The International

The International Subversives.

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All around; an eerie sound. — from `Maralinga', 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Prime Suspect rang Mendax, offering an adventure. He had discovered a strange system called NMELH1 (pronounced N-Melly-H-1) and it was time to go exploring. He read off the dial-up numbers, found in a list of modem phone numbers on another hacked system. Mendax looked at the scrap of paper in his hand, thinking about the name of the computer system. The `N' stood for Northern Telecom, a Canadian company with annual sales of $8 billion. NorTel, as the company was known, sold thousands of highly sophisticated switches and other telephone exchange equipment to some of the world's largest phone companies. The `Melly' undoubtedly referred to the fact that the system was in Melbourne. As for the `H-1', well, that was anyone's guess, but Mendax figured it probably stood for `host-1'—meaning computer site number one. Prime Suspect had stirred Mendax's interest. Mendax had spent hours experimenting with commands inside the computers which controlled telephone exchanges. In the end, those forays were all just guesswork—trial and error learning, at considerable risk of discovery. Unlike making a mistake inside a single computer, mis-guessing a command inside a telephone exchange in downtown Sydney or Melbourne could take down a whole prefix—10000 or more phone lines—and cause instant havoc. This was exactly what the International Subversives didn't want to do. The three IS hackers—Mendax, Prime Suspect and Trax—had seen what happened to the visible members of the computer underground in England and in Australia. The IS hackers had three very good reasons to keep their activities quiet. Phoenix. Nom. And Electron. But, Mendax thought, what if you could learn about how to manipulate a million-dollar telephone exchange by reading the manufacturer's technical documentation? How high was the chance that those documents, which weren't available to the public, were stored inside NorTel's computer network? Better still, what if he could find NorTel's original source code—the software designed to control specific telephone switches, such as the DMS-100 model. That code might be sitting on a computer hooked into the worldwide NorTel network. A hacker with access could insert his own backdoor—a hidden security flaw—before the company sent out software to its customers. With a good technical understanding of how NorTel's equipment worked, combined with a backdoor installed in every piece of software shipped with a particular product, you could have control over every new NorTel DMS telephone switch installed from Boston to Bahrain. What power! Mendax thought, what if you you could turn off 10000 phones in Rio de Janeiro, or give 5000 New Yorkers free calls one afternoon, or listen into private telephone conversations in Brisbane. The telecommunications world would be your oyster.

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Suelette Dreyfus

Tech researcher, journalist, lecturer at University of Melbourne, specializes in tech's impact on whistleblowing.

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