Written for 2600 magazine, THE HACKERS PERSPECTIVE
We were kids.
By Hristo (Izo) Gueorguiev
They shutdown MSN to our side of the world, it’s because of kids like us. We used to brag. No matter, we’d jump on the X11 networks from some random gateway and we still had AOL, CompuServe and even Genie, boy were downloads fast with Genie.
Me, I never paid for Internet my whole teenage life, neither did anybody in my click of friends. Not that we or our families could have. For what it cost you could have fed a family of four. But we were hungry for knowledge, we needed hardware specs, driver descriptions, demo scene source code and it was all on there, on the net.
So we got on there, we had no money but we had modems and we had credit card generators, hell we wrote a few and we had know how. Mostly we had a hunger.
I guess it all started with a book. I’d be damned if I remember the name. Saw it in a book store when I was just a wee little lad on family on vacation. My parents quite happy I was expressing interests in reading purchased it for me. The book featured a curious little boy, much like me so easy to relate and his new pal, a computer, I had seen those in the movies.
Didn’t fully understand it on the first read. Never the less I felt enlightened, I was hooked and there was no going back. Before you know it I was a member of the after school computer club. Writing or rather attempting to write BASIC code on the eastern block built Apple ][ clones.
Skip a few years ahead there I was making “hidden” DOS directory’s with non printable characters on a Cyrillic keyboard. After a few more came Turbo Pascal and C, 8086 Assembly. Sure. Had to learn it. After all the how else do you learn how to code viruses.
Well that and undeleting a password protected AIN archive from a school computer. Oh did I mention by then I was in a high school with a computer focused accelerated education.
Two of the upper classmen were quite heavy in to the DOS virus creation scene, if you will. I wanted in on the knowledge too. How heavy you ask. Let’s just say we refereed to the 286 equipped computer lab as the Nevada testing grounds. Stick your SD floppy drives at your own risk. I personalty never took the “condom” sticker off of the write protect tab.
After a little social engineering I had both an archive with source codes and the password to it. Interestingly enough my elder schoolmate who’s code I stolen wasn’t really upset. Rather all of a sudden I was in. Another year and we were fast friends. And not just him.
Somehow through the old hand to hand distribution network I had gotten a hold of some video game source codes among other things. All done by a talented programmer, our age, from a different school. There was a home phone number in the header comments, not too many cellphone then. So naturally I called, he of course was quite surprised that a collection of his hard work was out in the wild. Be he too became our friend. Others followed, so we had crew.
Even gave ourselves a name. We coded custom trojans and graphic demos. We break in to BBS system just to discover on closer look that the SysOp had written ones of their own. We’d call and make more friends, accumulate more knowledge.
The National Computer Institute, home of the back then infamous Bulgarian Anti-virus Lab left tens of their ISS servers not updated. That is until we shut them down for a few hours and told them.
Sysadmins of a large Bulgarian ISP told us their AIX mainframe was unhackble. Challenge taken. After overloading a few analog lines with calls we manged to hijack a session, I read it was possible on some board. Lucky for us, telecom still had the ancient soviet block switching system. Just like that we were a few escape charters and a shell away from an unshadowed passwd file. Few days of brute force on a work computer and we had hundreds of accounts. We emailed it to them. They were still kicking our ass in DOOM Deathmatch. But their gloating was no longer the same.
We coded, from games to cracks that gave you infinite resources in games. From viruses to anti- viruses. Trojans to graphic demos. We terrorized the first web-chats with ascii art bots we made. We phished credit cards on AOL with fake software upgrades that promised unlimited access. We pirated software we couldn’t afford but wanted to learn and we supported Open Source in its infancy.
But we also always told. We raised red flags and we warned. And the problems got fixed. We never damaged things and attempted to leave them how they were as much as possible. Well OK we almost always told, but one thing is for sure we were always learning.
Hummm … I guess the whole thing started with a clock. A few of them to be exact, that I took apart while my parents weren’t watching just to see how they worked. Long before that book and long before I could put them back together. The parents, they weren’t thrilled but they were the kind of people who understood. So was grand pops who actually collocated me a tool set of my own. By then they had caught on that I should be watched on what I was using them.
I’m late for class, the teacher is new and quite young. Shes not quite apt at handling teenage boys,especially when they are bored because of having to spend 6 weeks learning Ms Word. And this is the computer accelerated class which happens to be mostly boys. She ask why I was late. I tell her I already learned that part of Word. Teacher of course questions that, as I don’t even know what she is teaching today. She says if I can take the end of the class quiz and pass right now I can leave. But I have to take the grade I get no matter what. I pass, I get an A, I walk out. On the way out I chirp in “That’s what the help files are for”. She shouts back at me, unable to keep a smile from showing, “SMARTASS”.
I guess unlike my parents the education system didn’t catch on, it failed to focus our attention. It didn’t direct us into productive expression, but bored us instead. It didn’t feed our hunger for knowledge but had us chasing a carrot. All the things we did, all before we were even eighteen.
We were kids. We found our own way to feed the hunger and learn. As all kids it was sightly misguided. Well really down right criminal sometimes. Most kids do drugs, we did computers … and more, we were high on knowledge.
There is a lot of talk about morality, social responsibility. A lot of labels being thrown around. White hat. Black hat. Hackers. Crackers. Thinkers. Whats forgotten is that with an exception of few Bad apples (or latkis or whatever ), most of hacking is done by the kids who’s thoughts were a little too fast to follow the carrot. They rather take the stick apart.
Not for the good of something or someone, not hurt anybody. Not for wealth or unfair advantage. Not to feel special. No, but rather to feed the hunger. The hunger for knowledge that underlies their every action. Simply to know. Know as much as possible.
In the end most all find ways to feed the hunger constructively. Thanks to them we have smart phones, firefox and google. Thanks to them we get to keep enjoying our freedom of speech and expression. Those kids are the tech. innovators, the start up visionary and the activist lawyers.
So I guess it all started with a primate somewhere in the dark jungles of an ancient continent. A place where the rules were few, new knowledge abundant and the opportunity for hacking endless.
The hunger, well the hunger has been deep ever since.