Growing in the countryside of the Italian province was quite easy and free of worries. As for all children, the time passed calm and afternoons after school was spent on excursions in the woods and meadows to collect some medicinal plants to put then to dry before the following winter or seasonal illness. And then the unmissable soccer game.
At that time the world was small, enclosed in that area between the school, the parents’ house, and the church, where most of the family activities were held. At school, we learned the regions of Italy, that there was something called Europe with all its countries, and the continents and the oceans in between. But they were almost like a fantasy. The reality was the wheat fields in the wind, the large panicles that ripen in the sun and the snow that covers everything in winter.
In this setting, in 1990 I had my first contact with a computer.
At the school, there was a class of Science and Technology during which we could use a computer (only one machine for the whole school) for a maximum of ten minutes each. It was just a black screen with a white bar flashing on it. We were told that an operating system called DOS made it work, but it was waiting for someone to use his keyboard to give him a command. The few programs at disposition were loaded via a flat floppy disk in the memory and there were few of them: one for basic programming, one for composing elementary melodies, and of course a couple of games. It wasn’t that interesting and it certainly wasn’t up to a game of soccer in the schoolyard, nor more interesting than a chemistry experiment that usually ended in a cloud of colored smoke. However, those ten minutes trying to make the turtle move along a 10-step path had begun to shake the belief that the world was as we knew it.
A year later, the first computer arrived at home. Father had a small mechanic’s workshop next to the house and he had bought a computer to organize the bills and accounts for the business and maybe arrange some simple advertising flyers. Needless to say, his experiments did not last long and soon the use of computer had become the prerogative of my brother and mine and the screen with 256 colors of Win 3.1 had begun to replace walks in meadows and woods. My brother and I used to fight (for real, sometimes with bruises and cries) for who could take the first turn at the computer, which then always stretched far more than the agreed time and almost always ended in kicks and punches again. One day, we even moved our home clocks back one hour to spend more time on the computer and although my uncle, who was in charge of looking after us for that day, said nothing at the time, the next day the clocks were back showing the right hour and a piece of thick scotch blocked the wheel to move the hands.
My brother loved video games, and he tried all kinds of games, from solitaire card games to just another Mario Bross clone, from Tetris to Arcanoid. He was good at playing! He was able to level up and reach the end of the game in a short period. After that, it was only a matter of keep improving his times and records. I was hypnotized to see his skills in video games because I was never good at playing computer games. I always forgot the keyboard controls to give the character more abilities and it took me a lifetime to complete every simple level. I was intrigued however to know how to create a game, the Paint (the program to do the sketches and simple changes to photos), or even the Notepad that allowed you to write a text that if saved in a file could be opened again the next day after turning off the computer for the night. How come my text was kept so long? What about all those cables that you could see inside the box once the heavy metal cover was removed? What all the different ports and connections were for on the back panel?
The computer now absorbed all my curiosity and interest. The world had perhaps become smaller. It had concentrated in a metal box with green electronic boards, red yellow black wires, and a big fan that turned very fast and made a big noise. Yet just a little later the world would have turned out to be immense, still easy to be discovered and browsed. That box was going to become an entrance portal, like one of those in which the character of our video games had to enter to get in an adventure.
One day visiting the home of my teacher I made a great discovery.
He was just a fan of computer science and electronics, but he invested heavily in new hardware. The professor had some computers scattered around the house, and as a hobby, he had created a local network LAN that connected them all. He showed me how by saving a file in the main computer in his studio, he could then edit it and save it from the computer in his lab, which was mostly hidden in the middle of all the other tools (oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers, various welders, etc …). All instruments of which at the time I didn’t even know the name.
We spent a few hours reviewing how he had built his network: the white coaxial cables that ran along the walls, the signal strengthens, the network cards connected to the computers and finally the software that managed communication between computers. This was the Trumpet Winsock, an add-on utility, and consisted of an application TCPMAN and the Winsock DLL Library. It included everything necessary to establish the network environment, all API and programs to enable developing applications requiring network access, and very soon access to the internet.
At the end of 1995, the internet finally arrived in the province too, sometime later than the main cities. We had convinced Father to buy a modem and have a telephone line installed in what had become our “office”, my brother’s and mine. At first, the internet was slow, limited and quite expensive. The connection required making a long-distance call to the nearest access node, and the cost of the call soon became a problem. We had near the keyboard a kitchen timer that reminded us to end the connection after exactly 25 minutes, after which the call became even more expensive.
While my teacher carefully explained the operation of each component of his home network, I began to see how that network of machines, the protocols used for communication, the exchange of messages between terminals, was very much similar to the scheme of relations between family members, how they establish connections and dialogue with each other. Sometimes it seemed that two machines/computers had decided they no longer wanted to communicate, just like sometimes my parents decided to block any exchange between them despite all the attempts by us children to recreate a stable and secure environment.The moment I tried to get two computers to talk to each other, I was trying to solve my family.
To hack a system you need to know its rules even better than those who created it or those who manage it and make the most of the discrepancy between the way the system should work and its actual operation.
The hacker does not exist only in computer science, but wherever there are rules. Hence, all teenagers who fight against imposed rules that are not fair are hackers.
I decided to go to a tattoo studio and learn how to use the machine to engrave ink in people’s skin. The tattoo was not yet well seen, it was an act of rebellion of people who could not find their place in society.
Those were the years of becoming aware of the AIDS danger, and information on the causes and transmission of the disease was still few and conflicting. Spending time in the studio was a big risk, but I would never have given up.
It was my chance to affirm my freedom and fight that morality that regulated life in the countryside with a narrow grip.
However, it was also a way to meet charismatic people with strong creativity and a strong need to express their being. It represented an opportunity to study society and people, their vision of the world and their relationships. I wasn’t completely aware of it yet, but I was conducting a psychological study of society as I was striving hard for finding its strengths and weaknesses to understand how to exploit them.
I felt ready to hack the system.
Internet Security, Information Security, Security is about people. It’s about creating a culture of collaboration and trust between people.
Originally appeared on Medium: https://medium.com/@marcobrondani/https-medium-com-marcobrondani-a-life-in-infosec-part-i-bdceadf49e77