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Adventures in Babysitting

Chris Campbell

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

The year 2001 saw a vast expansion in "hacker tools" for hacker wannabees: without knowing much, if anything, about computers, programming or networks, anonymous vandals could download tools that allowed them, with almost no effort, to attack hundreds, or thousands, of computers, for no purpose at all. This article, written as the year was just getting started, offers an interesting view into this odd subculture.

Friday, January 19, 2001

01:17am MST

"What in God's name can a man do at night in Philadelphia?"

-- Robert Heinlein

It was a Friday evening, and there I was standing beneath the mammoth columns of 30th Street Station, the massive structure that is Amtrak's Philadelphia Basilica. Am I off to test Amtrak's Acela; the 4 hour ride to Boston, home of L0pht, EMC and legal seafood? No. Am I off to Lynchburg Virginia, to Randolph Macon Women's college to enjoy the best odds that I will ever have of an interesting Friday night? No. Of course not. (They won't let me back on campus after the red-headed British lesbian incident.) No, instead, I have been convinced by 'p0lywog' that I really should check out a 2600 meeting, and 30th Street Station is the venue.

I didn't see the point. I knew when I was a kid about the technology with boxing- red, beige, blue, all that wild-west BBS kind of scene; and then came Signaling System 7. That put a plug into those sorts of exploits. Why would they still be having meetings? That was the question that got me there. What could they possibly be talking about?

It was this curiosity that got me to accompany 'p0lywog' on this thankless waste of a Friday evening; that, and it is Philadelphia on a Friday night. Heinlein's words echo in my mind as we approach the rag-tag "Matrix" groupies that comprise the 2600 meeting.

Angelina Jolie had managed to be a shining light in the waste of celluloid that had been the movie "Hackers"; unfortunately, her stunning voluptuousness was not here to offer salvation to this trendy lot. No, here was life imitating typecast; Hollywood concepts of the elite underground. But I cannot judge on first impression. Sure, I am the System Administrator of a network that is over 10,000 users strong- and I am not like this- but that does not mean that these kids are clueless just because they are trendy.

Let's get to know them. Where to start? Well, since it's 2600, how about John Draper? I hear that he's sort of into Linux these days. Maybe they know what he's been up to...

"John Who?" the kid in the black PVC pants replies.

"Draper. John Draper- Captain Crunch?"

"Huh? Yeah, I think I've heard of him. Isn't he that guy that works with Mudge at l0pht?"

"Hmmm. No? He used a Captain Crunch whistle to generate a 2600 Hz tone to get free phone calls..."

"2600? Cool! That is so ironic!"

"Yeah, it's positively biting."

I pull 'p0lywog' aside, demanding to know where the punchline came in. This was a 2600 meeting, and not only had the first person I spoke to have no clue, but neither did the next half dozen. "There are some older members," one of them proudly beamed, "that probably know who that guy is, but they don't come to the meetings often."

The thing is that 2600 has little or nothing to do with telephones any more, it's more of an entry point for kids that want to get into computers and "The Scene". The Scene? I am not too sure about that. With my father being a Systems Administrator, I spent most of my childhood- most of the last quarter century actually- in 'the scene', but the scene that I knew was more about soda, stale Twinkies and beards then about minidisks, Rollerblades, plastic pants and Cafe Lattes.

But it's the new guard, and this is the Kindergarten, if you would, for the young kids. This is what 'p0lywog' tells me. But I can't shake this feeling that it's not quite right. Maybe it's because I know young kids- 14 year olds- and they're doing kernel programming. Maybe it's what I am over-hearing in this crowd. Wow! A fellow thinks he's cool because he 'h4x0red' someone's AOL account- and another would-be Robert T. Morris set up a local college NT lab to crash due to a denial of service- but alas he did not write the DoS that he used, he simply downloaded it. Is this the school for budding computer masters- or is it the Juvenile Delinquent Hall?

But they're all very pro-Linux. And that's good, I suppose, unless someone were to look at them and typecast all Linux enthusiasts. Here Linus Torvalds is a God- but interestingly enough, that's about the only person they know. Admiral Grace Hopper? Nope. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace I didn't bother asking about. How about Ken Thompson? You love Linux, so you must respect Unix? Nope. Dennis Ritchie? I mean, you all can at least program in C, right? Nope. Wozniak? Jesus, you've got to know Woz; there's a damned highway named after him in San Jose! Might have heard of him. There's a Navy ship named after Grace Hopper, but that's understandably a little more obscure. I spoke the names of these patron saints of all that is the technical world- and the more common ones, as well. Vint Cerf, I could see maybe they would not know. But, not to know Ritchie and Thompson? How many Geneticists would not know Watson and Crick? Or Charles Darwin?

I departed that cavernous old station quickly. Not only had these kids no clue about anything beyond downloading exploits, but they looked at me like a crazy old man when I was struck with disbelief that they did not know any computer people that hadn't a trademark made of their name. For a great while after that night I really wondered what these people thought they were doing. They weren't computer people. They weren't hackers or crackers. They're just misbehaved anti-social children who feel an ego kick from executing someone else's code to attack machines. It's not impressive, it's not anything.

That was in one of the single snowy episodes of last winter. Then this morning I read a quote that put it all into perspective:

"I have watched kids testifying before Congress. It is clear that they are completely unaware of the seriousness of their acts. There is obviously a cultural gap. The act of breaking into a computer system has to have the same social stigma as breaking into a neighbor's house. It should not matter that the neighbor's door is unlocked. The press must learn that misguided use of a computer is no more amazing than drunk driving of an automobile."
-Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson has commanded my respect since I was a boy, and he commands it again by putting this all down so eloquently. Read this, would-be crackers, and script kiddies! This man speaks the truth! But, then again, it's Ken Thompson- and you probably still don't know who that is...

Copyright © 2001, The Binary Freedom Project.

Reprinted, with permission, from http://www.binaryfreedom.com/content.php?content_id=8