Elite security posse fostered founders of WhatsApp, Napster

Members of ‘w00w00’ have spawned more than a dozen companies, mainly in security

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum (back left) is pictured during a reunion of his old security group, w00w000 in San Francisco, California. Photograph:   Suzan Song/Handout via Reuters

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum (back left) is pictured during a reunion of his old security group, w00w000 in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Suzan Song/Handout via Reuters

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 19:03

A few days after selling WhatsApp to Facebook for $19 billion, Jan Koum stepped into a suite at the St Regis Hotel in San Francisco to celebrate with old friends, including CEOs, reformed hackers and a few people who fell into both those camps.

Conducted over snacks and beer, the late-night festivity was a spontaneous reunion of a security super-group that had come to Koum’s aid in 2000 as he grappled with a denial-of-service attack that knocked Yahoo offline when Koum was responsible for security there.

The now-defunct collective known as w00w00 (pronounced whoo whoo) had thrived on Internet Relay Chat channels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, between get-togethers at hacking conventions such as Def Con in Las Vegas, where a member said Koum “came across like a big, friendly kid”.

Although the elite group was not well known outside hacking circles, its members have spawned more than a dozen companies, mainly in security. The two most famous exceptions are WhatsApp, the messaging service that Koum co-founded, and Napster, the pioneering file-sharing company that was shut down by the music industry in 2001.

Key to success

The key to w00w00’s success, according to interviews with a dozen members, was that it brought together people with widely varying expertise and backgrounds in a meritocratic way that would be tough to replicate in today’s more complex and competitive world of security.

Koum was already a senior Yahoo executive in his early 20s when he joined w00w00. Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning was one of several members still in high school. Both came from poor backgrounds and benefited from the group’s welcoming culture, which prized collaboration in the era before computer security became a big business, let alone a major factor in national defense and offense.

“Communication was democratized, and curiosity was rewarded,” Koum told Reuters last week. “I had so much fun in early days learning about networking, security, scalability and other geeky stuff.”

The w00w00 party at the St Regis on February 26th came during the peak of the week-long RSA Conference across the street, the largest gathering of tech security professionals in the world. Some w00w00 veterans were attending the show to hawk software or services from their companies, while others were taking pains to avoid the marketing hype powered by a flood of new investment.

At the reunion, most of the crew ignored the cheese and dried fruit to catch up on old times and toast the man they regard as the first real w00w00 billionaire. The Ukraine-born Koum, who wore a gray T-shirt and black sweatshirt over his large frame, made $6.8 billion from the sale of WhatsApp to Facebook, according to Forbes.

(Napster co-founder Sean Parker is also a billionaire, having gotten rich through owning early stock in Facebook, but he was too business-minded to spend much time in w00ww00.)

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