Adventures in Babysitting
Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint
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
"What in God's name can a man do at night in
-- 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
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
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
"John Who?" the kid in the black PVC pants
"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
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
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
"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
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
Copyright © 2001, The Binary Freedom Project.
Reprinted, with permission, from http://www.binaryfreedom.com/content.php?content_id=8