"You're walking down a long corridor late at night, a very long corridor, with thirty thousand doors leading off of it. There's an address, such-and-such.com, on each door, which can be opened by only one key, which is a password. But you're opening doors as you walk along, checking to see if anyone's inside. You're the only one who's supposed to be in there, because you're the security geek. But, of course, you have Satan with you."
Balanced on the thin rail of his third-story front terrace, Dan Farmer raises his port-glass of 1963 Fonseca and loses himself in the vapors before returning to the "human analog" he's working out to explain to me what he does for a living. Death sits below his feet, a large tabby who follows us when we come out here to smoke. Farmer smokes clove cigarettes from a small, expensive tin, blowing rings that leave a scent in the cool night air over Haight-Ashbury. He smiles and thumbs some curls straying from his huge head of red hair out of his eyes, deliberately and sensuously, as he has a way of doing when his mind slows to communicate with old gray matter like me. He does it a lot when we talk—the hair-adjusting is a 1960s-era semiotic connoting primness and brain-power, the smile a Cheshire grin of the right-brained: feminine, but lordly; beautiful, if inherently corrective; rational and very drunken. He seems too drunk to be sitting a quick reel from a fatal plummet off the terrace, but this is how he likes it, and the alcohol helps, both of us: Farmer, the world's foremost computer security geek, has a passion for making himself understood, and I, one bottle at a time, have conquered a large number of buzzwords.
Harder to fathom is Farmer's claim to geekiness. He wears thick black leather pants, boots, and a biker jacket over a black T-shirt featuring a human skull, humanoid figures, two salmon, and the credo SPAWN TILL YOU DIE; a tiny skull with a ruby eye pierces his left nipple. There's a small golden earring in the corner of his left eyebrow, dog-tags from his days as a U.S. Marine adorn his neck, and handcuffs hang from his studded leather belt: Farmer, as any who've dialed into his confessional homepage (at www.fish.com) can tell you, is a practicing sadist (he prefers the term "top"), equally fascinated with ultra-violence, Zen mysticism, and confessional poetry, openly bisexual, and a ravenous polygamist (he prefers "polyamorous").
"You open Door Seventeen Thousand," he continues. "Lo and behold, there's another door at the end of the room, and you see something happening through that door."
"What do you see?"
"An intruder. Presumably some pain-in-the-ass network cracker. Quite possibly the end of security not only for Office Seventeen Thousand but much or all of your multi-billion-dollar corporation, Swiss bank, your military installation."
"How did he get in there?"
"Simple. Remember I told you about the addresses on the doors? Well, this building we're in now has an address, such-and-such Oak Street. But it's also on the corner of Oak and Ashbury. If you slap an address and a mail-chute on the Ashbury side, convince the postman they're real, then my mail is your mail."
"It's that simple to break into a Swiss bank?"
"Go through a little glass and you're in."
"Or a military installation?"
"Probably easier. C'mon." Farmer hops off the rail. "Let's fire up old Satan."
By the time we get into the second bedroom, Death is already curled and purring like an old familiar on the chair of the Sparcstation, the powerful workstation that serves as Farmer's main computer at home. The $25,000 stack of small off-white boxes, one of three in the apartment, is also named Death.
"Satan is really a much-maligned fellow," Farmer says a bit testily, calling up the program he co-authored and dumped on the Internet almost two years ago. "All he really does is case the joint." I've been prodding Farmer for days to show me Satan "in action," but he despises the act of network cracking. The logo, a line-drawing of a long-tailed daemon in a trenchcoat, appears on the screen, followed by a target-selection prompt.
"Can we break into NASA?" I ask.
"That's a little problematic."
"I kinda work for them."
"How about the NSA?" Farmer gives me one of his smiles.
"You work for them too?"
"It's a long story," he demurs. "Any branch of the military you're feeling curious about tonight?"
I was reading about stealth bombers this morning.
Farmer types in hq.af.mil., then gives me one of his smiles: See how easy?
In fact, there's nothing more to it: At lightning speed, the screen fills with a list of software the air force is running these days, each vulnerability highlighted by a red dot. Farmer hits a few more keys, and in four seconds we're in, scrolling down a vast directory: memos, e-mail, classified reports and inventories, updates. Even at the speed we're scrolling, I see items referring to stealth bombers.
"That fellow's busy," Farmer points to a sub-directory trailing six figures of characters. "Probably a sysadmin [system administrator], high security clearance. If I wanted the keys to this kingdom, I'd click on him. And,"...he drops an ominous pause. "I'd be committing a very serious felony."
"Have we already committed one?"
Farmer pushes hair away from his eyes as he thinks about it. "I don't know. How do you feel about it?"
I'm not sure. Fairly uneasy, actually, that the only thing keeping me from a crime is my own feeling about its criminality. I also see possibilities. April 15 isn't far off: A little nudge from the Debit column to You Are Owed...? "How secure do you imagine the —Corporation's system is?" I ask (my boss).
"In computer terms, that's a meaningless question. Secure against what?"
Farmer exits the air force, types, and suddenly we're in the bowels of my employer, scrolling down an endless menu. "A simple answer to your question? You can break into anyone."
The doors leading off the long corridor now signify more than a simple gain and loss: These are my colleagues, friends, suspected enemies, years of emotional investment, the future. The unease grows. "Let's get out of here."
Farmer gives me the beautiful, approving smile, like one of Jonathan Swift's Houyhnhnms: innocence born of reason. "Aren't you ever tempted?" I ask.
"Not really," he says. "Don't forget: I'm the security geek."
His business card, from Sun Microsystems Laboratories, identifies him as such: Iconoclast, 2nd Class/Security Research Guy. Accent is on the Research, which carries huge cachet at a brain-trust like Sun. It also affords Farmer the opportunity to indulge an almost limitless capacity for sloth. Like most of his generation, he produces in bursts of compulsive labor, then spends months writing E-mail and poems. On rare occasions, he moonlights (at $3000 per day) as a security consultant; once or twice a year, he'll let Sun trot him out at high-tech conferences around the world as a computer-security poster-boy—leather, piercings, handcuffs, and all. More than once, he's found the door barred by guards unwilling to believe he's the guest of honor.
It seems strange on first meeting Farmer—so angelic and harmless—that the security of untold billions rests on the new, little-known field that he, at 34, is now a past master of. The world, like it or not, revolves around software and networks that ease and increase the flow of information, but the pace of development is so rapid, the field so competitive, that little if any thought is given to the vulnerabilities of products by the time they go on sale. For every innovation that connects two people on the Net, a new hole—almost perforce—is opened for hackers (Farmer calls them "crackers") or more serious criminals to waltz into your system. Even if you go online with a fully secure network, holes will eventually open. "It would take a great philosopher to explain why those breakdowns always occur," Farmer says. "In essence, it's the universal law of entropy."
Writing programs (or code) that make life and work easier and fuller takes knowledge, time, and vision; it doesn't take a Ph.D. in programming, however, to subvert that hard work for selfish ends. Anyone with a capacity or a program for breaking passwords, for example, can probably use your program to go pretty much wherever he wants. Once inside, a rudimentary knowledge of ubiquitous software such as Sendmail (which almost every office in the world uses) is all that's needed to cybersail down that long corridor from office to office, copying, deleting, altering, or just leaving nasty messages. The damage done thus far—losses due to theft of secrets, assets, and intellectual property—is, by definition, impossible to calculate. Estimates range from three to fifteen billion dollars annually. It depends who you ask.
Two springs ago, when Farmer announced the release of Satan (Security Administrator Tool for Analyzing Networks) with his collaborator, Weitse Venema, a Javanese researcher at the Netherlands' University of Eindhoven, he sent a chill of insecurity through the computer world. The date it became available, April 5, was simply Farmer's thirty-third birthday, but the timing couldn't have been more perfect: Wall Street riding a bull run that shattered all market wisdom and convention, largely on high-tech stocks understood by very few; some 30 million people online; Madison Avenue heralding the Internet's imminent global community—safe conduit for everything from encrypted gossip to digital cash.
