ON THE ROAD AGAIN: PORTABLE HACKING
by The Masked Avocado
[2600 Magazine, Sum '92, pg 4-9]
As the smoke clears from the battlefield, it appears that the enemy
has gained a major victory. Scores of people raided, many arrested, some
in jail, bulletin boards seized; the casualties are many. Today it is
almost impossible to find any hack/phreak board, let alone a decent one.
Everyone is laying low, information is scarce. When asked almost
everyone is "retired". Our world is on hold, and has been on hold for
what seems like an eternity. The Phrack trials, Operation Sun Devil, and
a dozen other events have struck a major blow against our way of life,
and caused paralysis. Just like in the real world, the phreak/hack world
is experiencing a recession of its own.
Raids, of course, have happened many times before, to a lesser
extent, and the phreak/hack world has always bounced back. I am sure
that the phreak/hack world will come back stronger than ever one of
these days. But if it is to survive and avoid another series of raids,
then it must change. No longer will we have the comfort of hacking,
phreaking, or scanning from home. Those days are over; the enemy has
finally learned to use technology too. CLID, ANI, DNRs, narcs, and
wiretaps have changed the way of hacking. If we are to survive, then we
must change as well. Hacking on the road is no longer an option. It has
become a necessity.
From the beginning, phone phreaks realized that the surest way to
avoid being busted was to use payphones. They called them "phortress
phones". Phreaking from a payphone was not that much harder than doing
it from home. However, many found this to be an inconvenient, if not a
somewhat overly paranoid, option. Given the technology, ignorance, and
lack of law enforcement on the part of the enemy at the time, very few
were busted. I remember when people set up their computers to hack 950
codes all night, scan entire 1-800 exchanges, and blast all sorts of
illegal tones down their home telephone line without giving it a second
thought. Today, this kind of behavior is equivalent to suicide. It has
gotten to the point where, if you have a DNR on your line, and you
actually have the balls to call your favorite bulletin board or (gasp!)
call a telenet port, you could be raided or have yourself hauled in for
questioning. Because of easier tracing, recent examples have shown that
you can be raided for calling a board, especially one under investigation,
perhaps not even knowing that the board was set up illegally on a hacked
Unix. Big Brother may be eight years late, but he has arrived. Let us
take Darwin's advice, and adapt before we become extinct.
WHO SHOULD GO PORTABLE?
Everyone, actually. However, novices and explorers should learn as
much as they can from others, and try not to do anything overtly
dangerous from home. There is much exploration that is completely legal,
like public access Unix machines and Internet. Those who should go
portable right away are experienced hackers, those with a relatively high
profile in the hacking community, or those who have many associates in
the hacking community. Because of this, they are likely to have a DNR
already slapped on their line. Sometimes, all it takes is to have one
DNR'ed hacker call another, and the second one has a pretty good chance
of getting a DNR of his very own. Enough gloom, lets see what lies ahead.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
Okay, you don't particularly want get busted by hacking from home,
and you want to take your recreation on the road, eh? Well, let us
explore the options. Knowing your options and getting the right
equipment can make your experience of hacking on the road a less
difficult, more comfortable, and more pleasant one. Depending on the
hacker several factors come into play when purchasing equipment, among
them price, power and portability.
Obviously, one does not need a 486-50DX laptop with an active
matrix TFT color screen, 64 megs of RAM, 660 meg hard disk, running Unix
V.4 to go hacking. Besides the $13,000 cost, I don't think getting a
hernia is anyone's idea of a fun evening. Besides with a system like
that, chances are the laptop you are calling from has twenty times more
power than the piece of shit 3B2 with a 4 meg hard disk that you're likely
to hack into. Similarly, a dinky little pocket computer with a 20x2
flickering LCD screen and a conveniently alphabetized ultra-bouncy
membrane chicklet keyboard is not what is needed either.
Important factors in purchasing a laptop or notebook computer are
price, weight, screen reliability, keyboard, memory, disk storage and
battery life. The price that you can afford should be determined by you.
