I had a confirmed reader, once. Hate mailer, of course. Left a message something like, “We know who you are and sooner or later, we’ll get you good.” Unfortunately he left a phony email address–typical hate-mailer-so I couldn’t answer back. So I had my hacker friend, Ryan, brilliant lad, trace the malicious missive from server to server to server all around the world and back again until he landed in the corporate cubicle of one Lester Miserable, my arch nemesis from our days as rival op-ed hacks on the high school paper.
Back in the day, Les had written an in depth analysis of the high school football team, his thesis being “WE ARE NUMBER ONE.” I merely pointed out that neither Les nor I were on the Football team, so we could not possibly be number one. Les Miserable’s been my bete noir ever since. Ah well, least he still reads my stuff.
Ryan left a nice little note on the servers of Les’s employer, in the mailboxes of IT (it never occurred to me until this writing that that acronym for “Information Technology” is an actual word with meaning: It.); on the company memo list, etc. Simple message: “You’ve been hacked. Sorry, but if anyone’s to blame it’s Lester Miserable. What’s he doing surfing the Web on valuable company time?”
After spooking ol’ Les, Ryan and I went out for drinks–on me, of course–and talked about the old days when we were gallant digital warriors for a computer security company, Cyber Momma. Actually, I was just a mediocre Systems and Network Administrator. Ryan was the warrior cyber cowboy hacker from hell. Seriously smart dude with serious hacker connections. Real underground anarchist stuff. Kids really, creating mayhem on the circuit with the goal, stated and unstated, of pursuing knowledge, and liberating information (I assume there’s still a difference) from THE MAN.
Ryan was a clean-cut kid from Texas who left Texas because he hated being a clean-cut kid from Texas. Went to an “Eastern University Establishment” on full scholarship to study genetics and molecular biology and what not. Cyber Momma picked him up and settled his ass in NYC before the ink was dry on his diploma.
“How’d you go from molecular biology to computers?” I once asked him.
“Molecular biology is computing,” he said and grinned wickedly.
He told me about nano-technology, molecular computing, protein-based software, and other Frankenstein games he and his co-geeks had played at college.
“There’s more computing power in a glass of water than in all the processors that exist in the world today,” he said and grinned wickedly. “It just has to be tapped. Just has to be tapped.”
“Gives new meaning to the word ‘tap-water,'” I said, a bit spooked.
“Yes. Tap water. Tap. Water. Tap the water,” he said and grinned wickedly.
Note: when Ryan grinned wickedly, it didn’t mean that he was “up to no good,” not always, at any rate. He was just one of those guys who went around grinning wickedly. Affectation? Nervous tick? Whatever. It worked. Especially on a slightly pudgy, very white, neatly dressed young Texan with a shaved head. Note again: Ryan wasn’t a “skinhead,” he was a hacker prankster, prone to coffee, cigarettes (Nicorette gum around the machines, which were “allergic to smoke,” he’d said) malt liquor, Tex-Mex food and–I know this sounds silly and anachronistic–fun.
Then again, fun for Ryan and his network of hackers–that quaint, archaic term for people now referred to as “Cyber Terrorists” in the official documentation; please remember, this was 1997, and “WTC” connoted huge downtown buildings that would stand forever–was getting into places they did not belong. Such people begin with the question, “Why don’t we belong there?” move on to “How do we get in?” and conclude with a paper, posted on various websites and news groups, “How You Too Can Get In.”
Problem is, hackers often ended up working as consultants for the very corporations that would do anything in their considerable power to forbid their entry–unless they were on the payroll. No, it wasn’t a matter of “Hackers have to eat too you know.” If it was money they wanted, they could have gotten it with ease–and many did–from YOUR bank account, or mine, or just plucked the random percentage-pennies that drop like so much loose change in cyberspace from multi-million dollar digital transactions. A little here, a little there; these things add up.
No, the hackers were in it for the games and the toys. A company like Cyber Momma had lots of high-tech toys, and even better, lots of enemies whose systems begged for “illegal” entry. That was the raison d’etre of security companies like Cyber Momma. Help client companies hide behind Cyber Momma-controlled firewalls while they in turn attack their rivals, who probably had hired Cyber Momma’s competition to protect them.
The Invasion of Canada
One of the ways Cyber Momma sold their product was to scare the living shit out of potential clients by proving to them that their defense was garbage and their “Firewall” was actually just smoke and mirrors. Often the potential client would be challenged to defend itself and a Cyber Momma hackers like Ryan would burst into their digitally walled city like Virtual Vikings gone berserker on espresso. The biggest such client, as I recall, was Bell Canada–or whatever corporation it was that wired America’s Great Northern Lawn (sorry, Canada, I calls ’em as I seez ’em; no offense, eh?).
