1. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hacking jargon?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Simpson17866, Oct 20, 2013.

    Main Question:

    Are there any computer people here that would be willing to give me some ideas for how a hardware-hacker could make a physical, non-wireless mainframe more wirelessly accessible to a second software-hacker?

    Context:

    I’m working on a science-fiction story that begins with three humans (Captain, First Officer, Tech Guy) and an Artificially Intelligent spaceship in the year 2200. The four of them have been captured by the military, taken to a secret base, and they need to escape.

    The AI ship has wireless access to systems in the building such as the headsets that the enemy soldiers are wearing, so she can listen to the comms for surveillance and tell the machines to make noise (messages for communicating with her own people, sirens for deafening their enemies…). However, she has no access to the physical mainframes, so she has no idea what the floor plan of the building looks like and cannot lock or unlock any of the doors between her people, where they need to be, and the soldiers trying to kill them.

    The scene I am working on has the Tech Guy trying to tamper with an access terminal so that he can make the physical mainframes (and therefore control over the electricity, maps, locks, elevators…) more vulnerable to the AI, even though his normal equipment was confiscated and I can’t just hand-wave it away with, “He plugged one of his custom drives into the blah-blah-blah, giving the AI wireless control over the building’s systems and saving the day.”

    While the Tech Guy will not be able to provide the First Officer (or the audience) with a complete description of what he’s doing before he gets interrupted, I would still like start off the exchange with at least some jargon to show that the Tech Guy knows what he’s talking about.

    Scene so far:

    [The First Officer has just taken the weapon of a defeated enemy and run over to where the Tech Guy is working on a terminal.] “So, does it look like you can get [the AI] access anytime soon?”

    “Actually, no. I haven’t even gotten through the [help filling in the blank please?], let alone into the [help filling in the blank please?] that – ”

    “Well, how much longer do you think it will take?”

    “Let’s see, how would [the Captain, who has been established to love “ancient lit”] want me to say it? Oh right: ‘God d*** it, [First Officer], I’m a hacker, not a miracle worker!’ How was that?”

    [The enemy soldiers catch up and start a firefight]
     
  2. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    Well let's see. The most logical design would probably be to have everything in the facility controlled from one or two highly secure control rooms somewhere in the base, with local control panels scattered around the base. Technically he could access the main computers through these local panels using some kind of back door exploit in the systems and gain remote access to one or several systems within the base. Keep in mind that unless the military tech guys are incompetent, such a security breach should be picked up on pretty quickly.

    What you want to do is to make the computer AI powerful enough to stay in control, either by sheer processing power, or by shutting the tech guys either out of the control room, or by introducing something into the room (control over some kind of sleeping gas f.ex)
    Most likely the system got some kind of firewall that you will need to breach before you can do anything useful, but your hacker is a smart guy, so that should be fine.
    Keep in mind that wireless access to primary systems is a design the military would never use, so the hero should plug in a wireless transmittor to a terminal somewhere so the AI can access the systems.
     
  3. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    I see the protagonist was captured and had his equipment confiscated. So in that case the logical step would be to try and find a wireless transmittor and plug it into the main network. Depending on the network, the switches and routers might not accept any other links than what is already plugged in, so the protagonist might need to replace some other system in the network (like sprinkler control for the bathroom, or something more clever. You are the writer :) ) with the wireless access point.
     
  4. RobT
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    RobT Active Member

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    “Actually, no. I haven’t even gotten through the BIOS encryption, let alone into the operating system that – ”
     
  5. swetty
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    swetty New Member

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    I think you can try a simpler solution: the Tech Guy can just enable wireless card in terminal and give AI full access to it. It's quite common to use standard PC (or something like that - I speak about common terrestrial furnitures for clarity) to replace old terminals. If he's not so lucky and terminal has not any wireless connection (wifi, bluetooth, ecc.), he can use: a wireless card from another PC; a mobile/smartphone/tablet connected via USB; in the same room, even the infrared communication between PC and mouse/keyboard. If he's really clever (and if AI is clever too), he can use everything can be connected to the terminal and can produce an electromagnetic wave (even the computer fan).

