23rd > January > 2000 Archive

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Freed hacker Mitnick excoriates NY Times journo

Hacker legend Kevin Mitnick emerged from gaol on Friday, following five years' incarceration on charges of computer intrusion and data theft, and immediately lashed out at the reporter who he believes negatively influenced investigators, prosecutors, and the judge who sentenced him. "My case is about the extraordinary breach of journalistic ethics demonstrated by one man, John Markoff, who is a reporter for one of the most powerful media organisations in the world, the New York Times," Mitnick declared. Prosecutors, Mitnick said, exaggerated the harm he had caused, and encouraged the companies involved to inflate the damages they sustained, all as a result of "the false reputation created by Mr. Markoff's libelous and defamatory articles." We are reminded in particular of Markoff's 1994 Times article detailing the continuing and rather humiliating failure of federal investigators to close in on the fugitive hacker. To be fair, the article does taunt the feds, noting, for example, that "Mr. Mitnick has eluded an F.B.I. manhunt for more than a year and a half," and, for a kicker, adding that, "Last year, while a fugitive, [Mitnick] managed to gain control of a phone system in California that allowed him to wiretap the F.B.I. agents who were searching for him." Markoff also cites a Los Angeles police detective who had been forced into hiding while investigating Mitnick. "I've always considered him dangerous....I had to go underground. If he targets you, he can make your life miserable," Markoff quotes the detective as saying. Mitnick may have a point here: it's reasonable to imagine that the feds were less than thrilled having their impotence highlighted in the New York Times. And the fact that a private security expert, Tsutomu Shimomura, finally had to nail Mitnick for them can't possibly have improved their attitudes. Public humiliation may well have incited the powers that be to fall on Mitnick as hard as they did, though we must point out that Mitnick himself is chiefly responsible for that, being the one who eluded them so cleverly for so long -- and as for Markoff publishing the details, well, that's his job, after all. But Mitnick takes it all very personally. "My actions and my life have been manipulated and grossly misinterpreted by the media since I was seventeen, when the Los Angeles Times first violated the custom, if not the law, that prohibits the publication of the names of juveniles accused of crimes," he whinged. Mitnick also criticised Markoff for neglecting to disclose a relationship dating back to the publication of his book, Cyberpunk, in which Mitnick appears. Markoff also failed to disclose a long-standing relationship with Tsutomu Shimomura. It's by no means clear that these relationships affected the outcome of Mitnick's legal odyssey, but it is incredibly convenient that Markoff should have been reporting the exploits of a fugitive he knew, who was being tracked by a security consultant he knew as well. The appearance is sleazy, even if the effect is negligible. This is not to say that Mitnick lacks reason to be outraged. He detailed a most draconian history of incarceration: "I was held in pre-trial detention, without a bail hearing, for four years," he said. "During those four years, I was never permitted to see the evidence against me, because...the judge in this case refused to order [the prosecution] to produce the evidence for that entire time. I was repeatedly coerced into waiving my right to a speedy trail because my attorney could not prepare for trial" properly without the prosecution's evidence. It was excessive treatment, all right; it was perhaps even illegal treatment, and Mitnick may have some grounds for a future lawsuit. Clearly, the government acted more out of fear than jurisprudence; but the truth here is tortured and polymorphic. There is Mitnick's truth of being persecuted and cruelly scapegoated; there is Markoff's truth of following a story by all means at his disposal, even personal means; and there is the government's truth of pursuing a computer enthusiast as good as Mitnick and needing to slam him down hard as an example to others who can as easily make the feds look like clowns. But it's all a bit cute for Mitnick to attribute his outrageous treatment by the feds to a few newspaper articles, regardless of how unflattering or sensationalist they may have been. We can agree that Markoff laid it on a bit thick; but we also sense denial here. We sense a man who hasn't yet faced his own agency in terrifying the feds, and, by virtue of his skills and his deliberate actions, persuading them to imagine him as an insidious threat to truth, justice and the American way. He was simply too good at what he does, and too unrepentant, to escape the excessive wrath of a frightened government. ®
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Intel under fire for green belt development

Local newspaper, the Austin American Statesman, is reporting that Intel representatives have defended their plans to build a so-called Supercampus in a green area of the Texan city. A representative of Intel was invited by local ginger group Save our Springs Alliance to respond to environmentalists claims that its Supercampus plans will have a negative effect on the Barton Creek Green Belt. The SOS Alliance is concerned that building activities in the Austin area will upset the ecological balance of the area. The public hearing, ostensibly about a new gas pipeline, became overheated, as local residents sought to protect the area from a spate of new developments. ® Save Our Springs Alliance homepage
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AMD, Via invited to join Intel's Six Dramurai gig

