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How I got root on my University’s UNIX network

Back when I was a student, the way you talked to other people on the internet was via Usenet. The language we used, while still called “English”, was slightly different from the language we use today. One small example of this difference is that there was still an outside chance that the word “hacker” could be a badge of honour, an indication of one who wanted to understand the principles of a system and how they could manipulate it. People who identified themselves as hackers in this sense had their Usenet groups, and they had their identifying mark: the Glider from Conway’s game of life.

hacker emblem

I was studying Physics, because there could be no grander system to hack than the Universe. But I also hacked computers. I wanted to understand how people made them do certain things, and how I could make them do the things I wanted. Other people hacked for different reasons: they wanted to make other people’s computers do certain things, they wanted to show off what they could make computers do, they had other motivations still.

A meme that went around the Usenet groups for computer hackers was that if you truly wanted to understand computers, you should learn UNIX. So I did. I had a cheap PC in my room, and I installed Linux, FreeBSD, Darwin, and other UNIX variants to learn about UNIX. I learnt about shell scripting, and Perl scripting, and C programming. I had shell accounts on Solaris systems and NeXT systems and Tru64 systems, and I learnt about the differences and the similarities and the UNIX wars. I built a small collection of other systems (an ugly beige PowerMac, a few more PCs, and a couple of sleek Sun pizzaboxes) and learnt about TCP/IP, ICMP, HTTP, X11 and other network protocols.

Some of the hackers who wanted to make other people’s computers do things believed that the ultimate goal was to get root on someone else’s computer. If you got root, you could make their computer do whatever you wanted. It happened that even though I had root on my own computers, I managed to get root on some of the University’s computers.

I was called in to talk to a sub-department head in my department: there was someone from administration and someone from central IT too. They sat on one side of a desk, I was on the other. I was pretty nervous. I told them about what I’d learned about UNIX, and scripting, and networking, and about the root user. They asked me to show them some of what I’d learned, and there was a Mac on the desk between us which I used for this purpose.

A few days later, I got a phone call from the admin person. I had got the job, and when I started the outgoing sysadmin would give me the root password. And that’s how I got root on their UNIX network.

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