Hacker stands alone on school's computer ramparts

March 18, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

Ben Mowery stands alone in the great computer war of Atholton High School.

As guarantor of cyberspace security, the 15-year-old programming whiz has a single mission: to prevent the west Columbia school's enterprising young hackers from playing games instead of doing classwork.

From the day the sophomore installed his home-brewed security system, a small number of the high school's other computer prodigies have made it their goal to thwart his mission by breaking the program -- at times by picking his pocket, if not the logic of his system.

Among their latest ploys was surreptitiously replacing Ben's security system with an earlier version they already knew how to defeat. Having overcome that maneuver, Ben already is on version nine of his unnamed program -- and counting.

For the vast majority of Atholton's student body, this has been a hidden war, fought in a language they don't know exists, let alone comprehend.

Even the school's computer programming teacher, Reg Hahne, doesn't understand how Ben's system works. "Not at all," he said with a laugh. "I don't know assembly language."

But that doesn't mean Mr. Hahne doesn't admire -- and encourage -- the game of cat-and-mouse among Atholton's computer whizzes.

"They've come up with some real neat ways to beat Ben's program," said Mr. Hahne. "That's really good, because it forces Ben to continue improving his program to prevent them from doing it again.

"For these kids who come in here with a lot of expertise, it's an opportunity for all of them to continue learning. I'm just providing a structure for them to do that."

As computer games become a growing threat to efficiency in workplaces and classrooms, employers and teachers are seeking new ways to keep computer users on the assigned task. Assigning an advanced student such as Ben the task of protecting the Atholton lab's 33 free-standing IBM computers is a natural way to satisfy Mr. Hahne's need for better security and Ben's desire for greater challenges.

Mr. Hahne's charge to Ben at the beginning of this school year was simple: Limit students to using only the programs installed on the computer for classwork. But with each additional defeat of the program, his assignment grows into a bigger challenge than Ben first imagined.

"Writing the programming is the easy part. I can figure out how to stop them once I know what they're doing to get by the program," Ben, who lives in Highland, said. "The pain is that every time they defeat the program, I then have to go to every computer and reinstall my new version. That's not a lot of fun."

On the Atholton computer lab battlefield, a core of challengers -- two freshmen and two sophomores -- have set their sights on defeating Ben's security system. They proudly recall their many victories while acknowledging his extensive programming skills.

"When we got through his first menu program, Ben wasn't too happy," said freshman Rhys Ziemer. "But every time we beat it, he always makes a new version by the next day to stop us."

Some of the group's triumphs over Ben have come through the proper use of the computers. "They went into Turbo C [one of the programming languages taught in class] and just wrote a program that, when executed, got by the menu and let them play games," Ben said. "That was pretty good, but I was able to make changes."

The rival hackers also have taken more basic approaches to breaking through Ben's defenses. "We've figured out his password, which can be a pretty easy thing to do if you know the person," said sophomore John Armstrong. "We've also found his security-code disks lying around the computer lab and borrowed them to try to figure out how his program works."

The so-called discoveries of security-code disks in such places as Ben's coat pocket marked occasions when the mostly friendly computer war has gotten a bit out of hand, with tempers flaring over allegations of violations of the hackers' self-imposed code of honor.

"Now I have to keep a close eye on my pockets," Ben said. "I don't want them to get their hands on my source disks."

Perhaps the most ingenious ways the challengers have used to try to defeat Ben's program involve adding their own modifications to his system.

Using the assembly language they began learning on their own to keep pace with Ben -- and taking an early version of the program they obtained by picking his pocket -- the students have adapted it to permit the playing of games.

"We got the menu file, disassembled it to find the password and then put the early version on the computers to replace his more current program," said freshman Richie Malinowski. "Ben didn't notice that we had done that for a while."

But even that trick could not foil Ben for long. He has added his own little trademark graphic to the latest version of the security program, allowing him to readily identify that his most up-to-date protection system is in place.

At the end of this school year, an even more protected version of Ben's program should be complete, Mr. Hahne said. He said he might market it on Ben's behalf to other schools as a means of protecting their computers.

Although it has been a week since Ben's security program was last defeated -- possibly a record -- he and his friendly rivals agree that no system is unbreakable. If nothing else, someone looking to break it could simply delete the program from the computer's memory.

Ben has pledged to do his best even to prevent that, hiding his program in the computer's memory so that his challengers cannot find it.

"I'm going to keep fixing the program until I find a version that they can't get by -- or until they find a way around my program that I can't stop."

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