Through Hacker's Eyes


There is no way to describe the feeling of approaching a computer system to download the data that your Trojan horse has been collecting for days. Your heart begins to race. You look over your shoulder out of instinct and start to have major second thoughts about proceeding. The computer terminal is unoccupied and sits directly in front of you.

Questions plague your thoughts: How many people are capable of finding the cleverly hidden Trojan? More importantly, does anyone in this room know it is there? You ease yourself down into the chair. Glancing to your right you see a student stare at his calculator with a perplexed look on his face. To your left a girl is laughing on her cell phone. If you could shrink yourself into nothing and crawl through the cracks in the machine you would gladly do so. But you are physical and there is nothing you can do about that now. The coast is clear. You reach for your floppy and insert it into the drive. Sheens of sweat glaze over your palms. Why? Because after all, you are returning to the scene of a crime.

Your crime.

Deep down, you rationalize your actions. There is no blood involved, no money is being stolen, and in the end no real harm is being done... or is there? The floppy drive begins to spin. In moments it will be over. In moments all of the login/password pairs will be on the disk and you will be hightailing it to your next class. Perspiration breaks out on your forehead but is easily dismissed with a waft of your hand. You navigate to the floppy drive and double-click on the game of Tetris. There is time for one quick game. The first block is 1 by 5, your favorite. If only they'd come down like that one after the other you'd have the game in the bag by laying them out horizontally. But it never works out that way. The law of probabilities won't allow it. A book hits the ground and you jump.

A lanky-looking freshman picks it up. The title — Differential Equations: Theory and Applications. Smart guy. Most students are only studying multivariable calculus in their first year. Words begin to echo in the back of your mind: there has to be a better way, there has to be a better way... An odd, misshapen block comes into view. You hate those. They make you lose Tetris every time. A whirring noise emanates from the drive and this time you know it is writing to the floppy. One more minute and your doctored up version of Tetris will have downloaded all of the passwords to the disk. Who’d ever guess this version of Tetris packed such a punch? A four-sided cube comes down and you ease it over to the left-hand side of the screen. You love those shapes too. On the surface you are just playing a game. Your mouse button clicks and space bar presses are as innocuous as they come. But the real game you are playing is not so easy to see, and at times it feels like Russian roulette. Your thoughts wander to your password-snatching Trojan. The possibility that it was found and that silent sysadmin alarms are sounding in a nearby room is very, very real.

Something’s wrong.

Something’s not right; you can feel it in the air. The drive should have stopped spinning by now. Your heart goes still. Looking up, you catch a glimpse of a man you didn’t notice before. He makes eye contact with you. Fighting the urge to flee, you quickly look back at your screen. You missed placing two blocks. You will not make high score. Your mind begins conjuring swear words without biblical precedent... it has never taken this long before.

The floppy drive finally stops whirring. You quit out of Tetris, eject the floppy, and reboot the machine. You leave the computer cluster and enter the hallway half expecting to be halted by university officials. But none are there. You think yourself silly. You think that there was no way it could have been found. But the reality is that you know all too well how to write a background process capable of catching you in the act and that is what makes you scared. Stepping outside the building, you breathe a sigh of relief in the midday sun. You made it this time, but maybe you were just lucky. Maybe it wasn’t in the cards just yet. Like a junkie to drugs, you are drawn to these machines. They speak to you the way they speak to no one else. You put in your time. You paid your dues, and yet for some reason your vision is still shrouded in darkness. There is something they are not telling you. Perhaps it is something they don’t even know. It is a question that nags at you like no other, and you sense that the answer lies hidden somewhere within the deepest recesses of your soul, somewhere out of sight and just beyond your grasp. There has to be a better way.

Shortly before sundown that same day...