Analysis When we reported last week that Intel was behind a plan to push a new memory alliance last week and that Rambus Ink was not there to fire its poppers or toot its horn along with the rest, our ears pricked up. Sho'enuff, when we called Chipsetzilla the next day to seek confirmation of these reports, representatives said that Rambus was not part of the project but that Intel welcomed "any interested parties" to join that wanted to. At the time we wondered if we should throw our hat into the ring -- we're a very interested party, after all. The story did its usual transmutation through the week, somewhat drowned out by Transmeta's announcements, but leading up to the remarkable news last Friday that INTC would be happy not only if Rambus become an "interested party" but that AMD and Via, too, were welcome to join in. There was, however, nary a word from Rambus Ink as to what its executives felt about the new initiative, which must surely affect its future. The plan is a broad-brush scheme aimed at producing a future generation of memory from the year 2003 onwards. What's behind all of this? It's a complicated question full of intriguing variables and drawing in Intel's plans for its IA-64 platform too. The first rumblings that all was not well with the Rambus platform came at one of these "fests" in the middle of last year, when PC vendors developing future platforms using Rambus memory reported that they were having technical problems making prototype boards run sufficiently fast. Major Intel customers, including Hewlett Packard, IBM and Compaq, all voiced their complaints, which coincided with a push by another group for Intel to join the PC-133 consortium set up some months before. Via, now a prime target of Intel's ire, was a major ideas holder in the PC-133 initiative, and at the important Taiwanese trade fare at Computex last June, it was clear that there was no great enthusiasm for Rambus from either the third party mobo makers, nor from the memory businesses on the island. Mosel-Vitelic, in particular, was outspoken about the unsuitability of Rambus as a PC platform for the future, and said it would not be making chips for Rambus RIMMs. Three months later, things had progressed (or degraded) sufficiently for Intel, at its autumn Developer Forum, to cobble together its now famous Seven Dramurai consortium -- where some rather embarrassed looking executives of major memory companies publicly took the line that Rambus was, in the words of 1066 and All That, a "good thing". However, even by the time of the Forum, it was evident that Intel's customers had had their wicked way and put pressure on Chipsetzilla. INTC was showing the first system prototypes of its Merced (Itanium) server and workstation and once we'd persuaded a friendly chappie on the stand to open the box, we could see no trace of anything resembling a Rambus RIMM. Later, in a private meeting, one insider informed us that HP had got really stroppy and told Intel that there was just no-way that Rambus could be used in Itanium machines... Meanwhile, Intel spinolas were puffing and blowing as they had to handle the difficult issue of the up-and-coming i820 chipset, which, they said, would not be able to support Rambus memory to the extent the designers had first intended. So much so, that senior executives from the Corporation were forced to admit that they would now, after all, be creating a PC-133 chipset. Only six months earlier, when problems with the i820 chipset first emerged, staffers at The Register had phone calls from Intel more or less suggesting that Satan Clara Would Freeze Over before the Corporation supported PC-133 and double data rate (DDR) memory. Three weeks after the Caminogate i820 debacle, and new motherboards were withdrawn because of a technical problem, it was obvious that if the Rambus game wasn't over, there certainly was a new game in town. The memory manufacturers, as usual, had to be polite to all parties. Already furious because Intel had pushed them into using Rambus, which demanded a royalty payment for using its Intellectual property, they also began to see companies such as AMD and Via beginning to make waves in the market. As AMD now claims a 20 per cent market share in the desktop area, and that is likely to grow, neither it, nor Via, can be ignored as future revenue streams. If the reports are true, and AMD and Via join the Six Dramurai to make it the Eight Dramurai, it gets INTC off any number of hooks. First of all, it is publicly displaying that it now has realised the error of its ways, and sees that an open memory standard, for all, is a "good thing". Secondly, the memory manufacturers themselves will be happy that they're no longer being seen to be bullied into developing memories against their own will. And, thirdly, INTC's PC customers will be happy too that they are being listened to. During the week, the intro of Transmeta microprocessors hogged the headlines and the release of Rambus Ink's Q1 financial results was pushed into the background. Its take on the quarter can be viewed here, and it's pretty evident that it prefers to talk about the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo rather than beat its chest about the success of the platform for the PC market. Given that the first RIMMs have only just started appearing and that even Kingston Technology, a leading Rambus partner, has claimed that companies making the chips only get a 50 per cent yield, a real question mark must now hang over the future of the platform. ® See also Intel kicks out Rambus from Seven Dramurai Intel extends Via legal action No home for Rambus at Transmeta Seven Dramurai dwindle as PC-133 hopes kindle Intel Developer Forum Autumn 99 coverage
The Register breaking news

HP to buy Compaq, Via to buy S3 outright?

