Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Another time capsule

It's time for another story about my days with the U of FL computer systems. It really shouldn't surprise anyone that the more adept of us took to learning everything we could about the computer systems, and figuring out how to hack into them. And so I have a few stories about that, the first of which involves simple password-stealing, and explains how I got into the "in crowd".

There were two very straightforward ways to snatch someone's password:

  • Take a discarded card deck from the garbage.
  • Take the paper off the terminal they'd just walked away from.
The first worked because when someone who was unaware finished a project, he'd usually throw the card deck away intact, complete with its job card, which had the account number, and its password card, which had....

IBM 2741 terminal, mid-1970sFor the second method, remember that the 2741 terminals were actually typewriters, with paper. When you went to log onto it, you'd enter your account number and it would respond by typing something like the following series of lines, but all mashed on top of one another on a single line, to make a big blot, over which you'd then type your password:

I don't remember the exact sets of characters in the blot, but you get the idea. Anyway, it turns out that it wasn't very hard, with some playing around and practicing, to become fairly good at reading the password through the blot. (Those who'd figured that out would take the login sheet with them when they left. The snazzier of us would simply remove the type-ball while we typed our passwords, so the password wasn't put onto the paper at all.)

OK, so one day I was sitting at a terminal, happily making use of a snagged account to do some APL work. APL (A Programming Language) is a mathematically-oriented programming language used on some interactive systems. There were a few of us APL nuts around, who worshipped our favourite professor, Dr Ralph Selfridge (pronounce it as in Vaughan Williams or Fiennes), and whose main goal in life was to program anything in a single line of APL. More on that in another story.

Anyway, I was sitting there working on APL stuff, and a shadow appeared from over my shoulder. I turned to see the scowling, challenging figure of someone I'd later call my friend Mike. "Where did you get the account you're using?" Uh. Um. No, it wasn't his, but it belonged to his friend Mark. Thing is, Mike had been idly scanning who was logged on where, and he saw that Mark's account was logged on in the Weil Hall terminal room. Mark pretty much never used that terminal room. His suspicion aroused, he further noted that it was one of the APL terminals. Mark did not know APL. And so he trotted down, and so he appeared there behind me, looming large.

Despite that introduction, we talked and established mutual respect, and through that I became connected with others in the inside group of consultants, computer operators, and other cognoscenti. It's likely that I owe where I am today in part to the chance of having copped Mark's password back in 1975.

1 comment:

scouter573 said...

Some things never change. After the last several years of news about identity theft and outright robbery, I'll be you can find passwords sitting around today. It's a little harder because the paper has been replaced with electronic displays, but people are considerate enough to leave notes.