This article first appeared in 2600: The Hacker Quarterly in the Autumn 2017 edition.
Everyone has an origin story. Every hacker has an origin story. Mine started simply enough. My first computer was a Tandy from Radio Shack, running a now crude looking Windows 3.1 “Operating Environment”. Windows wasn’t an Operating System at the time. MS-DOS was the Operating System. Back then, I didn’t understand that this was the reason I had to exit Windows in order to run DOS games. Initially, this was it for me. I knew the commands that would get me from DOS games to Windows and back again, and at the time, this was enough. I would say I was about 7 or 8 years old during this exposure to technology. The machine had to be expensive because when it wasn’t being used, it was covered with water-resistant and anti-static material. It was a simple beginning.
I remember the exact event in my life that changed what I knew technology and computing to be forever, and for the better. At this point, Windows 95 was recently released, but I was still using my Tandy with Windows 3.1. I didn’t know the difference because I wasn’t exposed to anything but that DOS environment. My dad’s friend came down from New York to visit and he had a laptop computer with him. This was my first time seeing a laptop computer. It was significantly smaller than the Tandy of course and that alone got my attention. What happened next though is what floored me. He sat down on the Family Room couch and set his laptop on the coffee table in front of him. He took out a phone cable and plugged one end into the computer and the other end into the telephone jack we had in the wall nearest to him. Before this I had only seen phones get plugged into those jacks, so this captured more of my attention. He booted up his laptop and I saw the Windows 95 loading screen for the first time. After what seemed to be a short time, my dad’s friend started a program called Netscape Navigator and a now all too familiar modem sound began to play from the laptop. At this point I broke the silence and I had to ask what he was doing with his computer.
He was connecting to the Internet. The what? The Internet. He explained that it was a tool to lookup anything I wanted to know about. He stressed “anything” and this was the exact moment the hacker spirit ignited in me. Before this moment, I was using my family’s computer to play fun and educational games, but if I had what my dad’s friend had, I could do so much more. I knew instantly even at that age that the indexed knowledge from this “Internet” was exponentially more than what I currently had. The entire world was now in my house! I asked my dad’s friend if I could look for something, and he agreed with no hesitation. I remember that the very first thing I looked up on the Internet was “tornadoes”. That kept me busy for quite a while. I might have been keeping him from getting real work done, but he didn’t seem to mind. I was hooked. I quite literally (and I am using the word here properly) begged my parents to upgrade to a computer that had connectivity capabilities. Although it sounded more like a 9-year-old whining “Please can I have whatever that laptop has!?”
My parents gave in, but I think it was because my dad’s friend is a hell of a sales person. Regardless, I got my Internet-capable computer and it’s been non-stop ever since. Fast forward a couple of years and you would see a 12-year-old me tapping away at the computer for hours. I think the only reason my parents didn’t stop me was because I was always researching something, anything, whatever I wanted. The summer between 7th and 8th grade was particularly amazing. When everyone had gone to sleep, I would sneak back downstairs to the computer to continue my work. I did this every single night of that summer. It was when I discovered what phone phreaking was, and I was introduced to textfiles.com. I learned DOS Batch file scripting from lameindustries.org. I read whatever I could and the more I did, the more I felt engulfed by whatever all of this was and is still now. During one of these summer nights, my dad woke up for a midnight snack. I ran from the computer, but the evidence of what I was doing was everywhere and in plain sight. After seeing my work my dad added a BIOS password to the computer to limit my activity online. He didn’t mind the research and hacking experiments. My dad was a COBOL programmer and we shared the love for the technology. I wasn’t breaking into anything. I think it was more of how much sleep I wasn’t getting at 12 years old that concerned him. I assured him that what sleep I wasn’t getting at night, I was getting at least some of it back when my parents were at work. Either way, the BIOS password was added, but that did not deter me.
The agreement was that I would have 2 hours of computer time after dinner to do whatever I wanted. So, naturally, the first thing I researched after the BIOS password addition was how to remove it. It didn’t take long to find a CMOS/BIOS battery password removal tool, and I used it the next time I was allowed online. My dad didn’t realize there wasn’t a password anymore until a few days later. I wasn’t asking him to log me in anymore. I would write Windows batch scripts on paper and show my dad the concept of what I was trying to do. He finally asked about the password, and I played ignorant, but he knew. Thinking back, my workaround probably made him proud to some degree.
The learning, phreaking, and hacking continued throughout my high school years. The “boxes” made by the phone phreaks were dying off except for one that I remember and loved using. The “beige box” or lineman’s handset was so easy to make and use. It was an instant hit with me. The first time I hooked it up to the outside of my house I remember listening in on the middle of a long distance call from my mom to the Philippines. I used the beige box one more time to call my girlfriend at the time while I was out of town. That was probably a really dumb move to call someone long distance directly from a tapped line. Text-files.com was still visited frequently for nostalgia and inspiration’s sake, but I was quite bummed out that I missed out on the age of the “red box”, “blue box” etc.
It was in high school when I first heard of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. A classmate knew I was into “this kind of stuff” and showed me his copy of the magazine. I asked him what the 2600 meant and he told me that it was “the address of the Capitol, like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue being the White House”. My skepticism didn’t fail me. While I thank him for bringing the magazine to my conciousness, I couldn’t trust him as a reliable source of information; especially since he could get me into DEF CON for “free” in a time where attendees usually weren’t under the age of 18 and “Kid Con” wasn’t anywhere near being a thing.
