Thursday, May 05, 2005

Old school tech retribution.

On the text-based UNIX systems I used in college, the options for live communication were limited. IRC was available, which is like instant messaging today, but it was also popular to talk to other users who were logged into the same computer. On a busy night it was not unusual to see over 200 people using the same massive computer, and since we were all bright-eyed students on the same campus, we loved to interact.

To allow others to talk to me, I set permissions on my pseudoterminal such that anyone on the system could access it. This was meant (and understood to be) for friendly conversation, but there was a dark side.

In my explorations, I figured out that I could send terminal control signals to users who had made themselves available this way. I wrote scripts to cause various unwanted effects to the victim of my choice. These scripts contained "live data" such that merely displaying the program on my screen caused the effect for me that the code was made to cause to another. They were like forbidden incantations in ancient texts. I wrote them, but I didn't look at them.

One night, minding my own business, I suddenly got a screen full of worms. I recognized the program as a toy that draws lines on the screen (in text) and wriggles them around. It's a neat trick, but I didn't invoke it. Someone else on the system had taken advantage of my invitation to conversation and plastered my display with worms, interrupting what I was doing.

The system kept audit logs of every program any user ran. Why this information was available to everyone on the system, I don't know, but I called it up and found the only user who'd run the 'worms' program recently.

He'd logged out.

Then I got an email. "Sorry about that," he said, "I was just showing that trick to a friend. You'd have to know quite a bit to figure out who it was..."

Pissed off, I replied that I had figured out who it was, and if he'd sign back on I could show him a trick or two of my own.

No reply.

I fumed and I lurked. He came back after some time, and I sent him data that cleared his screen a couple times per second. He disappeared again, and I called it even.

A year later, I met the guy who'd been sitting next to the guy who'd wormed me. He still recognized my name after all that time, and he described my return justice as "swift and definitive." He said that the guy, faced with a blank screen, had been forced to reboot.

Those were the days. The internet population was a tiny fraction of what it is today. Gopher was new, and the web hadn't taken off. Research and preparation paid off, and knowing the deep dark secrets of a computer I'd never seen gained me notoriety.
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