Satan threatened to tear it all down. Tools for probing holes in individual computers had long been available, but they were labor-intensive, expensive, and made by the close-knit security community for its own consumption. Satan, which is essentially a search engine linked to a compendium of all known software, had the ability to instantly scan for the security vulnerabilities of massive networks—corporate, military, institutional—with a single, scattershot glance. And it was idiot-friendly—so long as the idiot had access to and basic knowledge of a Unix-based computer: Downloading takes 5 minutes. The program comes with easy-to-follow instructions. You simply call the site or homepage you want to invade, steal from, deface, or, if you're feeling honorable, learn about, then follow Satan's commands. Satan, like his namesake, doesn't actually take you into that site; like Faust, you have to make that decision independently.
Most ominous-seeming, Satan was free: Farmer and Venema had turned down millions for it, then stood their ground when they were threatened if they went ahead with their free downloading—to be "sued out of existence," and worse. "Suddenly," prophesied The New York Times, "cracking a computer's security
won't require special technical skills, but simply the will to do it."
Quotes flew out to the press and over the Net like a computer virus: "Satan is like a gun," said Mike Higgins, chief of the computer-security team at the Department of Defense, "and this is like handing a gun to a twelve-year-old."
"Now the bad guys can pull it down and use your own weapons against you," warned Jim Settle, former head of the FBI's computer crimes squad.
"It's like distributing high-powered rocket launchers throughout the world," said Donn Parker, security analyst for SRI, a Silicon Valley quasi-government think-tank, "free of charge, available at your local library or school, and inviting people to try them out by shooting at somebody."
"...Get ready for an onslaught of people using this tool to attack," read an SRI report Parker co-authored. "It discovers vulnerabilities for which there are no known solutions." The report cautioned sysadmins to install the intruder-alert software known as a TCP/IP wrapper and call in experts to erect or upgrade firewalls, the network equivalent of a moat, at the company's juncture to the Internet. The irony was immediate to everyone familiar with Satan's makers: In their capacity as consultants, Farmer and Venema are the experts you call to fix your firewalls; Venema invented the TCP/IP wrapper.
"Unfortunately," said Farmer, "this is going to cause some serious damage to some people." It probably didn't help when he acknowledged that the network cracker Kevin Mitnick had broken into www.fish.com and downloaded a prototype. It certainly didn't help that he made his sexual proclivities as public as he did Satan.
Silicon Graphics, the Silicon Valley corporation where he held the self-assumed title of Network Security Czar, fired him shortly before the release date.
Then something funny happened. Though an estimated ten thousand Internet accounts sucked up copies, the brave new world didn't miss a beat. Some Satan-driven break-ins were reported (and, doubtless, a good many occurred unreported), but networks and individuals continued to subscribe at a dizzying pace, suspect IPOs and stocks with absurd P/E ratios soared in price and volume, and ads with nuns and peasants kvelling about surfing the global community flooded the same high-end slots. If anything, Farmer's openness and nonprofit downloading seemed to presage a continuing Age of Innocence; at worst, it was a case of old-fashioned exhibitionism tied to a technical issue, one easily solved by other geeks. "I don't care who he's in the hot tub with," said Bill Cheswick, a senior researcher at Bell Labs, "his [programming] code is good."
Farmer was the first to say that the buzz Satan created was unreal. He and Venema inserted a "white paper" ("How to Improve the Security of Your Site by Breaking into It") that heralded the program's true intentions, then added an audio key that set off the Public Enemy song "Don't Believe the Hype," and a "REPENT" command, which changed the Satan command to Santa Claus. Both were cyber-tropes that underscored their true ambition for Satan: to blow the cover of obscurity that computer security has always managed to veil itself with.
Writing the code for Satan took Farmer years of tedious labor. It functions so well because it is a compendium of all known security software and all known vulnerabilities: Whether you're a Swiss bank or a nuclear facility or a hamburger chain, you'll be using software that Satan knows the loopholes of. "All I did," says Farmer, still reveling in the bizarreness of his fifteen par-sees of fame, "was write
a program. Overnight, I become a rock star." When he consulted at Geffen Records, employees accustomed to passing Axl Rose or Madonna in the halls came flocking when they heard he was in the building. And women—"the kind you dream about," he says—began e-mailing photos of themselves in bondage, graphically detailing acts of submission they'd be willing to undergo. 'This image," Farmer says, "would, of course, burst instantly if these people had any idea how technical and laborious writing code is."
