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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: childhod.txt

A hacker's Childhood




March 1990 
==========

We return to Israel, after a 3 month tour of Europe. Me, straight
into the end of the 5th grade. 

I am very popular with the local elementary children, who find my
American origin intruiging. I'm told they were expecting a more
stereotypical black American who would frequently swear.

Over the summer I catch up on my written Hebrew skills.

Since I can read English documentation, I am far ahead of my peers in
my "mastery" of Personal Computing (I own an old 286 box, considered
advanced for the time, equipped with a monochrome Hercules screen)

I connect immediately with the 11-14 year old local computer nerds, who
regard me as somewhat of a guru on the subject.

I cooperate. A rumor circulates that I can break into IBM compatible
PCs through the power grid, using some sort of secret virus. "All he
needs is the serial number from behind the monitor!". I almost get
beaten up when my arch nemesis's (think Seinfeld's "Numan") old XT
stops functioning. I am widely believed to be responsible.

It soon becomes common practice in Ariel to cover the monitor's serial
number with a piece of tape, whiteout, or similar.

[ It's all true, I swear! <grin> ]

9 September 1991
================

Israeli media breaks with the first "Israeli Pentagon Hacker"
story. Yedhiot Ahronot, identifies the "hacker" as Deri Shraibman, 18
from Jerusalem. According to the story, during the Gulf War, Deri
Shraibman hacked into "Pentagon" computers accessing classified
material on the Patriot missile, among other things. The reported
achievement sends ripples of booming pride through the Israeli public.

All hail the nation's most beloved boy "computer genius".
A legend (some would say a tradition) is born.

[       Remember Zehu Ze's parody on the story?     ]

Personally, I remember friends and family asking me (as Ariel's
official local "computer genius"): "Well, could you do it?".

[       Don't even ask what my answer was.          ]

Most of the time, I'm busy social climbing amongst the local
pirate software distributing elite, at the time headed by the infamous
34 year old "Shraga". Increasingly, I find myself "hanging out" with
friends "far above" my age group (14-17), who despite my tender age (11),
treat me as an equal.

Towards the end of the year, the folks purchase a SamRON SUPER V-G-A color
monitor. I am truly overjoyed!

[ Ironicly, it hardly seems as nice these days.
  Yes, I'm looking into it as I type this message.

  I use it as a form of cruel and unusual masochistic punishment.
  *Long story* ]

First hear about mystical devices called "modems", that "fax"
games over the phone lines. Begin to want one.

1992
====

My old computer kicks the dust one stormy winter night. Let's see, I
was just about to land my Lear Jet on Flight Simulator. The screen
freezes, then the power fails. Damn. Several minutes pass, the power
returns, but my 286 doesn't. The motherboard has been thoroughly fried.

I morn. A few hellish months pass with no purchased alternatives,
during which the very foundations of my human <=> computer symbiosis are
put to the test.

Then comes along the new *glorious* 386. Oh, I never imagined a green
integrated circuit in a cheap tin box could bring so much joy! And
with an impressive 4MB of memory, 120 MBs disk space, an 8 bit Sound
Blaster, the perfect gaming machine!

Over the year, I indulge in BASIC (Remember QuickBASIC?) and 3D
graphic animation (My masterpiece is a 2 minute piece of an incredibly
lifelike apple, dancing cheerfully). The bulk of my free time is still
consumed by computer games, and the logistics involved with their
illegal distribution. ("quests" from Sierra, and LucasArts are my
favorite).

I gradually begin working my parents into buying me a
modem. The ministry of education decides on Jerusalem for the
educational theme of the year. In this spirit, my local school
organizes a "Hidun Yerushalayim". I cut my parents a deal, if I win,
you buy be a modem. Fine.

The contestants meet in the library, each receive a copy of a very
long detailed bibliography compiled by the school's favorite
Historian. I spent a week in the library photocopying thousands and
thousands of pages. All of it. I suspect I'm directly responsible for
the pay-per-page policy they installed soon after.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) the teachers went on strike that
month. 23 books, many kilograms of smooth paper with a funny burnt
smell, in my room, on the floor, with barely room to spare. And a
not-yet twelve year old little boy spending every waking moment
absorbing it all, reading everything over and over again, while
everyone else was having loads of fun enjoying the unexpected school
vacation.

