Essay as Hack
I fear for the essay, friends, and its bad reputation. It feels white and dull, dusty, old. Encased in tombs like the Oxford Book of the Essay. Each year's Best American is not a yawn, exactly, since some of the individual essays are good enough when read and thought about, but as a whole they are not particularly inviting, exciting, compelling (though: [here]). They lack, what, pizzazz? Flash? Flare? Fireworks? Prestidigitation? Say what you want about the spectacle of memoir, but it at least seems timely. Hot. Fresh. Glittery. Fake. It has the veneer of reality or reality show. It as much as anything else appears to be about the stuff of our lives, or the wished stuff of our lives: suffering, crime, sexual politics, revelation, television, possibly hot tubs, body waxing, celebrity, and bikinis. You know a memoir might be trashy but it will entertain us. But essays? They are easy chairs. Thinky. Stable. The nice sensitive older guy driving a 92 Volvo. The smell of aged pine. They are sedentary. They connote senescence. Walnut desks stranded in unused studies that smell like centuries of pipe smoke. You have to admit it does not feel like a youthful form.
All of this sob story for the essay is concurrent with the declining technology of the newspaper, the literary journal, and other print media that gave rise to many of the essay's brightest stars. We still have commentary but it's moved online. It's become increasingly an amateur sport. Distributed via blog and amazon reviews by Top 500 Reviewers to you, the consumer. Perhaps it's only fair.
Maybe the lyric essay is an exception. A sparkler, a firecracker on a summer evening. It alone is saucy, upper lip curled. Flirty in its assignations with poetry. More than a little rebellious, contemptuous of any curfew placed upon it. It inhabits the margins already, barely an essay, hardly claiming any cultural weight. We'll return to this lonely roamer later.
A sign: a sigh was my response to the essay when I discovered it. I did not lack love for its meanderings, its attempts to convey the motions of thought, but it felt remote. Isolated. Writ in stone and handed down. Unapproachable. The production of years of pristine thinking and immersion journalism. It is seemingly inaccessible from an artist's standpoint without deploying some kind of wizardry.
As an enthusiast of literary forms, I faced the wall. I looked up it, looked around it. Saw only wall and wall and wall. Brick after brick. No chink. No crinkle in its face.
This is one trajectory.
Introduction to the Hack
Hacking is at heart a creative activity. It is first, simply, an exploration, an opening up, of a system. A kind of problem solving. When we say hack, we probably mean to illegally access a computer system by any one of various means, probably by someone geeky, eggheaded, to plant a virus in some high-level Dept of Defense computer, but that's reductive, pejorative, sloppy thinking. Most hackers who illegally access computer (or other) systems do it not to break the law but because we want access. Because we see a system and we are not allowed inside it. Because we see that apparently impenetrable tower and we want to know what rests within its walls.
More loosely, a hack is an ingenious use of technology to accomplish something that is otherwise impossible to accomplish. It is a bridge from one land mass to another over deep water. It appears, like any sufficiently advanced technology, as a kind of magic. It comes out of the insoluble. It is surprising. Pleasing. Amazing.
For instance, a famous hardware hack, the red box, repurposes a Radio Shack autodialer (a portable, pre-cell-phone device that could store and automatically dial numbers) via some soldering to mimic the tone (technically a series of four tones) that indicates to a pay phone that a quarter has been deposited, allowing me to call anywhere for free. The blue box (the even more famous hardware hack) generated the 2600 Hz tone and allowed a hacker (well, technically the term is phone phreak) to take control of the trunk line and go wherever he wanted to go in the phone system. These hardware hacks commanded knowledge of a system (often discovered accidentally, or through long evenings of trial and error) to accomplish control.
For some users of the red box, the device is about free calls. For others it is about the act of accessing the network, of bypassing a lock quite ingeniously, it allows further exploration, node by node, of a network.
But regardless the hack is the trick, not what use it's put to.
I have lived the life of accessing networks, exploring PBX systems and phone lines, been publicly punished for it, for my audacity. Illegal access to credit cards, to databases of hundreds of thousands of credit cards. I didn't use credit cards for anything: I simply wanted access to them, to the growing, private world of information stored on thousands of servers lined up, hidden away in banks of modems. Because I could, I tell myself, I wanted in.