The issues he'd raised—of privacy and freedom, of responsibility and authority, of the increasingly fine line between intelligence and reason—these were, of course, far more complex than the zeros and ones of Satan's code. By harnessing so much "destructive" power, then unleashing it with such benign effect, he'd augured the debate of a future we're moving toward at warp-speed: Who's running this global community anyhow? And this was no nerd posing as agent provocateur, it was a sincere challenge, and it was coming from the vanguard of a paradigm shift that will soon make the cultural changes of the sixties seem like the hula-hoop craze. In a place like Northern California, where Farmer can leave his corporate office, jump on his black Honda Shadow, and step off a half-hour later into the free-for-all of a cross-dressing bondage club—without having to stop home for a change of clothes—that shift has probably already occurred.
It's a bizarre shift. "Take your money and put it in a safe," says Farmer, trying to explain it. "Then put that safe in the bottom of a vault, and rig the vault with mines. Are you secure? No. Someone will find a way in.
"Now take that safe, put it on Main Street, leave the door open, and put full-page ads about the money in the local paper. When you can do that and hold your money, then you're secure."
Farmer was born out here, the son of university people, but grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, where his father taught international economics. He was an unhappy kid, his memories of childhood largely of the books that lined the walls of his house, and of reading: from Curious George to Gigabit Networking, a path lined with fantasy/sci-fi. He remembers the household as "neither hostile nor affectionate, just sterile," and himself as a lazy, hostile 97-pound weakling with poor eyesight, his interface with the physical world not coming until arcade games went digital: first Pong, then Tank, Space Lords, Asteroids. He liked baseball, but his fascination was for working out percentages and averages on his slide-rule, then the early pocket calculators. He wanted to become an astronaut.
As with many of his caste, college was a wash, both academically and socially: He flew through science and statistics classes at Purdue, but when he learned NASA required 20/20 vision, he drifted down to the pool hall. Celibate and terrified, his first encounter was with a beautiful blond French student, Sheri, whom he saw in the pool hall, playing an amazing game of Space Invaders. He went home with her to meet her lover, a high-school music teacher, and sat on the couch with him while Sheri walked in and out of the room, modeling outfits. When she came out naked, Farmer's mind went into hyperspace, and he couldn't even look at her.
It would be years before he'd work it out. For the moment, he was simply convinced no one wanted him—not his parents, not NASA, not Sheri—which made him angry, aroused, and even angrier. Future colleagues, living out scenarios of disenfranchisement and awkward rebellion across the country, and still a decade from the time they would descend on the Santa Clara Valley and take over the world, had begun sublimating, i.e., networking: quasi-military games like Adventure and Dungeons and Dragons, forming a hacker underground the rest of us would become aware of, at large, only in movies like War Games, or, among cognoscenti, in the Society for Creative Anachronism, jousting and raising chalices in the woods. Farmer did a bit of network cracking: "With computers, for some reason," he says, "there's a constant temptation to see what you can get away with." He soon found it a childish waste of time.
Too antisocial even for the misfits, he enlisted in the Marines. Recruiters tried to steer him into computers, but he just wanted to be a grunt: 'The ability to blow someone's head off from 150 meters," he later said. "Now that's an interesting skill to have."
"Getting drunk on this," Farmer points gleefully to the second 1978 Barolo we're working on in a pricey Nob Hill ristorante, "is entirely different from the buzz you get on your average bottle of screw-top wine." He summons the waiter for a dessert menu, and his eyes widen when he sees a 1970 Fonseca on the wine list.
Talking to Farmer, particularly about his past, can be frustrating if there's no fine wine on the table. Even drunk, he has an amazing capacity for digression; sober, it's a bit like the hypertext attribute of the World Wide Web—hit a key word and you jettison to some entirely different subject. Questions about his days in the
Marines prove especially tough going, for reasons I'm about to experience firsthand.