The dull roar of thunder reverberates somewhere far off in the distance as menacing storm clouds roil in from the west. They exhibit all the signs of a true nor’easter and threaten to engulf the entire city of New Haven. You swear you just felt a drop of rain hit your left shoulder. Reaching down, you feel for the disk at your side. The floppy is still there, its presence reassured at the touch of a thumb. The data it contains is dear to you, and you’ll be damned if you’re gonna let a little H2O seep through your denim pocket and claim your catch of the day. So you decide to pick up the pace a bit.

The path you follow winds in and around, gently sloping downward as you go, eventually leading to a clearing that overlooks a stand of maples. The trees are enormous and have stood here for ages. At their center lies a lone apple tree. It is dwarfed by the older trees and is helplessly sheltered under a canopy of leaves. Having sensed your unexpected approach, a nearby squirrel dashes for the safety of a nearby tree. Before reaching the trunk, it fumbles over an apple and sends it rolling along the ground. The fruits around you give off a racy odor, a telltale reminder of the approaching change of season.

Had it not been for the disk, you would chance a brief pause underneath the eaves to contemplate greater things. Physics lectures always left you spellbound regarding the mysteries of the world. It was the dream of being struck in the head by a falling apple that guided you to this school in the first place, a dream that you summarily dismissed upon meeting your brilliant roommate. He is a National Merit scholar and received 1580 out of a possible 1600 on his SATs. The deduction was in the verbal section, and you always attributed it to his difficulty in comprehending the human condition. On many levels he is more machine than man, yet his inference engine is second to none. Physics is his second language and he speaks it fluently. You abandoned the idea of majoring in physics since the thought of taking the same classes as he was too much to bear, and since he had an uncanny ability to make you feel stupid without even trying. Answers to scientific problems just came naturally to him. Your hacking obsession combined with a thoroughly tenderized ego would do little to help you finish school.

A gust of wind billows through the trees. The limbs creak and sway in response, causing rain droplets to roll off their leaves. The water splashes onto your face and exposed arms, causing you to start. You realize that you had zoned out completely and had lost all track of time. Your eyes had stared off into space, fixated on some solitary trees, and subconsciously absorbed the surrounding scenery. You shrug in spite of yourself. No use in crying over spilled milk. Your true path has yet to be determined and there is no reason to worry about it now.

You shift the weight of your backpack to your other shoulder and leave the small wooded area behind. As always the students took Prospect Street back to Old Campus while you ventured along an overgrown yet shorter route, preferring to take the road less traveled. Hypotenuse action your roommate called it. Over time you discerned the shortest route between the Sloane Physics Lab and your dorm and it took you through more than one private yard, not to mention a vast cemetery. It saved you an innumerable number of backaches to be sure. Take aside any science student and you will hear the same tale of woe. The cumbersome textbooks are murderous to haul and the university couldn’t place the science buildings at a more remote location if it tried.

The Payne Whitney Gymnasium looms ahead, shadowed by the black storm cover above. Were it not for the parked cars and street signs, the darkness could easily lead one to mistake it for a castle. Gulls from the nearby seashore circle above the parapets that line the rooftop. Some dive and soar, some pick up speed, and still others hover in place in blatant defiance of the wind. Nightfall descended prematurely on the city, and what had been just a few droplets of rain minutes before has turned into a veritable deluge. A small pack of students run through the stone archway at the base of the gym with newspapers outstretched overhead. The brunt of the storm is upon you and rainwater quickly seeps into every quarter. You break into a sprint down Tower Parkway in a last-ditch effort to keep your data dry.

The torrential rain pummels your body in sheets as you approach the backdoor of Morse College. You pass quietly into the building under cover of dusk and enter the underground labyrinth of steam tunnels and storage rooms. The humdrum of washers and dryers from a nearby laundry room fills your ears. You take a brief moment to wring what water you can from your clothing. After regaining your composure, you head down the narrow hallway and pass alongside the laundry room. It is empty and devoid of movement, save for a loose ball of lint circling beneath a ventilation shaft. You continue along the corridor towards the small staircase at its end, leaving a puddle of water with each passing step. A steam release valve hisses as you pass it by, only to be replaced by the distant clamor of trays and dishes. The student body has assembled in the Morse cafeteria for the high-quality food service afforded by the university. It is the early part of dinner hour and the thought of eating couldn’t be further from your mind.

