Elf Qrin's Lair


Rupert Cocke interviews Elf Qrin for the Wall Street Journal Europe



Valerio Capello aka Elf Qrin
Valerio Capello aka Elf Qrin


April 2002


Questions about ElfQrin.com

Rupert Cocke:
How long you've been running ElfQrin.com for? Why did you set it up?

Elf Qrin:
I had my first experience with the World Wide Web in 1995 and I was enthralled by it. Of course I was into networks and BBS since the '80s but I immediately realized that was something more, like the virtual worlds of Sci-Fi novels coming true.

What I liked more of the early WWW was its atmosphere. We were all part of a very special community, where everybody shared his knowledge and resources with the other members of such community. No matter what kind of information you were looking for, you could find it… for free. And if you were unable to find it, you could ask: it was possible - and to a certain extent, still is - to contact important people by e-mail and actually get a reply. For example, I had some NASA scientists to contribute to my online simulation game "Space Lander".

I felt I had to be part of it, and the very first thing to do was to have a home on the Internet, so in 1996 I created my account on GeoCities. It started as a personal home page, with information about myself and my works, which at that time included a couple of books published (a novel for kids and a linguistic research) and a videogame. I've learned HTML and then JavaScript by reading the source code of other people's web pages: the system could teach about itself and that was a Good Thing.

I decided my website would have to focus into the system and its inner working and secrets. In a word "hacking". I've started to make available online a collection of my own documents and a selection of the best texts I could find (I've always tried to get in touch with the authors to have their permission, in this case). But information was just a part of it. My website, for the same nature of the Web, had to be interactive, so I've started to write online tools and games. The problem was that it's basically a personal home page overgrown, although many people tell me they like that little naïf touch.

In the meanwhile, my texts (especially "Hacker Being") and online tools were starting to become popular, and people were linking them from their websites and talking about them in message boards. A short after I started to receive mails from "crews" asking me if I was interested in joining their team.

Eventually, in 1999, I decided it was time to move to a better server with all the features I needed. I couldn't still afford a server at home as I can now, but hosting was becoming cheaper and I moved to a paid service for extra features and less hassle. This is also when I registered the domain name ElfQrin.com for Elf Qrin was my character in the Role Playing Game "Dungeons&Dragons"… and I in fact feel very elfish.

Rupert Cocke:
How many visitors do you get to ElfQrin?

Elf Qrin:
ElfQrin.com currently gets about 4'000 unique visitors per day. Also, I'm admin at neworder.box.sk which is more popular (about 35'000 uniques/day). Actually many ElfQrin.com's regulars are regulars of NewOrder as well.

Rupert Cocke:
How many hours a day do you put into the site on average?

Elf Qrin:
It depends. It varies from zero to all the day long. I have to work on it in my spare time… and I have little spare time and several interests.

Rupert Cocke:
Do you see it as a labour of love or a job?

Elf Qrin:
Definitely a labour of love. I'm not getting any money out of it.

Rupert Cocke:
Are there any new features you'd like to develop on the site?

Elf Qrin:
The main problem with it is that it's basically a personal website overgrown. The first thing to do is to make it more modular and consistent implementing a web engine.

Rupert Cocke:
Do you think you'll still be running ElfQrin in 20 years time? How do you think it will have changed?

Elf Qrin:
It's hard to say what the World Wide Web will be in 20 years time, for a start. Think about the videogame industry: twenty years ago a single programmer could write a top game with code, graphics, and sound, while today videogames are similar to Hollywood movies, with comparable teams and budgets. Also, I could be unable to continue its development and pass the ball to someone else, although I would probably regret it.

Rupert Cocke:
Do you have any collaborators or is it mainly your own work?

Elf Qrin:
It's been entirely developed by myself. Some people contributed with articles, though. I'll probably open it to contributors as soon as the web engine will be ready.

Rupert Cocke:
What kind of feedback do you get from other hackers?

Elf Qrin:
Probably, the best recognition came when Eric S. Raymond linked a research I've made from the "Jargon File" ( http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/ ) -- the link is in the node "blue box" (check http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/html/entry/blue-box.html ). The hyperlink of "other colors" points to "The definitive guide to phreak boxes" on my website ( http://www.elfqrin.com/docs/hakref/phrkbox/phreakboxes.html ).
The same research was then published by 2600 - The Hacker Quarterly, issue Spring 2002. You know, it's a bit like having your name included in the Bible.
Also, I've received a copy of the famous "Hacker's Manifesto" for my website directly from its author, The Mentor, and I'm very honoured about it.

