The computer network is arguably one of the most important innovations in my lifetime. When we got our first modem over thirty years ago, it opened a whole new world to me. No longer was my view of the world limited to where I lived. I now could travel across the world (albeit at 150 bits per second) and talk to people from all over the world. Some of these people were honest good folks and others… well, they were criminals.
What all of these people had in common was a passion for learning – a thirst for knowledge and for the most part they saw everyone in their digital realm as kindred spirits. Don’t get me wrong, these people also could be ignorant, hostile, mean and rude, but they also understood: not everyone knew this world even existed.
Every morning before school well beyond my bedtime I would be online stumbling across this endless online world, trying to see everything I possibly could. IRC and Usenet were the primary mode of discovery. You see, there wasn’t really a search engine like there is today where you could just look up the information you wanted someone had to share it.
The best places to go and learn things were warez chat-rooms. In my mind these were filled with kids like me who were motivated to learn by the desire to get access to the latest games. In reality, while there were kids, for the most part it was adults. Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing wasn’t legal, so they were secretive and it took a long time to earn their trust.
I started earning their trust by creating ANSI intros for their cracks, but to work up the food chain in these organizations you, really needed to be a cracker. To be a cracker you needed to be good at assembly, so off to the library I went to get a book on 68000 assembly (I had a C64 at the time). The library system only had a few of these books, so I had to be put on a waiting list. A month or so later the book came in and I started on the path of learning to crack games.
I remember starting with a game that I had and diff’ing it to a cracked copy, working back to what was changed and then figuring out why. It took me months before I could figure out how to find flaws in the copy protection logic games implemented or to simply NOP these checks out all together. Once I was able to do this, I started to create my own patches that would effectively remove the copy protection.
Able to display these skills, I was allowed into the inner circle where people shared information more freely. In these forums (even 30 years ago) exploits, credit card numbers and identities were traded openly. There were even well written how-to documents on how to use the exploits along with electronic copies of the manuals showing how to use the compromised systems.
This was exciting for me. You see, I did not fit in at school and I never felt “special” like the kids who were in sports or in the “cool crowd”, but now I was special – I belonged somewhere.
While I was exposed to morally questionable things in these forums, I learned a ton at the same time. It also exposed me to lots of new things. For example, my first exposure to building electronics was due to phone phreaking. I also learned networking, system administration, how to “hack”, and probably more importantly, I learned how to navigate complex social structures.
Along the way I got into trouble and sometimes did things that probably put me in danger or in jail if I were an adult. That said, these experiences also helped me develop the fundamental skills I still use today as a professional.
My father and I were recently discussing this topic and he reminded me of an argument we had where my parents were trying to get me to stop “hacking” in that argument apparently I said:
How am I going to learn about computers without this hacking stuff?
Looking back I have to say that at least in my case, that is true. In an earlier post I mentioned the BBS I wrote; a big part of my motivation was to be able to learn more from this group of people and running a BBS was a status symbol of sorts to impress them.
This journey proved to be a motivator for me. One, where in addition to the support of my family in learning about computers from this community I also was given:
Long story short, for me the dark side of the internet was really a path to the bright side and I am sure I am not alone in this. This is one reason why I worry about poorly written legislation attempting to control security research.
Today there are an unimaginable set of resources available to help people get involved in computing and you do not need to “go to the dark side” to get access to this information. It is up to us as a parents, friends, neighbors, business people to help provide these other needed elements to encourage kids to learn practical skills that will give them choices in life.
I think apprenticeships are a great way to do this, but each situation is different, and there are many options out there where you can help. Take the time to do so.