When men were boys and boys were stupid

From Robert X Cringley | When men were boys and boys were stupid

Written by Robert X Cringley
Excerpted from http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit19990805.html

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Forgive an old reporter’s favorite reminiscence of days gone by when men were boys and boys were stupid — DefCon 1.

I was the only reporter at DefCon 1, which attracted somewhere around 150 hackers and crackers to the old Sands Hotel back before ConAir Flight 1 smashed it to bits for a movie. The year was 1993 or ’94 and InfoWorld, where I worked in those days, wouldn’t pay my way, so I went on my own. It was surreal. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when my cellphone rang in a session, setting-off four illegal scanners in the same room. As I left to take my call in the hallway I wondered why I bothered.

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 the presentation, itself, was far more entertaining than the smooching. In a series of rapid-fire slides he showed dozens of ways in which crackers had attacked Sun’s network in recent months. 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 in to Pentagon computer systems is 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 generally 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 Thackery, a U.S. Attorney from Arizona who at that moment had approximately half the room under indictment, rose to offer her services in representing the kids against the hotel management. Thackery had been invited to speak by the very people she wanted to put in jail. I told you this story was surreal.

Adult assistance might be nice, but a potentially more satisfying alternative was offered by a group that had been busy since being evicted. They explained that they had breached the hotel telephone system, gained
access to the computer network, obtained root level access to the Digital VAX minicomputer that ran the Sands casino, and were ready at any time to shut the sucker down.

It came to a vote: accept Thackery’s offer of assistance or shut down the casino. Of course there was no contest. They voted to nuke the casino. Not one to be a party pooper, I voted with the majority. Gail Thackery, feeling her lawyer’s oats, was perfectly willing to be a party pooper, though. Lawyers can be that way. She explained with remarkable patience that opting en masse to commit a felony was a move that we might just want to reconsider, especially given the three strikes implications for some of the older participants. We could accept her help or accept a date with the FBI that afternoon. The Sands, which was ironically owned by the same folks who put on Comdex, never knew how close it came to being dark.

Do not try this at home.

It was a thrilling moment like you’d never see at a Comdex, MacWorld, or even at Java One. I’ll never see its like again. Everyone who was in that room shares a pirates’ bond. And though I can’t defend what we almost did, I don’t regret it. And like the others, I wish Gail Thackery had stayed in Arizona and we’d shut the sucker down.

— By Robert X Cringley

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