2600 Magazine cover

Hacker Perspective
Published in 2600 Magazine, 2006 Spring, Volume 23:1

by Richard Cheshire

Original Title:
The Cheshire Catalyst, Just Who IS This guy?
Or, "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich"

So just who is "The Cheshire Catalyst"? Certainly that can't be his real name! I like the description that Gag Halfront used in "The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy" to describe Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. "He's just this guy, you know?" I also like to describe myself with just two words: "No Ambition". Other people look at the long hair, beard, and the funny name and say, "Oh, he's a hacker". The penguin on the t-shirt might also be another clue.

What is a hacker, anyway?

All a hacker really is, is someone who hacks away at a computer keyboard until it does what they want it to do. That's all! Neat and simple. A cracker, on the other hand, is someone who hacks past the bounds of propriety, and "cracks" into system security. The press has usurped our rightful title, and handed it off to these 14-year-old twerps that crack into computer systems. Usurped - to unjustly steal what rightfull beongs to someone by caveat or fiat. As in, "The young prince, with the aid of the Prime Minister and the army, usurped the Throne from his father".

"Hacking away at the keyboard" means you're exploring. You're not taking the manual for granted, but testing out what the computer can do, to see where the network can take you. To seek out new life, and new cyber civilizations. But while there ARE some limits to where the network goes, the imagination of the hacker can take him (or her) far beyond those limits mentally. That's what makes it fun, and interesting.

I was once asked at a 2600 meeting what type of person becomes a cracker, or writes computer viruses? I replied "The playground bully has moved indoors and learned how to type". That quote turned out to become the headline in the Forbes Magazine article on the subject of criminal computer hacking.

Think about it. It's that type of mentality that does that sort of thing. They want to be in control of something. I'm a happy go lucky kind of guy who is scared to have that kind of control over someone else. I just don't want that kind of responsibility. Just let me go along and play with computers, ham radios, and web sites. Need to find me? Give me a radio and a GPS reciever, and likely as not I'll let you track me by Ham Radio over the internet. Consider too, I'm usualy seen wearing shirts or jackets embroidered with my Ham Radio call sign. How many illegal activities do you suspect I'll persue wearing a Federally issued ID code?

Look at what Ham Radio allows me to do. I can crawl around the Packet Radio data network to my heart's content, do unspeakable things in the way of routings, and finding holes in the network, and when I report them to the network operators, or publish how to go about the things I do, people thank me for it! I have found a Home in ham radio. I worked in Homestead followig Hurricane Andrew. I had so many assignments with last year's flurry of hurricanes, I've lost track of them all. Remeber the wildfires across Florida a few years back? Many areas couldn't be reached from the regular radio towers. Ham radio was called upon again, and I worked Hog Valley Firebase, as well as the Fire Control Center.

The ones with the time to play those "nasty" types of games on computer networks are usually kids, though headlines about how much money is controlled by computer has led "professionals" to get into the games. But for kids, computers provide the kind of "intellectual challenge" that my generation of hackers found as Phone Phreaks, when the only network we could play with was the Phone System. But that came into our homes with a telephone instrument that led to a great wide world out there. And they wouldn't tell us how to get around behind the scenes, so we had to find out for ourselves.

But people can't get over their predjudices, and so they equate me with the "black hat" hackers that send viruses out through the e-mails, and don't know how far they can trust me. Actually, even if I get screwed over, I'm not going to do much. I worked for a "major Manhattan bank" for three years, and was fired after an article came out in Technology Illustrated magazine about "that hacker". You have to realize that I was hired to be a computer programmer for the Communications Department of this bank. The regular programming department didn't have the time to deal with the silly little problems of breaking out the monthly telephone and telex statements that came in on mag-tape each month.

I wrote programs that split out the calls by area code and country code so we could see where the phone calls went each month, and see if it wouldn't be cheaper to buy leased circuits to various parts of the world to lower communications costs.

Of course, there was also the understanding that if the Telex circuits went out again (as they had a few month before I was hired), that I would be able to help them get banking messages out via "other means". They had lost millions on the telex outage.

They bought me a TWX Teletype line, and a TWX Teletype machine to go with it. It meant that if the Telex circuits went out, we could send messages via the TWX circuits as well. Since TWX machines can be reached via telephone circuits (something AT&T never admitted), the bank would be able to get important messges out if the telex switch failed, but the phone network is still up. (See my Telex Stories at http://www.CheshireCatalyst.Com/telex.html for more details).

