Monday, August 2, 2010

A Little Bit of Computer History

I've been reading Robert X. Cringely for about two decades. He is always "lively" and entertaining and knowledgeable. Here's a bit from a recent post that harks back to the "good old days" of 1993 in computing history:
There were two high points for me at DefCon 1. First was the appearance of Dan Farmer, then head of data security for Sun Microsystems. Dressed all in black leather with flaming shoulder-length red hair and a groupie on each arm, Dan sat literally making-out in the back row until it was time for his presentation. But that presentation was far more entertaining than the smooching. In a series of rapid-fire slides Farmer showed dozens of ways in which crackers had attacked Sun’s network. He explained techniques that had failed at Sun but would probably have succeeded at most other companies. It was a master class in computer crime and his point, other than to prove that Dan was the smartest guy in the room, was to urge the crackers to at least be more original in their attacks!

But the best part of DefCon 1 was the battle between the kids and hotel security. Contrary to popular belief, breaking into Pentagon computer systems was not very lucrative, so many of the participants in that early DefCon did not have money for hotel rooms. The Dark Tangent handled this by renting the single large meeting room 24 hours per day so it could be used after hours for sleeping. Alas, someone forgot to explain this to the 6AM security shift at the Sands. Just as the hardy group of adventurers returned from a late-night break-in at the local telephone company substation, fresh security goons closed the meeting room and threw the kids out.

It is not a good idea to annoy a computer cracker, but it is a very bad idea to annoy a group of computer crackers bent on impressing each other.

The meeting reconvened at 9 or 10 with the topic suddenly changed to Revenge on the Sands. Gail Thackeray, then a U. S. Attorney from Arizona who at that moment had approximately half the room under indictment, rose to offer her services representing the kids against the hotel management.

Thackeray had been invited to speak by the very people she wanted to put in jail. I told you this was surreal.

Adult assistance might be nice, but a potentially more satisfying alternative was offered by a group that had breached the hotel phone system, gained access to the computer network, obtained root level access to the VAX minicomputer that ran the Sands casino, and were ready at any moment to shut the sucker down. It came to a vote: accept Thackeray’s offer of assistance or shut down the casino.

There was no real contest: they voted to nuke the casino. Not one to be a party pooper, I voted with the majority.
There more, go read the whole post.

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