As far as the screen goes, it should be large enough, preferably 80x24
characters, and easy to read. LCD is okay, supertwist LSC even better EL
and PLASMA are even better than that, but if you plan to hack at night or
in the dark like most hackers on the road, you should make sure your
laptop has a back lit screen. Color LCD screens are useless unless you
plan to call Prodigy or download and view GIFs in which case you should
stop reading this article right now and go back to play with your
The keyboard should be a standard full-sized QWERTY keyboard, with
full travel plastic keys. You don't need a numeric keypad or function
keys or any of that crap. Membrane keyboards or chicklet rubber keys are
out of the question. Unless you are utterly retarded, having your keys
alphabetized is not an added benefit. Basically, if [you] can touch type
on a keyboard without your fingers missing keys, getting jammed or
slipping around, then it is a good keyboard.
You don't need a lot of memory on you portable either, since you
will mostly be using it as a dumb terminal. However you should have
enough memory to run your terminal software and be able to buffer most
of your online sessions for later analysis. A floppy drive or some kind
of permanent storage is also a good idea. If your portable has battery
backed RAM, you may get away without using a floppy drive, since you can
always transfer any buffers to a larger machine via the serial port.
The last and perhaps the most important factor in determining your
choice for a laptop or notebook is batterylife, or more precisely, how
long you can use the machine (when it's turned on) before needing a
recharge or battery charge. Unless you plan to find an AC outlet at
every location you hack from, battery capacity is a crucial factor.
These battery times vary greatly, anywhere from two hours to 20 hours
on some notebooks and palmtops. I would recommend a machine with at
least four hours of battery life per charge. If you have a floppy disk
drive, your battery life will decrease significantly with each disk
access, so try and keep any disk access to a minimum. If your terminal
software access the disk a lot, I would suggest running it from a ram
disk. Having a hard disk on a laptop is pretty useless in relation to
hacking, unless your sole purpose in life is to climb a telephone pole so
that you can leach all the latest GIFs from Event Horizon's 1-900 number.
The laptop and notebook market has changed more quickly than any
other segment of the computer industry. New models are literally coming
out every three months. While the new models offer better screens and
lighter weight, they are usually far too expensive, especially for use as
mere hacking rigs. But an interesting byproduct of all this change is the
fact that the older models are constantly being liquidated at almost rock
bottom prices by companies like DAK, Damark, and Underware Electronics,
which sell by catalog through mail order or by any number of companies
that advertise in Computer Shopper. The prices are dropping constantly,
and by the time you read this article I'm sure the prices I mention will
sound high once you've looked through some of these catalogs. Not long
ago a friend of mine purchased a brand new 4.4 pound discontinued NEC
Ultralight computer with a backlit LCD screen, with a 2MB battery backed
silicon disk, and a built in 2400 modem for just under $500. I've seen a
Toshiba 1000 going for under $399, Zenith Minisport machines going for
$299. If you want, you can pick up a 386SX-20 notebook for under a
thousand bucks easily. The point is that the hardware is there, and it's
usually far less expensive that any desktop machines.
MODEMS AND COUPLERS
One does not need a 57,600 baud V.32bis/V.42bis modem to go
hacking. Unless you play to download all of the Unix System V source
code from an AT&T mini in under 5 minutes, a high speed modem is not
required. A 300 baud modem may be too slow for most purposes, and the
only times I would recommend 300 baud is if your notebook or palmtop has
a small screen where everything would scroll off too quickly or if your a
A 1200 or 2400 baud modem will do fine. If it has error -correction
(i.e. MNP), ever better. If your laptop doesn't already have one built-in,
I would suggest buying a pocket modem. Pocket 1200 baud modems can be
found for as low as $29. Many pocket modems are the size of a cigarette
pack and run for 15 hours or so off of a 9 volt battery. Other pocket
modems, like the Practical Peripherals' Practical Pocket Modem (Model
PM2400PPM, price $159 retail, can be found for $79 mail order) or the
Novation Parrot, use low-power chips and run off either the power from
your RS232 port or the phone live voltage or both. These modems are
not very much more expensive than the battery ones, and you never have
to worry about your modem running out of power. All pocket modems are
Hayes AT compatible and some, like the WordPort 2496 Pocket Fax/Modem,
even have G3 fax capacity.
If your going to be hacking from payphones, you're going to need an
acoustic coupler to attach to your modem. Several are available from
stores specializing in laptops and laptop accessories. The most popular
among hackers is the CP+, available from The Laptop Shop. There's also
the Konnexx coupler, which can work with 9600 baud modems and faxes.
Look in magazines like Moblie Computing for ads for other modems. A
coupler will run you around $100 mail order.
