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MTV'S 'TRUE LIFE' - A REVIEW
Posted 19 Oct 1999 00:00:00 UTC

I haven't had time to even begin to deal with this until now. So I'll be as clear as possible. Our fears of what this show would be simply did not do it justice. The reality was so much worse than any of the warnings we started getting months ago. And the most troubling part of all this is that so many people involved in this really knew better yet sensationalism was allowed to run unchecked.

A little history to begin with. We at 2600 were approached by MTV back in 1998 when they expressed an interest in doing a hacker documentary, with the Mitnick case being a focal point. For months after, we helped hook them up with various people and spent a considerable amount of time working with them and helping them however we could.

The first warnings of trouble came from an MTV intern who called into Off The Hook on June 29 with the revelation that all references to Mitnick had been eliminated and that the "documentary" was now going to focus exclusively on three trendy teens instead of the people and issues that were originally said to be the focus.

Even with this disturbing news, we told people to not pass judgement until the thing had aired. Well, it's aired and now it's judgement day.

Right away, the show begins with such sensationalism and quotes meant to scare the shit out of Joe America that I swear I could smell Geraldo. "It's like being God." "If I had the opportunity to shut off all the power in the city, would I do it?" "We want to know the location of every squad car within the nearest vicinity [sic]." And finally, "What people don't understand, they fear." Well, that's sure the theme of this half hour, isn't it? MTV clearly didn't grasp what hackers are or maybe they just didn't want to since anything that complex might confuse the audience they know so well. And they certainly did their bit to spread fear throughout the program with quotes like the above, with absolutely nothing to show that this was anything other than teenage bravado.

Then the part that really pissed me off personally. Earlier this year, I had asked the producers for one little thing in exchange for all the help that I and other 2600 people had given them. President Clinton had given a speech in January on computer hackers. We couldn't get the White House to give us a video copy which we would have loved to use in our upcoming documentary. I asked them if they could pull some strings and they said they'd look into it. Last I heard they were having no success. And guess what footage managed to show up in this program? That's right, the footage they didn't even KNOW about which they obtained after all and kept for themselves without a word to any of us! Fortunately there are other networks who do live up to their promises and we've gotten the footage from them. But this shows the sleaze factor at work in this kind of a production.

"Never before have people so young had so much potential power to disrupt the systems we all rely on." Please. Here we have the MTV age fixation coupled with a blatant bit of hysteria with no factual basis to back it up. Better get used to it as virtually none of the "facts" presented in the next half hour will be researched or confirmed in any way.

"Chameleon faced off with one of America's most dangerous enemies." This is basically Chameleon getting a piece of mail from someone he doesn't know who lives overseas - at least that's all the details we're going to get here.

"Shamrock - role model or renegade?" Yeah, that's the question that's been plaguing the hacker world for years.

"Mantis - who says he can find out anything he wants about you." Just by making such a claim, MTV will skip over all the proof and do a feature on you as if everything you claim is true. Not one iota of evidence is ever presented to back up this absurd bragging.

Now I want to point out that I don't personally have anything against any of the people who were portrayed in this program. They were basically taken in by MTV and taken advantage of. But by the same token, I don't think these people have a whole lot to do with the hacker community - at least, not from what we could see here.

Almost every sentence uttered throughout this program was a mistruth of one sort or another. Mantis: "People see hackers as some fat kid sitting at home dressed in black... I don't fit the stereotype of a hacker." Well, guess what? You do fit the stereotype - MTV's stereotype or else why would they have ignored all of the other people who are part of the hacker world who don't fit into the MTV demographic? It's hard to figure out who was playing who more - these kids or the MTV marketers. Narrator: "At 16, Chameleon left high school and became a superstar of the hacking underground." Yeah, we have superstars in the hacker world just like in the music business - how convenient for MTV. In fact, we don't really care at all about the technology - it's all about personalities. (That was sarcasm in case any MTV people are getting hard reading that.)

They seem really happy turning the whole thing into an episode of COPS while Shamrock and friends walk in slow motion down city streets with blurred faces. They can't get enough of his involvement with drug dealing, as if that has got anything to do with anything. They call him an expert on "phone phreaking" and once again don't back it up in any way. Apparently just walking down a street saying "I have knowledge that many people don't" is enough for MTV to believe you.

Serena is amazed that Shamrock knows she has two voice mail boxes. That's literally as easy as spelling out her name on a touch tone keypad. He makes it seem as if he's listening to her personal stuff and she believes him without asking for a single detail. Hackers can do anything, after all.

