After our long trip, we were finally there. We had driven for over three hours, gotten lost in downtown San Francisco, and couldn’t recognize one warehouse from another that we were passing by. Finally, from the backseat, Macki tells me to make a U-turn and pull over. We are sitting out in front of one in a long line of identical warehouses. I look over and see the brick and concrete building: metal grates on the windows, huge, foreboding metal doors. Macki calls upstairs on Rsnake’s cell phone, tells the voice on the other end that we’re here, and then asks which door to enter through. We wind up a large, old concrete stair case to another huge set of metal doors on the second floor and step out into a very big, very long, dimly lit hallway. Macki navigates the way through the maze of hallways until we get to a huge blue medal sliding door, with a little sticker on it that says New Hack City. I had been here before, but it had been a long time, so it took me a second to acclimate myself. Flashing multicolored lights, loud techno music, dim glows from the many computer screens and a video game projected on the wall greeted us as we came in.
This was the place, the infamous hacker hang out, New Hack City. Many people had heard of it, but fewer than one hundred people, besides members and close friends, have been allowed within its doors in its two-year history. It’s the kind of place you see in movies, but think doesn’t exist in real life. A blend of multimedia, music and technology, put together by some of the best known people in the computer underground.
New Hack, as the people who hang out there like to call it, was an idea that started way back in 1995 on the opposite side of the country, in Boston. It started with several friends wanting to find a place to gather, where they could share their experience with each other, learn, experiment, and most importantly pool their limited resources. In the early days of the Internet, as we know it, computer equipment was expensive, and dial-up access to it was hard to come by and was also expensive. It made sense for this group of friends to get a house together, start their own network and work off one dial-up account with all their pooled equipment. Like many good computer and technology people back then, none of them had computer-related jobs. FreqOut, one of the original members and a mentor in the group, had worked at a grocery store and dropped out of college, disappointed with the slow learning curve. Back then computer-related jobs were hard to come by, so most people "worked out of their garage," as the saying goes. The people at the soon-to-be New Hack City were no exceptions.
After 1994’s HOPE, or Hackers On Planet Earth convention held in New York City by 2600, some of the guys got motivated and had the idea to start a place up that was more than a hobby room—some place serious, where they could have fun, but at the same time really experiment, and learn about the inner workings of technology. They called it HELL. Similar to their place now, they pooled all their resources and equipment and started doing their own thing. Unfortunately, like its namesake, it burnt down when the building next door caught fire and took their house up with it. HELL, and everything they had there, went up in smoke.
Not to be deterred, some of them got a new place and started over. They started working out of their dirt-floored basement, and soon made it into a lab, building it all themselves (a fact FreqOut is very proud of). They did everything, from making the shelves to pouring the concrete for the circuit board-painted floor. Getting donated equipment from the friends they had made in the community and the underground, they soon had another network up and running. This is when the idea for the original New Hack City was spawned. The new place happened to be located near another group of their friends, who were also like-minded, and loved the idea of getting a place where they could all gather, pool all their resources, learn from each other, and become more of a driving force in the hacking community. So five people, FreqOut, GarbageHeap, ChukE, Rosie, and Deth Veggie, start the original New Hack City in Boston in 1995.
Soon a group formed around New Hack, and they started working with other, now famous, hacking groups like the L0pht, 2600, and others. As time went by, some of them started to break into the computer industry, and got computer and technology related jobs. With these jobs came more money, and as more money started to roll in, New Hack City started to get more and more high tech equipment. Soon New Hack was no longer playing catch-up, but was starting to near the cutting edge, and with their increased money flow, they started to build more equipment, and take on bigger and bigger projects. New Hack City was starting to get well known in the underground, and among their peers, but a hacking spree by a local hacker, not affiliated with New Hack City, brought the spotlight on their place, which the newspapers started calling a "hacking house." As usual, the media’s spotlight was not a good one, and the scene started to turn foul as the work hacker started to have a negative connotation.
During the summer of 1996, FreqOut flew to California to stop in for a job interview on his way to DefCon 4 in Las Vegas, and to his surprise, he was hired on the spot. Two weeks later, FreqOut, one of the crucial members of New Hack City, moved to San Francisco to start work for one of the biggest companies on the Internet. As fate should have it, at about the same time, another New Hack City vet, Deth Veggie, also moved to the Bay Area for a job. The migration had begun. The displaced New Hack City members soon hooked up with another Bay Area-based hacking group called the DOC, which is short for the Dis.Org Crew, and started to learn the ropes of West Coast living. When word reached back east as to the good fortune of their comrades out west, slowly, one by one, several members of what they now call New Hack City East, started to come to the Bay Area. As more and more of the group started to get together once again on the West Coast, the original New Hack City back east started to fold.
