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'L0pht ' Reunion on Tap

Famed and controversial '90s hacker group plans on-stage get-together in March in Boston

Former rock bands have done it, and now a 1990s hacker group is getting back together -- for at least one show, anyway. Several members of the famed hacker group The L0pht Heavy Industries will reunite in March on a security conference panel.

The L0pht, which in 1998 made waves on Capitol Hill testifying before a Senate cybercrime subcommittee that it could take down the Internet in 30 minutes, will convene a panel discussion at the SOURCE 2008 conference on how "the art" of security has changed since the group's heyday. SOURCE 2008 will be held in The L0pht's old stomping grounds of Boston, and is co-sponsored by Veracode (which employs a few former L0pht members), Microsoft, Qualys, and others.

It's the first time in 10 years that the now mostly corporate group of pioneering hackers has been in the same room. So far, former L0pht members Mudge (Peiter C. Zatko, division scientist at BBN Technologies); Weld Pond (Chris Wysopal, co-founder and CTO at Veracode); Dildog (Christien Rioux, co-founder and chief scientist at Veracode); Silicosis (Paul Nash of Symantec); and Space Rogue (still Space Rogue), will participate in the panel discussion.

Other members of the former L0pht are also considering participating in the panel, says Rioux, who was one of the youngest members of the group. And Rioux says don't be surprised if the reunion spawns some new collaboration among the L0pht alumni, either: "I wouldn't be surprised if we [saw] some joint [research] efforts" by former L0pht members coming out of the panel discussion, he says.

A lot has changed since The L0pht hit the hacking scene, of course, and its members eventually evolved from a full-disclosure philosophy to one of "responsible disclosure," where researchers go first to the affected vendors with their vulnerability finds. The attacks and attackers have changed, too: "The industry has changed, the attackers have changed, the techniques have changed, and the attack surface has changed," Rioux says. "Now we've got more CPUs, more mobile and embedded things running code that we didn't have before."

Rioux says there are some things the hacker group did back then that he and others certainly wouldn't do today, such as drop a zero-day exploit they had found. "You used to get the middle finger when you presented a security vulnerability to an organization. That's why we went public with them right away because we figured they'd say they didn't care" about the bug, he says. "But that made people stand up."

He says he still has friends who stand by full disclosure. "I don't believe it's illegal, but personally, I believe it's a little unethical... and at times I did the very same thing a decade ago," he says.

Aside from generating controversy here and there with disclosures and some members with ties to not-so-reputable hackers, The L0pht also pioneered a hacking 'tude. David Aitel, CEO of Immunity Inc., who at one time worked for The L0pht's spinoff commercial company, @stake, says he's friends with many of the former L0pht members. "My personal favorite is John Tan. He pioneered using hacker aliases that seemed just like a real name, which I always found hilarious," Aitel says. (See 'Dailydave': Full Disclosure.)

Researcher Dan Kaminsky, director of penetration testing for IOActive, says L0pht was part of another era, where the Internet was still new to the world and geography mattered -- its members set up camp in an actual loft -- when it came to research and collaboration. "With the Internet being what it is today, the central hangouts -- BUGTraq, Full-Disclosure, ha.ckers.org -- no longer have the kind of geographical coincidences that made the L0pht a space as well as a group," Kaminsky says. "But good work continues being done." (See Black Ops & Grandma.)

The L0pht's motto was "making a dent in the universe." But perhaps its biggest accomplishment was staying out of real trouble, Veracode's Rioux says. "I think the fact that we're all still gainfully employed and no one went to jail with everything we did -- which we did legally -- is very important," Rioux says. "Being trustworthy was a hard thing to do given the subject matter."

One big change today is that white hat hackers don't need to hide behind handles anymore, he says. "We initially picked handles because we were afraid we'd be fired from our jobs for publishing vulnerabilities," he says. "Nowadays you can do research without hiding under a pseudonym... and not having to hide [from] the 'stigma' of being a hacker anymore."

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  • Veracode
  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)
  • Qualys Inc.
  • Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC)
  • Immunity Inc.
  • IOActive

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