In the Realm of the Hackers (2002)


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Documentary Description

In the Realm of Hackers is a 2002 documentary about the Australian Hacking scene in the 1990s with focus on a hacking group called Realm. The Realm primarily consisted of 2 noted Australian hackers, Electron and Phoenix who hacked into high security installations of NASA, the US Naval Research laboratory and many other government and military sites. The entire story is narrated by Electron - he takes us through his childhood, addiction with computers, friendship with Phoenix, the hacks they did together, how they got caught and finally the judicial trial and sentence. The documentary is very well made and i would definitely recommend watching it. I have posted the entire documentary below from YouTube. Enjoy!

Breaking into The Realm
By Nathan Cochrane
May 20 2003

Those who were part of the computer underground in the early to mid-'80s will feel nostalgic pangs as they watch In the Realm of the Hackers, a documentary that chronicles the rise and fall of Australia's most notorious hackers.

It tells the story of two Melbourne Generation-X hackers - Electron and Phoenix - who, as part of hacker crew "The Realm", were responsible in the '80s and '90s for attacking many high-profile computer systems here and in the United States. Their exploits were responsible for the US Government putting pressure on the Hawke government to enact Australia's first federal cyber-crime legislation in 1989.

The story is told from the perspective of Electron, who was interviewed for the documentary but is represented on camera by an actor in re-creations of events so as to protect his new identity as a solid member of the IT professional community.

Realm, to be shown on the ABC on May 29, was inspired by the book Underground, by Melbourne-based writer and academic Suelette Dreyfus. Dreyfus has been praised by hackers and reviewers for her keen ability to report accurately on the sub-culture that, by its clandestine and macho nature, is difficult for outsiders to understand or crack. She lends her imprimatur as associate producer and as an expert interviewed on camera.

In many ways, Realm is similar in feel to Steven Levy's classic 1984 book on the culture, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. And there are echoes of Lawrence Lasker's and Walter Parkes's 1983 film, WarGames, in the attitudes of the young hackers. But Realm is unique because, for the first time, it chronicles the emerging international underground, which lived on remote electronic bulletin boards and the nascent internet, from the perspective of Australians. For good or ill, depending on your point of view, Australians were once again pioneering another of the information society's byways - hacking and the search for hackers by law enforcement.

The producers went to great lengths to capture the thoughts of others who were held in The Realm's thrall, including New York Times technology journalist John Markoff and Purdue University professor of computer sciences and philosophy Eugene Spafford.

Markoff, probably influenced by his earlier breaking story that exposed Robert Tappan Morris as the creator of the Arpanet (Morris) Worm, had written a story claiming that a new worm was loose on computer networks. This angered Phoenix because he felt his skills were being maligned. So he brashly called Markoff and set him to rights. It was the beginning of the end for the hackers.

Markoff's resulting front page follow-up story in the Times, turned up the blowtorch on Australian Federal Police to track down the hackers.

The producers paid careful attention to what was displayed on screens, including the dump of the ``WANK'' worm that invaded NASA on the eve of the nuclear-powered Galileo space probe launch - and whose creator was never found.

The documentary captures the feeling of the time, although this could have been done better by providing some more contextual historical information, instead of limiting it to just what was necessary for the telling of the story. Some more retro '80s background music would have been good, too.

However, the motivations of the people under discussion are clear - the sense of estrangement from broader society, while bonding through their exploits with others in the hacker underground.

The actor playing Electron provides a voice-over to a somewhat campy dance scene in a suburban kitchen, explaining the exhilaration he felt after hacking a particularly tough target. At the other end of the manic-depressive cycle, Electron begs his father to hide the boxy 300-baud modem, only for it to be ferreted out several hours later.

"Dad got so good at hiding the modem that not even the Federal Police could find it," Electron says in the movie.

Interviews with the Federal Police who worked on the case show how difficult it was for them to deal with the new cyber threat. None had any deep computer skills at the outset and they were clearly outclassed by the errant teens.

The new computer crimes unit in Melbourne had to beg and borrow discards from business while inventing world-first methods of storing intercepted data transmissions using existing equipment geared for the analog age, such as reel-to-reel tape recorders. And they faced the scorn of colleagues in other branches of the force who thought they should be out fighting "real crime".

You can feel the sense of despair they must have had when their three-year investigation of The Realm came to nothing.

It is worrying that many of the police have since left for the lucrative private sector, and there is a concern expressed in the film that Australia lacks the punch to adequately tackle future cyber-crime.

As much as it is a historical work, Realm also approaches issues of class divides, mental illness, drugs, addiction, and the loss of and separation from parents.

Electron tells us, through his actor avatar, that he only dealt with Phoenix because he had a fast modem to download files with details of security vulnerabilities. We see Electron struggling in the '90s with an antiquated Commodore 64 and 1541 5.25-inch disk drive, while Phoenix had a high-powered and expensive Commodore Amiga. Phoenix is introduced to us as he walks home from his private school in a leafy Melbourne suburb while Electron's home is a neat weatherboard house in a working-class area.

The death of Electron's mother - and the later death of his father from cancer while Electron awaited prosecution - may have brought on his escape into drugs, which led to his conviction and suspended sentence.

Although there is often criticism of lenient sentences for hackers, many teenagers grow out of their hacking phase. Realm shows that hacking is a lot like drugs: there is an addictive high, a need to belong to a community (however remotely) and many of the same precursors and behaviours.

It may be better for those prosecuting and persecuting hackers to consider harm-minimisation strategies, like those developed for drugs, while never forgetting the damage that can be done by kids wielding PCs with malicious intent.


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