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Saturday, 1 December, 2001, 15:26 GMT
Learning to hack
Sign for the Hackacademy, BBC
The sign announcing the opening of Paris's hackers school
James Coomarasamy

In an unremarkable alleyway in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a strange, graffiti-sprayed building hides what could be a world first.

This is Zi Hackademy, France's newly opened school for computer hackers. Inside, in a cramped classroom, rows of would-be cyber pirates learn the not-so-ancient art of computer hacking.

Among them are businessmen, a grandmother - even a policeman. Those willing to speak say they've come to learn how to protect themselves and their websites from other hackers - their motives are those of self-defence.

"The internet is the best example of freedom," a shy, dark-haired man told me. "But it can also be your worst nightmare. I'm here to protect myself from big brother."

He was a member of a beginner's class - a "newbie" in hacker speak. Intermediates are called "wild". The highest level is known as "intrusion".

All of the students have paid 450 francs, about 45, for a course of nine lessons. At the end, they hope to have improved their "white hat" or good pirate skills. That's the theory at least.

Anonymous teachers

At the front of the class, a fresh-faced teenager with a shock of dyed crimson hair gives detailed instructions on how to hack into a company's computer system.

His "name" is Clad Strife - which, for the uninitiated, is a character from a Playstation game. None of the teachers go by their real names.

"Fozzy" is another one. They've all worked on the French hackers magazine Hackerz Voice, which teaches you, amongst other things, how to invent false credit card details and fiddle your mobile phone bills.

Nevertheless, "Clad" is adamant that he teaches only ethical hacking skills.

"For me", he says, "it is enough to know I can break into a system, without crossing the line into illegality."

But he does admit that being on the edge of the law is exciting.

He portrays himself and his experiences as those of an internet Robin Hood.

When he's not lecturing, he says, he reveals companies' security loopholes, then phones them up to warn them of their problems. He is, if you like, performing a public service.

Internet lawyer Eric Barbry disagrees. "It's like saying that if you leave your front door open, I can just walk into your house and wander around. Hacking is illegal."

But at the same time he admits that the law is pretty grey when it comes to the hackers school.

Police interest

The Paris police say they're watching the school with interest, but have not yet made any moves to close it down.

The issue is perhaps what the students do with the knowledge they gain during their classes - a question which is greeted with a shrug of the shoulders.

"I teach them ethical values," Clad Strife told me. "It's not my responsibility if they use my information to do something illegal at home.

"Hacking is not fundamentally illegal. After all, when you're driving a car, you can knock someone over and kill them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be allowed to have driving lessons, does it?"

A final word of advice to anyone planning to enrol in the school - which has already had enquiries from abroad - if you want to pay by credit card, do it over the phone.

As the school's website says, paying over the internet isn't secure.

See also:

06 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
30 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
24 Oct 01 | South Asia
23 Oct 01 | Americas
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