They spend a great deal of time listing Shamrock's various offenses: wreckless driving, driving with a suspended license, phone fraud, possession of drugs, and assault. It doesn't have a blessed thing to do with hacking but they had to fill the time somehow and it's either that or put in something meaningful. There is one instance where something is alluded to on his net broadcast which seems to put down credit card fraud which was an opportunity to actually address that misconception. Of course, it's never followed up.

"Not much is legal about hacking but it's never been easier to do." I'd love to see MTV's definition of hacking. From this show it would appear to be: affiliating with terrorists, taking over the military, moving satellites, and dealing drugs.

Serena is once again amazed that Mantis has a copy of "The Matrix" on his computer. Apparently, she's never had the opportunity to download a file. That's really all there is to it, you know. It's pretty fucking simple and, once again, has got absolutely nothing to do with hacking. But you have to love the mixed up hacker logic that is used to defend copying a movie: "It's all about trading information. Information has to be free. If Big Brother is watching me, why can't he be watched also?" Hello?? The MATRIX?! Copying a pirated movie is somehow striking out at Big Brother? What an insult to the many truly deserving causes that are out there and were passed over for this tripe.

The only part of the program with any glimour of what hacking is about is the section on the L0pht. But they never even bother to get into it, spending less than a minute on the entire group/concept and using the majority of that time to portray them as people whose most important ability would be disrupting the entire Internet.

Next, Serena follows Shamrock as he attempts to get to an imprisoned friend's disk before the authorities do. (Didn't we see this plot device in "Hackers"?) Of course we never see the disk, don't get any details about the friend, and learn absolutely nothing about anything in the whole fiasco. But we do get to hear this bizarre exchange: - Serena: "What do you think you can find on this disk?" - Shamrock: "The police! You know, when we're listening to them on the radio, obviously they're transmitting on a radio frequency - we know what frequency they're transmitting on cuz we're receiving it."

Maybe a good dose of LSD is the only thing that'll make sense out of that.

"You never know what you're dealing with when it comes to hacking" is one of the insightful concluding thoughts. You also never know what you're dealing with when you don't do any research into the subject matter or check out your sources. I'm hearing now that Shamrock is claiming he made the whole thing up just to fuck with them. If that's true, MTV certainly got what they deserved by ignoring the advice and warnings of knowledgeable people in order to pursue an utterly fictitious story. But while Shamrock may have thought it was amusing, it was stupid and caused great harm to the community by making people believe this kind of crap. I can only assume that he thought they would actually check the facts before running with the story. Now we all know better.

As for Chameleon, all kinds of allegations are thrown around about his dealing with a terrorist. Yet the only "evidence" of this comes from the editor of AntiOnline, who does not exactly have a good reputation when it comes to presenting facts accurately. (MTV hired him as their technology consultant - another detail they kept quiet.) There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE from a credible source that this foreign person he got a check from had anything to do with any terrorist group. All it shows is that someone was monumentally stupid in thinking that paying to hack a web page was a good idea. Again, nothing to do with hacking. Again, the facts were never checked.

Mantis: "I've been to the end of the Internet and back - over the course of my years, I've done everything possible." This kid is 19. With a boast like that, I expect him to have found the meaning of life by the time he's 30. I say we hold him to it.

What's amazing (and indicative of the MTV sleaze once more) is that Mantis isn't shown to be doing anything illegal. In fact, he's the success story, teaching others, staying out of trouble, doing positive things... Yet MTV manages to make him look like a criminal by getting him to say that IF he did something illegal he would know how to cover himself. Slick.

The whole charade ends with footage of Serena not able to get into her AOL account and saying "my account has been hacked by hackers." She feels "angry and violated." There is irony here - most everyone in the hacker world has the same feeling right now because of MTV's yellow journalism. But once again, there is no evidence to suggest that this "hack" is anything more than a publicity stunt, much like when MTV hacked its own web page a while back to get attention. If there is anything to suggest that Serena herself didn't do this or one of her fellow employees didn't set it up to get the "perfect ending," I sure didn't see it. Changing a password on AOL is not exactly hacking. But since nothing else in this half hour was either, we can hardly be surprised.

So the lessons to be learned here are several. The most important being: DON'T TRUST THE MEDIA! Especially the slick and trendy media. They're not interested in the story but rather in being cool and accepted in the industry. If you don't know how to deal with them, they will screw you over and as a result screw over those people you're supposedly speaking on behalf of. Far too many people were getting all excited about MTV doing a piece on Mitnick that they played right into their hands and got crucified. While Kevin was justifiably upset that they cut him out of the program (they claim they just didn't have enough time), I think he'll be happy not to have any affiliation at all with this portrayal. Interestingly, special thanks are given to David Schindler (Kevin's prosecutor) which means that they actually managed to do a rare video interview with him and still decided to shelve it or maybe he gave them a ton of money to just sit on the story. At this point, I'll believe anything.

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