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Routers, Switches, Russians & Ditches: Cold War Hacker to Patriotic Silicon Valley Executive, by J. Harlow

posted Oct 3, 2015, 6:43 PM by Shawna Bay   [ updated Oct 3, 2015, 6:55 PM ]
My path from hacking and social engineering, for fun, to supporting the development of American military cyber professionals has been a long and, at least to me, interesting ride. Below is a summary of this journey, complete with twists, turns, and the frequent detour.

In the Beginning…

My story begins in the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, born to a couple that got swept up into this scenario that could have been the end of the world as we know it. Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base, was my first home. I was told that my father was a navigator on a long-range B-52 with a mission that was a one-way ticket. My mom was Secretary to the Base Commander. They both knew the world was coming to an end.

Later, in my teenage years in Denver, we lived within the “total destruction radius” of ‘Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility’, where plutonium leaks were infrequent but scary when they occurred. In school, “duck and cover” drills always began with the teachers in unison screaming “the Soviets have launched and we’re all dead in 20 minutes – get under your desks!!!!” Even as an 8 year-old, I could not understand why we had to “duck and cover” if we were going to end up as a grease spot.

That’s what it was like being a child growing up during the Cold War. The specter of imminent death, and a sardonic attitude towards it, was reinforced in our young minds every week when we conducted those drills. We were always reminded that the “communist menace was at our doorstep” and we had to “remain ever vigilant”. As far as I know, kids have not conducted those drills since the Berlin Wall came down. For those of you too young to know it, life in these United States was very different before that wall came down. When I hear the emergency horn every Tuesday at noon in San Francisco, I still pucker up.

The psychological effect on a young adult of an “ever-present menace” against whom I should remain vigilant, seems impossible to shake. In such an environment, rules of thumb were drilled into my head such as “2 is 1, and, 1 is none” and “never trust, unless verified…and verify the next time too”. As an example of such lasting effects, I can still bounce a quarter off the bed when I make it, to my wife’s giggling and enjoyment.

At the age of 13 years old, I spent a week inside the ‘Nuclear Medicine Diagnostics’ laboratory at Rocky Flats as part of a career day where kids see firsthand what those professionals did every day. After that, I wanted to be a high-energy particle physicist, and Rocky Flats had a group of physicists closely matching my interest.

As with most teenagers, I was curious and defiant, but I came with a twist. Math and foreign languages came easy to me. I could calculate square roots and cube roots to five decimal places in my head. I also excelled in complex mischief. For example, as an 8th grader, I wanted to play on school football team because I saw that all the hottest girls chased football players. I was 6’3”, 145 pounds, and did not know the rules of football. So I tried out for the 9th grade football team as an 8th grader. At the time, I did not know 8th graders could not play, I only knew I wanted a cheerleader as a girlfriend. I was selected to play on the team, but this created a problem. I had to wear the 9th grade jersey on game days while attending 8th grade classes. So, I lied and told my 8th grade teachers that my 9th grade twin let me wear his jersey. This was my first experience with ‘social engineering’ and heuristic solutions. I was able to keep up this façade and played 6 games as wide receiver until one of my 8th grade Physical Education coaches (who was also football coach) noticed that the stitches under my chin were in the same location as my 9th grade twin. That ended my season, but taught me a valuable life lesson: If you are going to break the rules, you had better exceed expectations because people forgive success. No one cared so long as I could catch the ball, run in the correct direction, take a hit and give it back. I ended up with a 9th grade cheerleader as a girlfriend for 6 games.

A Young Hacker

At that time, I was using my father’s Kaypro luggable computer (a CP/M machine with dual floppies) a prototype on loan from ‘Andrew Kay Computers’ to learn to program in BASIC. I learned important principles about computers, firstly, access. When I got to the Rocky Flats lab, one of the physicists showed me a teletype exactly like I was using at school (Teletype Model 33 ASR, an electromechanical typewriter used to send and receive messages via a ) that connected to an ARPANET node. It was in Boulder, CO via 300 baud acoustic coupler. I peeked over his shoulder looking at the phone number on his handset as well as the phone number he was dialing.

I would dial into the node via Rocky Flats, using my school’s 300 baud coupler. This was my first foray into “electronically entering places to which I was not invited”, which I would later know to be called “hacking”. It was not illegal, at that time, and I was at least smart enough to know that I should not tell anyone. So I kept quiet about it, and never made a mistake. I only had access to radiological research notes, teaching me that I would have to eat a lot of potassium-rich bananas in the event 
I survived a nuclear attack. I was only interested in the latest research into the effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, and the treatments of exposure to plutonium and radioactive iodine. That phone number remained active until I was 18…and I read a lot of documents.