Well, after I left, someone sat down and actually looked at my programs (something the system administrators could have done any time during the 3 years I was there). They were amazed at the clarity of my well documented code, and how well it did it's job (I was told later). My stock as a programmer went up considerably within the company. So a couple of months later, there was a major system crash. They had no clue what caused it, but in their paranoia, they figured I must have left a "logic bomb" in the machine. I didn't, of course, but I was grateful they thought I had the programming skills to pull it off.

I'm really not that good a programmer, and this would have needed much more knowledge of system internals than I had. All I can really do is "piddle" in BASIC - the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. And the bank had PDP-11 computers, so I didn't even have to learn a new "flavor" of BASIC. BASIC began life at Dartmouth College in Hanover VT. It found it's way onto various time-sharing computers, and in the 1970's a young punk kid named Gates created a version for the Altair 8800 computer made by the MITS company of Albequrque NM. He got hired on as the Chief Programmer, and proceeded to take Basic Plus under RSTS/e from PDP-11 computers, and re-work it into "Altair Basic". I'd been programming on PDP-11's running version "e" of the Resource Sharing Timesharing System (RSTS/e), and reccognized it immediatley. Needless to say, this eventually became Microsoft Basic (hmm, is there a "look and feel" issue we've overlooked here?).

I still keep a copy of Qbasic.exe around in my "/temp" directory for emergency file hacking. I find it easier to write a quick program to find and replace things in large files.

Look, I know guys that are much better at programming than I am. Of course, I've got slightly better "people skills" than they've got, so it all works out. The thing is, my reputation far and away exceeds my actual skill as a hacker.

It's the thought processes, more than anything else, that sets a hacker apart from most people. It's the ability to look critically at a problem, when everyone says "it CAN'T work like that", when the hacker knows the logic of the situation says it can.

I grew up in Rochester NY, the home of Frontier Communications, direct decendant of the Rochester Telephone Company that I grew up with. RochTel was the largest independant telco (telephone company) in the country at the time (independent of The Bell System - AT&T and it's wholey owned subsidiaries). When the TWX Teletype network was set up, it used spare capacity of the telephone network, but AT&T said, "It was completely seperate and distinct from the telephone network". That was a load of crap.

Using SAC's (Special Area Codes), that ended in Zero (510, 610, 710, 810, and 910), the TWX (TeletypeWriter eXchange) Network was set up with Model-33 teletypes containing Bell 103 modems, and a telephone dial. They worked great as dial up terminals for remote time sharing systems (which is what I started looking for when I found TWX machines), but the TWX charges were by the minute, and quite expensive for their time. It was a business service, after all.

But I looked into it further. Further than The Phone Company wanted me to look. It seemed absurd to me that a large, independent telco would build a whole new telephone exchange, just for a Ma Bell playtoy. It didn't take long for me to find out that the 510-523 TWX exchange translated to the 716-235 exchange, and used the same last four digits as the TWX number. I could use a dial up computer terminal, and send TWX messages to any TWX machine in town. I started by sending myself a message via the local truck stop.

After getting a nationwide TWX directory from the phone company, and a little experimenting, I had a list of more than 40 cities where I could directly dial the TWX machines of companies. If I wanteded a catalog, I'd zap the company a quick message, and it would show up in the mail pretty rapidly. I must have been from a large firm myself, if I had a TWX line to send them a message with. They didn't know I was just a kid with dial up terminal.

One of the places on my list was New York City. When I had a press release to get out, I simply sent it to the TWX machine of the newspapers, AP and UPI. This thing had USES!

No programming skill - just a kid with an attitude, and a crush on technology. And, of course, a critical look at the "logic" of explainations people were giving me. I compared that to what I found the technology was showing me was possible.

Then there's how a hacker looks at Rules. For example, I haven't worn white underwear in years. What's that got to do with anything? The Rule my mother taught me was, "Never mix your whites with you coloreds". She wasn't being racist, she just didn't want the colors to run in the laundry and stain my white clothes. I just don't want to do a second load of laundry. So if I have colored undies, they go in the wash with everything else - the logic follows . As you can see, hackers look at problems differently.

The thing is, like most hackers, I'm bright. I can look at a situation and "grok" what it's about. "Grok" is a Martian word from an old science fiction novel that means "to thoroughly understand something". I tend to laugh at jokes quicker than other people, and even find humor in situations others couldn't find humor in, because I'm usually looking at situations from a different "logic set". For the most part, people think "Bright Hacker - Big Trouble".

I'll admit it. If I wanted to cause trouble, I could probebly cause it big-time. But I'm just this guy, you know?

Cheshire Catalyst.Com | 2600.Com