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Source: The Globe and Mail

Posted on December 6, 2000

      They call themselves the Viper Brothers, the Software Underground Empire, and Armageddon in Russia.

      They borrow their philosophy from martial arts and Zen Buddhism. They study at the feet of a bearded guru known as Arvi the Hacker, or simply the Teacher.

      They are the teenaged students of Russia's first school of computer hacking. And while their skills and bravado might seem dangerous, they say they are the good guys, defending their clients from an international war of viruses, hack attacks and computer crime.

      The Civil Hackers' School, operating from a shabby little Moscow apartment, is helping shape the new generation of Russian computer whiz kids who have provoked fear and anxiety in the West.

      Russian hackers are blamed for a series of spectacular feats in recent years. These include stealing the secret Microsoft source codes; ransacking the Pentagon's computers; hacking into Web sites of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; posting thousands of credit-card numbers on the Internet; and stealing millions of dollars from Western banks. The country's post-Soviet economic collapse, combined with its rampant software piracy and its prowess in mathematics education, has created a breeding ground for aggressive young hackers. U.S. commentators have described the hackers as "perhaps the most talented in cyberspace."

      In Moscow, the Hackers' School sees itself at the forefront of a revolution.

      "A hacker can do something that influences all of mankind," says the school's founder, 27-year-old Ilya Vasilyev, a former software pirate who is better known on the Internet as Arvi the Hacker.

      "Every country, every company, needs hackers now," the long-haired teacher tells his students. "You have a feeling that you can do anything. You don't have that in any other job."

      Several hundred have studied at the hacker school since 1996, earning bracelets with ranks similar to judo belts. (The highest honour is a black bracelet, known as "guru level.")

      The school, preaching an altruistic moral code, says it trains students for legitimate jobs in computer security, defending employers against viruses or hack attacks.

      "I won't take students when I see they have a criminal tendency," Mr. Vasilyev says. "A hacker must be a wise person, like a samurai or a karate master. You have to use all of your wisdom not to harm people."

      But the temptations are constant. The first lesson for freshmen students is a stern warning against illegal hacking.

      "Many people read about hackers in the newspapers and they think how great it is," Mr. Vasilyev tells the teenagers. "But they don't read to the end of the article, where the hacker gets sentenced to jail."

      The students sit at the guru's feet on the floor of his cramped apartment. When he asks them to name the school's goals, 15-year-old Kirill Boldyrev replies, "To break into things."

      The teacher quickly corrects him, but later the teenager acknowledges he sees hackers as heroes. "They have achieved a very difficult thing, a very unusual thing, so they are admired by a lot of people. Maybe it proves that we aren't stagnating in Russia, that we are progressing."

      The latest hacker exploit was the daring raid on Microsoft, in which the secret source codes for the latest Windows program were taken. The raider was traced back to Russia's second-biggest city, St. Petersburg, which has become a hotbed of hacking.

      Russian hackers first captured the world's imagination in 1994 when a young mathematician, Vladimir Levin, hacked into the computers of Citibank and transferred $12-million (U.S.) to the bank accounts of friends around the world. He conducted the entire operation from a computer in his St. Petersburg apartment.

      He was eventually arrested and jailed, but others were inspired to similar feats of cybercrime. Ilya Hoffman, a brilliant viola student at the Moscow Conservatory, was arrested in 1998 on charges of stealing $97,000 (U.S.) over the Internet. He served a year in jail.

      Another group of Russians stole more than $630,000 by hacking into Internet retailers and grabbing credit-card numbers. Banking-fraud specialists have warned that Russian hackers are the greatest single threat to security at European banks.

      Crime has become institutionalized in Moscow's outdoor markets and street kiosks, where about 90 per cent of the computer software is pirated. The widespread acceptance of piracy has made it easier for hackers to ignore the law.

      "Piracy is prospering, and nobody is fighting it," said Sergei Pokrovsky, the 25-year-old editor of Khaker, a hacker magazine that has built a circulation of 50,000 in just two years of operation.

      "Pirate software is for sale everywhere. People get used to the idea that piracy is normal. Computer crimes aren't seen as very serious. The police have so many other problems on their hands. A lost credit card is seen as nothing, compared to murder and all the other crimes in this country."

      Because of the shortage of high-paying computer jobs in Russia, even skilled specialists can be limited to salaries of just a few hundred dollars a month.

      Hacking is a tempting alternative. By stealing a password, they can use the Internet for free. And by cracking programs or doing pirate software jobs in the evening, they can boost their incomes considerably.

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