Friday, June 14, 2019

Shall We Play A Game?

Next to Tron, the geek movie I liked to play over and over again on the VCR was 1983's WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick as a hacker who accidentally nearly starts World War III while trying to find software from a game company. Real-life hackers quickly dismissed this film, and NORAD reassured people it couldn't happen because their machines weren't tied to phone lines in the pre-home-internet cyberworld.

A look at the films
that have left a mark on my life.
That didn't stop amateur computer hobbyists from deciding they wanted to try a little online breaking and entering. (I wasn't one of them.) Now we had a new category of crime that the law hadn't caught up with. In the earliest days of illegal online computer use, the authorities could do little more than charge somebody with wire fraud, something might not cover things like, say, launching a Titan missile out of a silo in Nebraska.

Many hackers, as I knew them, were just tourists: people who got in, looked around, maybe played a little with the system, and then logged out without leaving any trace. I know this because I was a tourist on a computer bulletin board system devoted to hacking: The K.C. Hack Shack. But under an alias, I saw a lot more than hacking. Many people were there to illegally pass codes for long-distance telephone systems which, unlike today, were not unlimited and not free. Many people also engaged in something called "carding:" stealing credit card information and using it to fraudulently order things (usually computer gear), which would then usually be sent to an abandoned home to be picked up later. "Phreaking" was also common: hacking your way around AT&T's phone network to get free long distance, conference calls, and who knew what else. Occasionally, I'd hear about somebody changing grades, just like in the movie:

That computer Matthew Broderick is using is a tricked-up IMSAI 8080, a 1970's-era machine that originally didn't come with either a monitor or keyboard, so it was already obsolete by the time WarGames was released. However, it looked bulky and nerdy enough to fit the character of a hard-core hacker, so the choice made sense. What you don't see the star doing is actually booting this system up -- something complicated by the fact that the keyboard needed a bootloader!

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