PROBLEMS IN CYBERSPACE
"...IS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF HORSESHI....is this being
Are we live?!! ...ON CNN?!!!!"
Philip Cassini, professional cynic
Although I'm a big fan of both Cyberpunk2020 and Shadowrun, I'm also a big critic.
One of the biggest screw-ups in the creation of both systems was the cyberspace section.
In CP2020 cyberspace is some bizarre Gibsonesque deadspace based upon strange concepts
(such as spatial distance and travel time) that just don't exist on a network. In
Shadowrun cyberspace is an overpainted cyberdungeon/maze populated by nasty 10HD
monsters with THACOs of 12, -oops- , wrong system. This essay is an attempt to
correct the fallacies in computing as defined by FASA and Talsorian.
On a conceptual level, both systems rely too much on interface and pretty iconography,
and almost completely ignore the 'guts' of the system, which would always be the primary
concern of any hacker. Interface and GUIs are for lame users; command lines and
source-code are the bread-and-butter of real hackers, and I surmise that despite
the amazing neural connections prevalent in 20xx, the average hacker still has to
write, compile and hack code. There's no way around it. Computer systems cannot
be penetrated without corrupting/altering existing programs (which necessitates
code-crunching); introducing your own source code programs (which then compile on
the host); or finding loopholes within the OS or the applications. This would be
done manually to minimize effort, processor time, and compile time. For those who
argue that in future all programming, even that done by hackers, will be done using
coloured object-blocks, I would like to point out that someone had to have built those
code-blocks in the first place, and that Object Oriented Programming may be fast but
it's not very efficient or sophisticated, both traits vital to hacking.
Several erroneous concepts in the games require closer examination. The idea of
'travelling' through datalines/pathways/links along a defined geographic netspace
is completely wrong. There is no space in cyberspace, counter-intuitve though
that sentence may be. Think about it. When you type in a web address, does your
computer show you a series of pictures as you travel through the network? No, for
several reasons. First, it's a waste of both your time and the computer's processor.
Second, in a distributed packet-switching network, there is no single pathway between
you and the host computer. Each packet travels a different route, so which route
should the computer show? Also, the connection functions of the network are transparent;
if each packet had to travel down datalines at the perceived speed described in both
games, we'd be running at 1200 baud. Travel (data transfer) speeds in 20xx are amazingly
fast (think something like 1000 Terabytes/second) so -boom!- you're either there staring
at the front-end of a server, or network lag prevents access and you don't see anything.
The description of the Ihara-Grubb Transformations is ridiculous and completely outdated.
FASA's copycat idea of Universal Matrix Specifications was eventually watered-down
after the idea of Sculpted Systems caught on. Shadowrun got one thing right in the
form of Filters. Why should I look at the net as some other schmoe designed it?
I want my network to look like an exotic zoo, not some blurry neon polyhedrons! Why
do you think Win95 had all those customizable icons and backgrounds and shit? Except
for the office drones who must work within a standardized (though not necessarily boring)
graphical environment, personal home users and hackers can see the net through any
desired filter. Matter of fact, selling filters is a business like selling gourmet
coffee. Of course, filters can be customized to leave interesting foreign sculptures
as they are, but users often customize the more mundane aspects to suit their tastes.
If your hacker doesn't have the imagination to describe a filter, tell him he sees
everything in shades of grey. That'll get him going.
Tracing illegitimate entities in a distributed network is devilishly difficult
even today, doubly so in the future when ~3 billion people will be using
a network that will be populated by additional billions of travelling
software entities. Some people respond by saying that today Microsoft
can 'connect' to your computer and determine what kind of software/hardware
you have. Indeed, but that's because network traffic is all unencrypted
and provided with big labels such as USER, LOCATION, NAME, etc which can
be read by hosts to get information about you. Each computer connected
(even by slow modem) to the net receives an address which is stored in
universal registries known as the DNS (Domain Name System). However, it's
ridiculously easy to forge such things as packet headers and DNS entries
- just witness the proliferation of 'anonymous' posters to Usenet, or
the great number of bizarre emails from 'firstname.lastname@example.org', 'email@example.com',
etc. Not convinced yet? The first thing a hacker learns is how to forge
an identity, and all hackers are proficient in altering the headers of
emails or packets to hide their source destination or other details. If
you don't have a big label saying where a packet originated, it becomes
next to impossible to trace it back because of the nature of the network.