Ultimately, it is best to keep your portable hacking system as small
as possible and made of the minimum number of parts. A notebook machine
such as the Tandy WP-2, Cambridge Z88, NEC Ultralight, and the acoustic
coupler/modem mentioned above is probably the best possible combination
for a compact and inexpensive portable rig. It's small and light, consists
of only two or three pieces, fits in a small briefcase or knapsack, and
weighs just under five pounds.
By planning and designing your system from start to finish you can
achieve a sleek efficient portable hacking system. Poor planning can
result in uncomfortable heavy multi-piece systems that one has to drag
around. Before laptops really existed, a friend of mine decided to put
together a portable rig from parts he already had, and this did not turn
out too well. His system consisted of an Apple ][c, a 12 volt car
battery, AC power invertor, 7" monochrome monitor, and a full size
external Hayes modem. The only things he ended up buying were the
invertor and acoustic coupler. However this system was a nightmare of a
machine, weighing almost 45 pounds, consisting of seven cumbersome
pieces, with tangled cables, and capable of completely draining a fully
charged car battery in a matter of 30 minutes. He managed to fit the
entire system in a large suitcase. It took him almost 15 minutes to set
the entire thing up inside a phone booth, leaving very little room for him.
If trouble would arise, he would have a very difficult time making a quick
getaway. This is an example of what not to do when putting together
your portable rig.
WHERE TO GO HACKING
Location is just as important as having a good portable rig. Where
you hack from determines how long you can hack, how late you can hack,
whether you'll be bothered by interruptions or have to look over your
shoulder every minute, and many other factors. Unless you happen to be
travelling around the country and staying in hotels every other week,
your only options for portable hacking are payphones, junction boxes, and
exposed phone wiring. Finding a great hacking location takes some work,
but is well worth the effort. You can save time by surveying locations
beforehand, that is, before you actually go hacking. You should find
several possible locations that meet your needs. After using one
location for a week or so, you should move on. Depending on the
sensitivity of the machines you hack, using the same location for an
extended amount of time is hazardous to your freedom.
Time of day is also another important factor. It is best to go out
late at night to do the majority of your hacking. Besides 3 am is about
the only decent tome to cut into people's phone lines to attach your
portable without being noticed. However, 3 am is also when local cops
like to make their rounds through quiet neighborhoods, so be careful,
because it's very hard to explain what you were doing inside a junction
box to the police, even if you were wearing a lineman's helmet, because
linemen don't work at 3 am.
If you don't have an acoustic coupler, you can't really use a
payphone unless you manage to get access to the wiring. Therefore, you
are limited to using whatever telephone lines you can get your wire
cutters on. Junction boxes are great, but the ones directly on the
street are too dangerous. For all junction boxes bring along the
necessary hex wrench. Almost all junction boxes in suburbia are unlocked
and usually very secluded. In the city however the best junction boxes
are in the back of large apartment buildings, or in their basements, or in
the back of stores and in parking lots. As an added bonus, junction boxes
not on the street are not locked. WHen using a junction box it is
preferable if you can not be seen from the street. Junction boxes on
poles are also good if you can find them in secluded or remote areas. I
found one near me that fits my needs well. It is a huge unlocked box atop
a pole with a very nice and comfortable seat. What is really great
though, is that right next to the pole there's a tree. The branches and
leaves of the tree completely engulf the top of the pole, thus I am
completely invisible to people passing by on the street. I simply climb
the tree to get high enough to start climbing the metal ladder spikes on
the pole and climb up to the seat, unpack my rig, and I'm ready to rock.
This is the perfect hacking and phreaking location at 3:00 in the morning.
Having access to hundreds of different lines also allows one to use such
a location for many hacking sessions before moving on. If you're a
college student, dorms are great places to find indoor junction boxes.
They are usually in stairwells and in the basement.
If you are not able to use a junction box, all you have to do is find
a running line in a secluded location. Again, the backs of stores are good
places to find wiring. Be sure you know what you are doing, because
there is a lot of other wiring that can get in the way, such as cable TV,
antenna, and electrical wiring. If you fry yourself on a power cable then
you deserve it, because you're too stupid to even go hacking.
If you plan a direct connection (running wiring or junction boxes),
other parts you will want to bring along on your hacking trips are a
lineman's handset, wire cutters and strippers, and an RJ-11 phone jack
with alligator clips.