    A question: mainframe and terminal are not outdated terms? I see a mainframe just one or two times and I was involved in dismissing them. Terminals seem to me even more archaeological: nowaday, even mainframe are network connected and nobody goes anymore in the "mainframe room" to use terminal.
     
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  6. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I guess you can see why I asked for help with terminology ;) What are the systems that are used instead?
     
  7. swetty
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    swetty New Member

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    A distributed system with several servers, I suppose, something like that:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_center

    It depends on your environment: it's the base a big one or a little one? A little one can operate without any server at all (being managed from a remote bigger base). Both uses common PC (the same as your one) as "terminal" or for "human tasks" (writing letters, managing surveillance camera, ecc.).

    But in fact, your guy doesn't need to know how and where they store informations. What he needs is a point of access, i.e., a computer with sufficient privilegies. And even just a networked one if he's enough clever. He can talk about a "camera server" or a "map database" («Just a moment, I have to connect to their map database!» - but don't trust me in verb construction :p).
     
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  8. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    Terminal and mainframes are very much still in use. A terminal is actually any system that are able to access another system and provide output and input to the main system.
    Because your story takes place 200 years into the future it would be likely that there are terminals everywhere in the base. Assuming your tech guy is able to log into one of the routers in the network from a terminal, and crack the security, he could enable wireless access for the ship so that it can get into the mainframe.
    Of course, it is the military we are talking about here, so they probably have some kind of diffie-hellman style encryption that is pretty much impossible to crack, leaving social engineering as the only feasible option to gain access short of physical access to the mainframe itself.

    Please feel free to ask me questions specific to your story. I'm currently studying to get my CCNA-certification, and would be more than happy to help you write a story where there are no obvious technical errors :)
     
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  9. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks everybody (especially @TimHarris and @swetty)! I think I've got something:

    1) The heroes are still in the wing of the building meant for prisoner containment, so the Tech Guy had to shoot one of the walls to get into something he could use (router?) since there weren't any out in the open, even though now that you mention it Tim, there would probably have been a bunch of easier ones if they were in a different wing.

    2) I'm thinking that the Tech Guy has to take apart one of the headsets/earpieces that an enemy soldier had been wearing, since the comms are wirelessly accessible and the AI has already been using them, and connect it's wires to some of the wires from the router, forcing some of the information from the main system to go through the headset's computer before going where it was supposed to.

    This way, the AI can not only listen to the data going through the system wires into the headset's computer, but she can also send a signal that the headset would've turned into sound - if the receiver and computer were still connected to a speaker - but instead the data turns into instructions that the router interprets as coming from somewhere inside the building. Even if mission control tries to re-route important programs away from the compromised router, her own processors are faster than anything they are using and she can tell the system to send the programs right back.

    Would this work?
     
  10. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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    I'm a retired programmer/analyst, and I've worked as a computer systems engineer. My first training in computers was 1968-1969 -- on an IBM 360 mainframe. So, when I read you're post, I thought, "Wow, this guy is older than me."

    I empathize. I know what you're going through. My submission to the Sci-fi contest has a couple of scenes where the hero flies a spacecraft. I don't know how to pilot a plane, so it was challenging. One hurdle was making it believable but not unreadable. That might be a challenge for you, as well -- not letting the story get lost in jargon. Oh, and I think you can say God damn it (and much more) nowadays without much trouble.

    Try this:

    “So, does it look like you can get [root] access anytime soon?”

    “Actually, no. I haven’t even gotten through the [firewall], let alone into the [registry] that – ”

    “Well, how much longer do you think it will take?”

    “Let’s see, how would [Doctor McCoy] want me to say it? Oh right: ‘God d*** it, [Spock], I’m a hacker, not a miracle worker!’ How was that?”

    [The enemy soldiers catch up and start a firefight]
     
  11. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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  12. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    Simpson17866, it could work. If the wireless headsets are hooked up to a computer dedicated to handling communication then the AI can gain access to the rest of the system that way.
    Remember that using less technical jargon will allow you to be more creative with how your tech guy solve the problems the team is facing. As long as you get the AI into the system you can explain anything that happens from there on and out by the AI being a genius.

