Imagine a world where hackers embody the mythical essence of kobolds, those elusive creatures lurking in the shadows. Like their legendary counterparts, hackers possess a mysterious ability to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. They navigate the vast expanse of the internet, hidden in the digital nooks and crannies, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. But beware, for these creatures are as harmless as a sleeping dragon… unless you dare to cross them or awaken their insatiable curiosity. Brace yourself for a journey into the captivating realm of hackers, where the lines between reality and myth blur, and the secrets of cyberspace unfold.

About the Author

Throughout my life, the tales of hackers have woven themselves into the very fabric of my existence. The journey began when I was a wide-eyed 14-year-old, eagerly exploring the realms of hacking on my trusty IBM 330 PC. With its Pentium processor, boasting a staggering 133 MHz of power, and a seemingly abundant 128 Mb of RAM, it was my gateway into a world of digital intrigue.

I kept these processors as trophies after the computers were bricked from overclocking or acts of sabotage by “friends.” lol

In those formative years, I delved deep into the intricacies of Windows 95 and 98, leaving no stone unturned in my quest for knowledge. But as my hunger for discovery grew, I felt an undeniable pull toward a different path, a new operating system beckoning me. Ubuntu Warty Warthog emerged as the hot new distribution, and I eagerly embraced it. At the tender age of 17, I became a fervent advocate for Ubuntu, tirelessly urging others to abandon the perceived safety of Windows and embrace the security that Linux offered.

My early forays into the realm of hacking centered around cracking premium software keys and aiding desperate parents in regaining access to their children’s locked computers. It was a curious mixture of mischief and assistance, satisfying my desire to dismantle and rebuild the digital world around me. As my skills grew, I found myself oscillating between writing code for the Ubuntu foundation—proudly claiming responsibility for those delightful rounded corners on applications—and immersing myself in vibrant conversations with fellow hackers on the renowned platform of IRC.

These were the moments that shaped me, molding my fascination with the enigmatic world of hackers. With each keystroke, I embraced the allure of the kobold-like hackers, roaming the intricate pathways of the internet, hidden yet omnipresent. Little did I know that my humble beginnings would set the stage for a lifelong journey, where fact and fiction intermingled, and the ever-evolving dance between security and curiosity would propel me forward.

In order to tell this story and many like it, I must first dispel any preconceived notions you may have about what a hacker is. The general public has major flaws in how they perceive hackers and security. Stop and try to picture a hacker in your head for a moment. Did you picture a scene from a movie? Hollywood likes to portray us as some lonely, nerdy guy, typing really fast, looking at six different monitors, and wearing all black. In reality, hackers come in all varieties; some of us even dress sharply and have normal social lives.

Rather than talking about hackers conceptually, I want to tell you about a hacker who I’ll call Ben. This guy was my first tech mentor and still sits near the top of my list of smartest people I’ve ever met.

The “31337” Elite Hacker

It’s remarkable how leet-speak, once a niche phenomenon rooted in utility and secrecy, has managed to infiltrate the mainstream. In the early days of the internet, when servers came with exorbitant price tags, public servers became the go-to hosting solution for IRC chats and websites. As a result, hackers who frequented these public servers needed a way to cloak their conversations from pattern searching and parsing algorithms. Enter the ingenious invention of 31337-speak, better known as leet-speak, where letters were cleverly represented in a manner that the human brain could decipher, while remaining elusive to machines.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the intricacy. Observe the clever transformation of “31337” into “elite”: the “3” masquerading as a backward capital “E,” the “1” assuming the guise of a lowercase “L,” and the “7” cunningly resembling a capital “T.” And thus, the term “elite” in the realm of hackers was born—a testament to their mastery of language manipulation and cunning evasion tactics. Consider yourself enlightened if this revelation is news to you.

Now, let’s set the record straight: while some impostors may have tarnished the reputation of leet-speak, I implore you not to dismiss its usage in this narrative. You see, my friend Ben embodied the true essence of being “elite.” With a programming and hacking journey that spanned the very dawn of telecommunications, he had earned his stripes. Ben’s initiation into the world of hacking came through analog systems, where he dabbled in the art of phreaking—manipulating phone lines with a mischievous flair. It was within the hallowed grounds of a hacker collective known as the Cult of the Dead Cow (CoDC) that our paths converged. At the time, I was a fledgling programmer, eager to absorb every morsel of knowledge and armed with an insatiable curiosity for the latest and greatest scripts that would transport me into the realm of rebel hackers.

To my delight, Ben became my guiding light, ever-patient in answering my endless barrage of questions, even if they were occasionally accompanied by a playful insult or two about my perceived lack of intellect. Yet, beneath the banter, I recognized the invaluable mentorship that he offered—an elite among elites, with a wealth of experience and a willingness to nurture the next generation of hackers.