He lasted through one tour of duty, then went back to school as a reservist, taking a few computer classes, shooting a lot of pool. In 1989, still one course shy of graduating, he took an independent study with Jean Spafford, Purdue's leading computer professor, and wrote COPS (Computer Oracle Password System), a program that tested ("audited") individual machines for security loopholes. Writing the code took three months of all-nighters; Farmer still doesn't understand why he devoted himself so thoroughly. Perhaps it was the rigor the Marines had instilled, perhaps the obscurity of the work: Security was then a virgin field, the provenance of eggheads employed by corporations and government agencies he was convinced would never have an interest in him. They published papers in small journals that were hard to find, "And even then," he remembers, "you really had to read between the lines. I was offended by the security ethos: People feeling that by knowing something, they had one up on you. The old T know that, but if I told you, I'd have to kill you' line. I suppose I also found it very alluring." Perhaps he knew he was on to something: COPS proved a hugely successful tool (one still widely used). Though he gave it away freely, it gained him entree to the world that had always excluded him. By the fall he was in Pittsburgh, monitoring security nationwide and chasing Internet crackers around the world for CERT (the Computer Emergency Response Team) at Carnegie-Mellon. Later, amid the brouhaha around Satan, he entered negotiations with the NSA for a million-dollar contract for himself, a friend, and his former CERT colleague Tsutumo Inomora, the cyberstud who made a name for himself in 1995 by catching Kevin Mitnick. Negotiations broke down when...it really is a long story.
He lasted two years at CERT, getting increasingly fed up with the security mindset. Time and again, he'd alert sysadmins to leaks in their networks, only to see nothing done. "Security through obscurity," he says, "was the modus. Don't mention the problem, no one will know, and you won't have to fix it. CERT was in a great position to become the Ralph Nader of computer security, but it was all so hush-hush: They didn't want to talk about the airbags until after they'd been fixed."
He left in 1991, called up by the Marines for service in the Gulf War. By then, his fervor for long-range genocide had mollified; he petitioned for conscientious-objector status, and spent the eight weeks of the war in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, carrying weapons with no bullets while his C.O. petition was considered. "One night, I went out to get drunk with two other reservists, and we got to talking about skills we'd learned in Basic Training. 'Oh yeah,' one of them said. 'I'm in a bar, and this guy starts a fight. I pull out my knife, start gutting him, and split. Next day, I read in the paper about this guy who got killed.' Then the other one goes: 'Yeah, I'm in a bar, this guy starts in, I grab him from behind the neck and yank him. Next day, I read in the paper...'"
"He broke his neck?"
"No, crushed his carotid artery. In Basic, hand-to-hand combat training, they bring you to this big sandpit, pair you up into partners. 'OK, we're going to teach you how to kill your partner in three to ten seconds, depends on who they are.'"
Farmer gets up and comes behind me, wrapping his forearm across my neck. "I thought it would feel like blacking out"—he begins to apply pressure—"but it's actually extremely painful."
It is. I look across the restaurant at a tony group of three couples as Farmer tightens up. One of the women is wearing orange haute couture, staring bug-eyed at me; I suddenly find myself wondering if I'm the three- or the ten-second type, if this is the last person I'll ever see. "If I were to just sit down now"—Farmer locks the grip and begins to ease down—"you'd be dead."
Instead, he releases my neck, goes back to his seat, and summons the waiter to order the 1970 Fonseca. The entire restaurant is looking at us. Strange—that I don't feel any resentment, though my neck is ringing with pain; that, with my carotid artery in Farmer's embrace, I didn't feel fear, only curiosity. His voice behind me sounded so logical, his control of the hold so masterful. "I would have no compunction about putting a loaded forty-five to your head and blowing you away," he says, giving me one of those smiles, like Orson Welles in The Third Man, looking down from the ferris wheel at all the disposable humanity. "Or that woman over there in the orange dress. What difference would it make if I pulled
out a shotgun and ended her life? Mathematically speaking, it makes no difference whatsoever."
My neck is throbbing. I ask Farmer about S&M, and he talks about the relativity of pain, segues into the wise indifference and the capacity for irrationality of Zen masters, then, boom, some word or phrase gets his browser of a brain spinning: "I'm thinking about when my father was terminally ill," he says a few nano-tangents later. "My mother was into holistic healing, and he came home to die. I went to see him, and I told him that I loved him. I always wanted to tell him that again before he died, but somehow that never happened, which upset me. Then I realized, in the long run, what difference would it've made—to him, to my mother, to me? None whatsoever."