You fish the keys out of your pocket as you gain the steps to your floor. If your roommate is in he’ll probably give you a hard time about tracking water inside, and rightfully so. You open the door and swing it wide, revealing the darkened room beyond. He’s out, probably studying in the science library as usual. You pass through his room and into yours, opting to leave the lights out for fear of ruining the picturesque atmosphere. With the toil of the long trek behind, you ease your backpack to the ground and rest at the foot of your bed. You suspect that he’ll be gone for the better part of the evening.

It is nights like these that you live for.

A momentary flash of lightning illuminates every darkened corner of the room. You are not alone. A woman stares at you from across your bed. Her eyes are as cold as ice and she has daggers at her sides, drawn at the ready. Li could lunge at you at any moment. It is perhaps one of H. R. Giger’s most beautiful yet grotesque works of art ever, and you purchased the poster for twenty dollars at The Forbidden Planet in Manhattan.

Is she man or machine? Does she need blood or electricity to survive? Perhaps she needs a bit of both. No one really knows of course, no one except H. R. Giger himself. But the purpose of the metal sheaths is clear. They were carefully designed to extract every last drop of blood for her consumption. Her face is paradoxical: it is clearly frozen in a state of suspended animation, yet her eyes are seeing and behind them she is actively calculating. Li has all the makings of perfection: the memory capacity and precision of a supercomputer, the ability to reason as humans do and perform modus ponens, yet exist free of fear and pain and want, with the life expectancy of a machine. There is a definite eeriness about her, for her eyelids are at half mast and she gives off the impression of total boredom, as if it is out of curiosity alone that she permits you to gaze upon her before taking your life.

After a time you get up and seat yourself at your computer, feeling her eyes penetrate deep into the back of your head as you do so. She has watched all of your feeble attempts at becoming one with the machine.

The disk is soaking wet. You pull it out and lay it down next to your keyboard. The writing on the label is smeared beyond recognition. A blow dryer simply will not do, and neither will a tissue since it can leave nasty scratches if sand gets in the way. It will require surgery to salvage it on such short order. You remove the sliding metal door causing a small metal spring to fly out and fall to the ground. The door is warped irreparably, but you will not be needing it again. The two plastic halves separate easily and you gingerly extract the silicon disk from its casing. It has water droplets all over it. They are not too big, but it’s a good thing you didn’t insert the disk into your drive. You take a dry towel from the bathroom and lay it out on the desk, carefully placing the thin silicon platter on top of it. The water will evaporate soon enough.

You draw your attention to your computer. The power is still off and the pen that you positioned carefully atop the keyboard has not moved. The upper end rests squarely between the “5” and “6” keys and the ballpoint end lies between the “c” and “v” keys. Had it not been aligned as such there would have been hell to pay, and the inquisition would have commenced with your roommate. You remove the pen and flip on the power switch. The desktop appears. The background art reads “Night City” haphazardly spray painted along a worn and weathered wall set beneath a neon sky. The steel rods from the reinforced concrete stand rusted and jagged along the top, making for rough passage should anyone try to reach the ruined building beyond. You dubbed the machine Night City in honor of the cyberpunk role-playing game that bears the same name.

