[ISN] Breaking into The Realm

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue May 20 2003 - 22:23:21 PDT

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    Forwarded from: Darren Reed <darrenrat_private>
    Breaking into The Realm
    By Nathan Cochrane
    May 20 2003
    Those who were part of the computer underground in the early to
    mid-'80s will feel nostalgic pangs as they watch In the Realm of the
    Hackers, a documentary that chronicles the rise and fall of
    Australia's most notorious hackers.
    It tells the story of two Melbourne Generation-X hackers - Electron
    and Phoenix - who, as part of hacker crew "The Realm", were
    responsible in the '80s and '90s for attacking many high-profile
    computer systems here and in the United States. Their exploits were
    responsible for the US Government putting pressure on the Hawke
    government to enact Australia's first federal cyber-crime legislation
    in 1989.
    The story is told from the perspective of Electron, who was
    interviewed for the documentary but is represented on camera by an
    actor in re-creations of events so as to protect his new identity as a
    solid member of the IT professional community.
    Realm, to be shown on the ABC on May 29, was inspired by the book
    Underground, by Melbourne-based writer and academic Suelette Dreyfus.  
    Dreyfus has been praised by hackers and reviewers for her keen ability
    to report accurately on the sub-culture that, by its clandestine and
    macho nature, is difficult for outsiders to understand or crack. She
    lends her imprimatur as associate producer and as an expert
    interviewed on camera.
    In many ways, Realm is similar in feel to Steven Levy's classic 1984
    book on the culture, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. And
    there are echoes of Lawrence Lasker's and Walter Parkes's 1983 film,
    WarGames, in the attitudes of the young hackers. But Realm is unique
    because, for the first time, it chronicles the emerging international
    underground, which lived on remote electronic bulletin boards and the
    nascent internet, from the perspective of Australians. For good or
    ill, depending on your point of view, Australians were once again
    pioneering another of the information society's byways - hacking and
    the search for hackers by law enforcement.
    The producers went to great lengths to capture the thoughts of others
    who were held in The Realm's thrall, including New York Times
    technology journalist John Markoff and Purdue University professor of
    computer sciences and philosophy Eugene Spafford.
    Markoff, probably influenced by his earlier breaking story that
    exposed Robert Tappan Morris as the creator of the Arpanet (Morris)  
    Worm, had written a story claiming that a new worm was loose on
    computer networks. This angered Phoenix because he felt his skills
    were being maligned. So he brashly called Markoff and set him to
    rights. It was the beginning of the end for the hackers.
    Markoff's resulting front page follow-up story in the Times, turned up
    the blowtorch on Australian Federal Police to track down the hackers.
    The producers paid careful attention to what was displayed on screens,
    including the dump of the ``WANK'' worm that invaded NASA on the eve
    of the nuclear-powered Galileo space probe launch - and whose creator
    was never found.
    The documentary captures the feeling of the time, although this could
    have been done better by providing some more contextual historical
    information, instead of limiting it to just what was necessary for the
    telling of the story. Some more retro '80s background music would have
    been good, too.
    However, the motivations of the people under discussion are clear -
    the sense of estrangement from broader society, while bonding through
    their exploits with others in the hacker underground.
    The actor playing Electron provides a voice-over to a somewhat campy
    dance scene in a suburban kitchen, explaining the exhilaration he felt
    after hacking a particularly tough target. At the other end of the
    manic-depressive cycle, Electron begs his father to hide the boxy
    300-baud modem, only for it to be ferreted out several hours later.
    "Dad got so good at hiding the modem that not even the Federal Police
    could find it," Electron says in the movie.
    Interviews with the Federal Police who worked on the case show how
    difficult it was for them to deal with the new cyber threat. None had
    any deep computer skills at the outset and they were clearly
    outclassed by the errant teens.
    The new computer crimes unit in Melbourne had to beg and borrow
    discards from business while inventing world-first methods of storing
    intercepted data transmissions using existing equipment geared for the
    analog age, such as reel-to-reel tape recorders. And they faced the
    scorn of colleagues in other branches of the force who thought they
    should be out fighting "real crime".
    You can feel the sense of despair they must have had when their
    three-year investigation of The Realm came to nothing.
    It is worrying that many of the police have since left for the
    lucrative private sector, and there is a concern expressed in the film
    that Australia lacks the punch to adequately tackle future
    As much as it is a historical work, Realm also approaches issues of
    class divides, mental illness, drugs, addiction, and the loss of and
    separation from parents.
    Electron tells us, through his actor avatar, that he only dealt with
    Phoenix because he had a fast modem to download files with details of
    security vulnerabilities. We see Electron struggling in the '90s with
    an antiquated Commodore 64 and 1541 5.25-inch disk drive, while
    Phoenix had a high-powered and expensive Commodore Amiga. Phoenix is
    introduced to us as he walks home from his private school in a leafy
    Melbourne suburb while Electron's home is a neat weatherboard house in
    a working-class area.
    The death of Electron's mother - and the later death of his father
    from cancer while Electron awaited prosecution - may have brought on
    his escape into drugs, which led to his conviction and suspended
    Although there is often criticism of lenient sentences for hackers,
    many teenagers grow out of their hacking phase. Realm shows that
    hacking is a lot like drugs: there is an addictive high, a need to
    belong to a community (however remotely) and many of the same
    precursors and behaviours.
    It may be better for those prosecuting and persecuting hackers to
    consider harm-minimisation strategies, like those developed for drugs,
    while never forgetting the damage that can be done by kids wielding
    PCs with malicious intent.
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