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Throngs gather to restore HOPE

Opening day of New York conference draws hats white and black

By Geeta Dayal
July 22, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The sixth Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) hacking convention got to a rolling start Friday in New York. Thousands of mostly black-clad attendees thronged the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown Manhattan for a three-day smorgasbord of workshops, panels and lectures on network security, activism, do-it-yourself tech and hacking in all its forms.

Several of the attendees were veterans of previous incarnations of the biannual HOPE, and of other popular hacker conventions such as Def Con in Las Vegas and ShmooCon in Washington. Several speakers, too, are conference stalwarts, such as long-imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick (whose social-engineering presentation was a highlight of the last HOPE, held in 2004), free-software pioneer Richard Stallman and punk-rock provocateur Jello Biafra.

Friday was big on topics heavy with political overtones, such as "Building the Anti-Big Brother Databases" and "Bin Laden, National Intelligence, and More". More lighthearted events, such as a new version of the popular panel devoted to the art of lockpicking and an LED art-making workshop run by New York’s Graffiti Research Lab, helped keep the mood buoyant throughout the day.

The clear highlight of Friday's proceedings was an impassioned keynote address by Stallman, who lashed out against spyware and DRM, or digital rights management -- which Stallman is fond of calling "digital restriction management" or "digital handcuffs." 

"Lots of proprietary software has malicious features," Stallman said. "They put in spy features, features designed to restrict the user, and back doors. One proprietary program you may have heard of that spies on the user is Windows XP," he said to laughter and boisterous applause.  He also criticized TiVo, which he said collects data on user preferences.

During a lull in his presentation, Stallman donned a black flowing robe and a red halo crafted out of a vintage computer disk, and reappeared on stage as his alter ego, "Saint IGNUsius of the Church of Emacs." "Install a holy free operating system and only install free software on top of that," he instructed the packed hall. "If you make this vow and live by it, you can be a saint."

Stallman preached the exclusive use of free software as an antidote to potential DRM issues. "All proprietary software is 'just trust me' software, where you surrender to the blind faith of a developer who might not deserve it," he said. "The use of nonfree programs is a prisoner of his software."  He also criticized the notion that in the future, most applications will be run online. "You simply can’t have control over what a program does unless you’re running your copy. ... If everyone’s running Google’s copy of a program, we can’t all have control over what Google’s copy does," he said. 

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