I hesitate to try to ascribe a particular motivation to my actions in retrospect. The brain reconfigures memory, reorders events, resets them among other events to form narrative, causality: it creates sense. The mind tells itself stories about what happens to it. So me saying that I did X because of Y rests on thousands of assumptions about who or what I think I am, how I thought of myself then—transmuted into how I think about myself now. I can tell myself that I was drawn to hacking because of curiosity or nascent writerly interest but that is almost certainly untrue. Who knows why I did what I did, why I broke into Michigan Bell trucks armed with smoke bombs and centerpunches and mace in case the cops arrived? And who knows what I would have done with the mace if the cops arrived? Any sort of attempt to sort meaning from the past is fraught in thousands on thousands of ways, exponentially splintering. The more you think about it the more it asymptotically approaches impossibility.
This is not to suggest we shouldn't attempt it. The attempt is glorious, and attempting rewires the brain. It moves the circuitry around, attaching a new conclusion to an action, reconstructing self. In a way, thinking about the self hacks it.
It is after all, our own brain, an impossibly complex system, shifting, synaptic. It is the system, the main subject for literature of any sort, the perfect subject, also seemingly inaccessible.
The memoir appears to try to understand but mostly it narrates. airs action out, reveals it. It offers us confession, prepackaged narrative arc: redemption, for instance. It thinks it thinks but it does not quite get there.
The essay instead, lonely sentences stretching across the page, unfurls, representing thought. The essay affords us the best way to hack this system.
Essay as Game
Let me take another shot at it.
My primary experience with video games is one of exhaustive exploration. While I can't quite admit the level of exhaustive play that characterizes those who write completist walkthroughs for, say, Final Fantasy XII, which I have logged 110 hours playing on the PS2 (helpfully the game tracks my addictive hours), I do spend a lot of time thinking about and being immersed in game worlds.
“Split Infinity,” the writer who compiled the FAQ/Walkthrough I have been consulting for some of the more arcane secrets that the game holds, is one of these superexhaustive players slash writers. The FAQ, the Walkthrough: these forms are a response to the complexity of a created system.
The FFXII FAQ is exceptionally exhaustive (a sort of split infinity). It is 1600 pages. 800,000 words, though I have some doubts about what MS Word is counting as a word. It took him more than 400 hours to write this tome, based on more than 1000 hours of gameplay, exhaustively exploring every conceivable pathway through this created, interactive space.
I would argue this is essay, even as it is an informative document. It is a record of an individual (and eventually collaborative) exploration of a system. It is a fairly ingenious solution to a problem: where can gamers go to find information about how to get the Zodiac Spear, for instance (the answer is very far from obvious). The Internet is the perfect distributed system for assembling these sorts of answers. For hacking the problem into soluble chunks and distributing it across thousands of players' experiences. Split Infinity has done it for us. It is a staggering achievement.
Too, it is a hack. Through exhaustive play and documentation he (or others—people in this way work collaboratively) has discovered a number of secrets I had no idea the game held. He has accessed secret rooms in the dungeon, and he's given us the key. He's opened up hidden areas in the system. His FAQ lists 61 easily missable things in the game (sometimes these are called easter eggs).
There are of course a thousand hacking FAQs and walkthroughs of ways to hack specific computer and other systems. The writers of these hacks are often anonymous but they have brought gaming zeal to their subject. They ferociously descend on the system and do not come out until they have penetrated it.
It's a little male, though, you have to admit.
Reading these FAQs—or, better, writing them—adds pathways to the brain. Adds syntax where there was none. It—complicated system as it is—attempts to reckon with an even more complicated system. To map it out. To render it inert, paused, interrupted, in another form.
Essay as Simulated Mind
The essay tries hard to solidify the motions of thought. It—more than most other forms of writing—is not as beholden to tradition, restriction. Sure, it's, like, old. Totally AARP. We can date it back to Montaigne, or, trying harder, Seneca. I have to admit that Montaigne bores me. Seneca, too, really, and most of what we call the moral essayists, publicly thinking about individual behavior as part of a society, offering suggestions for better living, and so on. Maybe it's my age. Maybe it's that I want to sex it up.
The essay does not rely on narrative arc (though it can). It does not rely on lyric motion (though it can). It can potentially incorporate anything, draw from anything, in search of the range of motion of human thought that it attempts to present.
