Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Brief History - 10 - The Revenge of the Hacker

PART 10: Silicon Wars: The Revenge of the Hacker

"A Brief History of Code", by Rudedog Hawkins

PART 10: Silicon Wars: The Revenge of the Hacker

By the early 1990s, the term hacker had evolved in meaning.  It had turned from someone who was viewed almost as a folk hero of legend, to someone who was out to cause as much terror and havoc as they could.  Some hackers began to take actions that were undoubtedly immoral, but because the industry was so new that the hackers’ actions could not be deemed illegal.  Yes, I am talking about computer bugs, which led to computer viruses.  Not much software is perfect, if any.  The more complex it is, the more likely it is to have an error within the source code. 

Internal software errors are known as bugs.  Bugs are supposed to be accidental.  Some bugs were not.  Some hackers began to sabotage their employer’s software because they felt underpaid.  Other misguided individuals wanted to look like a hero to those running their companies by solving a major crisis.  I have seen this first hand.  Bitter workers, who saw friends lose jobs in the name of greater company profit, intentionally created bugs to harm the reputation of the software vendor.  It was rumored that one vendor had wanted to sabotage the product of a competitor created some bugs.  They all had a reason that felt valid enough for them.

Once caught, the bitter worker could feign ignorance and claim an innocent mistake.  Since there was no way to prove malicious intent many of those people soon found themselves out of a job, which made them bitterer than ever.  Then bugs took on a new form.  Instead creating bugs to attack their employer’s product, bugs were attacking other vendor’s products.  The bad software was behaving just like a biological virus spreading to other software packages, and so they were aptly named. 

Bugs are due to code found within the application code itself.  Viruses are due to code not part of the original application code.  But, writing these types of directly focused bugs and viruses is not how some bitter hackers really got their revenge.

The year 1991 saw the passage of legislation in the U.S. Congress to create something to be called the “Information Super Highway”.  It was an idea that had found it roots in the early 70s U.S. Dept. of Defense project code named DARPA.  DARPA was to produce a logistical network to interconnect the different branches of the U.S. Defense Department’s computer systems that had been purchased from a variety of vendors. 

At the time each vendor had proprietary networking technology to lock you into purchasing only their products, and so systems from different vendors could not communicate.  The U.S. government could not buy exclusively from one vendor, they had to buy from the lowest bidder.  The hybrid network had been envisioned as the information equivalent to the interstate highway system created after World War II, which allowed vehicles of all shapes and sizes to move about freely and quickly without local interference.

The networking technology being created by DARPA was called Arpanet.  It was 20 years ahead of its’ time unfortunately.  1970s technology was not up to the task, it ran over budget, nearly cancelled, and was eventually used on a reduced scale by government-sponsored scientists.  For almost a decade, Arpanet had been the government-sanctioned near-exclusive domain and plaything for scientists and researchers exchanging nuclear and weapons research data and papers across the U.S. 

These researchers and their co-workers would go home and wish their home PCs could talk with other computers and exchange mail messages in the same way.  It was illegal for them to bring the work technology home because in many cases the scientists were working on top-secret Dept. of Defense research.  One central hub for nuclear weapons research was being performed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Tennessee had a young Senator by the name of Al Gore who had some long time friends from college who worked at Oak Ridge and other locations.  Some of them presented their desires to the young Senator.

One of Senator Gore’s major accomplishments during his tenure in the U.S. Senate had been to sponsor legislation that would allow these researchers to use this computer network technology at home to communicate with their friends across the country.  In this way, no one was sending personal messages on secure computers, and the government research network could remain secure. 

Sen. Gore could not make it legal just for a hand picked group of friends, so he made it available to the general public at large.  Computer modems were in wide spread use at that time, but they allowed connection to only a single bulletin board at a time.  Switching boards was slow and time consuming.  That meant re-dialing and running the risk of not finding an open phone line to the board.  Data transfers were limited to simple text.  The new technology could put those inconveniences to an end.

Sen. Gore’s 1991 sponsored legislation that was known as the High Performance Computing and Communication Act, which mandated putting the communication backbone technology created by the Defense Department into the public domain.  It was expressly prohibited for anyone to own and control, or otherwise limit public access to this new communication backbone. 

This last was deemed as crucial to spurring growth because you could throw your hat into the ring with very little investment.  It mandated a permanently, leveled playing field, and defined the playing rules as every man for himself.  The legislation contained content that fell in line the economic policies of both those on the liberal far left and the conservative far right.  The law favored no individuals or groups because everyone had an equal chance.  There were no rules in place limiting your options leaving you free to do whatever you wanted.

The legislation also commissioned the creation of a high-speed information super highway, and created additional funding for the existing 4 NSF National Supercomputing Centers around the U.S to play a lead role with the DARPA technology.  These cities were home to universities that had played little known but critical roles in the development of the Arpanet and parallel technologies during the earliest stages of the project.  These universities were: Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA; University of Illinois in Urbana, IL; Cornell University in Ithaca, NY; and the University of California at San Diego.

While the young Senator did not invent the technology, he certainly had a leading hand in creating the political atmosphere for the rise of the public domain Information Super Highway that we think of today as the Internet.

Once hackers discovered the Internet, they realized that they had an entirely new method to deliver computer viruses to attack the software of companies they disliked.  Their favorite target was Microsoft who just had so many products to choose from.  Some hackers would create viruses just for the thrill of seeing the headlines that a really damaging virus would create.  Some hackers created viruses with the intent to make illegal profits by stealing secure information.  Others simply stole CPU time from unsuspecting victims.  The motives are as endless as the variety of viruses.

Today, there are dozens of independent high-speed networks in the U.S. that resemble the Internet, but most are strictly for private or secured use.  The 4 NSF sites are still providing cutting edge research and development to the computing industry and are credited with driving the growth of the Internet seen in the 1990s.  They also serve as self-redundant data storage centers for academic research providing at least 10 petabytes of hard disk storage at each site, a function similar to that once served by Arpanet.  One petabytes is equal to one billion gigabytes, 1000 terabytes, or 10 thousand 100 GB hard drives.  A little more than half of the 10 PB capacities are currently used.

Rudy  =8^D

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