(Readers: Please note that this column was written in the fall of 1995. I keep up with what is going on with AOL sporadically, and am aware that there are many "improved" variations of AOHell now. Jeff)
At least until the last few years, we've had a soft spot in our hearts for computer hackers. Something about the image of some mischievous kid saving the world, like Matthew Broderick in "War Games" tickled us, and lots of people secretly (or not-so-secretly) cheer anytime some geek worms his or her way into the heart of corporate or bureaucratic America with some technical legerdemain and raises a little hell. It looks like magic and can be really funny; sometimes we wish we could do it, though it's become a lot less charming as serious criminals learned how to steal using computers without getting their hands dirty.
Now, apparently, hacking the world's largest online service is within almost anyone's reach. There is a program "out there" called AOHell that looks like a hacker wannabe's dream; it seems to have everything one would want to log onto the America Online computer service illegally and wreak some serious havoc, all in a package as easy to use as any off-the-shelf program. Click here to set up a fake account; click there to get someone else's account information; click over here to send an email bomb. Somebody hated AOL enough to write this program. In fact, someone hates AOL enough to keep updating it. Version 3.0, beta 4, "Rage Against the Machine," came out last month. Don't bother looking for it in stores. And don't ask me where I got it, because I promised not to tell.
Why do some hackers hate AOL so much? The reasons are legion; there is even an "AOL Sucks" page on the Internet's World Wide Web. But perhaps it's best stated in the words of "Da Chronic," the hacker most responsible for AOHell.
"The reason I wanted to make this program is because I hate just about everyone on AOL. (Yes, that probably means YOU.) I'm sick of all the faggots and I'm sick of all the God damn pedophiles. Every other member room is named something like "Daddy's girl," "young boy pix," ... I even saw a room named "Boy4Man2Rape" one day and I decided I had enough."
Da Chronic claims he sent an email message to an AOL supervisor asking why rooms for hackers were closed but not "the kiddie porn rooms." He said his account was then cancelled.
"If AOL is going to do nothing about this kind of sick behavior then I will do everything I can to screw AOL up," concludes Da Chronic. "I think having 20,000-plus idiots using AOHell to knock people offline, steal passwords and credit card information and to basically annoy the hell out of everyone is a good start."
America Online, needless to say, doesn't see itself quite that way, and thinks most of its 3.5 million members are pretty happy. But they really don't want to chat about the subject, either. Kathy Johnson, a spokeswoman at the company's Vienna, Virginia headquarters, preferred to fax statements made by AOL President Steve Case regarding hacking and any alleged illegal activities taking place online at AOL. Summarized, Case says that hacking AOL is bad and that the company has "a team in place" to deal with hacker incidents. He also referred to the kiddie porn issue, in the wake of an FBI investigation that resulted in raids in cities across the country last week, including Hartford:
"Although it is disheartening, the fact is that any community with more than 3.5 million citizens will have its share of illegal activity. To those using AOL for illegal purposes, let the message be heard: We will terminate the accounts of those participating and we will notify the proper authorities of any illegal activity that is brought to our attention."
In a letter to members, Case urges AOL "cybercitizens" to report any illegal activity or hacking to the company.
Johnson did say that anyone caught using AOHell on the system has their account immediately terminated. This is a little like blowing out those birthday-cake candles that refuse to die out; determined hackers will just pop back with a new identity and a new account.
We had a friend check out the latest version of AOHell. It is a pretty malevolent thing, but not, perhaps, Case's or Johnson's worst nightmare, at least as is.
The first objective was to see if he could set up a fake account on AOL; the program generates fictitious names, addresses and telephone numbers along with what it says are valid credit card numbers from a huge variety of financial institutions. It spits out Visa, Mastercard and Discover numbers with the click of a button. The 15 or so my friend tried, however, weren't good enough for AOL; he went through the entire logging-in process that many times, right down to picking a password, using three different "free" AOL startup discs, and couldn't get past the credit check.
AOL also no longer automatically accepts registration for new service with a simple promise to authorize electronic transfer of funds by bank account; one can sign on, but is required to call in to verify the information. That might not bother most hackers, but we had already decided my friend wasn't going to do any verbal lying as part of this exercise.
"That's good," said Johnson, when told the credit-card scam in the program hadn't worked. She acknowledged that AOL had tightened security for member accounts and for new members, presumably because people were doing a lot of what my friend had tried to do.
However, that didn't prevent the friend from trying out AOHell's demonic tricks on AOL, using yet another friend's account. It does what Da Chronic says it will _ one can easily bring all activity in a cyberspace "chat" room to a screaming halt. Graphics of upraised middle fingers can be made to parade across the screen; text can be wiped out and replaced by images of dice rolling; premium areas can be made free; all manner of tricks can be played with mail. And he doesn't even hate AOL.
He didn't get caught, either. We have no idea if anyone reported him to the AOL police, but he only hung out long enough to test the AOHell "features."
A day or so later, I checked the alt.hacker newsgroups on the Internet, where one might expect to find chit-chat about such matters. There were at least five messages from people begging for a copy of AOHell, including one who wanted a version that would run on a Macintosh.
Again, why? Da Chronic's complaint about the subject matter in many AOL chat rooms (and sex of all kinds is a hot topic every night on AOL) is a common one, even with some AOL users. Some veterans of the Internet also resent AOL's unabashed commercialization of cyberspace, and AOL users have gained something of a reputation of not knowing how to behave outside of their own company. They know it; messages sent to Internet newsgroups from AOL members sometimes start out "Please don't flame me just because I'm from AOL, but ..."
But AOL has taken some steps to rebuild its questionable reputation with the "old guard;" users can make "chat" off-limits for children; and in the Internet spirit of "giving something back," it makes available it's "Webcrawler" search tool and some file areas to the community at large.
But this is probably not enough for Da Chronic, who will probably continue to "Rage Against the Machine."
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