Writings by:

Michael E. Marotta

Post Office Box 954
504 East Grand River
Fowlerville, MI 48836
tele: (517) 223-7752

From: http://kzsu.stanford.edu/uwi/post/mercury.html

Online with the Superhacker
(c) Copyright 1993 by Michael E. Marotta
                   mercury@well.sf.ca.us
 
He calls himself "The Knightmare."  He is one of a new breed of 
computer security crackers.  He hasn't read HACKERS by Steven 
Levy or Tracy Kidder's THE SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE.  He doesn't 
particularly like Chinese food and doesn't know too much about 
old technology.  He hasn't read any books by William Gibson and he 
hasn't seen SNEAKERS or LAWNMOWER MAN.  But he can break into a 
computer system and find out anything he wants to know. 
 
We never met.  I've never seen him.  We exchanged email.  Our 
conversation took six days.  My 1000-byte questions were answered 
with 10K-responses.  I used a local commercial site on the 
Internet while he came to me from an Ivy League school.  Proves 
nothing.  There's even an internet node in Antarctica now.  He 
could be anyone, anywhere.  
 
He first used a computer in the fifth grade.  "That's when I 
became a _computer_ hacker," he wrote. "I've been a hacker all my 
life, of course."  Today, he programs in C, C++ and Basic on an 
IBM PS/1 and a laptop.  
 
I asked him about changes in computer technology.  The GUI 
(Graphical User Interface) has had two effects.  It has made it 
easier for anyone to use a computer and it has made it harder for 
hackers to get around.  With a GUI, you use a mouse to point and 
click at something.  If a command isn't allowed, there is no way 
to call it. You can't hack them. 
 
I could almost hear The Knightmare's keys clacking.  "Did 
somebody say 'can't'? 'You _can't_ do that'? That's what the 
hacker thrives on! If there's no immediate access to a command 
system, perhaps there's an account that allows such access. If 
not that, there will be hackers who will get in touch with the 
people who work at the company, or get a job there themselves."
 
mercury: "I collect old computer stuff.  I have a Scientific 
American from 1949, conference proceedings from 1962..." 
 
The Knightmare: "I collect useful stuff that I've found in the 
trash (and through other sources). I have a huge collection of 
security manuals, including a very nice set from AT&T. I also 
have various electronic components, printouts, disks, tapes, 
microfiche, books, and in-house journals and directories. Most of 
this stuff has been useful in one way or another, sometimes 
offering means to a hack; other times, in other ways."
 
One of the ways it was useful was that it lead him to write 
SECRETS OF A SUPERHACKER for Loompanics.  It took him a year to 
gather his thoughts and a summer to put them out via Wordperfect 
for Windows.  The book is written in colloquial American, just 
the way a smart person would talk.  Bill Landreth's OUT OF THE 
INNER CIRCLE and the movie WARGAMES typified the 1980s.  This 
book will join the movie SNEAKERS in defining the 1990s.
 
He says that his handle doesn't mean anything to him, that he 
made it up to play a computer game and that he can't understand 
why people confuse him with Craig Neidorf who is known as Knight 
Lightning.  
 
mercury: "What would the world be like if everyone were like you?" 
 
The Knightmare: "I don't think I'm doing anything bad; I really 
don't. And I have a high sense of moral values. I'm not an 
'anarchist techno-guerrilla', and I'm not recommending nor 
suggesting nor _teaching_ that behavior. If everyone in the world 
were hackers in the broadest sense, we'd be more independent, 
more curious, and more concerned with the world--because we would 
realize what control we individuals can have over it. But I'm 
talking about people who hack responsibly. If people start World 
War III or insert your favorite hacker horror story... then 
obviously we've got problems. 
 
mercury: "Loompanics hired two different data processing 
professionals to review the manuscript for technical accuracy. 
What was the result of that?"
 
The Knightmare: "A good number of comments, questions, and 
concerns came up.  Usually things were added to the text, to make 
it easier to understand. I think it was very helpful to hear 
outside comments, because it made the book a better book."
 
He denies being an anarchist techno-guerrilla but he calls the 
NREN data superhighway a "sham... just one more instance of 
government trying to control every facet of our lives.... People 
all over the world are exchanging information, and the government 
is pissed because they don't have the ability to regulate it, 
infiltrate it, intercept it, and promulgate their own 
fabrications. ...There are plenty of CIA and NSA thugs sitting 
around in leather chairs somewhere, masturbating to the thought 
of complete and total access to every electronic transmission 
nationwide."  
 
Yet, that description applies to hackers, as well.  It seems that 
what we have is an open competition for access to information. 
Call it Spy vs Spy or Pudknocker vs Pudknocker. 
 
mercury: "What do you see as a Good Hack in the year 2001?  When 
the Net carries video and voice along with data, what 
opportunities open up for hackers?" 
 
The Knightmare: "I think satellite-based technologies will take 
over those sorts of roles long before corporations and government 
can agree on NREN and video transmission protocols and how many 
secret police they'll need to govern the highway. I don't think 
the technology changes the way hackers work, but it changes what 
they will work _on_."
 
