The refrigerator

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon, 1986-1995

Hacking isn't all bad; sometimes you can do something really very
good. This is the story of one such occasion.

I was phoned up by a really desperate man; after I'd calmed him
down, he told me that he'd deleted 17 megabytes of important data.
Even worse, the data belonged to someone else. He was a dealer
(called Mr X), and he'd borrowed a multi-user computer from one of
his customers (Mr Y). He carefully backed up the data to tape
before starting work, and to make space for what he was doing, he
deleted all Mr Y's files. When he came to restore the backup, he
found there was nothing on the tape. "I thought the backup had been
a bit quick", he told me. Never mind, Mr Y was assiduous about
making his weekly backup, so Mr X apologised, and they went to
restore the last tape. There was nothing on it, nor on any of the
backup tapes. Obviously, the tape hardware was faulty.

At this point, Mr Y was facing ruin. His business consisted of
doing mailshots based on the names and addresses stored on his
database. Theoretically, he could have retyped the whole thing, but
that would have cost a fortune, and he would not be making a living
while that was being done. Mr X was facing being sued, of course,
for the value of Mr Y's business.

I made no promises about what I could do, but suggested that they
bring the computer to me. Within an hour, two men struggled up my
front steps carrying a box the size of a refrigerator between them.
We plugged it in, and I had a look at the disk; sure enough,
nothing on it. I sent them away, because I cannot work with someone
looking over my shoulder. Then I set to work hacking into that

The techniques that I used to crack that hard disk were exactly the
ones used by any hacker into a mainframe; careful reading of the
manuals, deep understanding of the machine and its operating system,
and above all, very hard work and very deep concentration. In order
to do a thing that is really complex, you must have in your mind a
model of what is going on in the computer. To do this requires
building a complex mind-construct, and any interruption can bring
the whole thing crashing to the ground. Even an offer of a cup of
coffee can destroy an hour's worth of delicate construction; while
I was working on this machine, my family was banned from talking to
me. This is why most hacking is done late at night; there is no
sinister reason, simply that between 1 and 5 in the morning, there
is a very small chance of having your concentration broken. And if
there is any chance of this happening, it is very hard to psyche
yourself up for the effort of building the mind-construct.

Without going into the technical details of exactly how I persuaded
the machine to cough up the data that it was claiming didn't exist,
by the end of the weekend, I had a pile of 25 floppy disks,
representing all the usable data from that disk. Some of the disks
held programs used to sort and print the mailing labels, but most of
them held this large database.

I phoned Mr Y and told him. He found it very hard to find words
that expressed his feelings, but I rather gathered that I was in
danger of being hugged. He came round (and so did Mr X) and I
showed them what was on the floppy disks; a large cheque was
pressed into my hand immediately, and off they went carrying their

It is very nice when you can help someone as much as that (and even
nicer when they show their appreciation with nice big cheques). And
it shows that the hackers can be white witches as well as black. By
the way, I didn't keep a copy of this rather valuable database;
that's called professional ethics.

In this country, "hacker" has come to mean someone who illicitly
uses someone else's computer. But in America, the word is used
completely differently and in this country computer people often use
the word in the American sense, and it is worth understanding what
they mean.

Recently, I was described in a computer magazine as "showing the
real hacker ethic". The occasion of this was my offer to the
readers of another magazine to give away free copies of games for
the IBM PC. I was entitled to do this because either I had written
them myself, or else I had the permission of the author and
copyright holder to give them away. I copied about 2000 disks in
that offer, without charging anyone a penny (the readers had to send
me a floppy disk and a stamped, addressed mailer).

My main reason for doing this was actually altruism. Computers are
fun, but I could see IBM PC's all over the country without any games
on them; an appalling prospect. Which meant that the computer
users looked on them strictly as a working tool, and not as a toy,
which is how computers should be regarded.

This is the hacker credo - a computer is the best toy there is. So
if you write a good game for your computer, you share it with your
friends. But this applies not only to games, it applies to any
program. A real hacker will put at most of his programs into the
"public domain", meaning that he gives permission to anyone who
wishes to make a copy. Hackers have written thousands of programs
which circulate this way, including spreadsheets, word processors,
data base management systems and communications packages.
Unfortunately, programmers also have to pay the grocery bills, so
some programs have to be sold; these are called "commercial" and
are generally inferior to the programs circulated by the hackers. A
friend of mine had pirated copies of Symphony, 123, Wordstar 2000
and Open Access; he phoned me one day to tell me that he had
re-formatted all those disks. "Why?", I asked, suspecting that this
was not a sudden rush of honesty. "Because I wanted to put
something useful on the disks", he said, meaning public domain

Next time you hear someone referred to as "a real hacker", don't
assume that she spends time illicitly breaking into mainframes. She
might actually be a real hacker.