Rants & Essays

Hi, This Is Ken

By Penn Jillette

The 1994 Usenix Technical Conference in Boston was louse with smart computer people, very smart people. I don't know what parasite got into their little ant brains but they had me, a guy who writes the only really non-computer column in a major computer magazine, give the keynote address.

Speaking of being off the subject of computers - I would like to explain why I have ant brain parasites on my mind: Several years ago, the New York Times wrote about this groovy parasite whose life cycle circles through sheep guts and ant brains. We know how it gets from the sheep to the ant - ants aren't as fastidious as that grasshopper/ant hype leads us to believe - but how do they get from the ant into the sheep? Sheep don't eat ants. Ah ha, that's what you think. They don't eat ants on purpose. They don't eat ants unless the ants are climbing up to the top of blades of grass and sitting there like nutty monkeys. And they don't do that, no, they don't do that, unless they have this parasite in their little ant brains that makes them climb up to the top of blades of grass! Cool, huh? The quotation was something like "the parasite gets in their ant brain and makes them do things no sane ant would do." You just don't expect that much wisdom and poetry from the Science Section.

Once I grasped the idea of parasites in our little ant brains making us do things that no sane ant would do, I was no longer puzzled by little things like Xerox's idea of letting you grab files from your hard drive with a fax machine. These are ideas no sane ant would have.

So, one goofy thing they did at Usenix was book a guy who rants about insect eccentricities in a computer mag, but the totally wacky thing was the last line of the whole conference, "Don't forget to change your password." They had this computer room set up for people to log on and even though these guys have privacy algorithms that make Wild Bill Clinton and the NSA trash the Constitution - they still have to change their passwords because someone might have looked over their goddamn shoulder and watched them type their personal "iluvuma!"

Kevin Mitnick is called by the New York Times "Cyberspace's Most Wanted." (Ant brains and cyberspace, what a paper.) How does he break into enough super-secure computers to make the FBI climb tall blades of grass and sit there? Well, on the continuation page they explain one of his wily techniques: "By masquerading as a company executive in a telephone call, he frequently talks an unsuspecting company employee into giving him passwords and other information that makes it possible for him to gain entry into computers illegally."

Get it? He calls them up and asks them for the password and how to use it, and they tell him. Isn't that great? He just asks them. It saves a lot of random typing.

You would think AT&T Bell Labs' computer network would be safe. Ken Thompson and the kids have enough brain cells to remember passwords even harder than their spouses' birthday backwards, but about ten years ago a hacker got into one of the development systems at Bell Labs. They offed the intruder in a New York minute (by powering off the system), but were puzzled by how security was breached. They finally tracked it down to an operator in the machine room who got a phone call: "Hi, this is Ken. What's the root password?"

We have to keep fighting the government to keep our privacy, we need better and better encryption, and we have to shoot down and slide around any laws that weaken anyone's privacy. We have to get bigger and bigger primes and multiply them together until we're blue in the face. We need digital cell phones and scrambled cordless. And when someone asks us what our password is - we have to remember not to tell them.

Privacy is important - keep those parasites out of your little ant brains and don't do things that no sane ant would do.