Among the tens of thousands of kids who saw WarGames, when it opened in June 1983, were 17 year old Neal Patrick and 20 year old Timothy Winslow from Milwaukee. Like the classic film’s lead character, played by Matthew Broderick, they were nice middle class kids from the American suburbs who were lucky enough to own their own computers.
Like Broderick, they were bedroom hackers – Patrick and Winslow were members of a group who, on the hunt for new games to play, accidentally hacked their way into a nuclear installation. And, like Broderick, they found themselves in extremely serious trouble with the US government.
A new short documentary, The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers, directed by Michael T. Vollmann, tells the remarkable story of these unassuming boys who unwittingly paved the way for modern-day hackers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
For Winslow, that story begins in 1975 at the back of a maths class at Milwaukee’s Christopher Latham Shoals School. He was 13. A computer, made by Digital Equipment Corp, had been brought in for the youngsters to see. “It was a big terminal,” he remembers. “It looked like a typewriter on legs that had a modem attached to it.”
When the computer’s operator asked if anyone wanted to try it out, hands shot up. “I don’t know how to do the picking,” said the operator. “I’ll just start from the front.” Winslow, from his place at the back, was crestfallen. “I knew I had a bad chance,” he says. “I was a little upset.” When the bell rang, he asked if he could stay after school to have his own turn. “My teacher said ‘sure’. “ It was a moment that would change his life.
Winslow soon became expert enough that he was helping his own High School computer teacher teach his own programming class. When he turned 17, IBM began an ‘Explorer Club’ initiative, in association with the local Boy Scouts, in which local youngsters could meet at IBM’s Milwaukee office and learn how to use their machines. It was here that Winslow met Patrick and the other kids (most of the rest of whom do not wish to be identified) who’d eventually become the nationally notorious hacker gang.
It all started when one person heard it was possible access a remote computer using a telephone modem. “We were like, wow, that sounds kind of fun,” says Patrick. “And you know how it is: one gets going, then the next person tries to see what they can get into. It starts to become a game.”
A core group of six hackers would meet at the Explorer Club, every other Tuesday night, and then go off afterwards for club sandwich dinners. “We’d sit in the park and talk about dialling into different places,” says Winslow. Each kid had a computer at home, at which they’d sit at until the early hours.
Much of the time they’d hack using a system that connected to terminals via the telephone called Telnet. “The way that worked, you contacted a computer by putting in the area code it was located in, then a number indicating which computer it was in the system,” explains Patrick. “So, to go to New York, you’d put in the area code, 212, and then, say, 23. If that didn’t work you’d try 212 24. It was as simple as that.”
If they succeeded in making contact with another computer, a prompt would flicker up on the screen. It could be USERNAME:, for example, or LOGON: That information would be a clue as to which make of computer they were dealing with and, therefore, what the log in and password might be. Guessing these was, very often, all too simple. “They’d be in the first few pages of the instruction manual,” says Winslow. “In the same instructions, it tells you ‘Please change these passwords’.”
Patrick created a secret Bulletin Board – a primitive kind of internet forum – in which the members of their little group could communicate, and leave tips and passwords, in secret.
They decided to give themselves a name, inspired by the rituals of the street gangs that were common, in Milwaukee, back in the Eighties. “The streets were numbered, so one gang might be the 2-7’s because they ran 27th street and another might be the 1-9’s because they ran 19th street,” says Patrick. “They’d spray paint their gang number in their neighbourhood. I went to school in the inner city so I’d see this all the time.”
The friends reasoned that their own gang’s ‘hood wasn’t in the city’s physical environment but in the telephonic realm. “And just like everybody else had their turf, ours was the area code for Milwaukee – 414.”
But this particular gang wasn’t interested in making war with rivals or mugging strangers for crack-cash. Primarily, what the 414s were after were computer games. “We wanted to learn about the new ones coming out,” says Winslow. “But most of the time we found businesses that had games on them so we’d just play them and get the high scores.”
When prompted to leave their initials on the high score table, instead of their own, they’d enter their calling card: ‘414.’ Among the computer systems marked with their digital tag was that of the nuclear weapons facility at Los Alamos.
That wasn’t the only mischief perpetrated by the 414s. “One time we printed all the paper out, like printed everything out,” says Patrick. “We did it over the weekend so nobody would notice until they came in on Monday to find reams of it flying everywhere.” After they’d watched and enjoyed the film WarGames (mostly accurate, they thought, bar the talking computers and the pointless flashing lights) they’d leave homages to it on the systems of major companies.
A Canadian cement conglomeration had secret “backdoor access” installed by the gang, log in: FALKEN, password: JOSHUA. Another system was re-programmed to make the computer respond with a classic line from the movie: “Would you like to play a nice game of chess, Dr. Falken?”
But it was a hack into the medical company Sloan-Kettering that was to lead, weeks later, to the downfall, and very public unmasking, of the 414s. By bizarre coincidence, it happened on the same day that WarGames was released: June 3 1983.
Sloan-Kettering could hardly have been easier to crack – the username was ‘test’, the password was ‘test’ and they granted themselves all-access status by typing the command, “set process/priv = all”. After they’d got in, the 414s noticed that the system was such that their activity could be logged. “We didn’t want everybody to notice we’d been on there, so we said, ‘We’ll just delete everything that we did.’ But it didn’t just delete our things.”
That erasure, of payment records, was the alarm that alerted an administrator called Chen Chui who, in turn, alerted the FBI. Sloan-Kettering would eventually claim it constituted $1,500 worth of damage to their business.
The FBI installed an ingenious honeytrap onto the Sloan-Kettering computers that they hoped would lure the hackers back. “It was a Star Trek game where you go from sector to sector and blow up Klingons,” says Patrick. Were they suspicious when they found it? “No, there were usually a couple of these games installed with a system.” And did they leave their 414 calling card on the game’s high score table? “Yeah.”
Tim Winslow recalls the same thing. “They saw the 414 and they tracked it backwards,” he says. “They put a trace on the line and used that to track us all down.”
By yet another strange coincidence, the man who lived next door to Winslow also worked for the local telephone company. The gentle breeze of what would eventually become the storm of trouble was Winslow’s simply noticing that he’d become unfriendly. “He wouldn’t talk to me anymore,” he says. “I just thought he was an older guy and getting set in his ways and maybe work was bad, da da da.” Up in his bedroom, he was also having problems with his modem. “My phone wouldn’t stay as hooked up as often. There were these pops on the line and I’d get these garbage characters on the screen.” He would eventually discover why his neighbour was behaving oddly. “He was the one that put the physical tap on my line.”