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What I learned on my journey to Defcon!

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  • What I learned on my journey to Defcon!

    What I learned on my journey to Defcon!

    As with most enlightening journeys this one started quite innocently and without much ado. It was a day like every other day for me. Like many other kids, I had little going for me, I lived in a rotten neighborhood, hated school and had a propensity for being in the wrong place at the right time. A simple decision to skip class have a smoke and take a shot at finding the love of my life changed my path forever. As I navigated my way to an abandoned subway tunnel that was used as the current place to hide out, purchase all forms of contraband and most importantly socialize, I saw my first glimpse of the inner workings of the world of the wired infrastructure. As I was about to jump a turnstile I spotted this guy in a small room with a bright orange thing in his hand, To my amazement I saw my first glimpse of magical twisted pairs of colored cable, more cables then I could ever imagine, the magical cables that I would later learn connected telephone sets to the telephone company and the all mighty powerful DIAL TONE. I also later learned the orange thing in his hand was a lineman's butt-set used to access all those lines and harness the power of the phone system. I tried my best at striking up a conversation and talking to the phone guy, but he said beat it loser before I call a truancy cop, only Bell employees can see what's in here. He was so nasty and so condescending, that I knew right then, I was going to find a way to get into that room!

    When I finally arrived in the abandoned subway tunnel I started asking around if anyone knew anything about, the little room full of wires, all I got was blank steers from stoned eyes. I had learned from experience that anything can be obtained down in the tunnel. It was New York's fifth avenue for the downtrodden, the illegal's, the underage and those on the run for other reasons. Instead of banks, we had loan sharks, instead of pharmacists we had drug dealers, if you knew who to ask, and had something to offer, you could get anything, definitely the answer to a question. It took me a few days but eventually I learned that one of the drunks named Tinker, was the person to ask. What I needed was a bottle of booze to get Tinker talking. To some under age kids this might present a problem, however luckily for me I was armed with a pint of Gordon's gin! So over I go with the gin to this scary looking guy, his entire face covered in a thick beard. He was filthy dirty and all you could really see was his bloodshot eyes. I started up a conversation with tinker. He was easy to talk to, he was nothing like I feared, I was not sure if he was so happy to talk to me because I had booze or because he was happy to have someone listen to him talk about times past, times before he was a drunk living on the streets. His stories were amazing, he talked about how you could connect into different line pairs and connect to different numbers, he spoke of using a Butt-set to tie into and even eavesdrop on conversations (BUG A LINE). He talked of methods to link lines together making a party line type of call. When I asked how he knows all this, he told me he had worked for Ma Bell until he got caught smoking dope and having sex down a manhole. You need to understand that unlike today, it was a time where most homes only had one phone set in an entire house, and that one phone was hard wired to the wall and only rented to you from your local bell company. Only Bell employees could get tools to work on the network, you had no stores you could just go buy phone stuff from. So all this information tinker was sharing with me was so interesting and enlightening. Tinker said if he could he would show me how to understand the wiring, but said the phone "closets" and "B" boxes as they are called have strong Lockwood locks and without a key, it's impossible to get in!

    So all excited about the possibilities I went off dreaming of all the things Tinker would teach me about phone wiring and the telephone network. Now after a few days the reality started to sink in, even if I beat the odds of getting a drunk, sober enough to quietly slip into a room where we are not supposed to be and then actually have him teach me something, the bigger problem right now was I could not find any way into that room besides the locked front door. The next few weeks were agonizing, I worked every angle to get a key to that room, all avenues I tried led nowhere. I felt like the opportunity to learn the inner workings of the bell network were slowly slipping away, and on top of that I still heard the words of that nasty phone guy echoing in my ears "loser.. only Bell employees can see in here" I came to the realization I was not going to find a key or someone willing to let me in, and I would have to try another method. The only other option I had was learn to pick a lock. Once again I headed down to the tunnels in search of the necessary tools. It did not take long to find the guy who had the rakes and torsion wrench that I would need to gain the access I so desired. It took a fair amount of trading but in the end he got some very hard to get hall passes to the local school and I got the picks, rakes and torsion wrench I needed.