Occasionally, one of my parents would come into the room, and check on
my "progress". They'd pick up a book, or a photocopied page, at
random, read a bit, and then ask me a question.

Towards the end, I was actually giving them the right answer, every
time.

Then came the big event. In front of an audience for the first time, I
was nervous, but fairly confident. And so it begins. I ace the oral
exam, they announce the candidates scores, I'm first place by a
generous advantage. Then came the two written phases. Piece of cake, I
fully expect to win. But I don't, coming in third place. My prize was
a 10 shekel map of Jerusalem. I was flabbergasted! The supposed winner
was a girl who came second to last in the previous round, and was
widely regarded as a "dolt".

As farfetched as it may seem, I firmly believed (and still do) some sort
of conspiracy (or worse yet, a stupid mistake) had taken place,
leading me to seriously consider assassinating the school Historian
responsible for the whole charade. The next day, I demanded an
appeal, to investigate their questions, my answers and the scoring
method which failed to grant me the first place. They declined, rudely
so.

Why is this dusty old story important? Why have I gone to such lengths
to reenact these events from my yearly youth? And finally, why am I
making you read all of it?

Well, my parents got me the modem anyway, seeing as I put in such an
effort. So this is the baptism of fire by which I *earned* my first
stake in the online world. But it's much more than that. This
experience fundamentally shaped my character. As dramatic as it may
sound, it left me feeling cheated, burned out, disillusioned, and
profoundly enraged at the futility of my effort. It utterly shattered
whatever trust I had in authority, "conventional wisdom" and "the
system".

Aside from that, writing all of this down will probably save me a
fortune in future psychiatric bills.

[ tranquility now, tranquility now, tranquil... ]

Feb 1993 - Mar 1994 ("The scene")
=================================

First year online, so to speak. First acquainted with FidoNet, an
inter-BBS discussion forum which shadowed the Internet's USENET, and
If I'm not mistaken could also (partially) support Internet
e-mail. The experience with Fidonet was my first with an electronic
forum through which you could actually discuss a wide range of topics
with anyone from your local country, to someone on the other side of
the Earth. Imagine the novelty (back then) of a medium which obscured such
"superficial" elements as your external appearance, sex, age group,
skin color, religion and so forth, and in which you were valued
only by the strength of your written arguments. It was all extremely
liberating.

Needless to say, the basic English skills I had acquired during my family's
diplomatic errands in the US, gave me a head start over my peers.

During the first few months in Fidonet, I formed my first ties with
people from "the Israeli scene", the local branch of a worldwide
community of software pirates, which I estimate was responsible for
importing the crushing majority of commercial software into Israel.
Back in those days, and this is still largely true, Israel was known
as the one disk country. Very little PC software was actually being
payed for.

The scene would bring in games and applications ("Warez")
from overseas incredibly fast, measured 0-3 days after they had been
packaged for distribution by the big pirate groups. Groups like
"Razor", "Risc", "Hybrid", "Drink or Die", "The dreamteam", the supreme
elite gods of the International "Warez" scene, which was in fact a perfect
example of an online economy, in which information was being traded as
the primary (but not only) form of currency.

Unconsciously, the Warez scene evolved many behaviors which an
economist would find eerily familiar.

For starters, intense competition was everywhere. Pirate groups,
battling out who released the hottest software to the major boards
first (sometimes even before it was officially released!).  The
software courier, fighting to move software between boards faster than
the other guy, accumulate more ratio credits, get access to the higher
ranking boards. The faster you were, the more "elite" you became (as
opposed to those "lamers"), the more respect you received from the
scene. The analogy goes beyond. Each pirate group had a unique
staff hierarchy, starting from the founders, president, vice
presidents, and the miscellaneous pirate professions (official couriers,
programmers, software crackers, ASCII artists). Groups had official
forms by which you could apply to join, and would usually accept only
a tiny percentage of those who qualified (bare requirements included knowing
the right people, and having an unlimited supply of overseas calling cards),
based on their previous track record. Membership structure was
published with each of the group's releases in a standard .NFO file,
along with a list of the group's official boards (world, US, Europe, and
Asian headquarters). The phone number to these were always a tightly kept
secret, and membership was extremely limited (fearing legal prosecution).

In retrospect, the parallels to the conventional monetary economy are
stunning, reinforcing my suspicion that this behavior is an inherent
property of self organization.

