Hacker History I: Getting Started as a Hacker

Curiosity is a wonderful thing; and the key ingredient to making a hacker. All the best hackers I know are not only deeply curious creatures but have a driving desire to share the knowledge they uncover. That curiosity and sharing underpins much of the hacker culture today – and is pretty core to people like me and those I trust the most.

Today I continue to get a kick out of mentoring other hackers, (crossed-fingers) upcoming InfoSec stars and, in a slightly different format, providing “virtual CISO” support to a handful of professionals (through my Ablative Security company) that have been thrown headfirst into protecting large enterprise or local government networks.
One of the first questions I get asked as I’m mentoring, virtual CISO’ing, or grabbing beers with a new batch of hacker friends at some conference or other is “how did you get started in computers and hacking?”.
Where did it all start?

The early days of home computing were a mixed bag for me in New Zealand. Before ever having my own computer, a bunch of friends and I would ditch our BMX’s daily in the front yard of any friend that had a Commodore VIC20 or Amstrad CPC, throw a tape in the tape reader, and within 15 minutes be engrossed in a game – battling each other for the highest score. School days were often dominated by room full of BBC Micros – where one of the most memorable early programs I wrote was to use a sensitive microphone to capture the sounds of bugs eating. I can still remember plotting the dying scream of a stick insect as it succumbed to science!

Image via: WorthPoint

I remember well the first computer I actually owned – a brand-spanking new SpectraVideo SV-328 (complete with cassette tape reader) that Santa delivered for Christmas in 1983. I thought it was great, but quickly tired of it because there weren’t many games and all my friends were getting Commodore VIC-20or Commodore 64 microcomputers – which had oh so many more games. So, come late 1984, I flogged my SpectraVideo and brought (second-hand) my first Commodore 64 (C64).
I can safely say that it was the C64 that lit my inner hacker spark. First off, the C64 had both a tape (then later diskette) capability and a games cartridge port. Secondly, New Zealand is a LONG way from where all the new games were being written and distributed from. Thirdly, as a (pre)teen, a single cartridge game represented 3+ months of pocket money and daily newspaper deliveries.
These three constraints resulted in the following:
  • My first hardware hack. It was possible to solder a few wires and short-circuit the memory flushing and reboot process of the C64 via the games cartridge mechanism to construct a “reset” button. This meant that you could insert the game cartridge, load the game, hold-down your cobbled together reset button, remove the games cartridge, and use some C64 assembly language to manipulate the game (still in memory). From there you could add your own boot loader, save to tape or floppy, and create a back-up copy of the game.
  • “Back-up Copies” and Community. C64 games, while plentiful, were damned expensive and took a long time to get to New Zealand. So a bunch of friends all with C64’s would pool our money every few weeks to buy the latest game from the UK or US; thereafter creating “back-ups” for each-other to hold on to – just in case the costly original ever broke. Obviously, those back-up copies needed to be regularly tested for integrity.  Anyhow, that was the basis of South Auckland’s community of C64 Hackers back in 1983-1985. A bunch of 10-14 year-olds sharing the latest C64 games.
  • Copy-protection Bypassing. Unsurprisingly, our bunch of kiwi hackers weren’t the first or only people to create unauthorized back-ups of games. As floppies replaced tapes and physical cassettes as the preferred media for C64 games, the software vendors started their never-ending quest of adding copy-protection to protect unauthorized copying and back-ups. For me, this was when hacking become a passion. Here were companies of dozens, if not hundreds, of professional software developers trying to prevent us from backing-up the programs we had purchased. For years we learned, developed, and shared techniques to bypass the protections; creating new tools for backing-up, outright removal of onerous copy-protection, and shrinking bloated games to fit on single floppies.
  • Games Hacking. At some point, you literally have too many games and the thrill of the chase changes. Instead of looking forward to playing the latest game for dozens of hours or days and iteratively working through campaigns, I found myself turning to hacking the games themselves. The challenge became partially reversing each game, constructing new cheats and bypasses, and wrapping them up in a cool loader for a backed-up copy of the game. Here you could gain infinite lives, ammo, gold, or whatever, and quickly step through the game – seeing all it had to offer and doing so within an hour.
  • Hacking for Profit. Once some degree of reputation for bypassing copy-protection and creating reliable cheater apps got around, I found that my base of “friends” grew, and monetary transactions started to become more common. Like-minded souls wanted to buy hacks and tools to back-up their latest game, and others wanted to bypass difficult game levels or creatures. So, for $5-10 I’d sell the latest cheat I had.
At some point in 1986 I recognized that I had a bunch of C64 equipment – multiple floppy drives, a few modems, even a new Commodore 64C– and more than enough to start a BBS.

This is PART ONE of THREE. 

PART TWO (BBS Hacking) is up and PART THREE (Radar Hacking) on Wednesday.

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Blog authored by Gunter Ollmann. Read the original post at: