Hacking History – A Brief Look Into Philly’s Hacking Roots

Monday, November 4th, 2013

This article was originally written for and published at Philly2600 on November 4th, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

The tech scene in Philadelphia is booming. We have local startups like Duck Duck Go and TicketLeap, and we have co-working spaces like Indy Hall and Philly Game Forge. We have hackathons like Apps for Philly Transit and Start-up Weekend Health, and we have hackerspaces like Hive 76 and Devnuts. We have user groups like PLUG and PSSUG, and we have conferences like Fosscon and PumpCon. We have events like Philly Tech Week and TEDxPhilly, and we have security meet-ups like PhillySec and, yeah, Philly 2600. The hacker spirit is alive and well in the city of brotherly love, but where did all of this pro-hacker sentiment come from? What came before to help shape our current tech-centric landscape?

It’s surprisingly difficult to approach the topic from the present day. I haven’t been there since the beginning, and the breadcrumbs left over from the era are few and far between. We are left with hints though, but usually from more analog sources. The first issue of 2600 that includes meeting times is volume 10, issue 2, from 1993. Philly 2600 is listed here with numerous others (making the meeting at least 20 years old), but how long did the meeting exist before this? We also know that Bernie S., longtime 2600 affiliate, was the founder of the Philadelphia 2600 chapter. Other than that, there is little to find on paper.


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First listing of the Philadelphia 2600 meeting in 2600 Volume 10, Issue 2 (1993).

But what else can we dig up? We do have some other little tidbits of information that apply themselves to the history of Philly 2600. The film Freedom Downtime (2001) has some footage taking place at Stairway #7 of 30th Street Station, the original meeting location. There are also mentions of the meeting in the book Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002), where one story places a student at the 30th Street meeting in the late 1990′s. More recent references, such as the current 2600 magazine meeting listings have the meeting location moved to the southeast corner of the food court – the location used previous to the current location some 50 feet away.


Mention of Philadelphia 2600 meeting from The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002).

Mention of Philadelphia 2600 meeting from The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002).

But what about the people who attended? It’s hard to keep track of this aspect, and as time goes on people come and go. Some come for one meeting and are never seen again, but some stick around a while. Eventually, there are no remains of the previous group – the meeting goes through generations. We can get a little information from simple web searches. Old Usenet listings can be a great source for material, here’s a Philadelphia 2600 meeting announcement from 1995 by The Professor. Even more interesting, here’s a Phrack article by Emmanuel Goldstein (publisher of 2600) talking about how he and three others brought Mark Abene (Phiber Optik) to the Philly 2600 meeting before having to drop him off at federal prison in Schuylkill.

Using Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can get an interesting perspective on the members from ten years ago by visiting an archived version of the old website (also at this domain). This is actually something we can explore. It appears that as of mid 2002 to regulars were JQS, Kepi Blanc, Damiend LaTao, Dj`Freak, The Good Revrend Nookie Freak, and GodEmperor Daeymion. Before this, regulars included Satanklawz (former site admin at the time) and Starkweather before the site was passed on to Kepi Blanc. The archived website offers an incredible amount of information such as a WiFi map of the city, several papers, and even (incredibly tiny thumbnails of) meeting photos. It’s clunky and full of imperfections but this website offers a time-capsule-like look into Philly 2600′s past.


The old Philly 2600 logo

The old Philly 2600 logo

But what about other hacker origins in the area?

We know of Pumpcon, one of the USA’s first hacker conferences started in 1993 (almost as old as DEFCON). Pumpcon has been running for over 20 years with an invite-only status. It is often overshadowed and left in the dust by the larger conferences in the country, despite its stature as one of the first of its kind. Pumpcon has not been exclusively held in Philadelphia since its inception. The conference has previously been held in Greenburgh, New York and Pittsburgh. Pumpcon has no central repository of information (why would it?) but a lot of history can be found scouring the web through old ezine articles like this one about Pumpcon being busted and notices like this one announcing Pumpcon VI. I’m currently compiling as many of these resources as I can, but there is an immense amount of data to sift through. Below I have some hard copy from my collection: A review of Pumpcon II from the publication Gray Areas and the incredibly recent Pumpcon 2012 announcement.


Pumpcon II Review (Page 1/2) from Gray Areas Vol. 3 No. 1 (1994)

Pumpcon II Review (Page 1/2) from Gray Areas Vol. 3 No. 1 (1994)


Pumpcon 2012 Announcement

Pumpcon 2012 Announcement

Other groups are harder to find. Numerous groups started up, burned brightly, and were then extinguished. Who knows where those people are now or the extent of what they accomplished. There are of course a few leftovers. One of my own pet projects is the development of an archive of older hacker magazines. A previously popular publication in particular, Blacklisted! 411, sheds a little light on some long-lost Philly hackers. A few issues make reference to Blacklisted! meetings taking place at Suburban Station in Philadelphia and another at the Granite Run Mall run by thegreek[at]hygnet[dot]com (long defunct) in neighboring Delaware County (and surprisingly about five minutes from my house). The earliest occurrence of these meetings I can find of this is in volume 3, issue 3 from August 1996 but either may have started earlier.


Philadelphia/Media Blacklisted meeting listings from Blacklisted! 411 Vol. 3, Issue 3 (1996).

Philadelphia/Media Blacklisted meeting listings from Blacklisted! 411 Vol. 3, Issue 3 (1996)

There are a few other loose ends as well. The recent book Exploding The Phone (2013) by Phil Lapsley catalogs the beginnings of the phreak culture, and makes reference to several fone phreaks in PA, some more notable than others, including Philadelphia native David Condon and some unidentified friends of John Draper (Cap’n Crunch) around the time he was busted by Pennsylvania Bell. We additionally know that some of the main scenes in the previously mentioned Freedom Downtime were filmed in Philadelphia. We also know that there are were hundreds of hacker bulletin board systems in the area from the 1980′s through the 1990′s.


Bell Pennsylvania joke advert, from Exploding the Phone (2013)

Bell Pennsylvania joke advert, from Exploding the Phone (2013)

Let’s change gears now. Our main problem in moving forward is what we do not know. Stories and events have been lost as time goes one, and the hopes of finding them becomes dimmer with each passing year.

If you had some involvement with the Philadelphia hacking scene in the years past, tell someone. Talk to me. Let me interview you. Get your story out there. Share your experiences – I’m all ears.

Those of you out there hosting meetings and starting projects, keep a record of what you’re doing. This is my one request.

We’ve already lost a lot of history. Let’s try saving some.

Stay Firm

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Every once in a while, I find out a cool way to add some functionality to a standard piece of tech I have by feeding it some custom firmware. Custom firmware might be one of the most overlooked ways of enhancing your devices. Don’t let the idea of running third party software scare you. Though you do run the risk of bricking your tech, most of the procedures for installing custom firmware are well documented and take a matter of minutes.

Here are some of my favorites.

DVD Players

I have always had good luck with Philips brand DVD players for reliability, and most of them also tend to support DivX, which I also like. Anyway, most of these DVD players have region free codes, so you can hit some buttons on your remote and instantly play discs from any region. Taking this a step further, you can also find custom firmwares for your DVD players that you can flash via USB or a disc. These firmwares give you more options for subtitles, longer file name display, volume control, display options, CEC functionality and more.

If you have a Philips DVD player, check out this site for some excellent custom firmwares by vb6rocod. If you have another brand, do some Google searches. You never know who is out there messing with DVD players.

Digital Cameras

As I mentioned in previous articles, I have a Canon 600D. And as I also mentioned, I am a huge fan of the Magic Lantern firmware. The Magic Lantern firmware is atypical in the way that it doesn’t replace the stock firmware. Instead, it runs along side it offering an expansive selection of new features such as HDR video, increased shutter control, and other little gems like microphone levels. Something else that might comfort or annoy you: Magic Lantern runs off your SD card. So, you have to format each SD card you have the way ML wants you to. A pain, but it also ensures that if you need your (or not your) camera to appear stock, you can just pop out the card and be good to go.

The Magic Lantern firmware is available for most Canon DSLRs. While Nikon and Panasonic camera lines don’t have anything as advanced as ML, people are working on firmwares for Nikon cameras. Who knows where things will be in another six months.