"Had you gotten closer to them as you got older?"
"Yes and no. They'd always been so distant, until I started to break away in adolescence, when my mother suddenly took an interest in me: Where are you going? Who are you seeing? I was never able to understand why I'd become so attractive. It was a mystery that nagged. Like when I was younger, first learning about sex. I'd lie in bed and wonder about my parents, over and over: Do they do it?"
"Why did that nag so much?"
"It was a problem I couldn't solve. I've always been that way: When I come across something that doesn't resolve, I stop and won't go further until I've worked it out. Paradoxes are a killer for me."
"Because they're irrational?"
"And because irrationality is as real as reason. It's the line between the two that fascinates me."
"Is that where computers come in?"
"Not at all. Computers aren't necessarily rational. I like computers because they do what I want them to do. If I want to tell a computer that two plus two equals five, it'll spend millions of bytes on that principle. Most of what I want is not rational."
"Is that where S&M comes in?"
"Not at all. S&M is super-rational. My sexuality makes perfect sense to me: Consensual forced sex, with a person who has a fantasy about being overpowered. I spent my life in relationships with partners who weren't enthusiastic about sex with me, until I learned that my fantasies are very real to me."
"Do they involve real pain?"
"Sometimes. It's a fantasy, but when it gets to the actual cuffing and biting and whipping and hitting, it can get pretty physical."
"But you don't enjoy being on the receiving end, do you?"
"Not usually." He reaches across the table to give my arm a friendly squeeze. "But some of my best friends do."
Inside a roped-off area on the second floor of Trocadero, the San Francisco club that becomes "Bondage A Go-Go" on Wednesday nights, a tall, bookish woman in a thong, black leggings, and cheap black flats straddles a wooden sawhorse and closes her eyes. She smiles as her partner, a shlubby guy in a Fu Manchu and pirate outfit, pushes her face down, handcuffs her wrists to the legs of the sawhorse, then whips her thighs and back with an abbreviated cat-o'-nine-tails. On a small stand next to the sawhorse is a fold-out leather case with a set of silver-plated tools—knives, scrapers, pinchers—and several lengths of chain and rubber tubing. When the whipping ends, the tools come out. It starts slowly, punctuated with kisses and whispers; by the time it ends, he's sweating and her body is dotted with red welts. He releases her, and they kiss, rather formally, light up cigarettes, then stand around making small talk. She's a good six inches taller than him.
"Boy, I'd like to top her." Farmer points to a woman in latex, chains, and a rubber apron. "She's truly beautiful." She wields a ten-foot bullwhip on a green-haired man in green leather pants and bustier, hanging a foot off the floor from a swaying leather-and-steel rack attached to the high ceiling. When he's had enough, another man steps into the brace and she gets imperiously back to work. I tell Farmer I don't think she'd be that easy to "top."
"You'd be surprised," he says. "Some of the biggest, toughest dudes and snarliest women turn out to be total bottoms. It takes all kinds."
And they're all here: a 6'7" albino man with large breasts and a page-boy, wearing high heels and hose; a bald woman in men's evening dress, who has apparently had her incisors sharpened to become fangs; a mournful-looking man in a silk-lined red cape and black boxer shorts, who paces among the whippers and torturers zapping himself with a Violent Wand—a miniature cattleprod that shoots a violet-colored charge and flames when it burns. On the first floor, several hundred people in leather, rubber, chains, capes, and baby-doll outfits are dancing to blasting industrial rock. The ambiance is different than one would expect in a club devoted to people working out their dark sides. Everyone seems open and friendly, gathered in a loose, laissez-faire communality, like at an open-mike poetry reading; there's also a strong feeling of unreality, of grown-up make-believe, like at a Star Trek convention. A strange insight: I look at these people and see an entire generation in front of their computers—modular, half at work, half at play, free
to reinvent themselves, show themselves without any fear of judgment. I can tell simply by the way I feel. It's clear as day I don't belong here—me with my notebook out and my pen working—but they don't care. It's just what I'm doing.