    I must have watched one too many 007 movies, because I thought all you had to do was stick the rake in and turn the torsion wrench for the lock to open, it always worked that way for James Bond! Once again I found the reality is it takes practice and patience to become skilled at anything and lock picking is no different. After many, many months and lots of practice I was finally ready to attempt access, the only problem now was I could no longer find Tinker.

    The first time I went to the phone closet to pick my way in, I went at night, I was nervous and edgy, every time I raked the pins I thought I heard someone coming. I must have tried for 5 minutes (at the time it felt like 5 hours) I had no success, panicked and left. Over the many months since I started perfecting my picking and raking techniques I had become fairly competent and quite proficient at opening locks, all sorts of locks, so I knew I had the skill, but I had psyched myself out that night. I also realized it was less normal for anyone to be near that closet at night and in the light of day, nobody would really pay attention to me. So the next day in full daylight I walked up like I belonged there, slid in my torsion wrench and started raking, BAM 3 seconds later the lock spins and I finally enter the forbidden zone. I finally was in! As I left the phone closet that day, I was so elated that I finally opened that door and I was so excited about my success I was not paying attention to my surroundings and did not see the truancy officers until it was too late. Another notch in my JD (juvenile delinquency) card. The punishment was volunteer time (slave labor) at the county hospital. The time spent at the hospital turned out to be pretty interesting, for the most part people there were very grateful for the help and usually treated me with kindness and respect. It also felt good to help others.

    Over the next few weeks I went to the phone closet often, I started opening the lock like I was James bond. I would look at all the wires and read all the cryptic scribbles, tip, ring, pwr etc... But without someone to explain it, it all meant nothing. I left totally dejected not knowing how I could ever learn the meanings of the cryptic codes and colored wires without someone to teach me.

    As fate would have it, that night while doing my time at the hospital I was sent to help out on the "REHAB" floor. The rehab floor was were drug addicts and alcoholics are treated. Most real volunteers could not stand that place because the patients are extremely volatile and not the most civil, but I sort of fit in and when help was needed and I was working, they would send me. After working for a while that night I felt like someone was watching me, when I turned quickly to see who it was, there was a guy standing behind me and eyeing me, the guy said "Kid remember me" I thought I knew the voice, but wasn't sure from where, the eyes looked familiar, after a moment, I was surprised to realize it was Tinker standing there, clean shaven and sober. When he vanished from the tunnels I never imagined him getting clean and sober, unfortunately at the time I thought the worst of people and just figured he moved on to be a drunk elsewhere. For the next few months I found myself spending all my free time visiting with Tinker in rehab. I learned so much from him about the cryptic words I had read on the closet wall, I learned what all the different colors of the wires meant, but to my surprise I found out Tinker new all sorts of stuff. He taught me about resistors, and told me how to remember color codes, he explained capacitors and how they work, he actually graduated school as an electrical engineer. Tinker convinced me to actually go to my classes (at least more than I ever did in the past) He tried to make me understand how important an education is. I had learned so much about telephones, wiring and electronics in general that I couldn't wait for the time when Tinker would be released and I would get some real hands on training. A few days before his release Tinker told me without the proper tools and a Telco Butt-set there was no way for us to go any further with my training. However, he knew a guy that could get us the tools, but said they would not come cheap.

    The stakes were now raised, I needed additional and better (more costly tools) to continue my training. The butt-set, tracing device and other necessary tools would not be available for a few hall passes or just about anything else I had to trade, It was going to take real cash money and lots of it. Unfortunately at this point in my life I had not yet learned about, ethics, morals and what it meant to do the right thing, I chose the low road and used deceit. The city is full of tourists, you can spot them a mile away, it's not just the way they dressed, it's the way they moved, many just seem out of place. The worst tourists in the city are the ones with more money than brains who are looking for sex or drugs. They think they can come from the burbs with their loads of cash and take any girl they desire, or score drugs at a discount. My plan was simple, I easily passed for just another street dealer, all I needed was something that passed for drugs and two friends old enough to pass for cops. It was so simple, almost elegant. I would take my fake drugs on the street, before you knew it some tourists were trying to Conn me, the stupid street kid into selling my drugs at a ridicules' low price. I would eventually agree and swap the drugs for the cash, a few seconds later my friends would come by, push the buyers and me into a building hallway and start reading us "our rights", as they were "cuffing me" they would say to the buyers "you're not from around here are you" after a few seconds of them swearing they are not, my friends would say "give us the drugs, and get out of here, if we ever see you around here again you're going straight to jail just like this guy is" Now whether they believed they were cops or were just scared $hitless because they were forced into a building I'll never know, however we would never see these people around again. A few days later I had all the cash I needed to purchase the equipment I desired.