MP3 Player

About 2 years ago, I put Rockbox on my dying iPod Video. After a while, a bunch of little glitches in the Apple firmware got to become a daily annoyance and there were no updates in sight. Rockbox is simply fantastic. I can add files without having to go through iTunes, I can include my FLAC or Ogg files without needing to transcode, Last.fm support is included, I can completely customize my GUI. Rockbox is not just for your old iPod. It supports a slew of devices from the Archos players to the iRiver. Another little side benefit of having an iPod Video is that I can boot and run either the Rockbox firmware or the stock firmware if I ever needed as there is enough memory to include both of them. I haven’t yet, but it’s good to have that option.

Wireless Router

If you are anything like me, you simply amass wireless routers overtime. Okay, you’re probably not like me, but who doesn’t have a WRT54G of some generation somewhere in their house? Why would anyone want to run custom router firmware? The options of course. You can turn a cheap $5 Linksys router from a yard sale into a fully functional high-end device. For example, maybe you want usage graphs, ipv6 support, advances qos, overclocking, daemons, higher TX power, etc.

I currently run an early WRT54G with Tomato and an original Fonera WAP with DD-WRT. If those don’t suit you, check out OpenWrt.

 

There are tons of other devices that can run custom firmware that I just haven’t got around to toying with or don’t have to play with. For example: the PSP, iPhone, AppleTV, WDTV, etc. all have the capability of running custom firmware to run third party applications and homebrew software. Some other platforms have the ability to work around or through stock firmware such as the original Xbox, Wii, and others. While I still use my softmodded Xboxes once in a while and my letterbomb’d Wii, they aren’t true custom firmware installations (and not the easiest processes either).

Simple hacking of your everyday technology can be a great way to add life to your aging toys, and make the experience of some of your newer ones much more enjoyable. So, load up the SD card and get acquainted with the secret menus. And please, don’t remove the drive before the update is complete.

Wizzywig Volume Two

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Ever since January of this year, I have been waiting for the second book in the Wizzywig series to be ready for distribution. The first volume, subtitled “Phreak” follows a young kid named Kevin Phenicle who goes by the handle Boingthump. Let me say, this isn’t some drab piece of writing you would find in the discount bin at your local book outlet. These are graphic novels, containing anything but a boring story about some kiddie hacker acting out a stereotype. This first book I read about Boingthump was a definite, and somewhat unexpected, treat. The bulk of the story was composed of little snippets of this character’s doings. From his first experience with blueboxing to social engineering pizza, the story is rife with creative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of an anykid in the golden age of phreaking. Suffice it to say I was impressed by just how much fact went into the story, and was curious to see where it would go… or where it would take me.

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Fast forward to November. I stumbled across Ed Piskor’s website after forgetting about it for a little while. I found out that the second book had been completed and was ready for purchase, so I quickly snagged myself a copy, which arrived in the mail quickly after my purchase. Upon reading the book, I was happy to see much of the same structure as was present in the first. The story bounced back and forth between present day (Kevin has been incarcerated) and his younger days when he started experimenting with computers, and became immersed in a new, exciting, and scary world found through his phone lines.

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The story found in these books is not your cookie cutter hacker epic. Take your Hackers, your Die Hard 4, your Swordfish, and throw them out the window. Ed takes careful attention to detail, nothing here is a stretch of the imagination and you can see he has done his homework in the creation of these novels. Reading along, you’ll be able to see all he has done simply by what is alluded to. No Hollywood garbage trying to make hacking seem glamorous or news stories spewing out tales that this underground world is full of all kinds of dangerous people who can make a computer explode. Ed gives the honest, gritty perspective the genre has hardly ever been represented by.

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Summing things up, I don’t know anyone who is showing the world of phreak/hack culture in this fashion. Ed has truely honed his craft, and the fact that he himself is only an admirer of this culture, and not a participant only ampliphies his qualities. If you liked the first one, you probably already have the second, and are waiting patiently for the third and fourth. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the wagon yet, you can purchase both books directly from Ed at his website. There are also previews of both of the books, so you can read a few panels before deciding.

Also, I happen to be “in” the second installment as an angry fellow on page 10.