Farmer does the room like the Prince of Darkness, trailing a heavy musk of clove cigarettes and the thin jangling of his handcuffs, hands in his pockets, charmed by the various types but extremely aloof. Even in this crowd, he's determinedly an outsider, a person who has to disagree. You could clone this guy fifty times, put him in a room with his replications, and he'd still be estranged. Women dressed in black float across the room on stiletto heels on a regular basis to surrender themselves. He kisses them passionately, for about a minute, then very sweetly and pointedly moves on. He has the dominatrix on his mind.
"Are there a lot of computer people here?" I ask.
"Not really. There's one security guy, very well known, who was banned from here for fighting. Now there's a real top. Vicious guy. And there's a woman at SGI that I've been dancing around a relationship with"—he fires up a cigarette as he vaults onto the second-floor ledge and dangles his legs over—"amazingly attractive, brilliant, successful. She can only be someone's slave, someone who'll tell her how to live, dress, think, abuse her. It's so much responsibility, taking control of someone's life. I'm having trouble enough with my own."
"So you don't see much connection between this and the computer world?"
"Not really. The people here are actually looking for something different. Hackers aren't. Like when I was at CERT, I got a call from a military site in Florida. They had an intruder breaking in relentlessly, saying, 'I'm so great, you'll never catch me,' and they couldn't. I told them, 'Just ask the guy for a resume, offer him a job.' He sent it right in, and they busted him. Or when I go to DefCon at the Sands in Vegas, or these cracker conventions. I get so alienated with these conformists ranting about freedom. I'll give a technical talk to that effect: If you're going to break into me, just please, make it new. I'm tired of these old tricks you guys keep using. Deafening silence. They ask, 'What's your favorite news group?' and there's the same silence when I tell them, Alt.Sex.Bestiality."
"The feeling here reminds me a bit of the Internet."
"That's exactly right. All this talk about the global community and high finance is kind of off the mark. You know how everyone says the Internet is capable of so much, but instead it's just filled with personal garbage? I think they're missing the whole point, which is freedom, the element of fantasy: On the Net you can be anyone you want, say anything, without fear of rejection.
"What I find so strange is that it's all fantasy, both here and there. Here, there's a great feeling, but you can't really call it progress, or even life-affirming. Tomorrow, these people will wake up and be the same mid-management type or janitor that they were before they came in here. And on the Net, I never get anything accomplished. I'm thinking about when me and my partner Wietse were writing the code for Satan: Back and forth on e-mail for months, and we got very little out of it. Finally, I flew to Holland to meet him, and in three days of face-to-face, we polished Satan off."
"What was different?"
"I don't know. What we were doing was purely technical, configuration files and intervals, but somehow it was worthless without the 'human element.' The ability to look each other in the eye and say, 'You're full of shit.'"
The dominatrix, through for the night, walks past us, the long tail of her whip trailing behind her as she heads down the stairs. "Take a hundred people at random," says Farmer, "fifteen of them will be sexually submissive. Every time, I'll pick those fifteen out to desire. Male-female, big-small, black-white, blond-redhead, doesn't matter: By any rational criteria you'd use, it would seem
totally random, but it never fails. I just love that kind of—it's a strange word to use, I know—but I love that kind of verifiability."
"Sounds like science."
"No. I worshipped at the altar of science my entire life. It proved nothing."
The next afternoon, I accompany Farmer down the peninsula to the great altar of Western science known as Silicon Valley. The occasion, a sushi luncheon for the chief researchers at Sun Microsystems Laboratories, is innocuous and friendly enough, but I quickly begin to feel very old—simply by virtue of having been born five years too early for the spike in the computer-learning curve. I think of a line from an Alain Tannerfilm: "Prophets make holes in the future that historians look through to see the past." Over urchins, eels, and quail eggs I sit in a room with fifteen people whose work will shape my children's cognitive grammars, and I don't understand a word they're saying, just some quips and attitudes from buzzwords I've digested: the implicit condescension of calling hackers "The Mitnick Liberation Society," or a competitor across the Valley "bandwidth challenged"; the begrudging admiration of a hacker who broke into a network, changed all passwords to FUCK YOU, set the security level to HIGH, hit ALT, and vanished. The worst insult, it seems, is to call someone "random."