The protagonists in the cyberpunk genre are a truly admirable lot. They are high-tech lowlifes that challenge authority at every given opportunity, blend in with the crowd, and make commercial programmers look like toddlers playing with tinker toys. The sprawl is their home, a megalopolis formed from the eventual unification of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The cyberpunks live on the fringes of society and form a counterculture unto themselves. They know not of greed. They know not of rapacity, and they know not of hegemony. However, these things are not alien to them since they are contended with on a regular basis. They are technologists absolute and embrace mankind’s tendency to both make its own problems and later overcome them: deplete the ozone then sell sun block; pollute the air then sell gas masks; trash this planet then move on to the next. It is in science and technology that they believe. Like renegade cowboys out of the Wild West, they serve their own needs in the largely lawless and uncontrollable digital realm. Yet they frequently perform valuable services for the common good, and play a crucial role in keeping the powers that be in check, thus preserving the freedoms that we take for granted. In the end their heroic acts are seldom if ever rewarded, let alone recognized. Such is the divine tragedy of the good hacker. When the megacorporations of the world and their puppet governments wrest control of our lives completely, when they see and hear and record every move we make, when they tell us how we should think and how we should act and what we should buy, who else will there be to turn to?

The terminate-and-stay-resident programs load one after another, creating a line of icons along the bottom of the screen. After the last one loads you reach around the left side of the machine and press the hardware debugging switch. Time to go manual. You type in a command to view the two bytes located at address 0x05DE1940. It contains 0x007E, just as it should. It read 0x007D when you left, implying that you are the only one who booted the machine since you went to class this morning. Your computer is running a number of custom-made Trojan horses, and this is the result of one of them. Every time the machine boots the Trojan increments the counter by one.

On one occasion you rebooted the machine and found that the value had been incremented by two. After a prompt interrogation of your roommate you learned that he had turned on your machine to see if you had some software he needed. When he was finished he turned the machine back off. Paranoia perhaps? Well, call it what you will. You regard it as a simple matter of dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. Anyone who walks more than 10 feet inside Night City will set off one alarm or another. There are those who would search your machine, if not for your list of pilfered passwords, then for evidence regarding your other extracurricular activities. Trojans help solve this problem too. Any such person would only find ciphertexts and a machine so riddled with custom-made Trojans as to lead one to wonder why you hadn’t written the operating system from the ground up in the first place.

There was no need to admonish your roommate for using your computer. You trusted him more than anyone else in the world with its contents. He had won your respect on the first day of school due to his raw intellect alone. There seemed to be no question he could not answer, no system of equations he could not solve. This applied to everything, from using Maxwell’s equations to describe an electrical phenomena to figuring out how computer viruses worked. This had its downsides of course, since there is nothing more frustrating than knowing that whenever you got stuck on a homework problem, the oracle in the adjacent room could produce the answer in a matter of seconds.

The stage has been set. Soon the disk will be dry and you will be able to read its contents. You lean back in your chair and throw your hands behind your head. Ruminations of the previous lecture take over your thoughts. It was a class on the history of physics, and was taught by Professor Klein. He is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, and what adds greatly to his lectures is the fact that he even looks like Albert Einstein, although you’d be hard-pressed to get another classmate to admit it openly.

His lecture centered on Neils Bohr, the 1922 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics. It was awarded for his successful investigations on the structure of atoms and the radiation emanating from them. However, as Professor Klein explained, his contributions to mankind far exceeded his status as a Nobel laureate. He was arguably deserving of a peace prize as well for his heroic efforts at saving Jews from Nazi tyranny. Under threat of complete Nazi dictatorship, Bohr held science conferences to bring foreigners to his research institute. Behind the scenes these conferences were really job fairs in which Bohr assisted Jewish scientists to find sponsorship abroad. It was a time in which you were not permitted to leave the country without a foreign employer to work under.

One of the most interesting aspects of the lecture was what Bohr did when the Nazis took to the streets of Copenhagen. Bohr had been entrusted with the Nobel prizes of Max von Laue and James Franck who had remained in Germany. Their medals were successfully smuggled out of Germany at a time in which such exportations were considered to be capital crimes. The Nazis gathered any and all valuables to feed their war machine. The Nobel prizes remained at Bohr’s institute for safekeeping, and as Professor Klein explained, Bohr began to worry considerably that the Nazis might take over the lab and find the medals. The recipient’s names were engraved on them, and this would not have bode well for Laue and Franck had they fallen into enemy hands.