Fast forward again to a high school graduate hacker. The year was 2004 and it was my first time attending DEF CON with my best friend. The con was still at the Alexis Park, and we went in blind. We didn’t know what to expect, but that was probably the best way to experience it. That event was also the first time I came across lock picking as a “hacker thing”. I always thought of lock picking as a thing that burglars do, but yet again, here my mind is being expanded and opened, approaching a concept at a different angle. Lock picking wasn’t a thing of the movies or criminals here. It was a puzzle. How do you solve something you can’t see? What a wonderful experience! I’ve been attending ever since.
It was around this time when I started writing for The Hacker Quarterly. It is said that you are your own worst critic, and that rings true with me. My first article was about quick disguises. It wasn’t really techy, but it fit in this community. My second article was about setting up a network of safe houses. This article got me laughed at during an interview with Zynga. I didn’t get the job, but looking back, I am forever grateful because they laid off a big chunk of their workforce shortly after that. I have a feeling I would have been on the chopping block. My favorite pieces of work were two articles on using the Asterisk PBX software in unorthodox ways. The last article I wrote got me a shoutout in a friend’s DEF CON talk on profiting from pwned PBXes, and with it came the open bar invites. What was most important about the last article “Asterisk: The Busy Box”, was two-fold. It tied me to the old phreaker scene that I felt I missed by a few years because of my age. Those pheaker boxes that were archived in textfiles.com seemed just out of functionality until I wrote this article. I was just a very small part of phreaker history, but that put a smile on my face. Secondly, it helped me land a job as a VoIP administrator where I currently get to do most of my research.
It was definitely in college when I decided that I wanted to put a voice to what I was doing. When I was younger, a cousin of mine asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her a hacker. She went on to tell me that it was a bad choice, but inherently I knew she didn’t understand. She didn’t know what “being a hacker” meant as far as my future mindset. So, how would I put a voice to what I was doing so that non-technical people would understand what I meant? How could I clearly convey that, to me, hacking was about exploration, study of self, and not letting the mind stagnate? Podcasting seemed like a good avenue of communication. I was a listener to many podcasts, so I figured that if I started one, eventually people might listen to what I had to say too.
Along with my best friend, we started our first round of podcast shows. I say first round because we started with “Information Injection”, but it didn’t last for a long time. Maybe it was our lack of experience in production or subject matter. Towards the end of our college years we attempted again with “Off The Record”. It lasted longer than the first attempt, but there was still something missing. The show fizzled out again. Finally, and recently, we made our third and current attempt at a decent podcast show. We started calling ourselves The SynAck Pack Podcast. It was slow and controlled, but then that something that was missing before showed itself in the form of other people wanting to get involved. A couple of friends we had met along our journey wanted to be heard just as much as my best friend and I did. So, the show had four co-hosts with four different points of view. There was room for debate, and the entertainment came from everyone’s opinion being challenged and checked. We had research, news, discussion, experience, curiosity. It was everything that might grab the attention of other hackers. And it did! The show moved from our garage to the SYNShop Hackerspace in Las Vegas, NV. We met more people with diverse backgrounds and if we didn’t know something, we learned as we recorded. If one of the main hosts had to miss a week, we had others from the hacker space that could fill in and share their viewpoint. With the diversity, we started grabbing listeners from cool places around the world. California, the UK, New Zealand… all joining our IRC channel because of various ways they heard about us.
Not all of it was unicorns and rainbows though. Right when we were catching our stride and weekly routine, we were hit with a Cease and Desist order by a company out in California for using their trademarked name. I was out in the field installing a radio dish for my company where there was no cell service when the letter hit us. It was a couple of hours before I got the word, and the question I got from everyone was “What do we do next?” I wanted to fight. I didn’t want to change, and I felt that we were not violating any trademark. After some research though, I learned that trademark law was a rather interesting thing. If you don’t defend your mark even in what may seem to be petty instances, you could lose your trademark when big infringements occur due to the lack of care prior. I didn’t like it, but I could respect it, and we did. The podcast team decided to rebrand and collectively, we agreed to call ourselves “GR3YNOISE”. In my head, “grey noise” could be a mix of the news and discussion we talk about. The discussion isn’t scripted or planned. We have a vague idea of what we want to cover and we roll with it. I am sure “GR3YNOISE” has a similar, but different meaning for the other hosts.
The name change didn’t stop our momentum. If anything, it motivated us to keep going and get involved in more things. The rebrand was a work around that ended up making us stronger. It was the same feeling I get when I circumvent some sort of obstacle or blockage in what I am attempting to do. Kind of like the BIOS battery example.
If the podcast story seems a little long-winded, I promise that it has a point as I bring this full circle. In the podcast, we ask any new guests what hacking and being a hacker means to them. The answers vary of course, and I love that, but all of the answers seem to dance around some key concepts. Exploration. Tenacity. Perseverance. Curiosity. Thirst for knowledge. Rebellion. I agree with this. These ideas keep me going. These ideas are the reason we did not give up after the first or second podcasting attempt. Why should we? We can always quit, so why quit now? And this is the strongest point I’d like to make about being a hacker. Although we may be hit with obstacles or setbacks, hackers do not give up. I just don’t see it in our spirit. We find ways, or we make ways. Every small part or contribution is still a part or contribution of our collective history. Keep going!