I spend most of the luncheon trying to see how Farmer fits in here, harboring the suspicion his colleagues have a similar difficulty. A lot of it, Farmer later tells me, is not his alternativeness, but simple professional conflict. "Their jobs are to improve and increase the flow of information. Mine is to make that flow secure. The greater the facility, the greater the security risk."
What they clearly share, however, is an ethos of intelligence, which I begin to realize is the real paradigm shift of this valley: a thorough disinterest in theory, possibility, ultimate truth; a reverence for incisiveness, making connections, solving problems. It's a mindset both suited to and dictated by the speed at which the technology is developing: A colleague working on a new chip down the hall, for example, is too busy to join the luncheon, as he's developing a form of three-dimensional calculus to solve a problem created by compressing and decompressing massive amounts of data. At stake, apparently, is the next technological hurdle: Only so much space is currently available to transmit information, ergo the data must be compressed. The work requires a quantum leap from three centuries of math; in five years, perhaps less, the resulting technology will probably be antiquated.
The net result is a breakdown in the normal sequentiality of thought, and with it, an irreverent love of the extreme and a hatred of typical hierarchies. April Fools' Day is a religious event here: They turn people's offices into par-three golf holes, or put steel arrows through the entire building. The pecking order, which seems inchoate at first, is set by skills I would have found hard to predict: On top is neither Farmer, and the publicity he's accrued, or even the resident genius of Research, Whitfield Diffy, who invented public-key encryption two decades ago. Not even the CEO, Scott McNeally, who two weeks previous nearly succeeded in
buying Apple. When he stops in for chitchat and sushi-envy, there isn't a look, word, or intimation from anyone in the room that he's any better, worse, or different. But when the name of another colleague hits the floor, the luncheon stops for a half-hour of apocryphal- sounding but apparently true stories of the man's capacity to get things done: how, on a trip to Java to give a conference, he had the harddrive of his laptop fry out on the beach, then found some local maven to scare up a few feet of wire, strips of copper, and a soldering iron. "In two hours," says the teller of this one, "he has it reconfigured, closes it up, hits the button"—he relishes a long pause before the kicker—"and it goes on." Mouths agape through the whole room.
Farmer and I want to smoke—a major no-no in a building that generates vast wealth with supersensitive transistors—and head up to the roof. The vista is both beautiful and ugly: the entire basin brilliantly lit on a warm, still day, but all somehow seeped-over with haze, reflecting between the mountains off the satellite dishes and power lines connecting the valley's factories and offices.
Farmer hops onto the retaining wall and lets his feet dangle over, then begins telling me who owns what out there: It's like going down the NASDAQ stock pages. I ask if he isn't nervous out on the ledge like that. The question barely registers.
"I suppose I'm a little nervous about you," he finally says. "If you rushed me and pushed me over. But I think I could fight you off."
Something clicks. Of course: Why else would I be so nervous? I have no reason to want to kill Dan Farmer, but the desire is in there somewhere: Anxiety about his futurism and my stone-age intellect? Pure random rage, as the guys downstairs might call it? Or perhaps this random greed I find myself feeling, looking at all these ugly buildings and thinking about the IRA investment I made in technology stocks that's lost me money. "You could break into all these guys, couldn't you?" I ask Farmer.
"Why would I want to?"
"To steal ten million dollars. Or better yet, just find out who's about to take someone over, release something new, buy their stock."
"Difficult, but sure. No problemo."
"How long would it take?"
"I don't know. Somewhere between two hours and two weeks. The two worst things you can do when committing a crime are a) rush into it, and b) not know when to stop. That's how Mitnick got caught. He didn't know when to stop."
"And you wouldn't get caught?"
"No. And if I did, I'd just lie and say I was testing their security, which is what these people hire me for in the first place. How could they doubt me: I'm the long-haired freak who gave Satan away for free."
"Then why not do it?"
"Because I have enough money."
"What about the future?" I ask, still fuming about my languishing retirement plan. "In five years, when the Internet is no longer a fun new game and the big boys have taken over, you might very well be expendable."
"No, I can't be excluded." Farmer gives me the big smile again, this time with a clear sense I haven't understood a word he's said. "The bigger they get, the more they'll need little old me."