Prime time for hackers is over

Prime time for hackers is over By Richard Thieme. Why hack a US West network to solve a 17th-century math problem? 'Because it's there' just isn't a good enough answer any more.


Richard Thieme
October 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

The question hangs in the air like the grin of the Cheshire cat, a koan posed by a 28-year-old programmer sitting in his apartment in Denver. Blosser has a lot more room to stretch out in his place these days, now that the FBI took away his Pentium II (Blosser called it Big Boy), his 486 (Little Boy) and a pile of his CDs. It's all gone, perhaps forever. And so is his job as a computer consultant.

Blosser lost big because he used his client's computers to go on a careless quest for a mathematical grail -- the next Mersenne prime. Ever since Marin Mersenne identified a unique class of prime numbers in the 17th century, digit-searchers have been on the prowl for the next Big One. Their search reached the Internet a few years ago, with the release of Mersenne-hunting software that anyone can download.

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Blosser, a systems consultant working for US West, installed it on the company's customer service network in September. He should have known how to configure the software to run in the background, but instead he misconfigured the machines so that they checked for network activity every two seconds instead of every 20 minutes -- flooding the system with packets in the process.

"We noticed a degradation of service at once," says a spokesman for US West. "We respect the pursuit of knowledge, but our workers tend to get irate if the network is not available for work." Thus, while the investigation of the case continues, US West is urging the FBI to prosecute Blosser as quickly as possible.

Like most hackers, Blosser wasn't trying to be bad. He was trying to advance knowledge, solve a puzzle, find out how things work. From Leonardo da Vinci to Dark Tangent, "white hat" hackers have always been driven by a passion for knowledge, not a desire to foul things up. When Blosser loaded the Mersenne program onto the network at US West, he wasn't trying to bring down the network. And he certainly wasn't trying to hide. (His name and e-mail address were all over the software.)

But his hack was unnecessary. The Golden Age of Hacking, which began in the '60s when mainframes at MIT became the Big Toy of a new generation, is over. Kids did this kind of thing when games were cracked using Apple IIs, then sent to friends via slow, acoustic-coupled modems at 300 bauds per second. Laws against unauthorized computer intrusion were all but nonexistent then. The challenges of playing the game and cracking the game were identical.

Today, hackers play the game of life with real money on the table and the credible threat of prison sentences hanging over their heads. Taking over a Baby Bell's network in the pursuit of pure knowledge may sound romantic, but more experienced hackers say it no longer makes much practical sense.

"The media tends to portray all security breaches as 'hacks,' but hacking is not just about security," says security professional Yobie Benjamin. "It's about the whole domain of computer science -- moving from node to node to see how things look. It's about harnessing the power of distributed computing." Benjamin laughs. "Blosser needs a midnight basketball league to keep him off the streets."

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Indeed, that's what the gang at Boston's L0pht Heavy Industries call their enterprise -- a midnight basketball game for hackers. Still animated by a passion for Solving the Puzzle and Seeing the Big Picture, the L0pht crew carries those hacker ideals forward by uncovering security holes in Windows NT or Novell products -- without actually trespassing on anyone's system.

That's easier than ever to do these days, thanks to the open-door network of Windows, Unix and Sun machines available at upt.org -- the computer playpen descended from the bulletin board system where some of hacking's best and brightest honed their skills before graduating into corporate and intelligence ranks. "A lot of the old reasons to break in just aren't there anymore," says security consultant Tom Jackiewicz, who helped administer the upt.org bulletin board. "Nobody can say they can't afford a Unix box when all you have to do is throw some free Linux onto a PC. You want to hack a Sun system? Break into ours -- if you can."

Jackiewicz says it's more fun to secure a network against hackers than to hack -- it's much more complex. You have to explore every single interaction among all the components, check out "all the weird shit that can happen."

"A guy called the other day to say he'd gotten root in our system," Tom laughs. "In fact, he was trapped in one of the five subsystems we created to look like the system." That level of detail and complexity is where the most advanced hacker minds find their challenges today.

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Likewise, if it was empty processor cycles that Blosser wanted, he didn't need to siphon off US West's resources. When the number crunchers at Distributed.net decided to show that the U.S. government's security claims about 56-bit DES cryptography were a sham, they simply created a software client that anyone could download. After 4000 teams contributed computing power to break the code, DES fell in 212 days. The next challenge, DES II-1, cracked its target in 40 days. As David McNett of Distributed.net puts it, "I question Blosser's judgment, not his motives."

Hacking's "white hat" ideal lives on, but suitable targets for Robin Hood-style adventures have become increasingly hard to find. In 1997, a hacker and phreaker named Se7en went on a rampage against cyber-pedophiles, targeting their hangouts for network subversion. Nobody knows for sure how many Web sites or IRC chat channels Se7en and his cohorts took down, but nobody lifted a finger to curtail their vigilante attacks. And when Peter Shipley at dis.org uncovered gaping flaws in the Oakland, Calif., fire department dispatch system during a massive war-dialing project, authorities overlooked his campaign -- in no small part because Shipley volunteered to fix the holes instead of bringing chaos to the streets of Oakland.

With all that in mind, Blosser's network-clogging "hack" was a throwback to the early 1990s, a ghost of hacking past, a Don Quixote apparition of a bygone age when the anarchist rhetoric of John Perry Barlow actually seemed to make sense to some. Cyberspace felt more free then, even if it existed by permission of the military-industrial-educational complex that spawned it.

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Today, the laws have tightened, surveillance technologies are ubiquitous, big money is at stake and the borderless economy is learning to regulate itself. Yet when asked why he loaded that software onto the network at US West, Blosser, a kid who is nearly 30, laughs and says, "Why not?"

Why not? Because it no longer pays to sustain the illusion. The hackers who played in that clubhouse are all going downtown, making good money while trying to keep their values intact. Blosser's naive quest for the Mersenne prime was charming, in its way -- but experienced hackers understand why that kind of innocence no longer has a place.


Richard Thieme

Richard Thieme is a consultant, writer and professional speaker focused on the human dimensions of technology and the workplace.

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