Why did everyone bother? I can tell you firsthand, It was a very
addictive, very thorough waste of time. I started out from nothing,
drawn in after several months in Fidonet, by (fidonet) friends who had
just begun exploring the "elite pirate underground", and within a good
part of a year, under a pathetic nickname ("wolfman"), I had built
myself quite a reputation as an "elite" software trader. I had plenty
of leech credit on most of the "elite" local boards, good
download/upload ratios, and a network of "elite" friends. Before
realizing how utterly pointless and unrewarding my (extremely hard
working) participation in the scene was, I had personally uploaded
between 700MB to 1300MB of grade A (1-2 days old) pirate software to
the top boards, with only a 14.4K boca modem!

By the time this happened, I had grown an ego the size of Manhattan,
and had become conceited and arrogant, firmly convinced my "elite"
trader status granted me firm superiority over the other, "lame",
merely mortal fellow human beings.

Also, by now my relationships with friends from "the scene",
outnumbered "real" relationships (I.e, with classmates) by ten to one.

Unsurprisingly, these events coincided with the altering of my brain
chemistry, under the heavy influence of certain pubescent
Hormones. Remember, I was just turning 13, somewhat below the scene's
average (15-16).

Though we felt intimately close, most of us never met face to
face. Our notion of "hanging out" involved hooking up elaborate
conference calls (with the regular 4-7 participants), and babbling
several hours away between 2-5 AM, often on school nights (unbeknownst
to our parents).

April 1994
==========

My first real contact with UNIX was the Minix OS, a free mini-unix
developed for educational purposes by Professor Andrew Tannenbaum. It
fit nicely in 7 floppy disks, and could co-exist with DOS.

I downloaded it from a pirate board, utterly fascinated. (You could
almost fool yourself into thinking you were running a Unix!)

May - Sep (summer vacation), the Israeli BBS scene is dying, the great
migration to the Internet ends.

Absurd "Hacker kits" are being distributed, becoming very popular
among the eager BBS crowd. They include a basic introduction to UNIX
(managing files and directories, common commands, the password file
format, etc.), and software (Jackpot) to brute force UNIX password in
a not-so-clever dictionary attack.

Mitnick and his rumored Israeli accomplice are in the news.
Password files for all the major Internet providers (mostly academic
institutes) are circulating.

1995
====

February:

Established a full IP connection (I.e, one that could run a
graphical browser, Mosaic or Netscape for example) through a Dataserv
account. Read instructions on how to install Winsock on Windows 3.1, 
through "lynx", a shell text web-browser (from a Ben Gurion University Unix
shell account). I was the first amongst the old board scene to get this
far without shelling some serious green (Remember, Internet access was
not as affordable as it is today).

I run into Phrack on the Web (the oldest living hacker ezine).  I
download the last couple of issues, and read through them a
bit. Something clicks in my head. I back up and download all the
archived issues of Phrack and start reading, in correct order, every
Phrack issue published since the first in 1985. Equivalent to about
11,000 pages of text.

I was hooked.

March:

Downloaded Linux (the SlackWare distribution) from the Hebrew
University FTP archives. Installed the OS in a double boot with
DOS (and windows).

April 1995 - Feb 1996
=====================

At this point, I first step into what the hacker jargon file would call
the "chrysalis" stage. In the span of these months I absorve enormous
volumes of Unix source code and mountains of technical literature.

Yum.

====

Right, well that's about as far as I'm willing to go without using
encryption, and even then, I would be very uncomfortable putting
the rest in writing, for reasons I think are fairly obvious.

Good, now I have a good part of my adolescent childhood documented. As an
interesting side note, I couldn't remember most of this stuff when I
first started digging, so I called up the only friend from the old BBS
days I've still kept in touch with. Avi, AKA BlackBird, AKA Blacky,
originally from Rishon Le' Zion.  He's 20 something now, and was in
the middle of guard duty (right near Mahsom Erez) when I called him.

We go back 7 years, which doesn't sound like much, until you
consider that means I've know him for about 40% of my young life.
In other words, you could say I feel like we know each other pretty
goddamn well by now.

Most people would disagree. See, I've never met Avi face to face
before. In fact, I don't even know what he looks like. You might
think it would feel strange, but it doesn't. A legacy from the
old days I guess. 

Growing up online can do that to you.

Cheers,
Liraz


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