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THE CUTTING EDGE | THE SCENE

'Here We Keep the Hacker Tradition'

July 29, 1996|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

St. Petersburg — If the denizens of this city's computer underground hear one more word about Vladimir Levin, Russia's putative hacker king, they might have to do something reckless. Like crack the Kremlin. Or the Pentagon. Or both.

True, after allegations that the young biochemistry graduate stole $12 million from Citibank accounts via his laptop last year, the world finally noticed that Russia's cultural capital is also its hacker headquarters--well-deserved recognition, Levin's former acquaintances say, and long overdue.

But Levin's arrest--the 29-year-old is now fighting extradition to the United States from his London jail cell--and media accounts of how he managed to penetrate the banking firm's security fortress turned him into Russia's most famous hacker. And, under the moral code of the computer underground, he could hardly be less deserving.

According to several St. Petersburg hackers still very much at large, Citibank was practically an open book, and Levin was a third-rate programmer who purchased the hack for $100 from one of several people in town who knew how to do it--ruining a favorite international hacker haunt in the process.

"People don't know Levin is stupid," said one hacker, who goes by the handle "Arakanoid" (the name of a Russian version of the video game Break Out). "They think he's a genius. But here we keep the hacker tradition. We appreciate each other according to our achievements."

"People wondered how he could do it without knowing English," said Alexei, 18. "It's because once you are in, it was like using a calculator."

Exaggerating one's skills compared to those of others is, of course, a vital part of the "hacker ethic"--and Alexei, Arakanoid and their compatriots offered no proof of their prowess. But the recent attempts by the computer underground here to set the record straight may indicate that the break-in was not the great feat that Citibank and the FBI made it out to be.

A Russian techno-rave culture magazine called Ptuch recently published an interview with a St. Petersburg hacker named "Megazoid," who claimed to have done the actual work, penetrating the Citibank system with a 2400-baud modem and a secondhand PC.

"In Russia, it's pretty boring because [sophisticated] VAX/VMS systems aren't widespread," he told Ptuch Editor Konstantin Khernozatonsky. "I was looking for a computer where I could really explore the operating system."

At least one Citibank system administrator, whose computer he used for hours each night, knew he had breached the system long before the company called in the FBI and began tracing the intruders, Megazoid said. He attributed the inaction to fear and incompetence: "These people have worked there a long time and didn't want to lose their jobs."

Citibank spokeswoman Amy Dates said the bank was aware of the article and had an English translation of it. "It sounds to me like a lot of bravado," Dates said. "The Levin incident has been the only one where someone has broken the levels of our security and been able to commit fraud."

But Megazoid and other St. Petersburg hackers say their motive was curiosity and amusement, not financial gain.

Several people familiar with the computer underground here say that Megazoid sounds like a composite character but that the information in the interview was correct.

Gathered around a table in a small, dim apartment, Arakanoid and others, who declined to give their full names, said hackers from all over the world roamed free within Citibank's computers. A bulletin board system at a bank subsidiary in Pompano Beach, Fla., was their point of access, and they used it to exchange files and engage in online chats.

"We always covered our tracks," Alexei said. "We had an agreement not to mess it up, but then Levin ruined it for all of us."

Still, all is not lost. The hackers here have a new fascination: cellular phones. And they insist St. Petersburg is breaking new ground there, too. Instead of merely "cloning" a telephone and freely making calls off that account, they've written a program that allows them to insert 50 phone IDs into a single handset, making detection that much harder.

"It's a true St. Petersburg innovation," said Vasily, 27. Like St. Petersburg's other leading hackers, Vasily is a programmer who benefited from an excellent education in mathematics but can't find a steady job. Many like him earn money by stripping the defense systems off legal copies of software packages so they can be pirated.

"In Moscow and in the States, they have more powerful equipment," Vasily said. "Here, we have more time and more brains."

They also have the nation's first Internet cafe, a rather grim, hushed place opened earlier this year in an attempt by Dux, a local Internet access provider, to attract more clients. Manager Dmitri Antonov, 25, estimated that only 25,000 of the city's 5 million residents have access to the global computer network.

Half of his customers are foreigners in need of their e-mail fix. But the other half are curious Russians, and Antonov said Dux now has 1,000 customers, up from 100 in January. There are plans to expand and make the laboratory atmosphere more cafe-like.

The hacker community says the cafe, dubbed Tetris in honor of the legendary Russian computer game, is just one more sign of St. Petersburg's superiority in the realm of cyberspace. But they don't intend to use it themselves. Said Alexei: "My coffee is best taken in a cafe and my computer work is best done at home--alone."

Amy Harmon, who covers technology and cyberspace for The Times, is on temporary assignment in Russia. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.harmon@latimes.com

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