Cyber Momma’s CEO boasted to Bell Canada that “his boy” could crack their defenses and post a message inside the deepest, most secure regions of the Bell Canada Kingdom within 24 hours. This already gave Bell Canada a huge advantage: they know they were going to be attacked, by a specific source, and this heads-up allowed them to “man their stations” in preparation. Of course they agreed.
So one July morning in 1997, armed with a low-end Sun machine running Solaris and Free BSD versions of Unix; a not very powerful Sun server; his trusty, beat-up, taped-together, old Linux laptop (like most of his friends, Ryan harnessed the power of the big toys to a simple, low-end Linux box); all the coffee and Cola he could drink, and a full box of nicotine-spiked gum, Ryan began his quest.
He didn’t have much to go on but Bell Canada’s public info and IP numbers etc. But that was enough to get him to the moat. Once he crossed the moat, be picked away at the draw-bridge. Once inside, he snuck past the guards, and so on. It wasn’t easy–took a lot of numbers crunching, code-cracking, decrypting; a process which would have taken a lot less time had he been using one of Cyber Momma’s more powerful machines; but that wasn’t part of the deal. Our CEO wanted it raw, real outlaw hacker stuff. Around the twenty-first or twenty-second hour, he got in, did his thing and left. All on digital moccasin feet. The guards hadn’t a clue. He left a message on POP server linked to the machine of Bell Canada’s Honcho with the words, “You’ve been hacked, courtesy Cyber Momma. Have a nice day.” The Honcho logged on at the prescribed time, read his email, gasped in shock, probably, and Cyber Momma won the contract.
“You know, once I was in there, behind their firewall, I could have shut down Canada. I mean, I got into the real shit, the control mapping, the whole bag. I was just passing it on my way to that suit’s POP server, and even stopping to check that out was wasting valuable time, but, like, you know, if I weren’t…I mean…they’re fucking lucky I’m one of the ‘good guys.’ You know what I mean,” said Ryan and grinned wickedly and this time I think the grin was meant to convey something very, very important.
Something Wicked This Grin Comes
I know what you’re thinking: “So what? Some era corporate hack(er) stopped short of shorting out Canada five years ago. Big Deal.”
Well, it could have been a very big deal indeed. I suppose Ryan stopped due to a “crisis of conscience”–after all, you blow out the communications system, innocent people will suffer, not just Bell Canada’s Board Members and Major Shareholders. He could have been thinking of potential consequences. On the other hand, this game was really being played by Cyber Momma and Bell Canada. Ryan was merely a master player pinch hitting for his boss. He could have claimed he’d made a mistake–though I assume someone like him would rather do jail time than admit to some phony mistake concocted by corporate lawyers–or fallen back on the age-old, “I only followed orders,” routine. Maybe what really freaked out Ryan was not a crisis of conscience, but rather, a crisis of consciousness. The rush of power must have been tremendous. Here was this twenty-two-year old pawn in an elaborate corporate chess game who, instead of heading for the “rival king,” could have made a (heh, heh) LEFT turn straight off the board and shut out the lights.
Marx and Frankenstein Get Wired
I read a book recommended to me by my friend, Paul. “Cyber Marx,” by Nick Dyer-WitheFord.
(I see this coming, Les Miserable, so I’ll pre-empt it: No, I’m not a “Marxist” or any other kind of “ist.” Too conservative for me, all that pre-planned “scientific” revolution stuff. I want action. I want chaos. I wanna play ball. Why, if I could get into a time machine right now I’d go straight to that old British Museum, grab Karl by his wooly beard, drag him outside, where its cold and dense with soot and smoke and somber prols, put a rock in his pudgy hand, and say, “Fuck the dialectic and yer little dog, too. It’s time to Rock n’ Roll, Karl, so cast this first stone through that dainty fucking library window! And I don’t have time for the goddamn state to wither away either; you better hurl that sucker NOW!” There. Happy, Les? Thou USA PATRIOT/TIPS hate-mailer cubicle-jockey snitch!).
Interesting reading, that “Cyber Marx.” Seems old Karl said some things about technology and the nightmares that would ensue as technology became more and more monopolized by THE MAN (Stalinist, Maoist, Fascist, NixonReaganClintonBushist–same thing; THE MAN’S The MAN; always was and always will be hiding behind that same thin curtain we pay no attention to at our peril).