The Man

Ben, an intriguing character, epitomized the essence of a white-collar professional. By day, he was ensconced in the mundane world of a paper supply company, where I can only imagine him as a real-life embodiment of Dwight from The Office. With his dry sense of humor and an uncanny ability to rub people the wrong way, he undeniably possessed the knack for being, well, a bit of a dick. Yet, within this seemingly ordinary facade, lay a genius—a master of software engineering who sculpted groundbreaking order management and fulfillment software for the very paper company that employed him.

A generated image of a man that looks like Dwight from the Office.
Not Ben, but close enough to how he looked, courtesy of Mid Journey

Now, Ben’s relationship with his co-workers was far from cordial. In fact, he harbored a deep disdain for them, which manifested in his mischievous pastime of crank-calling. But let me assure you, his methods were nothing short of genius. Long before interactive voice response systems (IVR) dominated customer service calls with their soulless automated bots, Ben had already devised his own intricate mechanism for routing calls and delivering messages. On a few occasions, I found myself on the receiving end of his pranks, witnessing the ingenuity of his software firsthand. With an app on his server, he could dial your number and manipulate the caller ID to his heart’s content. He would silently listen to your responses, selecting from a vast library of pre-recorded messages in real-time to craft his seamless interactions. And who was there to bear the brunt of his pranks more than anyone? His unfortunate co-workers, of course. Since Ben executed these calls from the very same office as his victims, they were left puzzled and frustrated, unable to pin the blame on him. After all, how can you accuse a man who’s never seen with a phone glued to his ear? It’s worth noting that such technological wonders were either non-existent or confined to the realms of obscurity back then. In that context, Ben’s brilliance shone even brighter.

It was during the late hours of the night when Ben and I truly connected. Regardless of the time, I could always reach out to him online, and our conversations would stretch into the wee hours. Whether it was a system we yearned to infiltrate or a challenge we wished to conquer, Ben was right there by my side, taunting and teasing, but also imparting his invaluable knowledge. It was through his patient guidance that I learned the very fundamentals of hacking that continue to serve me in my current profession of pen testing. In many ways, he felt like an older brother, a guiding force in my journey through the intricate and exhilarating world of hacking.

Cult of the Dead Cow

Ben was more than just elite in my eyes. Within our esteemed CoDC group, he held the status of a true legend. Our reputations were built upon our actions, the data we shared, and the competitions we engaged in. Allow me to provide some context of the typical types of activities we engaged in:

Attacks: I vividly remember the audacious call to action that once echoed through our virtual realm. “Hey guys, go check out the Microsoft homepage. We fucked them up good!” Our hackers, like digital graffiti artists, would leave behind traces of ASCII art and their usernames as a defiant mark of their conquest.

Building Tools: Discussions within our group revolved around the latest creations and discoveries. “Check out this new rainbow table and bash script I made. Let me know if you get some spoils. I accept iTunes gift cards as tips.” Unconventional as it may sound, we bartered programs and valuable data using gift cards as a discreet form of currency. Little did we know then that this practice was a precursor to the era of digital currencies.

Competitions: We transformed nearly everything into a game, infusing it with a sense of competition. “The latest winners for the password cracking are up on the leaderboard. Points will be assigned to profiles accordingly.” Our reputations were quantified through gamification, with reputation points serving as immediate status symbols within certain servers.

The turning point came when I achieved a moment of personal triumph. I secured the coveted title of “best defense” in a thrilling Capture the Flag (CTF) tournament held within our group. In this captivating contest, we would spend an entire weekend relentlessly vying to seize each other’s flags—a unique file hidden in a standard location on our hard drives. The rules were simple, yet the challenge was intense:

  • The game ran for a relentless 72 hours.
  • Disqualification loomed if your computer remained offline for more than 5 minutes.
  • Your hard disk had to remain strictly read-only.
  • Points were calculated based on the flags stolen and the flags you successfully defended.

Against a backdrop of approximately 30 elite hackers and a total player count nearing 80, I secured the improbable third place with a score of zero. This achievement stirred curiosity, including that of Ben himself. Moments after the game concluded, a message from Ben appeared, his inquisitive mind eager to unravel the secret behind my seemingly impenetrable defense. In that moment, I realized the profound lesson that would shape my entire career in the world of technology: Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). The solution had been elegantly straightforward, and it would become my guiding principle in navigating the complexities of this realm.

I was acutely aware of the disparity between myself and the other members of the group. Compared to their programming prowess and seasoned networking skills, I considered myself a novice. Breaching systems and capturing flags seemed like an insurmountable task. Instead of actively engaging in offensive maneuvers or extensive gameplay, I devised a simple and ingenious defense strategy. Whenever my hard disk was accessed, I implemented a fail-safe mechanism—I would promptly shut down the computer. To achieve this, I meticulously soldered the ribbon that facilitated communication with the hard disk to a power supply/reboot switch on the motherboard. As a result, if the operating system dared to read the hard disk, a physical reboot would be triggered. Thus, whenever intruders probed my system, it would promptly reboot, effortlessly returning online within the critical 5-minute window. No software countermeasure could circumvent this foolproof measure.