In 1984, shortly after AT&T split into regional companies, I was employed by US West in their ‘Detail Engineering Center’ in Denver Tech Center. I was hired to manage this new thing called a ‘Local Area Network’ (LAN) built from ARCnet, Ethernet and Token Ring components manufactured by start-ups called ‘Novell’, 3COM and old-timer IBM. There I was, inside the building where people design central office switching systems for POTS (plain old telephone service), buying state-of-the-art fiber-optic equipment, running a LAN and learning to code new databases in 4th Generation Programming Languages (4GLs) called ORACLE, FOCUS, ADABAS, and a very different database called Model 204 (M204).

At that center, I was once eyeball to eyeball with a retired Colonel over a floor-buffing machine. He was manager of the entire ‘Detail Engineering Center’ and insisted that the floors be so clean he “could eat off them”. I insisted that the buffer was not going to be plugged into the same electrical circuit as my network because the buffer gave off an Electromagnetic force (EMF) that distorted Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens from 25 feet away. His face was inches from mine and I could feel the spittle hitting my face as he spoke. I was not budging, though. I won the day and made a friend based on respect. No one there pushed back to him except me.

I would chat with the engineers. From those discussions I learned about the guts of Western Electric Processors, which were the processor of choice for the ESS-3 and ESS-5 switches. I also learned, hands-on, how the Northern Telecom Equipment worked, as well as NEC Fiber and microwave transmission. Vendors who frequented the building would carry processor manuals as “leave-behinds”, and from them, I learned about Zylog, Motorola, Intel, and NEC processors. It was here that I learned how to access a central office switch, on my own terms, and go wherever I wanted.

While working at US West, I was mentored by some really smart guys who had worked at 3COM, Novell, Rand, DEC, EDS, CIA, and IBM. Some of them knew the notorious “Captain Crunch” (John Draper, to whom I was introduced) and others who “hacked” the Sears “Prodigy” Network. At that point, I was hooked – hacking was thrilling. National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) was in full bloom, and we were dancing through NSFNet at night when everyone had left the office and gone home. I would scan thousands of pages of Operating System manuals for VM/CMS (used on IBM Mainframes), MVS/TSO (also used on IBM Mainframe System/370), DEC/VMS, PrimOS, AT&T Unix System V.

I heard of Kevin Mitnick, but I am certain he never heard of me. I was an irrelevant ghost. I viewed Mitnick as an ‘attention hound’ where I was more interested in what “Captain Crunch” and Steve Wozniak did with ring-tone generators and reaching around the world. Mitnick bragged about his antics online all the time, while I preferred being quiet. I really preferred working in native assembler on the processors which gave me insight into vulnerabilities and exploitable flaws. Stealing information over POTS lines was too easy, while really hard-stuff was found close to the hardware underneath the upper layer authentications. When I heard Mitnick was arrested by the FBI for theft from DEC (stealing source code to their operating system), I knew it was time to “cool it”. Fun times had come to an end, and I forgot that Rocky Flats phone number.

One of my mentors, Smitty, was an engineer who worked with Dr. John Bardeen in the War Department during World War II. I owe Smitty a great debt, as he taught me how to think about things in a way that threw all of my formal education out the window: what mattered was results, and it damned well better work!

In the last half of the 1980’s, I was introduced to Sunni and Shi’a groups who frequently dined at Khyber Pass Restaurant, in Denver, where I ate regularly. The Iran-Iraq War was underway - tensions were palpable. I enjoyed the simpatico of folks who didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t use drugs, and I spent nearly every Saturday night drinking tea, learning Farsi and Tajik Arabic, and learning to naturally circulate in a very different culture. I quickly became friends with officers of the Afghan Northern Alliance, former members of the Iranian Savak, as well as guys working with the CIA to boot the Soviets out of Afghanistan. These relationships would be tested after Sept 11, 2001.