Joseph Weizenbaum is one of the fathers of artificial 
intelligence, a pursuit he all but renounced.  The Knightmare 
has never read COMPUTER POWER AND HUMAN REASON and so he falls 
right into the pits marked by Weizenbaum.  According to The 
Knightmare, "The hacker believes he has the right to be God over 
other people's worlds.  Your passions supply your life 
algorithms.  The photographer mentally clicks some snapshots.  I 
look at a lot of life events AS IF THEY WERE PROGRAMS to be 
tweaked, poked at, the bugs removed.   But I also see it from 
other perspectives as well."  
 
Those other perspectives include playing piano and guitar. When 
he writes about music, it sounds like when he writes about 
hacking.  
 
The Superhacker: I compose in my head. Sometimes I'll just be 
driving or in the shower or something, and a "song phrase" will 
pop into my head. I don't know if that's a real concept, but I 
define a song phrase as a bit of lyrics and music that works 
together perfectly. I sing the phrase so I don't forget it, and I 
add on a second phrase or two. Usually I get a couple lines and 
then I'm stuck. I repeat those constantly so I don't forget... 
(man, I really should practice notation)... then one day I do 
forget what I've written. But the next morning I wake up and the 
song is just pouncing through my brain. And it just flows out. I 
write down the lyrics, sing the song, and its mine.   As I keep 
singing it and thinking about the finished song, I begin to learn 
things like how the bass line should play, and different ways to 
add newness to the song.
 
On the matter of right and wrong, he concedes that other hackers 
"will give you any sort of argument to tell you that what they're 
doing is okay.  Perhaps we're doing it _because_ it's wrong." And 
yet he backpedals, claiming to to introspective and moral.  For 
The Knightmare, morality is not damaging the system you have 
just broken into.  This is, in fact, in line with the "classical 
tradition" of hacking.
 
According to The Knightmare "Design is rules. Design is thinking. 
I don't want to be bothered with pre-planning and pre-design. I 
want action and I want it now."  (He also hasn't read ATLAS 
SHRUGGED.)  This underscores the preference that hackers have for 
absurdly powerful handles like Doktor Deth and The Grim Reaper.  
Hackers are in fact nerds.  It's just that they are seldom 
constrained by any pretense of morality.  Cyberspace is a new 
world and in it the hacker is a datalord, a baudrate barbarian 
who takes what he wants. 
 
The Knightmare: "I always stumble across little leads and ideas 
to get into systems, like maybe I wake up one day and realize 
I've never broken into the New York Stock Exchange computer 
system.  So my goal for the day becomes, 'break into NYSE'.  In 
short, I hack a particular system because I see an experience 
I've never had before. 
 
mercury: "Is there some way that finding the New York Stock 
Exchange computer network is like writing a fortune cookie 
program in 20 bytes?" 
 
Knightmare: "A person who writes tight code has much in common 
with a person who breaks into computers, but there is a big 
difference too, sure. We can call both people 'hackers', and 
they'll be happy you called them that.  All hacking, no matter if 
it's good or bad, hacking or cracking, all hacking is connected 
in that regard." 
 
The Knightmare wants people to learn from him how to break into 
systems.  Then they can understand how to protect their own.  He 
intended his work start from the wrong side of the law.  He 
knows that his SECRETS OF A SUPERHACKER is "a really great book" 
because it includes anecdotes that reveal what's beneath the 
surface, the unseen, and because it provides "the resources to 
continue on your own after the book is over." 
 
The Knightmare's first hack involved guessing a password by 
looking around a grown-up's office, seeing a calendar with boats 
on it and trying BOAT.  He prides himself on his empathic ability 
to put himself in your shoes and feel what was going through your 
mind at the time.  Silly as this sounds at first, it is indeed 
the intuition that deftly turns a genius onto the correct track 
of an investigation. 
 
He flatly denies relying on the grinding trial-and-error 
described in THE CUCKOO'S EGG and CYBERPUNKS.  At one point he 
interrupts himself in lieu of interrupting me -- a quirk of 
working via email, where immediacy is lost.  He emphatically 
denies once more ever relying on repetitious trial and error.  
Then he denies the denial.  
 
mercury: You deny relying on the grinding repetition of trial and 
error so stereotypical of hackers. 
 
The Knightmare: No I don't! I don't deny that at all! Sometimes it 
is necessary to repeatedly try things until something finally 
works. ... And some of them might have to be repetitions 
themselves. We try not to do that. You're right, traditionally we 
think of hackers grinding away at the computer. But look, part of 
being a hacker is that you want to use the computer in the 
fastest, most efficient way possible; like you said, generating a 
small program was your favorite hack. Efficiency in action is as 
stereotypical as its opposite that you mention. 
 
mercury: Would you call hacking an art? 
 
The Knightmare: No, I wouldn't call it an art unless the hacker 
wants to call some growth of his hacking "art". 
 
mercury: "Do you see a future for hacking?"
 
The Knightmare: "Sure. Maybe it won't be computers. Edison hacked 
the light bulb, and aren't you glad he did? There's always 
something to hack. Sometimes there's something new." 
 
mercury: "Your book is going to wake up a lot of people.  Would 
you say that after 1995, any system you _can_ break into isn't 
_worth_ breaking into?" 
 
The Knightmare: "But you don't know if you can break into the 
system until you try! That means there will always be systems to 
hack, and there will always be hackers to try their hands at 
hacking those systems." 
 
"That's a thirty," said Les Nessman.

Lightly edited
J.A.N. Lee