Now, one doesn’t have to have had his head buried in the New York Times or mind benumbed by CNN for the past 20 years to know that WE THE PEOPLE have been fucked royally by Capitalism’s absolute control over control (high tech means of production, surveillance, warfare, general mayhem, not to mention that little hole in the ozone). WTC. World Bank. Transnational Corporate Globalization. Whatever. What is that figure put out by Kevin Phillips (a Republican, yet!), among others? One percent of the world’s population owns 80 percent of the “wealth”–however one measures wealth–while more than half the planet starves? And most of that “wealth” is used to spy on people, blow them up and despoil the air, water and general environment (good god, they’re literally choking us to death!)? What kinda New World Order is that? Not even a Brave New World Order. Just plain Blade-Runner-Interzone hell-on-earth type CAUCHEMAR (French word; look it up; also might wanna research the Kevin Phillips’ figure; I’m just too confused by all these damn numbers adding to ABSOLUTE ZERO to be a stickler for absolute accuracy; trust me, we’re absolutely in deep shit). Capitalism may have triumphed, but the other 99 percent of us went down like Mike Tyson against that big scary guy from England. McWorld has made a big McMess of OUR planet.
But what a lot of these neo-Marxists argue, according to the book, is not only that reports of Marx’s death have been greatly exaggerated (by neo-liberal yahoo lackey’s of THE MAN –does the name Francis Fukayama ring a bell? How about Nicholas Negroponte? Or that ubiquitous goofball, Tom Friedman?), but that it’s not necessarily technology we should be afraid of, but technology in the WRONG HANDS. Frankenstein wouldn’t have been so screwed if only he’d treated his creature with some dignity and respect. But now it’s too late for that–no, no, don’t apologize, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Paul O’Neil and yer little dog, Bono, too! The damage is done. The creature is becoming a MONSTER, contained only by THE MAN’s gadgets.
On the other hand, Frankenstein’s creature–in the book, not the movie in which Karloff plays a grunting thug in a big suit–learns to read and write and speak. If he’d just laid low until the 1860s–well, no. I don’t think Marx could have saved him, though he certainly would have helped. If he’d just hung around long enough to figure out how to wrest control of the gadgets and whirligigs from THE MAN, well, he might have become a contender. So what if he was ugly? Dick Cheney sure ain’t no prize, and he’s made out of lightening-zapped dead tissue too!
What the writers cited in “Cyber-Marx” seem to be arguing, from various angles, is that Marx made some major points, but he wasn’t the damn Bible. If fact, that was the trouble all along, treating Das Kapital like the damn Bible. Look what happens to folks who treat the Bible like the Bible! No, what author of “Cyber Marx” seems to be getting at is that Marx’s analysis of Capitalism in general, and Capitalist controlled technology in particular, is quite relevant to our current situation. Quite relevant indeed.
Been having fun working more hours for less money at your meaningless job enriching TechnoCorp Inc. lately? Or are you one of those who really enriched your corporate lords by getting downsized? Or did you hit the jackpot and spread the wealth to numerous conglomerates by getting into serious debt, or going to prison? Or perhaps all of the above? Well, you can always help out even more corporations by taking out huge loans and going back to school. As THE MAN says, the road to success is through Institutionalized Education (as opposed to staying home and reading on your own and maybe talking to friends; but I’m not sure, I think gathering in groups to discuss ideas might be illegal now; again, who has time to do all this research?).
(whatever that means; I know, I know, I should look it up on Latin Dicionary.com or something; I’ll leave that to you; and while you’re at it, why don’t you go shopping, not to support your President–you don’t really have one–but to help the economy, such as it is, and buy “Cyber Marx.”)
While Ryan was hacking systems, I got shipped off to defend the integrity of the network at one of world’s largest law firms. Major Cyber Momma client. I sat among the machines in the basement of a tremendous skyscraper on Lexington Avenue. Manning the Fire Wall to prevent hackers or rival law firms from accessing “private data.” Checking out the incoming and outgoing messages. Spying on the Lawyers high above, making sure they weren’t surfing the web for illicit purposes. That is, visiting porno sites.
Turns out these fine, six-figure income lawyers were indeed scoping out virtual beaver, big time. Males mostly, which is why The Firm moved to take action. A female employee complained when she passed the computer of a male colleague around which several other male colleagues were congregated with obvious hard-ons stretching the limits of their Barney’s slacks. The Senior Partners smelled sex (in the form of a discrimination lawsuit).
So, the ingenious CEO of Cyber Momma sold the not-so-ingenious Senior Partners of The Firm the latest in snoop scoop software, which it was my duty to install and demonstrate to a cabal of Senior Partner Poo Pahs.
