Friday

Friday 22/11/2002After a week where big companies did daft things and the economy showed no real signs of doing anything other than twitching on the carpet in a puddle of its own drool, a man can get a bit morose about high technology. So top marks -- as always -- to Need To Know, that splendid proof of life despatched weekly from deep within the rainforest of geek culture.

Friday 22/11/2002
After a week where big companies did daft things and the economy showed no real signs of doing anything other than twitching on the carpet in a puddle of its own drool, a man can get a bit morose about high technology. So top marks -- as always -- to Need To Know, that splendid proof of life despatched weekly from deep within the rainforest of geek culture. Today, they highlight the doings of one Dan Kaminsky, an American old-skool hacker who bores through network stacks like a death-watch beetle presented with a particularly tasty oak-panelled church. He lives at www.doxpara.com, although it's no place for people who think a MAC is a kind of Apple. Anyone who's ever done some serious low-level network programming will know that TCP/IP is a lot more baroque than it may appear from a distance. You know how the Internet works -- find an address by looking up a domain name in a database, bung that address on the front of a chunk of data, and send the whole thing to your ISP. Routers happily read the address and send the data on: it hits the destination and that's that. Simple, eh? That's a bit like saying playing the guitar is a matter of pressing down the right strings and hitting them with a plectrum. Kaminsky takes a more Hendrixian approach, finding the parts of the IP spec that everyone else ignores and making the Internet do things that you'd swear were impossible by the laws of physics. He can piggyback traces on otherwise impeccable datastreams, scan thousands of ports seemingly simultaneously without having to keep track of what he's done, even create a virtual router that just appears somewhere but is totally divorced from whatever hardware is running it. That's particularly mind-bending: it can make a whole set of computers share a single Internet address and all the packets sent to it. Think what that means for peer-to-peer, and giggle. All this is gloriously creative, and fully revives my faith in the deeply twisted. The prettiest and most evocative product of the Kaminsky mind is called phentropy, some software that gathers apparently arbitrary sets of data and plots them into a three-dimensional scattergraph. Relationships within those sets then become apparent as structures within that graph, and shapes condense out of the starfield. When adopted to Internet routing tables and other interesting working data, the results can be almost infinitely fascinating. I've long had the notion that as we build our global mesh of data, we'll sooner or later need to build the telescopes to see what's actually going on in there. Or is it out there? This could be the Galilean archetype we need. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.

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