It is a sticky ball. It is the video game Katamari Damacy. It accommodates. Like the brain.
Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer's mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought:
So, a quote to add to our ball, a line to add to our algorithm, one strand of thinking:
"...the essay is decried as a hybrid; that it is lacking a convincing tradition; that its strenuous requirements have only rarely been met: all this has been often remarked upon and censured." The quote is from Theodor Adorno's essay, "The Essay as Form."
Here we find ourselves. We find ourselves plucked out of our lives and are transplanted in the middle of a mind. A plot, really, strung together of thought. Of a linguistic situation. An argument. Given that the essay lacks tradition, what then? And later:
"Luck and play are essential to the essay. It does not begin with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to discuss; it says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete—not where nothing is left to say."
Adorno tries to describe what the essay does. It thinks. It plays. It discusses. It cuffs at ideas as if they were a ball. It is discursive. It cures nothing. It might occasionally curse. Naturally it is subjective, but it owns that subjectivity and strives to comprehend and transcend it. It has its stated subject (in Adorno's case, trying to work out the form of the essay in the historical situation he finds it in), but all essays' implied subjects are the essay itself, the mind of the writer, the I in the process of sifting and perceiving, even if the I is itself only implied, never apparent, hidden underneath the shroud of formal argument. Who argues, we ask. A pause. Silence. Awkward moment. Then: I do, it responds weakly.
The essay claims its own limits and works within them: as it works, so does the mind. As the argument shifts, cuts back, or redoubles, uncovering something the essay did not know it knew (for that is every essay's purpose, to wend, explore, to sidetrack as it must), so goes the processes of the mind. It freezes thought for us. Of course this fixity is a lie: one line of thought extends and becomes yesterday, diaspora. The second time through an essay in revision we are not the same combination of brain and body; the network has shifted and what we thought we thought is no longer what we think. And by thinking we erase or redouble thought, confirming or denying it. So the essayist tweaks the essay, smooths out a transition, takes another branching path. And that version of thought is fixed and left, a pathway in the brain, graphite trace on the page. And on and on until the essayist gets up and gives it up. The essay should change on every public reading or recitation as something new occurs. But it's impossible in art. Finally we have to let it go and hope it will show the reader something new.
Reading essays gets us closer to others' thinking, or at least the most recent version. Writing them gets us closer to our own. It at least allows us to interrupt the constant motion of our minds to put something down and consider it, think about it from a year removed, or from space on the shuttle, or in a different space, overlooking another view from a new hotel in a different city.
And what about the lyric essay? Have we forgotten it? It proceeds in chunks, disconnected fragments. It pauses, tacks around the subject or dead-end through white space.
In some ways the lyric essay is the most essay sort of essay.
Our lyric variety of the essay is a polyglot. It is pansexual. If the essay is a ball, the lyric essay is a super sticky power ball. But calling the essay lyric doesn't add all that much. It specifies, I guess, that this essay is a lyric one. It closes down some of the dimensions through which essay might move.
Essay itself is already polymorphic. It is oversexed in its potential union with anything: polemic, story, treatise, argument, fact, fiction, lyric.
But lyric has freshened up the essay world, it seems, so we should be grateful.
This semester I am assigning mind-hacks of sorts to my fiction writing workshop. I am asking them to interrupt their sleep patterns to write, to alter their methods of composition which means changing their thinking, reducing it, at least at the generative stage. To feel the force necessary to strike keys on a manual typewriter. To only write in abandoned buildings. To dictate into a microphone. To write hungry. Exhausted. If I could, I'd prescribe some psychotropic drugs. The brain gets used to its own strategies when we write. It finds the path of least resistance, like a liquid on a surface. It moves. It settles into ruts. I am trying to get my students to write from different mental states, to find their way to different voices. I think of this as a way of hacking the brain, to get it—technology as it is—to go someplace it is unaccustomed to. I want them to try to feed it different stories, different stimuli, in an attempt to get it to generate different sorts of texts.
Essay as Interruption
The world moves. Art stops it. The essay stops it. It is a temporary thing, but necessary. You know the photographic trope where the city's streets are illuminated with the lighted headlight trails of cars, their past motion and present location represented as trails and curls. Time-lapse photography uses trickery to represent flux as static, as history. Beauty occurs in isolation, from a distance. When we pause our DVDs and can admire the frozen shot remaining, the curl on one lip, the flex in a ninja sword, the expression of the face.
