Picture of me, programming in the USAF

"Sleep well, your Air Force is protecting you."

...the true story of my experiences as a paid hacker for the US military.

By Ward Shrake

      Most people aren't technical wizards, and they don't want to be. Most people are happy to understand the technology they have to use in everyday life; like their VCR's for example. Some of us live for technological joys and toys, but we're a smaller group. There is an even smaller, rarer third group; new, eager computer users, anxious to be techies, but who aren't there yet. One such individual was a Lt. Colonel I knew during my years with the U.S. Air Force.
      Don't get me wrong, no one hated the guy. Far from it; he was friendly and well-liked. He just had too much time on his hands. His retirement was just months away. All his official duties had already been assigned to others. He went from office to office, trying to help people, while filling his time by playing with their computers. He would give them public domain programs, reorganize their hard drives, whatever struck his fancy. Sometimes he actually helped. Sometimes it didn't quite work out that way. As long as he didn't do any real damage, no one had the heart to tell the guy to quit trying to help them. Besides, he was a Colonel; you don't tell Colonels to stay the bleep off your computer!
      One day the Colonel "helped" everyone out by reassigning all their function keys, without asking their permission, or even telling them about it. That was the last straw. Colonel or no, something had to be done. Everyone had work to do (usually in a hurry) but no one knew how to anymore; all their accustomed keypresses were no longer valid. The Colonel had standardized keypresses to match his favorite word processor, assuming everyone else knew and loved that word processor. No one else had any experience with it. Being technophobic, they weren't about to learn anything new either!
      At first the poor users just called me, their resident techie, to have me quietly undo what the Colonel had done. They just wanted their computers to work like they used to. One brave (and very ticked off) Sergeant, though, installed a password program on his computer specifically to keep certain people from "helping" him anymore. Everyone told him he was crazy and he'd get in trouble. Time went by. When he didn't get in trouble, everyone else wanted password protection too. Until then the stand-alone, non-networked computers did not have passwords. Since you had to be physically there, on a guarded military base, to get info from them, no one worried. We didn't anticipate problems from within our own ranks, though!
      Suddenly, nearly everyone had password protection. It wasn't super serious protection but it didn't have to be. It just had to keep honest people honest. Remember, though, that these were non-technical people, who resisted learning anything new.
      As strange and foreign as the idea may seem to most techies, within two weeks people had forgotten their passwords. Yes, they had locked themselves out of their own computers! These were simple, obvious passwords, too, made up by the users themselves, not some super hard-to-break computer generated codes.
      I was used to being called in to fix other people's computer problems, since I was the official technical whiz in residence. I've seen some pretty strange problems, too, but this one took the cake! I had to break into their computers, find out where the password program was hidden on their computer's hard disk drive, and read its computer codes. All this, just to tell them what their own password was! Unbelievable.
      The first time it happened, I mentally wrote it off as someone's hangover. The second time, I was starting to reconsider general stupidity as an option, but I was still in denial and considered it another fluke. Two patterns became clearer as time went on. One, that they weren't going to learn. Two, that all their computers had enough similarities to make it possible to automate the breaking-in process, which I had been doing by hand until then.
      One afternoon (when the rest of my office left me alone while they went on an extended lunch break -- the bastiges!), I took the opportunity and hacked up a better solution. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could do it. I told no one about it, in case I couldn't make it work. Why shoot your mouth off and be embarrassed later? Besides, I wasn't sure I wouldn't get in trouble for doing this, since I didn't have any sort of permission to do it. So, quietly, secretly, I wrote up a program, testing it on my own computer first.
      Next, I needed to test it on someone else's computer. I had a whole building to pick from. I wanted a real challenge. I wanted to be extra careful, though. I trusted one coworker, another techie, who I knew would appreciate my sense of humor in all this. I asked him to pick a computer for my test, one that he knew would be difficult to crack.
      He chose one, and I went to that office, asking to use their computer. Incredible -- they waved me into their private computer area, not even getting up or asking why I wanted to use it! I did my little automated cracking routine, saw the password on the screen, and wrote it down by hand on scratch paper. I covered my tracks, thanked them, left, and showed my friend. Once he got over the initial shock, he told me that if it were a "real" program, it would print out the password, using their printer. What a smart ass -- I knew all along that he had the right sense of humor for this!
      I went back to my office, added that feature, then added a few more just in case he upped the stakes on me again. The new version could not only print its output, but could show it three different ways. One was for normal text (easy) passwords, and two were computer-only codes for harder passwords. I guess I had overdone it. Instead of being merely impressed and amused, my friend was starting to worry about all this. I was disappointed to hear that. He quit before I got to show him the countermeasures I had devised, to protect my own computer from my program. I wanted to show him how my computer would trick my program into displaying a phony password. We both agreed to quit while we were ahead, though, disappointment or not.
      One morning, just minutes after I arrived at work, I got a call. Another forgotten password. No big deal; I was prepared. Not taking it too seriously, I grabbed my cracking disk and headed down there. Great! When I arrived, the place was full of big shots, and everyone's stressing out, trying to get this one important computer going. The Colonel himself was there working on it. He saw me come in, and stepped aside to let me try it. Normally, no one cared what I did to fix things. This time, when I least needed it, I had a super-attentive audience.
    I'm silently cursing my luck. I reluctantly get out my password-busting diskette, insert it in front of everybody, and make the program do its thing. Seconds later, there's the password. The in-joke prompt, asking me if I want a printout of the password, doesn't look so funny right now. "I'm in deep trouble now, for sure," I think. "And I've only been to work for fifteen minutes!"
      I try to act nonchalant as I get the computer going again, hoping no one thinks to ask where I got that disk. No one asks. I leave and go back to my normal tasks, wondering if I'm going to get called into some big shot's office to explain all this.
      He comes to me. The Colonel himself shows up, right at my desk, and waves me into the hallway. At first I panic. I don't really hear what the Colonel is saying; I'm too busy looking around for the military cops! Slowly, when they fail to show up, I start listening closer. It seems that the Colonel just wants a copy of the program for himself. "Sure, Colonel, all the copies you want! What? Keep the program a secret? No problems there, either!" Talk about relief. I'm probably shaking a little by now, thinking about how many big rocks I almost had to break into little ones, or something like that.
      Life went on pretty much normally after that, except for the funny awed stares I got from time to time. I had the impression that the Colonel had been bragging to some of his high-placed friends, about this guy he had working for him. Once I figured out that I wasn't in trouble, and that the powers-that-be actually seemed to like what I had done, I relaxed quite a bit. I was even proud, in a strange sort of way, to have my program all but classified as a government secret.
      And the Colonel loved his new toy, too! The other computer users weren't exacty thrilled, but I was too safe and happy to care.
    Everything was pretty sweet until I came back from lunch one day, and saw the Colonel sitting at my computer desk. Suddenly, I remembered the counter-measures I had put on my computer and then forgot about. Panic time again!
      I walked up quietly and peeked over his shoulder. Sure enough, my computer's screen was displaying the message: "This computer's password is: 'Try harder, a**hole!' Do you want a printout?" I leaned over, quickly typing in the real password for him. Lucky for me the man had a sense of humor!

Story by Ward Shrake. First printed in "2600 magazine", Autumn 1995.
Commodore fans will be pleased to know that I got the idea for my
modified password, thanks to the copy protection code found in
an early game for the Commodore 64; Epyx's "Sword of Fargoal".
That game had a similar (but nicer) message buried within its code.

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