Ben, recognizing the brilliance of my approach, approached me with an unexpected proposition—to become his Padawan. Yes, just like the apprentice Jedi in Star Wars, I was offered the chance to be mentored by him. It was a quirky yet fitting metaphor for our band of nerds.

The Mystery

In the early 90s, the realm of programming was intrinsically intertwined with the hacker and cracker culture. Back then, building low-level systems often necessitated breaking boundaries, as the landscape was ripe with uncharted territory. Moreover, programming languages were considerably more complex, requiring a steeper learning curve. As a result, the barrier to entry was considerably higher, and those who excelled in software development had to possess the ability to dissect and unravel closed-source tools and code. Many of these original programmers and hackers from that era have ascended to become the epitome of elite expertise today. Although subsequent layers have been added to the technological landscape over the past few decades, the foundational languages of Assembly, C, Basic, Cobol, and Fortran still remain at the core of nearly all technology that permeates our planet. Consequently, the elite hackers possess an intimate understanding of these foundational technologies, even more so than some of the brilliant minds responsible for building awe-inspiring technological advancements atop them. Remarkably, despite their elite status and vast knowledge, most of these individuals tend to tread the ethical path, albeit straying into the gray hat territory on several occasions.

After approximately four years as Ben’s apprentice, our contact abruptly ceased. It wasn’t until the discovery of his will, with explicit instructions in the event of an untimely demise, that I finally learned his true identity and gained insights into his enigmatic life. Following his alleged death, Ben’s wife reached out to me, seeking solace and understanding. Throughout my association with him, I had been aware of his infiltration into highly sensitive systems, such as FBI databases and the CIA, among others. In fact, he entrusted me with a trove of valuable information, ensuring redundancy and widespread distribution. Admittedly, a few years later, I may have leaked a handful of documents to WikiLeaks, but that’s a story best left for another time.

The circumstances surrounding Ben’s supposed demise were shrouded in an air of mystery and conspiracy. He had apparently met a tragic end in a car accident under suspicious circumstances. According to reports, while innocuously running errands, his car inexplicably careened off a bridge, hurtling into a dry creek bed below and engulfing in flames. Authorities resorted to identifying him through dental records, as only a few teeth and charred mass remained intact according to the officials. Naturally, my immediate skepticism echoed that of his wife when she contacted me. The entire family harbored doubts, especially after poring over the contents of his will and it’s warning of a conspiracy if he were to go missing or perish. They embarked on their own investigation, examining the crash scene even though the area had been meticulously sanitized. Their findings unveiled a myriad of discrepancies and unanswered questions. Curiously, the car had collided head-on with the guardrail, rather than hitting it from the side. This perplexing detail suggested that Ben had intentionally positioned the vehicle perpendicular to the road before accelerating it over the edge. Furthermore, the guardrail displayed clean incisions, as if someone had used an angle grinder to weaken its integrity, ensuring it would offer no resistance. If these anomalies weren’t disquieting enough, remnants discovered a few feet away from the crash site turned out to be hamburger meat, a perplexing presence that had no place in Ben’s grocery list as he was vegan.

Our collective theory points to a chilling notion: Ben was ensnared by a powerful three-letter agency, most likely the NSA. It is plausible that he faced an unthinkable ultimatum—either spend an eternity behind bars or vanish from the face of the Earth, reemerging as an operative working under the agency’s clandestine domain. Ben’s lukewarm sentiment towards his wife and family potentially played a role, providing Ben with what I can only assume might have been his dream job. Astonishingly, the family’s fervor to locate him waned considerably when they were unexpectedly contacted as beneficiaries of a life insurance policy, a revelation that baffled and lucratively rewarded everyone involved. This twisted narrative fuels our conjecture, weaving a tale of covert operations, government intrigue, and the perpetual uncertainty that shrouds the enigmatic world of elite hackers.

The Legend

Do you have an untold story to share?

Losing touch with an old friend, whether they are toiling away for the government or lost in the great unknown, is always a poignant loss. Whether their vanishing is shrouded in a web of conspiracy or simply an abrupt and bewildering ending, that is the reality I am left with. If the statute of limitations were more forgiving, I would eagerly unveil further details of his astounding adventures and colorful history. Alas, as time has progressed, the climate surrounding the sharing of stories has grown more inhospitable. The threshold for what is deemed treason or a threat to national security has become increasingly stringent.

Nevertheless, it feels only right to impart what I can about an extraordinary individual who possessed unparalleled prowess in the realm of technology. There was no programming language, operating system, or tool that eluded his grasp. He existed in a perpetual state of online immersion, dedicating countless hours each day to exploring and manipulating anything that caught his fancy. If the world of technology were akin to the Matrix, he embodied the essence of Neo, inspiring a multitude of hackers who would later make headlines with their exploits or engage in social activism. Truly, he was a legend, leaving behind an untold history that continues to reverberate.

Do you possess a story that yearns to be told anonymously? Reach out to us, and we will gladly collaborate with you to publish your tale.

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