The essay, like a poem, acts as fermata. It processes ideas, images, texts, or objects at its own speed. It rewinds, meditates, circles, returns, sits and spins if it must. And it should. It is, like all good art, an interruption, an intervention between the world and the mind. Its status as a weird sort of hybrid comes from this. Stories have forward motion. They are driven by what happens. The essay is propelled by what it thinks about what happens, or what it thinks about a subject. It turns the subject in its mind. It gets all self-conscious. Too self-conscious sometimes. The essay can lock up, find its way to infinite recursion: what do I think about what I think about what I think about etc.? If left undisturbed, thinking can spiral down.
The essay-space is a dreaming space. Everything is allowed. It might move erratically, as in dreams, with its own logic. It can tangent out, follow a line as far as it can go.
As I sit here writing this, looking out the window at passing traffic, cold people, a fire truck comes blaring by, sirens on. An ambulance follows. My gaze here—my train of thought, too—is interrupted. Back to regularly scheduled traffic programming. Two minutes later another fire truck blows by, moving fast. These vehicles are en route to intervention. A home might be on fire. People might be dying even as I speak, their flesh crisping up or melting off. It could be a false alarm. If I were a real investigative essayist, or journalist, I'd be up and in my car, on their trail, trying to dodge the resuming traffic, hoping to see something exciting or terrible.
I am not. I haven't moved. A girl opens the door across the street. The pizza delivery guy is inside. Nothing is happening. They are both just sitting there. Her boyfriend, apparently wearing Zubaz, looking a little like an animal, shows up from the back. There is a transaction. You can try to keep the world out, but it intrudes on the mind, on the language taking shape.
I believe in interruptions. I believe in sidetracks. The pizza guy is from Domino's. I used to deliver Domino's in Ames, Iowa. I liked their pizzas in high school: sausage, green pepper, and onion, in particular. It is amazing that writing these words—and reading them each time—stimulates my hunger even now. Take that, brain! Take that, body! The job sucked but paid occasionally well. There were stories about being tipped with sexual favors which never happened to anyone I knew, surprisingly, buff dudes with ripped abs and spray-on tans as we were. I was in grad school. Everyone there was younger than me and enjoyed humiliation. I quit that job.
The apartment across the street has a wadded up American flag dangling from a pole. This must mean something but I know not what. Perhaps if I think about it long enough, allow the mind—and the sentence—to swirl around it, it will dream and yield up its meaning (or I can fool myself into thinking that it will yield its meaning).
Essay accommodates. It expands. It contracts. It is a flexible technology.
The good essay advantages itself of interruption. Thinking, after all, is not dramatic. Because it is isolated, potentially pure mind, it can spin and spin. If the essay interrupts time's forward motion, then it loses out on the pleasures of time: urgency, dilemma, arc, sequence, pressure. Left without constraint, the essay languishes. Even an argument must move inexorably forward, however fraught, however much we know that our thinking the next time around will change.
Of course any text moves forward. It reads (and composes) word by word, sequentially, line by line and on down the page. It stacks up like in Tetris. It creates pressure on the thinking. Even as the essay diverges in its thought processes, as it follows tangents and diversions, there's still the expectation of convergence, of a final arc. We want the essay to rise and take its shape. We want to be pleased. We want cohesion. Maybe we want redemption for your or our sins. We want rising and falling action, even in essay. The smart essayist knows this. She uses the reader's expectations to her advantage. She understands that even faced with infinity we need constraint.
I believe in the fragment. It's the most honest representation of anything. It acknowledges gaps, its lack of comprehensiveness, its ability to surround and control a subject, an idea.
Of the literary forms, the essay is the most open to fragment. Because it tries to represent thinking, it knows only so much. It constantly faces the edge of what it knows and stares off the edge into a darkness filled with question marks. The essay is about limitations. It understands itself. Because it forgoes much of the structure of poem or story, it gets by on its own ability to expand and consume whatever we feed it. It is self-replicating, expanding like a virus.
Perhaps it's more accurate to say an essay is like a worm, spreading across systems, sending out new shoots. It is modular, nodular.
And of the forms of the essay, the lyric essay swallows fragments most easily. In order to accommodate gap, the essay must ape the poem—it must create an openness, an attention to beauty rather than meaning, at least on the micro-scale, it must jump through gaps and continue on, an elision of the white space on the page.