The net has billions of branches and pathways, any one of which could
have spewed the forged packet. Once (not If) network packets become encrypted
using new standards and 10k-byte keys, they become unbreakable even in
theory, even on superfuturistic computers. Without getting into the details
of cryptology here, suffice it to say that within the next twenty years
we will see unbreakable encryption become a standard that just cannot
be broken. This is why the US government fears such encryption and attempts
to cripple it using mediocre systems such as Clipper.
A big booboo that Shadowrun thankfully missed (doubtless by accident). Long-distance
prices have been dropping geometrically for the last 80 years, and will continue
to do so because of new advances in telecoms technology, global competition, a huge
rise in bandwidth, and network activity. As phone, television cable, and networks
merge into a digital datastream, the impetus to reduce prices will mean that eventually
long-distance charges will be replaced by content-based user fees, much as cable is
piped into your home irrespective of the distance it has to travel (eg: from Hollywood
to you). Users of the network will pay either by the load they introduce into the
network, or by the services they subscribe to, such as various 'television' channels
or news programmes. Since hackers hide their 'signature' and location, they cannot
be billed, and so don't have to pay. CP2020 seems to have forgotten that if a
netrunner can be billed for an illegal penetration (a dubious legal practise at best),
he can also be easily traced (see above). If tracing netrunners is so easy, why can't
every corporation do it? Answer: drop all billing schemes. To spice things up, you
may wish to introduce a special form of 'Accountant' ICE that drains a hacker's bank
accounts if he loses against it.
Copyright & Piracy
Why would someone from North America pay $15 for a music CD when he could get
the same music from a Hongkong dealer for 15 cents? Copyright and piracy have
already lead to international brawls between America and China, and they will
continue to be thorn in the sides of advanced information economies until
copyrighted creative products can be technically (as opposed to legally)
protected. Such protection has been theoretically developed in the concept
of watermarks. Watermarks are mathematically-embedded patterns hidden within
creative works in such a way as to make them invisible to the average user,
but instantly recognizable by an inspector. Watermarks can be embedded in such
a way that removing them would seriously distort the product that they are protecting.
Today's computers can perform billions of operations per second. How many operations per
second can you do? This should amply illustrate the futility of trying to defeat a
computer system in real-time, or of 'writing programs on the fly' to defeat ICE.
Attacking AIs becomes even more brainless. In a situation where a hacker has to
personally fight the defences of a system in real-time, he will always lose.
Unfortunately for those of us who like fast action, hacking is a slow and painstaking
process of micromanagement and skill, not a flashy encounter between a lone cyberwarrior
and hordes of ICE monsters. Hackers rely on powerful program tools, loopholes, and
planning to penetrate a system. The first usually take at least several days (or
weeks) to code, but do not automatically confer any advantage from outside the system.
A hacker has to weasel his way into a system to execute said programs to get any benefit
It must also be pointed out that the integration of communication devices into a single
global network will make the use of separate satlinks (Virtual Realities, Page xx),
microwave relays, and cellular communicators obsolete because the network will utilise
each and every one of these systems to transmit data seamlessly. Dedicated direct-line
transmissions will be rare and disconnected from the global net - and who, after all,
would want to do that in 20xx?
Having SEX, or The Programmer Mentality
"At Group L, Stoffel oversees six first-rate programmers, a managerial
challenge roughly comparable to herding cats."
The Washington Post Magazine, 9 June, 1985
Computer systems and programs are not the logical, orderly, scientific
things the public imagines them to be. They are absolutely riddled with
loopholes, bugs, mistakes, rips, flaws, misconceptions, and intentional
weirdness. Fixing/exploiting these is what provides both computer consultants
and hackers with jobs. Operating systems and programs are rife with bizarre
commands, hidden messages, obscure references and inside jokes, and forgotten
back doors. An amusing example comes from the Digital development team
in Armonk who, when asked to create a rudimentary software exchange protocol,
named it SEX. When ordered by management to remove that name, they 'sabotaged'
two other commands for AND and OR logic gates, calling them ANL and ORL
respectively. The injoke/high mischievous nature of programmers makes
netrunning much more fun, and helps to explain why hackers can break into
the most sophisticated and secure military systems - those systems were
designed ten years beforehand by MIT freshmen graduates (or other pranksters).
Well, that's all the ranting I can handle for today. I'll need to
restock on my reserves of bile if I want to continue this discussion.
Cheers for now.