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I first got online in the mid-90’s. One day when I got home from school, there sat this beige box in the middle of my living room. I knew nothing about computers and had only previously used them in school to play educational games. After reading the instruction manuals and navigating around the OS for a while, my mom plugged a phone line into the computer and opened the “America Online.” I sat patiently while listening to the computer screech, unaware that my entire life was about to change.
A video showing the AOL dial-up process and what it sounded like.
In the mid-90’s, not everyone was on the Internet. In fact, it wasn’t even something people talked about it school because it was still relatively new in many places. One of the most common ways people were introduced to the Internet was through America Online. Commonly referred to as AOL, this company was at one time the largest Internet Service Provider in the world. Along with being an ISP, it was also known to be an Online Service Provider, in that it offered a ton of services, like chat, e-mail, instant messaging, etc. Many of the people who began using AOL didn’t even realize there was a larger Internet beyond what AOL offered. Instead of going to websites, most people went to “keywords” which were the AOL version of websites. AOL offered pretty much anything someone needed and many people were fine living in the world of AOL.
I was a normal user. I was amazed at how easy it was to meet new people in chat rooms. I soon learned some of the slang like lol and a/s/l. I learned the ins and outs of the AOL program and soon became addicted to it, running to the computer the second I arrived home from school. I was happy and content in this world, but my innocence would soon be shattered.
One day in a chat room, I was chatting up some people when someone in the chat made fun of something in my profile. Profiles were a little information section you could fill out that people could read when they clicked on your screen name I told the person to shut up and an argument ensued. He didn’t know who I really was, so I had no worry when hurling every insult I could at him. Seconds later I am bombarded with tons of instant message (IM) windows that start flickering and flashing. My entire computer comes to a halt and froze. I was left with little to do to stop the flood of IMs when my computer finally crashed. I hadn’t had any idea on what happened, but I was determined to find out. I logged back on and found the screen name I was arguing with earlier. I followed him into another chat room and started asking him what happened. He wouldn’t tell me at first, but my young self had no shame and I begged him to explain what happened. He finally broke down and explained that I was “punted,” or kicked offline. I was shocked, amazed even, at the idea that someone who I didn’t know and couldn’t see was able to actually do something to me via my computer. I was determined to learn how to do it and months of determination later I was already acting like a seasoned pro in the AOL underground scene.
I learned that punting was a term used for kicking another user offline against their will. Punting was done by discovering a flaw in some part of the AOL service and then using a program, called a punter, to automate the process. Say one AOL “hacker” discovered that when he sent certain kinds of HTML to another user in an IM that it would cause a slight lag to that user. He would then write a punter program, one of many hacking/annoyance programs known collectively as “progs,” that would allow the user to enter another user’s screen name and click a button. The program would then automate the process of opening a new IM message window, entering the target screen name, and sending the message. It would do this much faster than if a user had done this by hand and would eventually punt the person offline. AOL would eventually figure out the method used by that specific program and would patch the flaw. Then the hunt would be on for the next punt method.
Punters were just the entry-level progs in the AOL hacking world. There were chat bots that allowed you to interact with other users automatically. There were password crackers, which would try a ton of screen name and password combinations to try and steal other people’s accounts. There were termers, which used various methods to fool the AOL employees into terminating a target screen name’s AOL account. But the most advanced progs were the mass-mailers (MMers), also referred to as mail servers. These were the fundamental programs used by the WaReZ groups in the world of AOL piracy.
Screenshot of a MMer/server prog named Blizzard.
Because nearly everyone was on a dial-up modem, AOL made a great platform for the distribution of pirated software, music, and movies. The process began by utilizing phish, or hacked accounts from unsuspecting users. (Note: the AOL hacking scene is where the term phishing actually originated.) The uploaders, who were piracy group members with faster Internet connections, would log into these hacked accounts and then upload files to the account’s file library. AOL offered each user a limited amount of file storage, but very few users were computer savvy enough to know what their file library was or how to access it. Storing files on AOL was great because once you uploaded a file to a library, it could be sent to other users instantly via e-mail, without having to re-upload it somewhere else. Once all the files were uploaded, the uploaders would then share all of the files to the rest of the WaReZ group members.
A screenshot of an AOL file library.
Other members of the group would be the servers who actually distribute the files to normal people seeking to download pirated content. They are responsible for actually running the MMer prog. Since piracy was an underground activity, it was always done in private chat rooms. AOL tried to stomp out piracy at one point by blocking private chat rooms from having the word “server” in the name, so most of the piracy scene operated in private chat rooms that began with “cerver,” i.e., cerver2, cerver3, cerver4. Each of these rooms usually had one or more MMer running and serving pirated material.
MMers/server programs had three main functions. The first was list creation. This process would open up the mailbox of the account of the user operating the program and scan all of the e-mail messages that had attachments. It would itemize all the messages and assign a number. Since file attachments had size limits, most programs or movies were broken down into smaller chunks. Visual Basic 4.0 for instance, may be 5 different pieces, so the program would assign them sequential numbers, such as:
The second function would be to read the chat for list requests. Most progs on AOL could both read text from the chat window and send text to the chat window. Users who were looking to download stuff first had to request the list of available files. They would just simply type
An example of a MMer/server program running and advertising in a chat room with a user making request for a list and individual files.
The third function would be the actual sending of the files. The programs were called mass-mailers because they basically just auto-forwarded tons of e-mails. When it processed the request to send the files for Visual Basic as shown above, the program would match the requested numbers to the relevant e-mails in the server operator’s mailbox and then forward them to the requesting screen name. Once the user received the requested e-mails, he could download and combine the file chunks with an archiving program, like WinZip.
AOL was actually my first intro into pirated software. I first learned how to program in Visual Basic by downloading it illegally from an AOL private chat room. Most of the other stuff I learned about computers and security was also learned on AOL in various ways. I look back on those times and chuckle at how lame some of the stuff was, but I admit that it had a big influence on the direction of my life. I was always intro drawing and really wanted to be an architect. It was only after getting a computer and learning how to be a 1337 hax0r on AOL that I realized my true calling.
I hope you were able to understand this blog. It’s hard to write about this stuff when not many people know what AOL was or not being familiar with the AOL underground scene. I tried to write this in a way that gave enough background to understand the concept of how piracy was done on AOL. I’d be very interested to answer any questions you might still have or to read perspectives from some other people who remember the old days of the Internet and piracy.
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