The thought of burying them was immediately ruled out for fear that they would be unearthed. George de Hevesy, a Nobel prize winner in chemistry, suggested that the medals be dissolved using a powerful acidic solution. They proceeded to precipitate the gold from acid and stored the medals in two separate unmarked jars. The Nazis ended up searching the lab and left the two jars containing the liquefied Nobel prizes alone. The jars were promptly sent to the royal mint in Stockholm to be recast as soon as the war was over. It was a fascinating lecture and it was clear that this was a scientist’s solution to a scientific problem.

You found any and all techniques that can be used to outsmart others fascinating, especially when it involved outsmarting evil tyranny. But how can this idea be extrapolated from the physical realm to the digital realm? You glance at the floppy drying next to you. How can we hide the Tetris Trojan from prying eyes? The way to do so is not clear at all. In the next instant a thought occurred to you. The salient aspect of the Bohr-Hevesy approach was that the gold was effectively melted to assume the same liquid form as the acid. The acid and gold were then intertwined at the atomic level, leading to an apparently worthless liquid. A separate process could later extract all of the Au atoms. This process could be repeated ad infinitum. How can a virus be seamlessly integrated into its host? One certainly cannot dissolve an assembly language virus. After all, this is the digital realm we are dealing with.

Given a high-level programming language J that can be decompiled, the solution is simple. Suppose that the host is written in J and suppose that the virus is written in J as well. The virus exists in compiled binary form, but totes around its J source code as well as a compiler and decompiler if needed. When the virus decides to infect a host, it decompiles the host. It then inserts its own viral source code into the host source code. The resulting infected source code is then compiled and saved, replacing the old program in the process. The virus ipso facto adheres to all of the compiler conventions of its host. Depending on what compilers are available, the virus could be made to conform to the register and calling conventions of a gnu J compiler, a Microsoft J compiler, a Borland J compiler, and so forth. This would make the virus more difficult to detect. Of course there is ample room for improvement. It would be nice to be able to infer and subsequently mimic the high-level language programming style of the host program. You glance over at the floppy lying next to you. It is finally dry. This research topic will have to wait for another rainy day.

What the disk needs now is a new home. You pull open the top drawer and pull out a previously dismantled floppy. It had been prepared for just such an occasion. You set about reassembling the disk in its new housing. Moments later it is ready. You insert it into the drive in eager anticipation. The resident operating system mounts the floppy without a hitch. The file system properties have to be adjusted on the password file since the file was designated as invisible. You copy it onto your hard drive and eject the disk. After double-clicking on the file you find that it has 143 login/password pairs.


When left to their own devices people choose the funniest passwords imaginable. This holds especially true for college undergraduates:

Login: pc541
Password: JoeIsUg1y

Login: sr412
Password: Pee∅nMe

Login: ds912
Password: SnakeH∅le

You double-click on your saved collection and enter the password that is needed to decrypt it. One second later the plaintext file opens up in a text editor. You copy and paste the newly obtained passwords to your master list. Your running total is now 655. Some of the passwords were obtained via your password-snatching Trojan; still others were obtained from brute-force dictionary attacks. The university system administrators were still making the mistake of letting the Unix passwd file be easily accessible.

It was a good catch given that your last visit to the Trojan was only a week before. However, the running total is not really 655. You earmarked several of these accounts as potential honeypots. The most suspicious of all is:

Login: Password
Password: Password

Every time a user logs into a university machine, the user is warned that any unauthorized use is a criminal act and a violation of U.S. law. These honeypots are a way of trapping rogue users since they are easily guessed and grant access to accounts that are under 24-hour surveillance. You surmise that at least 620 of the user accounts should be safe to play with.

Before calling it a day you run your coin-flipping program. You type in 655 and let it flip away, prepared to toss the coin again if it winds up on a honeypot. The result comes up 422. You cross-reference this with your master list and determine that it’s probably not a honeypot account.

Login: edc42
Password: m4Tds∅1

Tomorrow you shall be edc42 for a while.