This post is part of the EFF’s 15th Anniversary Blog-a-thon.
It must have been September or October of 1993. I had recently turned 13, and had been BBSing for five years. Just that summer, I’d been introduced to the wonders of the nascent World Wide Web (who’d want to use that when all the good stuff was on Gopher?) and to 2600 Magazine. Like most 13-year-olds interested in computers at that time, I had more than a passing interest in computer security.
I, dear reader, was a lame wannabee hacker kiddie.
The library at my school had just been equipped with a cluster of networked computers, for searching the card catalog. Before class each morning, I’d stop in and tinker. I quickly figured out that the administrative and library networks were separated by network security, but that they were not physically separate. How cool it would be, I thought, if I could make a message pop up on all of the administrative computer screens in the school. Maybe just to say hello, maybe to play a prank, maybe to mock a classmate.
So I figured out how to do it, exploiting a small hole in the network security — the user “backup”, with password “backup”, seemed to have access to both the library and administrative networks. And, just before classes started one day, I sent a test message.
The computer froze, but maybe it was just a local problem. I headed for class.
I popped back in to the library at recess, and the librarian motioned me over.
“I saw you at that computer this morning. I have somebody you need to talk to.”
The librarian marched me down to the office of Trudi Marino, the network administrator. She told me that (for reasons that still elude me) sending that message from a library computer had brought the Novell server to a halt. All of the administrative assistants had lost their work since the last save, and the server had to be rebooted.
I hadn’t meant to do any harm, I explained — I was just poking around the network out of curiosity. I was sure I was going to be suspended. Maybe expelled.
And so it shocked me when Trudi told me to come back after school, so she could show me the server room. We became friends. She let me play with fast hardware; I helped her debug some hairy Compuserve login scripts and showed her around the local BBSes. She turned what could have been a black mark on my record into a great learning experience. This also, unsurprisingly, ended my hacker-kiddie days.
What does this all have to do with technological freedom and free expression online?
Well, for one, Trudi had just finished the second issue of this new bimonthly magazine, Wired, and she gave me her copy. That was the “crypto rebels” issue, and it was filled with exciting ways that brilliant people were hacking law and society as well as code. I was hooked — not just on the magazine, but also on the ideas.
But more importantly, the way Trudi dealt with me showed me that when those in power really understand technology, its possibilities, and the passionate fascination it inspires, they make different, better rules.
From that point on, I knew I wanted to make them understand.
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