Rupert Cocke:
What are you most proud of?

Elf Qrin:
I like the fact people read my articles and use and enjoy my tools. When I was a teen I used to develop programs that only a few friends could use. The Internet changed everything.

Rupert Cocke:
Did you make any mistakes in the early days? What did you learn from them?

Elf Qrin:
Nothing really relevant. Mistakes means experience, anyway. I'm only afraid when I hurt people's feelings. Like things that shouldn't have been said or done.

Rupert Cocke:
Which other hacking sites do you like?

Elf Qrin:
There are only a very few good sites. Most of them are actually "lame" sites made by teens, with tons of virii and trojans to download. Although they could have a romantic role in the Internet underground, they don't have anything to do with hacking and you'll get soon tired of that stuff. Anyway I don't spend a lot of time into hacking sites, besides of NewOrder. I'm omnivorous and I like to explore everything of the Internet, from the downtown's top sites to its dirtiest alleys, so to say… it's such an anthropological experience.

Questions about hacking in general

Rupert Cocke:
Does it annoy you that most people don't know the difference between a hacker and a cracker?

Elf Qrin:
Oh yes… it's costing me a lot of money, actually. I had a couple of good sponsors from the USA that closed my account because of the content of my website, although they've reviewed and approved it in the past, and there's nothing illegal in it… besides of the "hacking" word. They not only retained my last payment, but also blocked some checks I didn't cash yet. I wonder who's the criminal… I'd like to point out it's not always a question of pride.

Rupert Cocke:
What do you think about the hacking scene at the moment? Is it getting better or worse?

Elf Qrin:
Much worse, in my opinion. At least in the short term. And this is a trend which goes beyond the hacking scene. I can see less interest into knowledge and culture in today's kids. Also, that vague sense of chivalry seems to have been completely lost. Perhaps our society is becoming too pragmatic.

Rupert Cocke:
Is the hacker scene elitist? Or a meritocracy?

Elf Qrin:
Oh, it's 1337 by definition :-) Yet you have to deserve to be part of that elite…

Rupert Cocke:
Do you ever worry about "selling out"?

Elf Qrin:
Yes, but at a certain point you have to decide if you want to stay hidden in your computer hole all your life long or expose yourself to critics. If you think you are doing the right thing and you don't have to compromise with yourself, you should have little to worry about.

Rupert Cocke:
Packet sniffers seem to be a bit of a double-edged sword. What do you think about them?

Elf Qrin:
There's no doubt almost any software thought for computer security purposes can be used for cracking or to invade people's privacy: packet sniffers are useful for sysadmins to detect potential network problems, but malicious users can use them to capture enough information to compromise a network. However this is true for any technology. The example of the atom that can be used to provide energy or build bombs is well known.

Rupert Cocke:
What advice would you give a young kid who wants to become a hacker?

Elf Qrin:
Curiosity is the key. If you are curious and smart enough you can do almost anything. Just always keep in mind that curiosity killed the cat.
However they should understand computers are only a part of it. It's very hard to see children playing on the streets nowadays, at least in the western world. I think the entertainment industry and its advertising campaigns together with today's hyper protectivism are stealing something to our kids.

Side projects

Rupert Cocke:
You seem to have a lot of side projects. What else are you working on at the moment?

Elf Qrin:
I'm currently developing a new website specific for kids ( http://www.ElvenKids.com ). Also, I've already published a couple of books and I'm now trying to write a new novel. Besides, I love to travel, especially to (apparently) dangerous and uncomfortable places, and I love to dedicate my free time to kids. Often such interests merge, in fact during the war in the ex Yugoslavia I've been in refugee camps as a volunteer trying to provide some moral relief to kids through animation activities. Also I've been several times in a home for homeless children in northern Argentina (I've made a website about it: http://www.HogarSantaClara.org ), and I'm planning to be back there on August.

Your background

Rupert Cocke:
Where are you from? How old are you?

Elf Qrin:
I'm Italian, and I'm in my late 20s. Actually I like to think I'm in my 12 v2.0, kind of I'm re-releasing my teenage years. It makes me feel and look younger, and definitely this release is much better than the previous one… mmm… there's still room for improvements as the third release is approaching.

Rupert Cocke:
When did you first use a computer?

Elf Qrin:
Although I've played a few videogames before than that, my very first computer has been a Commodore 64 in 1985. I've learned so much from it, and I still love it a lot.