At a barbecue in late 1996, a mutual friend introduced FreqOut to a person who calls himself Reid Fleming, who happens to a member of another infamous hacker group, the cDc, and they started talking. Reid and FreqOut hit it off, and soon after started looking for a place where they could start New Hack City West. Over the next year, they got a group of people together that shared their ideas, motivations, and interests, and with the help of some of the cDc they found a place for the new home of New Hack City. In September of 1997, FreqOut, ChukE, Deth Veggie, Gweeds and Reid open the new, New Hack City.
That was two years ago. Now New Hack is a central gathering place, where people can separate their personal lives from their hacker persona. A place where all sorts of technological gadgets reside, and where there are more monitors than people. Inside their fortress of a building, they have high speed Net access thanks to a T-1 line run into their server room, which is then used to wire the rest of the rooms. They have several work benches, one for electronics, which happened to have a working laser on it when I was there, along with a ton of other tools needed for making and fixing electronics. They have a workbench for computers, where they had several working, and several soon-to-be cannibalized computers. In the back they have a wood and metalworking workbench with Skil saws, a drill press, a working arc welder and various other heavy tools. They have an isolated server room also in the back where they keep their system of OpenBSD boxes up 24/7, behind a firewall. If you think that is amazing, they also have a working hot tub, a refrigerator, and projection system that projects movies, games or whatever they run to it on a wall like a huge TV. They have a multimedia DJ-like area, where they have all their lighting systems, huge speaker system, fog pump and projectors with several computers hooked into it. There is a large collection of movies, games, software and books on various shelves around the room, as well as a lot of "things" hanging up around the place that would be of interest to someone of the underground mindset (let your imagination wander). It’s no wonder their invite-only parties attract some of the most well known people in the underground from all across the country.
As Reid and FreqOut put it, they want New Hack City to be a place where people are free to experiment and do whatever they want. They wanted it to be a place where they could all pool their knowledge and resources, and not be in a confined area, like someone’s house, or job, where their freedom to experiment might be hindered—a kind of hacker think-tank. They also wanted it to be the focal point for the local hacking scene, so it could be a strong influence in the local hacking community. An important point everyone touched on while I talked to the guys at New Hack, is that they wanted to make this place "media friendly." From time to time they invite people from the media to come to New Hack City, and see firsthand what hacking and the underground is really all about, without all the hype and without all the cloak and dagger that the underground is sometimes shielded in.
I would describe New Hack City as a cross between a rave party, with their multimedia shows, lights and loud techno music, and a high-tech college computer lab with a ton of high tech equipment, computers littering the building and people who are really intent and motivated sitting behind them. In short, as I said a while ago, it’s something you think would only exist in a movie.
New Hack City also has close ties with other major hacking groups, which helps it be such a driving force in the underground. Many members of New Hack are also in the cDc, have been associated with the L0pht or worked with 2600. Regular people that hang out include a few people from the DOC, some people with 2600, and other notable groups. When I was there, several cDc members were there that are also part of the New Hack crew; like Tweety Fish, Deth Veggie and Sir Dystic (who wrote the original Back Orifice tool). Thanks to the close ties with most of the major underground and hacking groups on the Net, and with its good relationship with the media, New Hack City has become a positive force for the hacking community at large, while at the same time keeping its mysterious veil pulled down, and keeping that dark aura about it.
Unfortunately no, chances are you can’t go there on your next trip to the Bay Area. Even though they have let outsiders in, like journalists, friends, or important people who come to the Bay Area for a visit, it is not open to everyone. Because of what goes on there is sometimes of a questionable nature, and because of who the people are who hang out, and work there, they require a level of privacy above the norm. This might explain why the building where they chose to locate New Hack is more like a fortress than a lab.
Even though you can't check out their place, you can take a look at what they are about, and maybe even get the scoop on projects they are working on by checking out their Web site at www.newhackcity.net. Most of the current projects they are working on they keep secret, or within the group, but others they like getting feedback on. One future plan that was talked about was to put together some sort of free class. The goal would be to help educate local media people, business owners and anyone who might be misled or confused by the scare tactic stories they hear on the TV, or read in the papers, about hackers and events relating to them.
Keeping true to their original goals, not only doing their own things like they always have, but now starting to give back, and helping bring the truth to light, has made New Hack City one of the last few strong holds of the original hack ideals.
I need to thank the guys at NHC for taking the time to talk to me for hours, for taking those wacky pictures, in and out of the freight elevator, and for bringing us to that killer restaurant (no monks coming over for me, thanks). Also a big thanks to Macki and RSnake for having the guts to get up so early to drive down with me with me.