An Ex-Pirate’s confession
Disclaimer: Before we go any further I just need to state that we at GeekOut South-West in no way condone the act of piracy.
I dug about in my head for a subject for my slot and I decided to send an e-mail to an old friend that I have not spoken to in a while. They were a little reluctant to open up about a past they have left very far behind them but I guaranteed their details would remain anonymous. They were in the early 90’s part of a crew of people who used to massively distribute and store pirated software in the days before torrents. The interview will cover what they did, how they did it, how they got into it, the tools of their trade, why they stopped and so on. Please remember that piracy is illegal, it damages developers and the industry. However I would like to thank them for opening up to us and telling us how things worked.
So first of all please introduce yourself
Well for the purpose of this interview call me James, during the time I went by many online personas, in the right circles my name was both feared and respected equally. Nowadays I am more part of society, I have a respectable job in the IT industry and always support the developers.
Tell us how you got into computers and eventually piracy
I had a computer at a very early age, starting with a Spectrum ZX81 then onto a Commodore 64 followed by a Commodore Amiga and finally onto PC. I logged onto my first BBS using a US Robotics 14.4k modem, mostly using it for messaging and playing BBS style games. It was during that I made a few online contacts and got more involved in BBS systems. Eventually progressing onto FidoNet and then finally IRC. By that time I was just absorbing information, It was very easy for me to download games and apps for my given system. Usenet was also a great resource but it was IRC where I really began to flourish.
Can you explain more about your IRC days
IRC and Usenet were both rife with piracy, I joined a channel on a network and got chatting with some of the owners there. I started to look into how to script a Windows IRC client called mIRC which went on to me learning Tcl and made a few scripts for the channel, this got me noticed and soon I had moderator status there. Back then numbers were important, I suppose you could compare it to following someone on Twitter or subscribing to a YouTube channel, channels with more numbers were more respected and that went pretty far with the people who would supply the pirated software. Tcl gave me even more credit within the IRC channel, I helped develop and maintain their eggdrop, a robot bit of code that would help manage and deal with people in the channel and ensure anyone downloading from one of our resources was still in the channel.
It was at this point I was approached by one of the channel owners. They offered me special access to their server in return for a small favour. They needed a new courier, this was a name they used for someone to help distribute the software over their network, therefore enabling the channel to serve more people. I had managed to upgrade to a 500k broadband connection back then but there is a way that you can create a tunnel between one server and another without it using your bandwidth using a technique known as FXP. This means I could transfer files between the servers at then phenomenal speeds and I could take as much as I liked from the servers as long as I transferred what they wanted.
Did you ever sell what you downloaded?
Never. I would always give it to my friends if they wanted it. I would burn them a CD with any application they wanted because I had access to it all, albeit downloading on slow connection. We were more a Robin Hood type outfit.
Was there competition?
Oh yes plenty, we were one of maybe 50 channels on the same network. We would work closely with some channels and be rivals to others. I never really understood why we were against some channels and not others, there was history between some of the operators. The channel put my curiosity and programming skills to good use, they asked if I could find a way to slow the rival channels down then we might be able to gain more traction. My eggdrop code was able to spawn hundreds of users into any given channel, this was a very early form of a DDOS, since the bot was sitting on a T3 connection I could easily flood out all the operators. Others then temporarily took over the channel to promote ours.
So you learned hacking skills, would you consider yourself black hat?
At the time yes, I was a very curious young man and enjoyed learning about all the networking. Having the power to stop people using the internet felt incredible. I took a great deal of interest in security and was even able to get into some systems using back doors or password breakers. I would then drop in code so that the channel could access it and use whatever space we needed for storage. I had no idea at the time just how illegal my activities were, I think technology was moving so fast at the time that most places had no idea these security holes existed. I did have some morals though, I would never delete anything on there, I would just find a way into the machine, and then purpose what I could for our benefit.
Do you feel guilty for stealing from the developers?
With some people yes, with others no. I know the programmers behind Adobe Photoshop and the like work hard for their money but the price of the end product was ridiculous. I did buy quite a few of the games I really liked, when the MP3 revolution hit I didn’t need Napster, we had a channel that was associated with ours dedicated to music. They would use our servers and space, we could take what we wanted. I guess because I could not see what harm I was doing to the industry it did not matter. Distributing the latest EA game was not going to bring down the beast that was EA and would mean I could play it and see if I wanted to give them any money for it. I may not be directly responsible for anyone losing a job but I definitely contributed and that I feel a bit bad about now.
Why did you stop, what happened?
Well I guess I just grew up, I found that I was spending a lot more time being out with friends than in my bedroom hacking servers. I didn’t get raided that’s for sure but I do know people who did and to hear their stories was frightening. When I stepped down from the channel I would still be able to years later go on IRC and see the same people. I never met any of them face to face but they felt like my friends, I felt like I knew them. Here we were stretched across the world from Australia, North America and Europe and yet connected by a common goal by this wonderful tool known as the Internet. My parents never knew what I got up to, even if they did I don’t think they would ever understand. By the time I turned 30 I had well and truly hung up my black hat in favour of a white one. Now I get paid to test and program software security, it is a weird turn of events for someone that never went to university.
What is your opinion of The Pirate Bay?
PirateBay made piracy even easier for the end consumer. Torrents themselves provide a great way to distribute your product but with that comes a consequence that people might start to distribute things you don’t want them to. However I will say that I really respect the people who run it, I know how hard it is to stay one step ahead of the game. I read a lot on how they operate and they used to use a few of the tricks I did to hide our servers but on a much larger scale. I don’t believe they are guilty of anything though since all they do is provide a link and a way to search something that is already available on the internet.
Do you still play games?
Yes but much less so, I don’t have anywhere near enough time to play everything that I would like to but yes I still play. Of course now I pay for everything but mostly while they are on sale, Steam and Humble Bundle have a direct vein into my bank account so it seems.
Finally what would you say is now your geekiest obsession?
Erm… I still love to learn things. New programming languages are a great obsession of mine, trying them out, seeing what they can do and even trying to find security flaws in them *laughs*. I can’t help it the curious young man is still there. If I do find a security flaw then I am more likely these days to alert the developers to it or if it is open source submit a patch.
Glossary Of Terms
We realise that this article is full of lots of technical terms so we put together a glossary for you with links to Wikipedia to help you understand them
- Bulletin Board System, a computer running a piece of software that would allow users of them to download files, read news and send mail
- A communication network between BBS systems
- Internet Relay Chat, split into channels IRC was the way that you could find people interested in the same thing as you. IRC is still used as support channels for programming languages, frameworks and all sorts
- Pronounce TeeSeeEll or Tickle. Tcl is a scripting language mostly used in Unix based systems
- File eXchange Protocol, a method of transferring data from one server to another without routing through the client connection
- A programmed script that helps manage and maintain IRC channels
- A worldwide distributed discussion system, in the days before Reddit this is how you would discuss things you enjoyed on the internet
- T3 Connection
- T connections were once the fastest internet service available with the maximum being a T3 @ 44Mb/s
How do you feel about what James did? Did he damage a then new growing industry? Why not drop us a comment below, or over on Facebook and Twitter to share with us your thoughts or any further questions for him. He has agreed to not bring down your network if you say something he disagrees with.
This entry was posted on February 17, 2016 by catharsisjelly. It was filed under GeekOut discussion, Technology and was tagged with BBS, Computing, Ex-Pirate, FXP, Illegal, Illegal Activities, IRC, Piracy, Pirating, Pirating Software, Sinclaire, Tcl, Technology, UseNet, ZX81.
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