Things Get More Serious

After spending time with Smitty and deciding to “cool it”, I was contacted by a “hacking” friend who wanted me to travel to Houston and meet a guy from Mexico. I was in Houston anyway, doing work for Bentek (Dwight’s Energydata), so I took the meeting. It turns out that this guy from Mexico was no native of Mexico, but was a Soviet KGB engineer who wanted help breaking into Tenneco Pipeline’s IBM mainframe. He wanted me to steal the precise coordinates of the control valves for their entire pipeline network. He was willing to pay me $15,000. Somehow he found about my prior work on the Tenneco Sysplex.

I wanted no part of what the KGB was going to undertake and I notified Tenneco to brace for an intrusion. In retrospect, I owe that KGB engineer no small amount of gratitude. In that one afternoon, I was forced to evaluate my own ‘lines in the sand’ and resolved not to cross them or do anything that would bring shame upon my family or ancestors. It was a sobering event. How might you, the reader of this true story, respond to such an offer?

That was not the last time I was approached by the Soviets (or Russians). Another approach occurred in 1990 when a protégé of Robert Vesco, the notorious hedge-fund thief, contacted me. Vesco’s protégé asked if I would help hack the phone system in Riga, Latvia on behalf of the Soviets/Russians who were still operating their KGB infrastructure inside the Baltic States. As it turns out, I had actually traveled to Riga that year on my own account to perform work for an American consulting company.

In early 1990, I quietly started a venture that reached into the former Soviet Union (FSU). My venture involved the brokering of gallium-arsenide (GaAs) avionics chips to aircraft manufacturers. Specifically, it was a FORTH virtual machine built into a GaAs processor from a Soviet fab. The true beauty of the chip was its speed of execution and resilience under extreme stresses of radiation, heat, UV, cold, and Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). Exactly how the Soviets came to possess a GaAs FORTH processor, designed for the US Space Shuttle, has bewildered me for many years.

I had contractors in the Soviet Union at that time, the leader of whom was named Vladimir. He claimed to be a relative of a well-known General. I could not verify his claim, but, he had unequaled access to people, places, and things. When the putsch occurred (August 19-21, 1990), I chewed my fingernails to bloody nubs as I anxiously awaited the whir of my fax machine delivering news of events on the ground. My only means of communication with my team was via a fax machine in the office of an apparatchik (Communist paper-shuffler) in Zelenograd. In that week between 19 and 26 August, I came to understand that my contacts and friends were “disappeared”, as the Soviets said, and never to be seen again. Tears uncontrollably well-up when the emotions of that period resurface. I still find it difficult to convey my sincere sense of loss, on many levels, the moment I found out about Vladimir and his family.

Vladimir reeked of vodka and body odor all the time. He reveled in being vulgar. When he ate food, which was administered alongside large doses of vodka, enough food fell from his mouth that small animals gathered around him to feast on his overflow. I once asked his wife how she came to enjoy being his wife, to which she replied, “Once he was young and beautiful, now he is only beautiful”. One night during this time, I was awakened by the voice of the wife of another friend trapped in the turmoil. She was pleading over the phone for money to help them buy food and medicine, as the children were sick with whooping cough and they were living in a makeshift home assembled inside an uninsulated barn with a coal stove.

I vividly recall sitting on the edge of my bed, replaying the phone conversation. The desperation in her voice helped me recognize that they went to great trouble to find a phone to make a call and alert me, and that I was the only person on this planet they thought could help them. I sent, via DHL, American Express traveler’s checks plus a collection of over-the-counter remedies. I had an acquaintance in Panama ship over cough syrup. For the next few years, I helped keep six families alive in a climate of grave political upheaval, random political killings, and general anarchy. With 16 children among them, they are all alive and well today in Baku, Tyumen, Sebastopol, Alma Atay, Kiev, and Dushanbe; it’s been 20+ years since our last contact so I hope they are well.

I, on the other hand, was in a difficult financial situation; my company was in the ditch. I had exercised poor judgment and purchased an inventory of development platforms and chips, which were in a storage unit in Lakewood, Colorado. This was stranded capital with no hope of recovery. So, I scrambled to put together some consulting work to help me pay my own bills as well as help those families. I recall hanging my head in my hands, in my Denver office, trying to conceive of a way to save my venture in 1991 and most of 1992. It was a lost cause, however. For the next couple of years, I sent every spare penny I earned to my former employees in a disintegrating FSU.

Off to Silicon Valley

I am not a gifted programmer or a fast typist, but I made up for it with a very good memory, putting in long hours to master the topic, and spending even more time to think about the problem set. I would rather draw pictures of solutions first than simply sitting down and coding until I got it right. I viewed proficiency in many areas of computing paramount to specificity or stealing. I learned how to write IBM VM/CMS kernel extensions, how to “boot” an IBM 4381, how to build cables for 3380 tape drives, Vax/VMS, TOPS-20, Banyan vines, etc.

