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It was 1995, and I was a 14-year-old freshman at Stuyvesant High School. My classmates, back in those glorious 1990s years when Gopher and Mosaic were high tech, had hacked into email accounts at Columbia, Bucknell, and Princeton. Students at Stuyvesant, an elite public high school that offered (and still offers) a private-school-quality education to a student body largely made up of immigrants and outer borough strivers, had excelled at what they always did: Hacking the system.
But this time was different: This real-life hack happened just a few months after much of Hackers, the cult cyberpunk flick that launched the careers of Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller, was being shot at my school.
Stuyvesant had a very real hacker subculture at the time that gave the school a public relations crisis as the movie came out. The hack in question involved a circle of computer aficionados who used Unix shell accounts to find poorly protected password files that could then be hacked by brute force. The Stuyvesant hackers were motivated less by malice than by boredom and teenage kicks—there was no vandalism or lasting damage involved. School authorities did not crack down heavily on the students behind the hacks. One reason for this is that the hacks took place around the same time an English teacher at the school was in the news for allegedly telling sophomore students about sexually charged dreams in class—that, understandably, occupied much of the school’s attention.
Pop singer Elizabeth Chan, one of my high school classmates, remembers the school’s hacker subculture. “I was hanging out with actual hackers, and when I saw the movie, I kept thinking ‘Are hackers really supposed to dress this way?,’” she told me recently. “I remember buying a clear vinyl jacket!”
Ah yes, the jackets. While some memories from that time have faded, the jackets remain quite clear. The Hackers shoot, in fact, involved lots of vinyl jackets, wallet chains, chokers, and other period fashion, and took advantage of the fact that our school had a brand-new building. There were high-tech looking escalators, and common areas that looked like the high point of 1990s college campus interior design.