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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Changing of the Hacker Guard

For some computer hackers, beating the system is a matter of principle, for others it's an adrenaline rush, and for still others it comes down to that old mountaineering adage: We climbed it because it was there.

But at least one person on the inside of the oft-mythologized world of Russian computer hacking says it is anything but romantic.

"If you think that sweating in front of a computer screen, staring at an indecipherable glob of numbers for hours is fun, you must be a freak, but then again, many computer hackers are," said Konstantin Chernozatonsky, 21, the computer editor for Ptyuch magazine.

Chernozatonsky, whose readers view him as a clearinghouse of information about the Internet, offers a glimpse at the new generation of Russian computer mavericks. They, unlike their predecessors, believe that the golden age of Russian hacking isn't over. While Chernozatonsky said he himself is no hacker, he certainly walks a fine line.

In the most recent edition of the hyper-slick periodical, the young computer savant describes how to create a free account with America Online. Using bogus credit card numbers, registration and identity, (Chernozatonsky recommends being Canadian), he explains how to get for free a service that could easily cost hundreds of dollars a year. Chernozatonsky said he has already received 10 replies from readers who successfully used the advice, and although he doesn't admit to encouraging fraud, he acknowledges the subversive element in his article's topic.

"Ideally, America Online should be free -- why? -- because information should be free," said Chernozatonsky. "What people do with it is their own business."

In his small Moscow studio apartment dominated by an inflatable kiddie pool, Chernozatonsky recalled a name that has won a permanent place in the hearts of all hackers as evidence of the continued vitality of Russian hackerdom. "Do you know what Megazoid pulled off the Citibank break-in with?" asked Chernozatonsky, lounging in his pool. "He used a 10-year-old computer worth $10 and a modem that he bought for $15."

Chernozatonsky's account of the methods used by Vladimir Levin -- who was accused of defrauding Citibank of $2.8 million -- is subject to debate, but it speaks volumes about the gritty resourcefulness that has been a part of Russian hacking.

Alexander Zhdanov, 37, a systems analyst at Independent Media, the publisher of The Moscow Times, remembers the early years. "You'd think we were fanatics, but I remember the days when a programmer would sit for weeks, going through a program line by line just to break a copy lock or to figure out a program's protocol," said Zhdanov, describing how early hackers would get new software. "Back then, the circumstances were tough, but I think as a result some phenomenally talented people were produced."

Zhdanov said that with the greater availability of computer programs, programmers and hackers have grown flabby. Other early era experts are openly contemptuous of Chernozatonsky's readers.

"Nowadays, any kid who knows the most rudimentary basics of assembly language considers himself a hacker," said Dmitry Lozinsky, who works at a Moscow institute that finds cures for computer viruses. He said today's hackers are motivated primarily by boredom. "Unfortunately they have nothing better to do like read a good book. The fact is that talented programmers don't waste their time on that kind of silliness because they have good work."

Chernozatonsky, too, said most hackers are between the ages of 18 and 24 because, "after that they start thinking about finding a cushy job as a consultant or analyst."

Despite his seniors' opinions to the contrary, Chernozatonsky strongly denies that Russia's greatest hackers belong only to a bygone era. "It's like your parents telling you they walked five miles to school every day through the snow. Of course we can't do the things that they did, because the technology has changed." he said. "They wrestled with UNIX and we cruise the Web. Hacking's golden age isn't ending or beginning, it just repeats itself."

"The level of expertise has dropped because the extreme conditions that shaped my generation no longer exist."