When I was recruited from Denver, to Silicon Valley, I was hired to a non-executive position to handle troubled accounts and mainframe coding in FOCUS, CLIST, CICS, COBOL and ASM. In the social world, there is no great benefit to a precise eye for detail or a near-eidetic memory. However, in the worlds of math, computing, linguistics, engineering, and science, such an eye for detail can lead to success rather than failure.

Fast-forwarding to September 11, 2001, one of our investor co-leads in a round of Venture Capital funding was killed in WTC2. Our company, NetFuel, went from a frenetic start-up to being in need of a turn-around overnight. The funding round fell apart, and frankly, I wanted to exact some payback for the death of our investor and the widows of a couple of my friends who died in Cantor-Fitzgerald, L.P. If that was not a harsh enough time, we also found that a couple of our engineers had conspired with other companies to steal NetFuel code and designs. The Santa Clara District Attorney investigated the evidence we presented and then called upon the Sheriff’s department to raid their homes to retrieve what we itemized as stolen. The last half of 2001 was an epic fail.

My Point

Now, let me present my take-away points from this story. I am an American. My ancestors were on the Island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean West Indies, supplying the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War in defiance of the British embargo. Other ancestors were at the first battles of the Civil War. It was a family divided with brother against brother at 1st Manassas, 1st Bull Run, Cold Harbor, and Antietam. Then, my family served in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Desert Storm. As you can see in the foregoing narrative, much is to be accomplished by simply lacing up your boots and pressing forward when “the chips are down”…no one respects quitters.

My ancestors went “all in” with this nation’s founders more than two centuries ago. They found a safe haven here, and I want it to stay that way for my wife and children. We desperately need our military to keep our republic safe. We need, expect, and deserve safety, and our military must provide it.

My experiences of a failed business, prospecting in the FSU, Central America, and Afghanistan afford me a unique perspective. This perspective is lacking in most of our country. The guile and cunning of our foes cannot be overstated, nor can we diminish their zeal for our demise. They are smart, seductive, deliberate, appear under many veils, and never quit.

While Joe Ritchie (a profoundly successful options trader) was calling in coordinates for air strikes on Tora Bora in 2001, I was on the phone with guys in both Silicon Valley and Panjshir Valley (the people I met in Denver years before) screaming at them to “contact Mullah Omar and give up the qufar!” (Bin Laden).

I have yet to meet an executive in Silicon Valley who could match the courage of Joe Ritchie, nor any who would dare to get on the phone and take action that would put their lives in jeopardy in pursuit of truly evil men. I have observed that too many leaders in Silicon Valley harbor a flawed “pollyanna” position, viewing national boundaries and Cold War enmity as mostly things of the past. In my opinion, this is a grave miscalculation. The leaders of the American technology industry can no longer sit on their hands professing to be “ambassadors of commerce” to all nations and remain blind to the threat to our nation’s treasure and safety.

It is this paradigm that motivates me to support efforts like the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA). Our young men and women of the military must remain relevant in protecting our constitutional republic to the same level of seriousness that our Cold War generation was programmed to do. The battlespace is now multidimensional, and the enemy is no longer fully identifiable in uniforms. Asymmetric warfare is underway within today’s nexus of belligerent nation-states, terrorist organizations, drug cartels, street gangs, mercenary hackers, and lone wolves.

Given the forward progress and increased complexity of cyberspace today and tomorrow, the depth of knowledge and skills needed to protect our national (security) assets continues to expand. Increased cooperation between private sector and military cyber warfare experts must occur for the wealth and security of our nation to remain intact and perpetuate. Half-hearted measures will not suffice. Hence, I am proud to support the MCPA towards their vision of providing the American people what we need, expect, and deserve from our military cyber professionals. Such support is a marked demonstration that there are leaders in Silicon Valley with a stake in this nation, not simply people who adorn themselves with attributes of leadership. Join me in taking action by investing in our nation, for the good of ourselves, our neighbors, and especially our children.

About the author:
J. Harlow is Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of NetFuel, Inc. NetFuel, Inc. is a founding sponsor of the MCPA.
Mr. Harlow being presented the Order of Thor medal by retired Admiral Route, President of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Images courtesy of the author.