Hackers revel in marketer hype

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United Artists, GTE turn code-crackers into promotional ploy

A 12-year-old whiz kid reprograms a hot CD-ROM game to do all the things its makers didn't want it to. A handful of crafty Web surfers hack their way into a corporate-sponsored Internet scavenger hunt to plumb its secrets and create a virtual community within its digital infrastructure.

And a Hollywood studio sets up a promotional Web site on the 'net to plug a movie about fictional hackers, only to see it get defaced by a few real-life cyberpunks.

How did these companies deal with the blatant intrusions on their interactive marketing efforts? Not by covering them up, but by inviting the hackers into their living rooms. Welcome to the world of hacker marketing, where technowhizzes capable of doing serious damage to a marketer's online efforts are suddenly--and uncomfortably--his new best friends.

GTE Entertainment, marketer of the "FX Fighter" CD-ROM, enlisted the 12-year-old whiz kid as a spokesman for the game. Vivid Studios, the San Francisco-based Web designer that created "The Rift" Internet hunt promotion for Silicon Graphics turned the content created by hackers into an online magazine for its sponsor.

And in the most notorious example, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, marketer of the flick "Hackers," is spinning its tale of victimization by virtual vandals into positive PR for the film--so successfully that some have suspected the studio of engineering the prank itself.

"It's really dangerous to say, `Bad hacker, don't break into stuff,' but then reward them," said Joshua Greer, president of Digital Planet, which created the "Hackers" site. "Eventually, someone will push it too far and the government will respond, probably out of ignorance, by bringing down legislation on all of us."

Still, MGM is so hot on hacking that this week it is encouraging Web users to become hackers themselves.

On Sept. 12, MGM opens "The Hackathon," a promotion for "Hackers" in which participants must complete three hacks, including the familiar "Crack-the-school's-computer-to-change-your-grade" hack. The contest is being conducted on the 'net and online services like CompuServe and will be touted nationwide in radio spots created by various agencies.

Hackers have already had their way with MGM/UA. The movie site has been repeatedly altered since it went up several weeks ago: Its logo was changed to read "Not Hackers" and the site was tagged with a message linking users to the Web site for DefCon, a major hackers convention.

There were other, more serious hacks, however. Links to underground hacker sites appeared at various times, and at least one link offered instructions on how to build a bomb. "We're not surprised this happened to `Hackers.' The name itself is like flashing a red flag in front of a bull's eyes," said Mr. Greer. "The people who hacked it actually sent in an apology and told us how they hacked into it, so they actually provided us a service."

Rather than incite the wrath of the hackers by deleting the hacked page, MGM/UA reinstated the original but left the hacked page as a link.

Some have accused MGM/UA and Digital Planet of glamorizing the hacker culture and encouraging hacking, but a studio executive said the site is clearly labeled as a promotional vehicle and only seeks to provide information about hacker culture. "I'm glad all this has worked out in a way to get publicity for the film, but it raises a lot of concerns for us and marketers, and we don't want to give these people any more incentive to do it again," said Mr. Greer.

GTE echoes such sentiments.

In June, David Sisselman of Livingston, N.J., bought "FX Fighter," a "Mortal Kombat"-like martial arts CD-ROM, took it home, reprogrammed it and then posted the hack on the Internet. "It wasn't illegal, but I was still a bit upset," said Dick Larkin, VP-marketing and sales at GTE Entertainment. "But then I got over it and was impressed. We could have taken the common tact of covering it up. But we decided to make some lemonade out of some lemons."

GTE flew the boy out in late August for a press conference and tour of the GTE En tertainment lab in Carlsbad, Calif., eliciting press coverage from CBS, wire services and videogame trade magazines.

At Vivid Studios, one of the premier creators of Internet scavenger games, hacking became part of the game. After players began toying with "The Rift," Vivid decided to put together "The Rift Daily," an interactive magazine that collects all the content the hackers leave behind. Silicon Graphics even sponsored the magazine.

"Most of the time, these clever people aren't trying to hurt the system but create tools to help themselves and others and create a virtual community," said Henri Poole, Vivid's president. "The danger, though, is when one of these clever people crosses that line. It's tough to know if these people are suddenly going to come at you and do something bad. And what do you do then? There are no rules and laws in cyberspace. Yet."

Despite the recent spate of hacker-inspired marketing, most of those involved say they don't want it to become a trend. Nor do they want their actions to be interpreted as legitimizing hacking.

"Is it wrong? Yeah, it's vandalism. You're tampering with content--property--that doesn't belong to you. But this is the wild West. There are no rules. And if you go after someone, who knows if and how they'll come back after you. Sometimes, it's best to keep it quiet or put a good PR spin on it," said a veteran Internet marketer.

Said Steve Franco, data communications analyst with Yankee Group, Boston: "It's a justifiable business opportunity to...hire a hacker to provide security and expertise, but there is a a lot of fear that these hired guns are leaving behind back doors and holes for other hackers or even themselves."

Copyright September 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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