Uncle Chuckie Was a What?

Yes, I was once a hacker.

I know that sounds funny because I’m pretty illiterate about computers. I know the basics of how to make them work, like how to turn them on, how to clean the cupholder, that sort of thing, but as far as the language the programs use to make the run? That might as well be Swahili for all I know.

But there was a time when hacking a computer was a lot easier. All you needed go do was switch the punch cards.

I was a grad student working on my master’s thesis and I needed some books from the university library. There was only one problem. You got three renewals and each time you renewed they would check to see if someone had flagged the book. Well, that was a nuisance and your Uncle Chuckie in his infinite wisdom and with perfect malice in his heart found a solution.

I fooled the libary computer into thinking the books had been turned in and then checked out again.

It was really very easy. Each book on the shelf had a white punch card in its sleeve. That identified the book. When you checked out the book you also got a green punch card which had the due date.

When the book was checked in, the green card went on a tray and a student worker manually typed the number of the book which then went into the computer and the book was recorded as being checked in. There was an obvious flaw in this and it was important to get receipts when you checked books in just in case the student worker made a typo and the book was not recorded as being returned.

Well, there was also a real vulnerability in this. The books went into large bins unless you asked for a receipt. The student workers would empty the bins, pull all the green cards out without looking at them and put them in the tray. And because of the time lag in getting this done, if you renewed a book, the green card was put in the tray and you got a new card.

All you needed was to make sure the green card got in that bin and the computer would think that you had checked the book in. And if you got a note that a book was not checked in, you would just take the green card out, go to the stacks and leave the book on the shelf, then tell the library worker that a mistake had been made and the book was on the shelf. They would apologize and be none the wiser.

Ok, so before a book was due, I went to the library, put the green card in a book from the shelves and dumped that book into the book bin. Then I would just check the book out again. The computer did not know the difference. As far as it would be concerned, the book had been checked in and checked out the same day as it would in a renewal. And that meant that I could keep books as long as I wanted and the flagging system would not kick in.

Of course being the honest person that I am, the day I finished my thesis I went to the library and deposited a bunch of books in the return bin. If I had wanted to steal a book, all I would have had to do was put the green card into another book and let the computer think the book had been checked in and then kept the book.


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