    Tinker spoke to his guy who could supply us with the phone gear, they agreed on a price and set up a place and time to meet. When he was released from rehab Tinker was put into a group home, but now he had reunited with his sister and he was staying with her. When I got to his sister's house to meet up with Tinker before our purchase that night I heard her pleading with him not to go, that it can only lead to trouble, she was so happy he was sober and back involved with the family, she didn't want anything to jeopardize that. I was shocked when I heard his response to her. Tinker said "I have to go, I promised that kid, I won't let him down, he's a smart kid and he deserves a chance to learn. He has the potential to make something of his life, If people would stop judging him by the way he looks or acts they would see that also" Wow, I was not used to people sticking by their words, no less sticking out their own neck for me, and I never heard anyone say I was smart and had potential to make something of myself. The entire concept of making something of myself up until then was entirely foreign to me. I never thought about the future, especially my own. At that moment I realized this was not Tinkers responsibility, and I decided to just go on my way alone. I figured the right thing to do was to keep him out of this whether he liked it or not.

    The big moment of truth, I arrived at the location we agreed to meet to exchange the cash for the telco tools. I see the olive green and white Ma Bell van parked on the corner, I also notice a cop car, the thought runs through my mind is this some kind of scam or set-up, so many different thoughts were running through my brain, but my desire for these tools outweighed my common sense and fears. I made my way closer and I see the guy, I can't make him out, it's too dark, but he looks somewhat familiar, he turns his back as I got closer so I didn't see his face at first, but to my surprise when he turns back toward me, guess who I see standing there at the van, The S.O.B. phone guy that started me on this journey, the one that called me a loser and told me to beat it, now not only did I get in his telco closet he said I never would, but here I was getting the prized tools to manipulate the network from him.

    With the tools at hand, Tinker kept his word and taught me well. As the years went on I used those skills to earn a living, eventually technology moved forward and I kept up. I learned DOS when PC came around, Token ring and Novell when networks came around and have never looked back.

    I learned many valuable lessons and important skills and traits. I will not lie, sometimes I made the wrong choice on the method I applied those skills, however I learned the value of being resourceful, even when that meant learning to pick locks to gain admittance, Lock picking taught me it takes lots of practice and effort to become proficient at a skill, I learned the value of social engineering, even though I wrongly applied it by scamming tourists, I learned to think the better of people then the worse, as Tinker did with me, not like the way I assumed he vanished from the tunnel for evil instead of leaving to get sober, I learned never judge someone by their looks, because Tinker never looked like the teacher he was, I learned working in the hospital how good it can feel to help others, I learned the importance of letting others help you when you need it, as Tinker helped me and his sister helped him, I learned the importance of keeping an open mind to other point of views.

    I have found that the HACKER community represents these core values that I have spent a lifetime learning more than any other group of people I have ever come in contact with. There are so many definitions and interpretations of a HACKER. There are all different forms of stereotypes thrown around for Hackers, There are so many misconceptions of what Hackers do or what they are, but as a group I can assure you Hackers, whether they be old or young, short or tall, fat or thin, into *ix, pc, mac or some other flavor hold these values above all. People are judged by how they contribute to the community not by how they look, Hackers will bend over backwards to help others in need. They will teach if asked, believe transparency is better than hidden agendas. They are compassionate, caring and inviting.

    On my journey to DEFCON I learned ethics, morals and all the valuable traits that make me eligible and proud to be part of the Hacker community!
    "Haters, gonna hate"