Rumour Department Somewhat wild rumours are circulating on a number of the major bulletin boards that Hewlett Packard will buy Compaq outright for $45 a share. These, unlike the rumours we normally publish, are wild and feverish rumours, commented on in both Silicon Investor and Raging Bull, as well as on other message boards. HP's Carly F would be taking a bit of a chance, wouldn't she? On the other hand, she'd get rid of all of that tiresome competition from The Big Q at a stroke. CPQ is still undervalued, and has been for some time. Over the last months, authorities have become increasingly interested in people posting rumours on bulletin boards so that shares will fly upwards. This pump and dump phenomenon allows people to then collect... Rumours are also circulating, this time in stock markets, that Via will now buy S3 outright. One speculator said: "Via would like to have an integrated graphics solution to compete with Intel's i810 and ALI's TNT 2 Alladin chipset." Via has already a fairly handsome share in S3. ®
The Register breaking news

Smart card crypto genius sent to trial

A French computer programmer has landed himself in the soup, after designing a spoof credit card that could (The Guardian reports) "talk any cash terminal into handing him an unlimited supply of money". Serge Humpich, 36, was arrested when he offered his invention for £20 million to French banks. Humpich was in court on Friday, Jan 21, where the "procureur général" (i.e. state prosecutor, the French equivalent of a US district attorney) demanded a two-year suspended jail sentence along with FFr50,000 (roughly £5,000) in fines. Sentencing is due on February 25. Humpich's invention exploited flaws in the design of French electronic point of sale systems and could pick out all 35 million French PINs used on Visa and other credit cards. His discovery could also call into question the security of the smart card micro-chips used, until recently, in all French credit cards. New smart cards introduced by The GCB (Groupement des Cartes Bancaires) are supposed to be fool-proof. However the GCB's claim that smart cards are now 'bug free' amount to little more than hot air if the fault lies with the terminals. "I didn’t discover a crack in the system," Humpich said appearing in a Paris court (The Guardian reports). "I showed the card company managers that the entire system from A-Z was unsafe. The group which controls the use of credit cards did not believe me so I showed them I could fool any terminal by cracking the basic mathematical formula based on 96 numbers." Humpich is charged with using spoof credit cards to buy 10 Paris Metro tickets from an automatic dispenser. He made this transaction and then sent the receipt to the credit card company, to prove that his spoof card worked without being detected. The spoof credit card could not, as the The Guardian reported, "talk any cash terminal into handing him an unlimited supply of money": it worked only with terminals that did not send online referrals to the credit card network. So the card could be used only to buy cheap items (less than £10)-- hence the reason why Humpich bought Metro tickets to demonstrate his claims. Humpich was arrested in September 1999, three months after making contact with the credit card control group. He says he had no intention to steal, pointing out he could have posted his "crack" on the Internet, enabling other programmers to make their own credit cards from micro-chip-fitted blank cards. Also, by offering to provide the banks with a defence against the crack, Humpich was doing the honourable thing, his lawyer argues. The banks say different: "We consider the whole affair a form of blackmail, a spokesman told The Guardian. "We don’t believe he fabricated anything that endangered the security of our microchip cards. For two years he threatened a catastrophe that never came." Will Humpich’s defence wash? His argument (our paraphrase) -- "I am doing this merely to help companies improve their security" -- is used frequently by hacker sites, and sites which link to illegal WareZ retailers. But his £20 million price-tag for defending the security of the French credit card system is a complicating factor... other than that, he's really been duped by the Groupement des Cartes Bancaires. The only fraud he committed (buying subway tickets, to prove his point) was conducted at the invitation of GCB's attorneys, and most probably with the half-dozen virgin cards that GCB provided him with. ® So how did Humpich do it? This translated article from Parodie.com offers some pointers. Cédric Ingrand contributed to this article.
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Inland Revenue screws up on Y2K, taxpayers hurt

A Welsh branch of the UK's income tax assessment and collection agency has screwed up by sending thousands of tax demands to individuals dated January 1900. Accountant trade title Accountancy Age reported the cock up at the end of last week, and said over 4,000 tax returns bearing the date 4 January 1900 were sent out to would-be taxpayers. Inland Revenue sent out the false notices from its Wrexham regional office, just a week before UK tax punters are due to get a £100 fine if they don't get their returns back on time. The Accy Age news story does not take into account thousands of self-assessment notices sent out, in duplicate, triplicate or even quintuplicate to punters across the nation. While the UK government will not say exactly which computer systems are used to calculate and send out notices, we understand that many tax records are now held out of the country, in the USA. Those changes happened in the dog days of the Tory Party. And just to show that sometimes these problems affect even innocent hacks like ourselves, one Register staffer received a form from Inland Revenue telling him that he had until the end of this month to pay what was due. The direct debit form at the bottom showed that absolutely nothing was due. Penalties for people who have waited 100 years to file their tax returns are likely to be swingeing. For the last week and a half, Inland Revenue has run a series of adverts on British TV warning UK tax payers that they will have to stump up £100 in fines if they don't stump up what they're due to pay. ®