“Howdy, Partners,” I said to the Firm’s Elders.
None were amused. So I proceeded to demonstrate the inadequacy of censorship, even censorship of the high tech sort.
“Type in ‘Playboy,'” one of the Elders said, excitedly.
I typed in “” instead. The gaping vagina that burst onto the screen–one of the Partners claimed to have seen teeth; I didn’t see any–was so steamy and wet I thought it might melt the monitor.
“But, but…how can this be?” stammered the Seniorest Partner.
“It’s like this,” I tried to explain, slowly, using simple words, just to be sure they understood. “The manufacturers of this software guarantee that they’ve tracked 200,000 porn sites and add patches with up to 20,000 new sites, which we are licensed to download from their site, each month. Right?”
“Right!” yessed the men who were not used to getting KNOW! for an answer.
“Well, there’s about 20 million sites on the Web with millions, not thousands, being added each week by users all over the world. Right?”
“Well, if you say so, you’re the expert.”
Actually, I wasn’t. I pulled those numbers outta my head. But they seemed accurate enough.
“Now, considering that porn is the most lucrative, in fact the only lucrative business on the Web, what percentage of these already existing sites, not to mention new sites, are porn sites?”
Then there was Juliette, the Firm’s in-house trouble shooter, a sixty-something-year old grandmother, born black in Jamaica–and still black when I knew her–who had the unenviable job of fielding calls from panicked Partners, Paralegals, Extra-legals Sub-legals, and various other Legals 40 floors above.
“What’s that, you say?” Juliette would ask politely. “You broke the Internet? That could be a problem. But maybe you didn’t break the entire Internet. Maybe you just crashed you browser. You know, your browser. The window where the web sites appear. What do you mean, you’re not on the web? Your screen is blank and it won’t go on. Hmn. Did you try plugging in your machine? Right. Now reboot. That means turn your system on again. Oh, it’s working now? That’s good. Oh, no need to thank me, that’s what I’m here for.”
She’d slam down the phone, mutter, “assholes” and wait for the next high tech emergency.
One lovely autumn morning as I approached the Lexington and 53rd to start the day, I saw a COMMOTION. Hundreds of the firm’s employees hanging around outside the building.
“What’s going on?” I asked some guy in a suit.
“Fire downstairs. In IT. The Firm’s afraid it might have lost billions of dollars in data.”
“Heavens,” I said
I walked a few blocks to Barkley Rex Cigars, bought a double-corona Dominican, and puffed away in the smoking room, watching the Asian Economy collapse on CNN. By the time I got back, the commotion was over and I went down to the basement to check the damage.
What happened was, some guys were using a soldering iron on the air-conditioning unit and it set off the fire alarm. Now, this wasn’t just any fire alarm system–after all, they had to protect billions of dollars worth of data-this was a Halon alarm system. That means that once the alarm goes off, they turn on the Halon release doohickey and anyone at IT has about sixty-seconds to get the hell outta the basement before the Halon gas is released to suck all the oxygen out of the air and stop the fire before it laps nary a lick of data. For some reason, the system didn’t work, and no Halon was released. This reason was obvious: the Halon release mechanism had not been turned on.
Juliette caught hell for not taking one for the team and defending the integrity of the Firm’s data. You see, there were about twenty people down there before I arrived, and Juliette — no spring chicken, she–was the last one out. As everybody at IT knows, the last one out must turn on the release mechanism.
“Are they crazy? Are they insane?” I can still hear Juliette fuming. “They expect me to turn that switch and get my ass out of IT in sixty seconds before the Halon kills me? So they can save the data on their damn machines? Then what? They’ll send my family a condolence card and a basket of fruit? Bullshit.”
I left IT, Cyber Momma, and the whole game not long after that. There has to be a better use for computers, networks, data systems, software, and I’m sure we’ll find one. Once we take back every damn one of them from THE MAN.
That’s when I began to read about Richard Stallman, and the GNU/Linux/Free Software movement, and the concept of Copy Left distribution of data and software. It was pretty big for a while, and I think it all still exists. It might indeed be growing a bit too powerful for The MAN not to take notice. Ever wonder why corporations like IMB and Hewlett-Packard are starting to brag that their hardware runs Linux, a free, unlicensed operating system? But don’t take my word for it. Look it up.
(by the way, Les Miserable, you DON’T know who I am; I ditched that guy a million years ago and I ain’t never goin’ back; have a nice day!)
ADAM ENGEL lives and writes in Cyberspace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org