Rupert Cocke:
Did you go to university? What did you study? Are you studying anything at the moment?

Elf Qrin:
The problem with the university here in Italy is that there is too much theory and too little practice. I actually know a guy who was one of the firsts graduated in a computer science course in the early '90s and he told me he graduated without never seeing a computer! Things are changed since then, but not too much… however I've dropped after less than one year. It didn't influence my education anyway.

Rupert Cocke:
What jobs have you had?

Elf Qrin:
Always computer related. I'm currently working as a partner in a company that offers services and consulting to other companies. I'll probably open soon a new branch of activity for computer and network security issues.

Rupert Cocke:
How many languages do you speak? How many can you program?

Elf Qrin:
I can speak Italian, English, and Spanish, and I'm familiar with French, German, and Eastern European languages. Also, I always learn some survival oriented words in every place I visit. For example, in India my brother and I rushed to a local bookshop to see how to look like a native when saying "go away" to beggars. It turned out to be something like "ogu ogu" in the local dialect. At least that seemed to work.
As for computer languages, when I was a kid I've always tried to write at least a few lines of code in any language I could hear of. Today I'm focusing mostly into online languages, such as PHP or JavaScript, because I want my creations to be available online to anyone.

Rupert Cocke:
Who do you live with?

Elf Qrin:
Ehr… it's me and my computer, this is why I don't spend a lot of time at home.

And finally

Rupert Cocke:
Is there anything I've missed that I really should have asked you?

Elf Qrin:
I'd say it's OK. May be you could have asked about issues related to open source, peer-to-peer file sharing (especially MP3s), website defacing, and general computer security, but on the other hand each of them would probably require a large reply.

Further questions

Rupert Cocke:
What about Open Source? Do you think it's changing the way the Internet works?

Elf Qrin:
Definitely. IT corporations have always tried to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) among users and companies about Open Source, labelling it as unreliable, unsecure, and unsupported. It's time to fight back with some facts. This is why you should prefer Open Source software for personal use or business:
a) In most cases it's free: no licenses to buy, no risk producers' organizations or law enforcement will hassle you for copies of an application you've forgot in some old computers;
b) The developer has no hidden aims: the product will do exactly what you expect it to do, and there will be no features intended to tie the user and his co-workers and friends to the product, or to profile the user and his habits, nor the program will try to "phone home";
c) The development will not be halted or reconverted in case the developer can't reach his goals (big money, dominant position in the market, or else...). If the original developer or team drops the project, anyone can continue the development;
d) there are no "back doors" to let governments or competitors to have access to your confidential data, because everybody has access to the code and would spot it;
e) everybody can submit bug notifications and possible solutions, or improvements, and make sure there are no security hazards in the code, which makes it much more robust, secure, and reliable;
f) many developers offer paid support, in case you need it, and there are a large number (depending from the popularity of the project) of free websites and discussion boards contributed by enthusiastic professionals.

Rupert Cocke:
how unusual your viewpoint is in "Being a hacker?" Are these views widely held in the hacker community? Or are you re-stating a core principle that many people have forgotten?

Elf Qrin:
I think these concepts are shared by most old school hackers as that essay comes from a research on the classic literature of the hacking culture, which means texts and documents written up to the late '80s/early '90s. Yet, the core principle could have been forgotten by newcomers.

Rupert Cocke:
What is your most exciting hacking project you're involved with at the moment?

Elf Qrin:
We are working on something related to AI, but it's at a too early stage to talk about it. Also, I have a cousin who recently graduated as an aerospace engineer and he's now working with ESA and NASA, and we are currently sharing some ideas that may evolve into very interesting projects.

Rupert Cocke:
What would you say to parents who are concerned about their children getting interested in hacking websites?

Elf Qrin:
Well, if their kids are interested into serious hacking they'll probably see them coding all the time and staring at screens filled with 0s and 1s. Unfortunately, most kids are actually convinced hacking is about spreading trojans and copying'n'pasting pieces of code of which they don't understand a single line but that can actually work as if they were casting a magic spell. While this stage lasts about one year and half, and it can considered "normal" in the development of the child like the oral or the phallic stage, they - the parents - should keep a closer eye on their kids especially in the unlikely but possible case they could cause a serious damage to someone. Unfortunately kids are often much more skilled than mum and dad, so that their parents should at least talk to their children and show them their concern about this issue, telling them how would they feel if someone would break into their computer and compromise their data.



Issued on Elf Qrin's Hacking Lab
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