Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?

So, now I’m getting spam faxes. Pages ranging from an ad for a periodontist in New York City, to the announcement of a new wireless cell provider in my area. I only have one phone – the same phone line that grandma would call in an emergency – and these desperate folks send faxes to me at all hours of the night, courtesy of the fax broadcasting companies that they’ve hired.

I’m already on the New York State government-enforced ‘do-not-call’ registry (a database of people who have requested that their phone numbers be removed from telemarketing databases). I’ve called the fax broadcaster’s automated ‘take me out of your database’ computer, and I’ve called the companies individually, telling them that this is a bad way to do publicity. As with Internet spam, however, the flood of unwanted messages only grows worse each day.

My question is, now that I know who these companies are, how terrible would it be for me to hit them back, say, with a late-night 500-page black fax (emptying their toner cartridge)? Or what if I called the periodontist and made, say, 40 different appointments for fictional patients?

If that seems too extreme, what if I simply called the periodontist and made one fictional appointment, in the hope that everyone else who got his three-page fax will do the same?

Two wrongs don’t make a right. The important thing is to get the doctor on the phone and try to explain to him why what he’s doing is so bad. And, of course, spend some effort trying to help the officials at New York State’s “do-not-call” registry to enact their enforcement policies. (It turns out the official Do Not Call Registry doesn’t apply to fax advertising, only to voice or recorded telemarketing.)

But I still want to screw these people – let them experience some of the power of “network effects,” if you know what I mean. They’re using a minimum of effort to create a maximum of impact. Thousands of faxes churning out millions of pages, that we receivers are paying for in time, waking hours, resources and money. Why not show them how easily the network can reverse this polarity?

This is why I was so glad to be speaking last weekend at the H2K2 conference (, sponsored by 2600 magazine. It’s an annual convention of hackers, perhaps *the* annual convention of hackers, held here in NYC, where they discuss everything from lock-picking to government policy.

It’s not that I thought the hackers would want to help me ‘teach these folks a lesson.’ Quite the contrary, I knew they would soothe my nerves with their unique ability to see the ‘big picture.’ Hackers, on average, are some of the least knee-jerk people I’ve ever come to know. They understand the tremendous leverage afforded by computers and networks, and respect the power to which they have access.

It’s why I decided not to tell them about it, at all.

Hackers are not the renegade wildmen painted by the media. They are a regulating force. Ballast. In a sense, they are the conservative wing of the technology innovation club, keeping a check on anyone’s unbridled power, and keeping us all aware of what direction our technology is taking us. As in any of nature’s ecosystems, certain groups and individuals work to maintain the natural balance, and to maintain an environment in which the entire system can thrive. In cyberspace, hackers are that group.

If I had chosen to tell them about my late-night fax calls, they would have just smiled and nodded. “Well, you could…” one of them would have begun, half-heartedly before the others rejected it with ‘why bother’ shrugs. If I’d been really lucky, I’d have been able to get them going on a possible new scenario – a plan to incapacitate these fax-spam culprits, painfully.

But, responsibly, the hackers would have refused to tell me how to execute such a plan. They would have known full well that, unlike them, I don’t have the discipline *not* to try it.