If you have an acoustic coupler, you have the added option of using
payphones and phone booths. But stay away from COCOT's, they are too
much of a headache, and the sound quality usually sucks. Good places to
find secluded payphones late at night are parks, playgrounds, beaches,
and boardwalks. If you live in New York City then this does not apply to
you unless you enjoy being harassed and urinated upon by homeless
people while trying to gain root. Obviously, outdoor hacking becomes
much less of an option when it rains or when the weather turns poor.
During the day, good places to find secluded payphones are old buildings,
college buildings, airports, hotels, libraries and museums. I once found a
phone booth in an old secluded hallway at the Museum of Natural History
in Manhattan. The phone was rotary and hadn't been used by humans in I
don't know how long. The phone book in there was from 1982. The phone
booth was recessed in a wall, well lighted, with a door. Needless to say,
this was the perfect spot for several hacking sessions during the day.
With payphones, there is the added problem of the phone constantly
wanting money. A red box is very cumbersome, and modem transmissions
are immediately killed when the phone wants money every few minutes.
Unless your hacking consists entirely of machines with 1-800 dialups,
codes or calling cards are a must. Using a phone company with good
sound quality, such as AT&T or Sprint, will reduce errors and line noise.
Given the acoustic nature of the connection, it becomes necessary to
manually flash the switch-hook between calls, and perhaps even manually
dialing if your modem cannot autodial. This hassle can be avoided by
using a dial-out such as a Unix with cu, an Internet dialout, or PC
Unlike on TV and in the movies, cellular phones are not really an
option for portable hacking, unless you have the ability to completely
reprogram your's at a moments notice, by changing both the Electronic
Serial Number and the Telephone Number to someone else's. This type of
phreaking requires some advanced knowledge. Getting the ESN's and TN's
is not a problem since they are broadcast digitally over the air, and you
and pluck them right off the air if you build a decoder and hook it up to
a scanner with 800 mhz capability. This is, however, a topic for another
article. Just as an aside, modem transmissions over cellular phones are
quite possible with error correcting modems up to 9600 baud. Telebit
even makes a very nice cellular modem called the Cellblazer which can
pump data through at 16,00 baud.
TAKING TO THE ROAD
Another crucial element in successful portable hacking is planning.
In light of time constraints and battery life, you should plan as much of
your work ahead of time as possible. Any preliminary work should be done
before the mission (research, social engineering, etc.). I understand that
hacking is somewhat of an unorganized, unplanned activity, but you should
at least have some sort of an agenda planned out. That's not to say
that you can't have any fun or enjoy yourself; you could spend all night
calling pirate boards in Europe for all I care. Nothing is worse than
sitting atop a telephone pole at four in the morning trying to think of
where to call next.
Be prepared, and bring everything you will need: your rig, handset,
notebook, flashlight, food and drink, a list of computers to call.
When using payphones, it is also a good idea to have a good excuse
ready in case someone asks you what you're doing. A favorite among
hackers on the road is. "I'm a freelance writer and I'm transmitting a
story to my editor". During the daytime at a payphone no one is likely to
even notice you since so many people have laptops these days. If you're
at someone's junction box or cutting into someone's phone wiring at three
in the morning, no excuse is necessary. Just be prepared to run like hell.
During your hacking mission, try to have a good idea of where you
are, and make a note of any exits that may be needed if you need a quick
getaway. And buffer everything for later review.
The ultimate thrill would be to carry around a notebook machine
with a pocket packet radio TNC and a portable HF transceiver. There are
places on the packet nets where you can link into TCP/IP gateways and
telenet to any place on the Internet. Also rumored to exist on the packet
nets are telephone modem dial-outs. With this kind of setup, you could
literally be in the middle of the desert outside of Phoenix and be hacking
a machine anywhere in the world. When you're done, you can just move on.
I'm sure this scares the shit out of law enforcement, and rightly so. But
that may be exactly what we're doing five years from now.
I have been on many portable hacking trips, sometimes alone,
sometimes with friends. All I can really say is that it's lots of fun, just
like regular hacking, but without any of the worries associated with
hacking from home. ALso, portable hacking is more exciting that just
sitting at home in front of your computer. If you find good locations,
and bring along a couple of buddies and plenty of good American beer,
hacking on the road can be the best thing in the world.