I am a writer who likes constraint. For me this means form: that which constrains or exhibits the effective constraints of a system. It is an obsession. Forms come in dreams. They structure dreams. They embody system. The outline is a system. The index is a system, or it relies on system. Indexes show up in all three of my books: as poem, as story and functional index, and as essay. So the essay begins for me with the acknowledgment of system. This limits the motion, the options for the essayist. It allows the thinking and rhetoric to expand and run along the edge. This is what hacking does. Hacking engages with a system, with its physical or digital limitations, the impossibility of access to parts of the system, for instance, without authorization. The limits of the Unix structure of read/write/alter rights. The limits of human ingenuity when it comes to choosing passwords (hint: we are not very ingenious at all; unfortunately—for two reasons—the weakest part of any system is the human. The first reason is that it's unfortunate from a hackerly point of view that the easiest way in is the least technologically sophisticated: guessing. Or educated guessing, based on what I can find out about a person. Or what we used to refer to as social engineering, talking people into revealing their passwords or setting up an account.
A form is like a challenge. A wall. A system of rules. A dungeon. Signifiers accessing other signifiers. Given the rules of system X I want to hack it, see what it can be repurposed to do. In this way writing the essay accesses the system, breaks the locks off of it, pushes against it, line by line, and transforms.
My friend Nicole has a purse made out of candy wrappers woven together. It is a beautiful object: glossy, slick, enclosing, crafty. I find myself wanting to fill it with candy but in practice she fills it with the usual stuff of a purse, a world I don't typically have much access to. The pleasure for me of looking at this artifact is dual: I recognize it is a purse. On closer inspection we see it is made up of candy wrappers. It is both things and neither, and in so doing it is something more. It is transformed.
It is also falling apart. It is an object transformed into another object. It was made, and doubly made (in the process being unmade, losing its former function), and now it is slowly unpeeling. I wonder if the half-life of the object is intentional. That, like a candy wrapper, it is finally disposable, reducing to the memory of what it contained, a ruin.
I write this talk on my new word processing program. It's called WriteRoom (click here), and it is fantastic. The screen I am writing on mimics the look (in some ways) of a green-screen monochrome monitor, the kind you'd find on an Apple IIc, for instance, or an old IBM PC. In this way the writing of this—the essaying of it, for I have only a vague sense of where I hope this essay to go—is physically not all that dissimilar from my experience sitting in front of computer screens looking at the login prompt of a BSD Unix system or the entrypoint for an unknown database, announcing almost nothing about itself. I am there again in one dorm room or another, or downstairs in the basement of my parents' split-level, thinking about ordering Domino's and quaffing Cokes, fingering my bag of dodecahedron D&D dice, playing some Sisters of Mercy on my boombox bought from a duty free shop in Dubai. I am feeling cool. The world is stretched out in front of me, accessible via keyboard, via text input into a machine. It is a series of walls and gateways. This is a generative space for me. It is like a dream. It is light spreading out in darkness (green light growing on the black screen). It is like an electric dungeon.
Hacks surround us. The world is made of them, of ingenuities. Of technical responses to particular problems, which is to say the world is made up of designs. The essay is one of these, a technology repurposed in any given instance to solve a sort of problem, one that it does not know it is meant to solve until it solves it. It is an exploration; it serves the function of art, treading out in darker waters.
Even this essay—especially this essay—is a hack. Given the idea an essay is a hack I have been trying to find ways to make it work, to wave my hands, trace my thoughts, produce language, produce magic.
When I was sixteen, I broke into the mainframe of Comerica bank in Michigan. The details are now distant. It was simple. Really no hack at all. It required a couple minutes of guessing passwords. Once I found the dial-in number it led to an unlocked door. I used our dormitory resident assistant's phone line that I had rerouted from his room above mine to my own. Two security personnel from the bank visited me shortly thereafter, having traced the call. I hadn't thought to try to make my number more difficult to trace; in a way it did not occur to me that they might take offense at my exploration, my intrusion. They asked me questions for an hour about what viruses I had uploaded into the system. I was dumbfounded. They expected—or maybe feared—the worst. What I cared about was simply being inside, typing words and sending them through my modem to their modem to their mainframe system, something larger, more complex, more powerful and godlike and awful and other than my personal computer—and having it respond.
