In the United States, a hacker is usually viewed as a teenage, blue-haired nuisance who defaces Web sites. Maybe he ends up in court, and even in handcuffs -- but he doesn't end up hanging from a tree.
Not the case in Europe, where a legendary 27-year-old German computer hacker was found hung by his own belt in a Berlin park two years ago. On that side of the Atlantic, a place where stealing Internet access is sometimes a necessity and computer hardware can be archaic, hacking is hardly a game.
You don't have to look much further than the Chaos Computer Club to see that the stakes are higher in Europe for computer hackers. "Tron", a CCC member, was one of the great young computer minds in Europe. He was the first to take apart telephone cards and remodel the computer chips inside to make the cards self-charging -- meaning free phone calls, forever.
In November of 1998, Tron -- Boris Floricic -- was found dead in a Berlin park. Police ruled it a suicide, but family, friends, and the CCC say foul play was involved.
"Perhaps Tron refused to share his secrets with the Russian mafia," speculated one member of the computer underground who asked not to be identified. Or perhaps he just broke into the wrong computer.
No clear evidence was ever made public that supported the suggestion of foul play in Floricic's case. But even the possibility of the assassination of a computer hacker -- something US hackers haven't had to face -- keeps the European computer underground a bit more sober.
The difference between the American and European hacking worlds will be a hot topic this week in Amsterdam, as the first international version of Def Con, the annual hacking convention in Las Vegas, gets underway.
It is difficult, of course, to make sweeping statements about computer hackers across all of Europe. But there is a general impression that metered access to the Internet and fewer get-rich-quick job opportunities make hacking in Europe a much more serious affair. For starters, Europeans hackers are usually on a mission.
"They are good phreakers because they have to be," said a hacker called ktwo, a Canadian-based security consultant who works in Eastern Europe several months of the year. "Phreaking" is stealing telephone services. "Necessity is the mother of invention, right? They have a need for Internet access and they don't want to pay million-dollar phone bills."
They also generally tend to forgo high-profile Web defacements and self-promotional notes to the media -- instead, Europeans often attach their work to human rights or environmental causes. Hacker conventions there often include as many political speeches as technical seminars. "US hackers are basically proving things to themselves for ego. European hackers include a significant number of individuals motivated by political, religious, and cultural deeply held beliefs," said GartnerGroup computer security analyst William Malik.
In contrast, many of the computer attackers who manage to get media attention in the US tend to be "script kiddies" who spend their time defacing Web pages. Of all the Web site defacements archived by Attrition.org since 1995, nearly 3,400 have targeted sites ending with ".com", generally US commercial sites. During that time, only 34 ".fr" French sites were targeted, 98 ".de" German sites, and 22 ".ie" Irish sites.
Take me to Pt II: Not out for fame.
Take me to Hackers
To have your say online click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.