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Hackers, R.I.P.

By Annalee Newitz

LOTS OF people on Slashdot (and practically nowhere else) were talking about the weird and tragic suicide of a 13-year-old hacker in New Jersey. Earlier this month Shinjan Majumder hung himself after he was suspended from school for undisclosed acts of hacking: his principal claimed Shinjan had been "breaking into" school computers but has yet to explain how he knew this or what files Shinjan had accessed.

According to the Times, a Trenton, N.J., newspaper whose article on Shinjan was Slashdotted a few days ago, the hacker kid hung himself after his principal told him that he could go to jail for what he'd done (www.nj.com/news/times/index.ssf?/news/times/05-13-CCQR1VHB.html). Shinjan's father was at the meeting with the principal and reported this information; the principal denies saying anything about jail. Regardless, Shinjan was shaken up enough that he decided death was his only option.

Was this hacker honor? Death before discovery? Maybe Shinjan was doing much more than just hacking his school's computer system. Maybe he was part of an international ring of conspirators who were launching denial-of-service attacks. Maybe he and his hacker gang were exploiting the alleged vulnerabilities in TCP/IP and were sucking up so many sensitive passwords that they could take down the Pentagon. And maybe, just maybe, Shinjan had signed a death pact that if he got caught, he'd have to kill himself to protect the hacker revolution.

Or maybe Shinjan was just leaving some k00l warez on his school's massively insecure servers, d00d. This is the sort of harmless, teenage-hacker-style activity that goes on all the time: hiding whatever nifty software or exploits or games you have on random servers so that other script kitties in the know can find 'em, download 'em, and hopefully spread word of your warez stash to the next little protohacker. In the process, you learn, among other things, how to negotiate security on computer networks. Your mind gets some exercise, you get some free warez, and eventually you grow up and become an employable member of the professional middle class. Or maybe you become a radical subversive with a very big brain. Either way, you get smarter and probably more sarcastic, both of which are socially productive results in my book.

Shinjan was a nice kid. He was known best for his archetypally geeky, overachieving activities, like playing violin in the school band, swimming, and learning new computer languages in his spare time. Ultimately, we'll never know why getting caught hacking made him suicidal, but it does seem certain that Shinjan perceived his crime as being so evil that he deserved the ultimate punishment. And it would be nice if we could simply blame his principal, who suspended him, or his parents, or some other anti-hacking authority figure. But the fact is, Shinjan probably just became suicidal for the same reasons thousands of other teenagers do. He was different, and he got fingered for being different. In an intensely conformist environment like middle school (or, I might add, most jobs in real life), being different is tantamount to death.

Seems like nonconformists are dying left and right. If school doesn't kill them, the corporate world will. The hackers of yesterday are the "security experts" of today, plugging up the holes they once hacked open in order to remind corporate giants like Microsoft that they'll never exert total domination over the populace.

That reminds me of what happened to dear, recently departed Douglas Adams (geek-hero author of several Doctor Who episodes and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series), whose last gasps were spent giving a keynote speech at some stupid conference on mobile computing in San Francisco. Despite his ignominious demise, Adams's satire was the literary equivalent of good hacking. He poked fun at the establishment, mocked bureaucracy, and opposed tyranny and authoritarian rationalists with his "infinite improbability drive" spaceships and superintelligent mouse scientists who pretended to be lab animals in order to covertly perform experiments on humans.

Why was Adams being wasted on the low-grade computer conference circuit? For the same reason Shinjan hung himself. There's very little room in our culture for hacking, and as a result the hacker takes on a dirty, dangerous and unrewarding job. The hacker's good old-fashioned anarchy goes unrewarded, although society as a whole benefits more from renegade thinkers than it does from those who want to restrain us.

So long, Douglas and Shinjan, and thanks for all the fish.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wonders where all the hackers have gone.

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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