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The Hacking Culture

As computer users around the world wonder how to deal with the morphing, menacing "love bug," they also ask the question, who creates these computer viruses, and why?

Kevin Mitnick has some of those answers. He used to spend at least six hours a day in front of a computer screen intent on breaking into seemingly foolproof systems, unconcerned by the potential consequences—in his case, almost five years in prison.

"It was a hobby, if you will," Mitnick told CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras.

"As I was doing the act I didn't think about the consequences or the chances you might get caught doing it, because that wasn't really an option. Then you could really justify it in your own mind to settle your own conscience," said Mitnick. "My objective as a hacker was the thrill and the intellectual challenge, and the curiousity."

Former FBI agent Ed Stroz says most computer criminals are young—in their teens or twenties—and sharp.

"I think what you see with people who commit hacking activities is that they’re very bright," said Stroz. "You can’t operate in this field and engage in this activity that could be criminal and not have a good bit of intellectual horsepower working for you."

Besides smarts, the successful hacker needs a lot of nerve.

The creator of last year’s 'Melissa' virus, for example, got a job as a computer technician at a university—remarkable considering he was out on $100,000 bail, awaiting trial.

He went unrecognized for two months and resigned just a week before appearing in court, citing personal reasons.

It’s that same audacity and the need to show off that most often lands them on the wrong side of the law.

"Personally, I think human nature is still at work here," said Stroz, "and if you’re able to gain access to a computer, which is not easy to do, and you have your peers and people who you know who would respect that accomplishment, you’re going to want to talk about it."

But in the culture of hackers, there’s pride, too. Hackers like Mitnick who crack computer security systems for thrills look down on the virus creators who are really bent on mischief.

"At least I as a hacker had a hacking ethic. You wouldn’t steal. You wouldn’t try to profit off hacking and you certainly wouldn’t try to damage a computer system or send viruses because that is destructive behavior," said Mitnick. "It’s really significant vandalism rather than the challenge of trying to get through the system."

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