Hacker History III: Professional Hardware Hacker
Following on from my C64 hacking days, but in parallel to my BBS Hacking, this final part looks at my early hardware hacking and creation of a new class of meteorological research radar…
Ever since that first C64 and through the x86 years, I’d been hacking away – mostly software; initially bypassing copy-protection, then game cracks and cheats, followed by security bypasses and basic exploit development.
Before bug bounty programs were invented in the 2010’s, as early as 1998 I used to say the best way to learn and practice hacking skills was to target porn sites. The “theory” being that they were constantly under attack, tended to have the best security (yes, even better than the banks) and, if you were ever caught, the probability of ever appearing in court and having to defend your actions in front of a jury was never going to happen – and the folks that ran and built the sites would be the first to tell you that.
In the mid-to-late 1980’s, following France’s 1985 bombing and sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, if you wanted to learn to hack and not worry about repercussions – any system related to the French Government was within scope. It was in that period that war-dialing and exploit development really took off and, in my opinion, the professional hacker was born – at least in New Zealand it was. Through 1989-1991 I had the opportunity to apply those acquired skills in meaningful ways – but those tales are best not ever written down.
Easily the most fun hardware hacking I’ve ever done or been involved with ended up being the basis for my post-graduate research and thesis. My mixed hardware hacking and industrial control experience set me up for an extraordinary project as part of my post graduate research and eventual Masters in Atmospheric Physics.
I was extremely lucky:
- The first Mhz digitizer cards were only just hitting the market
- PC buses finally had enough speed to handle Mhz digitizer cards
- Mass storage devices (i.e. hard drives) were finally reaching an affordable capacity/price
- My supervisor was the Dean of Physics and had oversight of all departments “unused budgets”
- Digital radar had yet to be built
My initial mission was to build the world’s first digital high-resolution vertically pointing radar and to use it to prove or disprove the “Seeder-feeder mechanism of orographic rainfall”.
Taking a commercial analogue X-band marine radar and converting the 25 kilo-watt radar with a range of 50 miles and a resolution measured in tens-of meters, to a digital radar with an over-sampled resolution of 3.25 cm out to a range of 10km was the start of the challenge – but successfully delivered nevertheless. That first radar was mounted on the back of a 4×4 Toyota truck – which was great at getting to places no radar had been before. Pointing straight up was interesting – and served its purpose of capturing the Seeder-feeder mechanism in operation – but there was room for improvement.
Back at the (family) factory, flicking through pages of operation specification tables for electric motors (remember – pre-Internet/pre-Google) and harnessing the power of MS-DOS based AutoCAD, I spec’ed out and designed a mounting mechanism for making the radar scan the sky like a traditional meteorological radar – but one that could operate in winds of 80 mph winds, at high altitude, in the rain. Taking a leaf out of my father’s design book – it was massively over engineered 😉
Home for many months – the mobile high resolution radar + attached caravan. Circa 1994.
This second radar was mounted to an old tow-able camper-van. It was funny because, while the radar would survive 80+ mph winds, a gust of 50+ mph would have simply blown over the camper-van (and probably down the side of a hill or over a cliff). Anyhow, that arrangement (and the hacks it took to get working) resulted in a few interesting scientific advances:
- Tracking bumblebees. Back in 1994, while GPS was a thing, it didn’t have very good coverage in the southern hemisphere and, due to US military control, it’s positioning resolution was very poor (due to Selective Availability). So, in order to work out a precise longitude and latitude of the radar system, it was back to ancient ways and tracking the sun. I had code that ran the radar in passive mode, scanned horizontally and vertically until it found that big microwave in the sky, and tracked its movements – and from there determine the radar’s physical location. (Un)fortunately, through a mistake in my programming and leaving the radar emitting it’s 25kW load, I found it could sometimes lock-on and track bright blips near ground-level. Through some investigation and poor coding, I’d managed to build a radar tracking system for bumblebees (since bumblebees were proportional to the wavelength and over-sampled bin size – they were highly reflective and dominated the sun).
- Weather inside valleys. The portability of the camper-van and the high resolution of the radar also meant that for the first time ever it was possible to monitor and scientifically measure the weather phenomenon within complex mountain valley systems. Old long-range radar, with resolutions measured in thousands of cubic meters per pixel, had only observed weather events above the mountains. Now it was possible to digitally observe weather events below that, inside valleys and between mountains, at bumblebee resolution.
- Digital contrails. Another side-effect of the high resolution digital radar was its ability to measure water density of clouds even on sunny days. Sometimes those clouds were condensation trails from aircraft. So, with a little code modification, it became possible to identify contrails and follow their trails back to their root source in the sky – often a highly reflective aircraft – opening up new research paths into tracking stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.
It was a fascinating scientific and hacking experience. If you’ve ever stood in a doorway during a heavy rainfall event and watched a curtain of heavier rainfall weave its way slowly down the road and wondered at the physics and meteorology behind it, here was a system that digitally captured that event from a few meters above the ground, past the clouds, through the melting layer, and up to 10 km in the air – and helped reset and calibrate the mathematical models still used today for weather forecasting and global climate modeling.
By the end of 1994 it was time to wrap up my thesis, leave New Zealand, head off on my Great OE, and look for full-time employment in some kind of professional capacity.
When I look back at what led me to a career in Information Security, the 1980’s hacking of protected C64 games, the pre-Internet evolution of BBS and it’s culture of build collaboration, and the hardware hacking and construction of a technology that was game changing (for it’s day) – they’re the three things (and time periods) that remind me of how I grew the skills and developed the experience to tackle any number of subsequent Internet security problems – i.e. hack my way through them. I think of it as a unique mix. When I meet other hackers who’s passions likewise began in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, it’s clear that everyone has their own equally exciting and unique journey – which makes it all the more interesting.
I hope the tale of my journey inspires you to tell your own story and, for those much newer to the scene, proves that us older hands probably didn’t really have a plan on how we got to where we are either 🙂
This is PART THREE of THREE.
PART ONE (C64 Hacking) and PART TWO (BBS Hacking) are available to read too.
Original post can be found here.
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