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Dutch festival debugs hacker image

Organizers of Europe's preeminent hacking conference--set for the Netherlands later this week--are determined to paint a more realistic portrait of hackers.

HENGELO, Netherlands--In the middle of a muddy field, people are busy digging trenches. By tomorrow these trenches should be covered over again, and the diggers will turn their hands to connecting network servers to the glass fiber cables buried a foot underground in plastic sheaths.

These plastic sheaths are to protect the cables as much from the rain as from the 2,500 pairs of feet belonging to the hackers, system architects and security experts who are expected to descend on the town of Hengelo this weekend for Europe's pre-eminent hacking event.

Hackers at Large (HAL) is the latest in a series of Netherlands-based hacker conferences that began in 1989 with the Galactic Hacker Party at Amsterdam's Paradiso and continued at four-year intervals with Hacking at the End of the Universe and, in 1997, Hacking in Progress. This year's event, which the organizers think of as more of a festival than a conference, is taking place on the grounds of the University of Twente.

"There are currently no plans to make it more frequent," said Rop Gonggrijp, one of the organizers, speaking from beside the 2-megawatt generator that will feed the thousands of servers and notebooks that attendees and organizers alike will be plugging in. The appeal of the current system, says Gonggrijp, is that it is so irregular.

"If we made it an annual event it would become too much like Def Con--we don't want that because it is just too easy for people to go and hang out. It would get boring if we did it every year."

Here, says Gonggrijp, it is more about building their own infrastructure.

"It's not just about renting a hotel conference center and asking some speakers to come along. Today we are digging the trenches, tomorrow we will set up the network servers, figuring out which servers will be here on the campsite and what content they will serve. Then Thursday is the day that people start working on their own subprojects. Then Friday we start delivering the content."

With participants such as John Gilmore, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Emmanuel Goldstein, editor in chief of hacker's bible 2600, and Phil Zimmermann, founder of PGP, there is unlikely to be a shortage of content.

And with such a concentration of hackers--and people curious, for whatever reason, about hacking--the authorities are bound to take an interest. The regional digital police force, the Bureau of Digital Expertise, is expected to have a strong presence at the festival. As a deterrent to any hackers who might want to show off their skills at the conference, the organizers have published a guide on the event Web site urging attendees not to instigate Web site defacements or denial-of-service attacks from the festival network.

"Just like at HIP97, the authorities have pre-signed orders ready and waiting to cut our link to the world if the HAL network becomes a source of too many problems," reads the warning on the site. "Yes, you read it right: Cut the link. 100 percent packet loss."

And it's not only the other attendees that would suffer.

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"There is almost no place on earth where the odds of getting arrested are stacked against you as bad as at HAL2001," the warning continues. "Members of the Dutch law-enforcement community (yes: cops) are attending in large numbers. And public perception is that they haven't arrested enough people for computer crimes recently. So they are under a lot of pressure to arrest someone. Anyone..."

But Gonggrijp is not expecting any trouble. "I think it will be all right--I don't think there will be any arrests, and not much for them (the Bureau of Digital Expertise) to worry about. People will be too involved in learning. These are the system builders, the architects and programmers of the digital age."

In fact, says Gonggrijp, part of the purpose of the festival is to change the perception of hackers. "That's why we started on a campsite to begin with. To change the perception of hackers as people who sit behind a computer and never meet anyone else. Now they see people hanging from the trees (working with) cables. This festival is working on the image of hackers and trying to present to the world a more realistic view."

Staff writer Matt Loney reported from the Netherlands.