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Hacking around with the N64

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

So in my summer time, oh so long ago, I picked up with my N64 shenanigans again for the first time in years. Probably about seven years to be more specific. While the software is a lot more advanced then it was back then, we had another innovation called Windows XP which doesn’t really like the software, and a step back, Windows 2K really doesn’t like it. So I had a bit of success on Windows XP with some loopholes, and actually less success then I was supposed to have one one of my surviving Windows 98 boxes. Everything comes down to how the kernel locks down the parallel port of the computer. Windows 98 loves to give away the access, Windows 2K likes to hold onto the access, and Windows XP likes to hold onto it, but let you borrow it if you want to.

So the way it works, through the parallel port of my printer, I hook up a cord that goes to my gameshark, which sits between the N64 console and the game (With the software I have, Goldeneye was used). If you have ever used any console based cheat device, like a Game Genie, you know the kind of in-between cartridge I am talking about.

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The Back of the GameShark, showing the SharkPort

So, after I connect everything and set it up, I went to the software side. The first thing I needed was DLPortIO which unlocks the parallel port for the purpose of writing data to devices on connected to the port. It comes with its own basic writing functions, but I only needed it to open access to the port, which it happily did. I then retrieved GE Face Mapper from http://rarewitchproject.com/ which is an excellent website that pushes the limits on games made by the company Rareware years after they come out. I also kept a copy of N64 Utils v3 on hand just in case my Gameshark decided to freak out and delete its own software. It was also useful for retrieving screen caps.

It might not look too nice, but this is one of the outcomes of a texture replacement

It might not look too nice, but this is one of the outcomes of a texture replacement

So I unlocked my ports, and booted up facemapper and started my N64. I turned on the code generator function of the Gameshark to use some of the in-game features, and loaded up Goldeneye, selecting the first level, “Dam”. Once there, I did a ram dump using the GE Face Mapper, which showed me which bitmaps of enemies’ were loaded in the level, and allowed me to replace them with my own bitmaps, overwriting their places in the RAM. After doing that, I was able to dump the screen capture (as you saw above) back onto my computer.


N64 Ram Hacking from Famicoman on Vimeo.

There is plenty more canned software to do texture recreations, but also do things like compeltely redesign levels to load and play on the console. However, my hardware limitations halted these ideas quickly. So unless I can get some stable incarnation of Windows 98 on a nice box, don’t think about it any time soon.

Hacking La Fonera

Monday, March 5th, 2007

I had heard about the fon early in December I believe. For some reason, I wasn’t smart enough to order a load of free ones to toy with. For those of you who don’t know, the la fon, or fonera as it can be called, is a wireless router designed solely to be set up giving free wireless access to anyone and everyone that happens to connect. It creates 2 wifi networks. One public and one private WEP encrypted dealy for access to all your private whatnot. The reason most people flocked to these was because they were being given out for free by the company that makes them. So you got a free wireless router, and you could sign up a bunch of times and order a dozen of them. For some reason, I overlooked the link and got one right on the deadline before they stopped the free offer. And because of this act of karma, the power supply for my fon doesn’t work so I had to splice a D-Link psu together to get something workable. By the way, their tech support is lacking. They claim one day wait and I’m on the fourth day with nothing.

Anyways, the problem that many people had with these devices is that as soon as they plug a fon into the internet, the company locks it down and you can only use it for the fon service. There is an answer to this. Disgruntled or just perhaps curious people discovered a way to run DD-WRT on the fon making it a fully accessible wifi router. If you get all the files needed to do this ahead of time, its quite a simple procedure. Because I suck at gathering necessary materials, it took me near 5 hours to complete the install. Bear in mind that if you have ever used SSH , telnet, and know your local ip, this shouldn’t take you more than half an hour. There’s the golden question of “Is this worth it?”. Depends on your situation in particular. Am I gonna use this day to day? Probably not. If I need to set up a quick wifi for my laptop at a lan party, this small box may be just what I need.

Hopefully soon, fon will offer another free giveaway. I could use some more of these to screw with, along with one to actually use with their service. Its an interesting idea all in its own that I hope will catch on. For more information and perhaps the opportunity to obtain one of these suckers, check out The main fon website.

Fonera, post hack

Fonera, post hack