New: Book Report: The Best of 2600 (a Hacker Odyssey)

I used to read a little newsletter called 2600. It billed itself as The Hacker Quarterly, which makes it sound like it was full of sploits for breaking in to computer systems. But it wasn't really about that. It described a bunch of computer and telephone systems. For each system, the point of view was someone exploring it, who'd figured out a few things. I eventually figured out that the article authors mostly weren't breaking into the computers. Rather, they'd got some student account or one of their parents had let them mess around. And I wasn't even into cracking into computer systems (and still ain't). And yet... And yet... yet, it was still an interesting newsletter. This was before the web, and there wasn't much good high-tech journalism out there. Most of that was aimed at specialties, at businesses. 2600 talked about many different kinds of devices.

Nowadays, I get my tech news off of the internets. Still, when I heard that there was a "best of" anthology coming out, I figured that it would be good for nostalgia. And it was.

TelCo minutiae in How to Get Into a CO, "The Kid" describes how he and some phone phreaker friends arranged to get a tour of their local telephone company facility. The most important thing that they learned "the mystery of the billing tape! Exactly what does it contain? The tape contains records of the following types of calls: 0+, 1+, and 7-digit numbers out of your local calling area." Uhm, yeah. If you want to work around phone company systems or social-engineer phone company employees, you need to learn how the phone company works. These kids got excited about billing system administration.

Voice Mail Systems Phone phreaks had phones. They didn't all have PCs or email accounts. So instead of sending emails or going onto computer BBSs, they liked voice mail systems and phone conference systems. Some company would get a voice mail system. Every employee got a mailbox with a default password, maybe "1234". Most employees never used the system, never changed their password. So... the phreaks used these systems as message drops. Looking back now, in these days of free email accounts all over the place, it's hard to imagine that folks would need to "hack into" a system just for a place to exchange messages.

Not by "Crackers" A "how to" article on privelege escalation on VMS systems--which mostly consists of debunking some obviously-bad advice which, apparently, was going around at the time...the article ends with "...If you have not guessed by now, I am a VMS system manager. I am assuming that many of the people who are reading this are other system managers who, like myself are trying to keep hackers off of their systems."

Civil Liberties In 1997, spreading the news that cellular phone operators in India were providing help with phone taps to the government. Raids by the FBI and the Secret Service. (You want to know why American security folks keep mentioning "subpoena" in their threat models? Geeks of a certain age grew up hearing about the Secret Service raiding... raiding a game company, seizing their computers... Not even a computer game company, but a reputable paper-and-pencil game company... And plenty of other raids, similarly dubious. High-profile arrests which probably got some federal agent promoted. Charges eventually overturned. Or the incredibly valuable stolen data turns out to be available from the local college library and we find out we paid millions of dollars in taxes for a raid and a trial over a crime whose stakes were less than grabbing the till from a lemonade stand. Or... or... Ahem. Sorry, was I ranting?) Various attempts by the USA government to popularize key escrow encryption--in which the government is the escrow.

The Pay Phones go Away Remember pay phones? They used to be all over. Now they're in... they're in... they're in BART stations, I guess. Not many other places. Mourned in conversation, but largely overlooked by the news. But 2600, bless their phreaker hearts, noted their passing.

2600 is still a going concern, but I stopped reading it as various web tech news sites got better. Still, for me, this collection brought back memories of the late 90s, the early aughts. Though the systems have all changed, we're still applying lessons from those days. (Like, "1234" is not the greatest default password.) Geeks of a certain age might like this collection. I did.

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Posted 2009-10-31