotten
farther into the workings of the hacker mind than his contemporaries.
"Having the technical background helps," he says.
"There is a technological limit you can get to with hackers.
They get a sense of how much a person knows, and once they
get a sense that a person is over their head, hackers just
"I take a different approach than others in criminal
justice. I can 'talk the talk' while still being a social
scientist. I actually share their appreciation of hacking
and the joy of discovery, too."
Since moving to Sacramento in the fall Loper has met with
members of both the law enforcement and hacker communities.
"One night I went right from meeting with local high-tech
crime specialists to having pizza with hackers," he says.
When he meets with the hackers he makes no secret of what
he's up to and even hands out his business card. "I feel
privileged to be accepted. I belong in the group," Loper
says. "But I'm not shy about telling them who I am and
what I do. I give out my business card. I have to - for research
It's something he learned in a previous job at a correctional
facility. "I picked it up in my prison work. When they
knew where I stood, they had no problem with me," he
And what has Loper discovered? For one thing there isn't a
typical hacker. "If you are going to examine hackers
you can't expect to identify them by color, age or background,"
he says. That's why he analyzes them by observing their online
"Their behavior is very easily predictable," he
says. "There are things they talk about over and over.
Certain hackers would start fighting among themselves and
then cooler heads would prevail."
Loper distinguishes hacking from computer crime with a subset
in-between that he calls criminal hacking, which would include
network intrusion. "If they fall into the hacker mold,
they probably won't cause trouble. If not, they are probably
a computer criminal. Hackers typically don't commit crime,"
Hackers also have a social network. Computer criminals don't
hang out like hackers. And, Loper says, there's more to learn
about hackers. The literature is much better on computer criminals,
Loper's interactions with hackers have been a boon to his
research. A hacker even helped him create the program to analyze
the data for his dissertation. But it's a two-way street.
The first hackers he met wanted information from him. Worried
friends of notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick, who was in jail
at the time, tapped into Loper's corrections expertise to
find out about the prison and what Mitnick might be going
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