Eventually I was not allowed to have a phone line for obvious reasons. I had acquired master keys for the campus that year, and I went about rerouting two phone lines from the switchboard in the basement: one snaked up to my room. I painted the phone line the color of brick (or perhaps I wish I had—there is no way to tell if this is a fabrication; it feels too ingenious in retrospect, the mind says: you weren't quite that crafty) and bent the lead panes in the dorm room window to accommodate the line. The other line I snaked up to my friend Jason's room. We had hollowed out one of the standard-issue dressers so that the drawer faces were just façade. I had installed a computer in his hollow dresser for my BBS, Datacrime International, to run 24-7 on a modem and the rerouted, dedicated line. I admired that hack, that hiding of the machine in the dresser. It was like a literary symbol, I thought to myself appreciatively. Or perhaps I think so now.
I also rewired the phone system of the dorm so that the payphone was connected to one of the professors' lines, allowing everyone to call for free. It was an elegant solution to a particular problem: being stuck at boarding school with no money, no phone lines, and no way out except the pay phone. I freed that passage up.
None of this is difficult. I did not evade detection. I wasn't all that smart. Many hackers I knew were more ingenious, more serious, than me, more adept with assembler code or with the errata of shadowed password files in BSD Unix. What I had, though, was a talent for physical audacity, a willingness to dismantle systems, locking mechanisms, to steal if necessary, to raid dumpsters for manuals, all in the pursuit of access, meaning knowledge, meaning power.
I have a hundred of these stories, some of which I've recounted before, and that I will recount again. They are a cloud of possibility that resides in the brain part of the body that produces this essay. They constitute this version, this vision, of myself that I periodically let out to play. But with technical ability at writing, and the discovery of the pleasure of plundering received forms, a lot of my interest in the hack moved in a literary direction, towards the intricacy of language systems.
And now the language systems interact with the memory system that recalls the hacker exploits, and behind every essay I write is this hacker persona, this desire for punkrockitude, the trickster impulse.
The History of Literature
The history of literature is the history of experimental literature. Thank God. It is—or it mirrors and prefigures—the history of hacking. Of geographic exploration. Of body modification projects. Of medical innovation. Of Star Trek mythologies or other invention. Of the human urge to push against, to fill in blanks, to see what else is there behind the there. What person wants to accomplish simply what has occurred before? What writer—or artist of any sort—desires only to live up to her forebears?
Experiment interacts and sprouts from literary history. Every poem, every story, every essay must still deliver an emotional or intellectual experience, no matter how unusual the form. It must still offer arc. It must emanate from a mind and show some trace. It poses questions and resolves at least a few of them. Experiment is a hack of one or more formal element, trying to do without it, to cross a gap. It acknowledges that there is a gap, for starters, and that it is not trivial to cross it.
But those who decry literature as experimental are usually saying something is only experimental, that it lacks human dimension, that it is all brain, no body, no heart. That it is an experiment that has not borne fruit. But the experiment is the process, not the product.
The problem is colossal: rendering human experience as text. Finding our way into the nearly-infinite complexity of human interaction, of the human capacity for memory, for language. Our job as writers, as essay writers, is to set out (dare we say essay) with no clear sense of what the results of the experiment will be, but to try to create something of it that is somehow magical.
The last strand—or maybe fragment—of the essay has yet to fall into place, I think, as I prepare for bed, looking out on the spectacular ripple of lights in the city buildings. After a ridiculous battle with the packaging, I get open one of ten individually-wrapped pouches of Vanilla Mint-flavored Benadryl Quick Dissolve Strips. That is a lot of adjectives. One of many recent methods of delivering medications (the caplet, the capsule, the tablet, the tab, the gelcap, the liquid) all offering us options to the pill, I have been looking forward to this, I think, for months. I am a huge fan of the Listerine Pocket Pack breath strip. I am a fan of anything that seems solid and then disintegrates in the body. With the pouch finally open, I lay it on my tongue like an offering. Or maybe I am thinking communion. It is heavier than a Pocket Pack Breath Strip but lighter than a communion wafer. It smells tingly. Minty. I am amazed by its technology. On my tongue it holds its form for a minute, longer than I would expect. I watch my mouth in the mirror as it dissolves. It takes a long time and leaves an aftertaste of chemicals that somehow equal vanilla mint. Even now I can feel it in my mouth and I am pleased. I don't know what this means.
