Pwned by the Owner: What Happens When You Steal a Hacker’s Computer

Dr. Andrew Zoz Brooks, a well-known computer expert and co-host in ‘Prototype This!’ TV series, shares his hilarious computer theft story with Defcon attendees.

Alright, I have no less of an authority of speaking at Defcon than Jason Scott here. Everyone is really confused about what room I am supposed to be in, and the talk should start, like, a few minutes late.

So, to fill in some time before I get started, I thought I’d just tell you a little story about my other experience with computers and the police, which was soon after I got to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

You know, you get to MIT and this is kind of pulling hacks ethic: like, doing these pranks to amuse people. So you start immediately looking for things to do. And I noticed outside my lab across the street there was a manhole that had been opened and there were some lights in it and some power cables tangling, like extension cords, and it sat there like that for weeks.

VT220 terminal - part of the experiment

VT220 terminal – part of the experiment

And, you know, what the hell is going on? There weren’t even, like, cones around the manhole to stop people from falling in; it just sat there. We were like: “We don’t know what’s going on here, but maybe we should turn it into a hack.” So we got an old VT220 terminal and decided we would set it up on the edge of the manhole with a lamp as though some hacker had, like, popped out of the manhole and was up to no good with their VT220 hacking or, you know, whatever that was in the manhole.

And we would film it, we’d set up a camera on the 7th floor of the building next door and film what was going on to see if we got any good reactions. So we go down, you know, about 8 pm or something, it’s dark in Boston at 8 pm; and we set up a VT220, a little desk lamp and everything to make this kind of set up.

Then we go back in and take the elevator up to the 7th floor to set up the video camera. And that was the fatal error, because by the time we’d got up to the 7th floor office to set up the video camera, the cops had already arrived and were staring at this computer wondering what was going on.

We are looking at the cops looking at this computer, and then suddenly for no apparent reason they just start kicking the shit out of it. And one of the cops picks up the keyboard and key caps are flying everywhere. And were just like: “Oh my god, why didn’t we set up the video camera? This is like Rodney King for computers right here.”

So, we learned 2 lessons from that: firstly, always set up the video first; and secondly, we started fantasizing about what else we could have done, because after they finished beating it up, they loaded all the broken parts into the police car and they took it off who knows where.

And we thought: if only we had some kind of radio transmitter hidden in that VT220 so we could hear what those guys were saying. What did they think it was? What kind of totally evil computer break-in to this manhole, just probably like sewer or a steam tunnel, could have been going on?

So, second lesson – recordings: audio, video, get a radio link, because you just never know what’s going to happen, even with the police, they’re very unpredictable. Ok, I think I can now get started with my subject.

How It Happened…

You guys have all read the title of the talk, so you know the basic gist: my desktop computer got stolen out of my place. There have been a lot of stories lately about people who had their computers stolen or their iPhones stolen, and have recovered it. They recovered their laptop because they clicked the iSight and they retrieved the picture of the person, and they’ve got the Where’s My iPhone feature and stuff like that.

What happened was a straightforward physical security fail.

But this is not a mobile piece of equipment, doesn’t have a camera in it, so the situation was a little bit more complicated. And the circumstances of the theft – I just have to confess, what happened was a straightforward physical security fail.

My place is on the second floor, there are three locks in between. I rate everything in terms of zombie defense, so my keys are coded in terms of danger of zombie access, so the green key is the outside, the yellow key is the second floor and then the red key is my room.

But, unfortunately, we’re not dealing with zombies in this case; they climbed through the second floor window via an access method that I hadn’t noticed, and then busted the red lock, so just had to bypass one door. It’s the kind of thing where that whole situation could have been prevented with a 20-dollar deadbolt, so that’s worth keeping in mind.

Stolen Macintosh with backups

Stolen Macintosh with backups

The upshot of it was my Macintosh, which was a Quicksilver G4, my pride and joy, was now gone. I’m the kind of person that keeps religious daily backups. In fact, I kept religious daily redundant backups. Unfortunately, both of those were stored in the same room as the server and were also stolen. Lesson: off-site backups.

These days I dumped everything onto a portable hard disk and gave it to my parents in Australia and said: “I hope I never need to ask you for this back, but I might one day.”

It’s very-very traumatic to me: I lost all my music, all my photos, all my video projects. So I had to channel that energy into trying to find my machine. I get very angry without my heavy metal.

Read next: Pwned by the Owner 2: Tracking Down the Thief’s Whereabouts

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