    Edit: If using a wireless headset, then keep in mind that if the system is well designed, the technicians on the base might be able to block the headset from communicating with the servers eventually, but it should buy the team enough time to find a more permanent solution (F.ex opening the doors into a server-room where the team might hook up a wireless access point without the military ever knowing (at least not in time)).
     
  13. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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    Simpson: You're definitely on you're way. You probably understand the technology better than you think you do. If you want a brief explanation of a computer network, here is a link to a Wikipedia article. I wish you luck and success. I am happy to help in any way I can.
     
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  14. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks again everyone!
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    A couple of extra things to think about.

    In complicated technical environments such as an air traffic control centre (and, I'd guess, a future spaceship) there tends not to be a server room, as such - that tends to be reserved for data-centric contexts. The servers are in with a whole bunch of other equipment, so it's more likely to be called an "equipment room". Actually, there may be a server room as well, to deal with administrative things - email, word-processing andthe like, which will be strongly isolated from critical systems and may well be locates elsewhere (it has been in all the air traffic control centres I've worked in). So if your heroes make it into the server room they might well find maps and technical diagrams, but they probably won't be able to control the engines from there, and might not be able to open doors (central security systems may well be in yet another location - for security!)

    Secondly, others have mentioned the difference between mainframe based systems and distributed systems. It might be worth thinking about which would be most appropriate to each task. Historically, of course, we started with all the processing in mainframes, with access through terminals that were pretty dumb. Gradually, smarter terminals became commodified and dumb terminals became specialised equipment (and so became more expensive than smart terminals). It therefore became natural for new fit to be smart terminals, and processing moved out from the mainframe to the terminals, eventually leaving nothing in the middle except shared storage and the software managing access to it - a distributed system. Unless, that is, the task got more complex as well, in which case either more and more powerful mainframes with smarter and smarter terminals get put in or the mainframe would get replaced with networked computers (not mere servers), with the size of the network reducing as computing power increased.

    The point I'm getting at with that description is that the process bottoms out for particular tasks. Things that used to need mainframes (such as air traffic control centres) no longer do; computing has grown faster than the task. Mainframes now tend to be associated with exceptionally complex tasks like weather forecasting. If your heroes find a mainframe it's probably not doing anything as mundane as running the spaceship. It's going to be running the holodeck in the r&r suite.

    Finally, a thought about the location of any serious computing power. A big challenge for powerful computing is cooling. Cooling should be easy in space, the ambient temperature being about -270C, but do you put critical computing near the hull, where cooling is simple but it's vulnerable to hull damage, or do you put it deep in the core of the ship, where it's protected but a lot more effort to cool?
     
  16. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    First blank: firewall.
    Second blank: network.

    Firewalls protect networks or segments of networks from external intrusion.
     
  17. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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    @Simpson17866: Here is a book on networking. Don't let the title throw you. This publisher has produced many books on a variety of topics, all written with similar titles. I have a few myself.
     
  18. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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    @Simpson17866 Here is another way to find out: In Google, I simply typed "How to hack a wireless network". I got several hits. I read the first two, and I think a writer could adapt one or more of the techniques to a story or vice versa. In other words, if the techniques don't exactly fit your storyline, perhaps a few changes here and there might make it work. Also, since this is science fiction, inventing your own gear might be a possibility, but make sure a computer person reviews it.
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is science fiction, set almost 200 years in the future. Computer networking might change a little in that time; it certainly has in the last 200 years! I remember reading a sci-fi story about an unmanned probe to Jupiter that was limited by the pressures vacuum tubes could withstand. I looked it up: the story was written in the year the transistor was invented.
     
  20. Joe309
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    Joe309 Member

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    Maybe tech might change. On the other hand Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001 Space Odyssey, but humankind is still years away from a manned voyage to Jupiter. In a story I wrote I have colonists in another star system using rockets. Some readers might criticize that. My response is the story is my vision of technology as it might be then. So, ultimately, readers should accept the author's ideas. The author may or may not want to write his stories to fit certain implicit notions of what technologies might be.
     

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