This article is about the use of telephone technology to steal information. For the manipulation of telephone call routing, see Phreaking.
Phone hacking is the practice of manipulating or gaining unauthorized access to mobile phones, such as by intercepting telephone calls or accessing voicemail messages. When the unauthorized access is to the phone user's conversation, it is more commonly referred to as phone tapping.
The term came to prominence during the News International phone hacking scandal, in which it was alleged (and in some cases proved in court) that the British tabloid newspaper the News of the World had been involved in the interception of voicemail messages of the British Royal Family, other public figures, and a murdered schoolgirl named Milly Dowler.
Although many mobile phone users may be targeted, "for those who are famous, rich or powerful or whose prize is important enough (for whatever reason) to devote time and resources to make a concerted attack, it is usually more common, there are real risks to face."
The unauthorised remote access to voicemail systems, such as exposed by the News International phone hacking scandal, is possible because of weaknesses in the implementations of these systems by telcos.
Some PABX systems have a distant voicemail feature, which is accessed by entering a password when the initial greeting is being played. A hacker can call a direct dial number with voicemail, and then try to use the default password or guess it, or then select the "call back" function, and enter a premium rate number for the call back. The PABX calls back the premium rate line, confirming the password for the hacker. To stop this form of hacking, the call back feature on the PABX can be turned off, or a strong password used.
Mobile phone voicemail messages may be accessed on a landline telephone with the entry of a personal identification number (PIN). The service provider commonly sets a four digit default PIN that is rarely changed by the phone's owner. A hacker who knows both the phone number and the default PIN can access the voicemail messages associated with that service. Even where the default PIN is not known, social engineering can be used to reset the voicemail PIN code to the default by impersonating the owner of the phone with a call to a call centre. Many people also use weak PINs that are easy to guess. To prevent subscribers from choosing PINs with weak password strength, some mobile phone companies now disallow the use of consecutive or repeat digits in voicemail PIN codes.
During the mid-2000s, it was discovered that calls emanating from the handset registered against a voicemail account were be put straight through to voicemail without the need of a PIN. A hacker could use caller ID spoofing to impersonate a target's handset caller ID and thereby gain access to the associated voicemail without a PIN.
Following controversies over phone hacking and criticism that was leveled at mobile service providers who allowed access to voicemail without a PIN, many mobile phone companies have strengthened the default security of their systems so that remote access to voicemail messages and other phone settings can no longer be achieved even via a default PIN. For example, AT&T announced in August 2011 that all new wireless subscribers would be required to enter a PIN when checking their voicemail, even when checking it from their own phones, while T-Mobile stated that it "recommends that you turn on your voice mail password for added security, but as always, the choice is yours."
An analysis of user-selected PIN codes suggested that ten numbers represent 15% of all iPhone passcodes, with "1234" and "0000" being the most common, with years of birth and graduation also being common choices. Even if a four-digit PIN is randomly selected, the key space is very small ( or 10,000 possibilities), making PINs significantly easier to brute force than most passwords; someone with physical access to a handset secured with a PIN can therefore feasibly determine the PIN in a short time.
Mobile phone microphones can be activated remotely by security agencies or telcos, without any need for physical access, as long as the battery has not been removed. This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations.
Other techniques for phone hacking include tricking a mobile phone user into downloading malware which monitors activity on the phone. Bluesnarfing is an unauthorized access to a phone via Bluetooth.
There are flaws in the implementation of the GSM encryption algorithm that allow passive interception. The equipment needed is available to government agencies or can be built from freely available parts.
In December 2011, German researcher Karsten Nohl revealed that it was possible to hack into mobile phone voice and text messages on many networks with free decryption software available on the Internet. He blamed the mobile phone companies for relying on outdated encryption techniques in the 2G system, and said that the problem could be fixed very easily.
Phone hacking, being a form of surveillance, is illegal in many countries unless it is carried out as lawful interception by a government agency. In the News International phone hacking scandal, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was found to have violated the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. He was sentenced to six months in prison in January 2007. Renewed controversy over the phone hacking claims led to the closure of the News of the World in July 2011.
In December 2010, the Truth in Caller ID Act was signed into United States law, making it illegal "to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value."
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