Letters to the Editor

Distrust Hampers Safe Hacking

In the article “DiFava, Pierce Discuss Hacking at EC” (The Tech, Volume 128, Issue 53), DiFava’s attitude seemed incompatible with creating a hacking policy that encourages safety, fairness, and cooperation at MIT. DiFava stated that he believes safety should be at the center of any future policy on hacking. However, in attempting to distinguish between “real” and “wannabe” hackers, he is in fact doing the opposite: the notion that the smart ones don’t get caught creates a heightened, not reduced, sense of challenge and risk.

Additionally, DiFava is implying that justice is in reality turned on its head: the flashiest of hackers are lauded as heroes, while those who are exploring are treated as criminals.

If the MIT community is to come to an agreement on how to allow the tradition of hacking to continue, DiFava, Pierce, and others must have a cooperative and respectful attitude. Drawing false distinctions between different types of hackers or making glib statements that dealing with a prison riot would be preferable only serve to increase tensions between students and the MIT police; such sentiments make it more difficult for students to, as DiFava stated, regard the MIT police as positive members of the community in the context of hacking.

Trust the Police?

In a news piece from the Nov. 4 issue of The Tech, Director of Facilities and Security John DiFava stated that he believes the hacking controversy could be resolved if hackers were to notify police before attempting hacks and risking encounters with police.

“Ideally, I’d like hackers to have enough trust in us to tell us what will happen, where it will happen, before it happens,” said DiFava. But given the secrecy of the hacking community and the loss of former Dean of Admissions and hacker advocate Marilee Jones, DiFava said he does not know how this can become a reality.

We decided to take DiFava at his word and see what would happen. We placed an anonymous call one night to MIT police from a pay phone around 9:30 p.m. and told the responding officer, “We read in a recent article of The Tech that John DiFava is asking hackers to tell MIT police the time and location of a hack before it happens. We’re calling to inform you that there’s a hack going up on the great dome at 1 a.m.”

The officer said, “O.K.” and we hung up.

We met up a little before 1 a.m. and sat at Memorial Drive outside Killian Court (in front of the great dome), in Lobby 13 (on the other side of the great dome), in Lobby 10 (under the great dome) and on the fourth floor of building 10. We wanted to observe the MIT Police’s reaction to knowing about a hack ahead of time. We had made the decision that night not to go into any locked areas, roofs, or anything of the sort. This was to be a perfectly legal observational exercise.

We didn’t have to wait long. At precisely 1 a.m., an officer walked through Lobby 10 and Lobby 13 and went into an unmarked car parked outside Building 13. Shortly afterwards, around 1:04, a police cruiser circled in the parking lot and alley outside Building 13.

At 1:13, another police car pulled up from Memorial Drive and parked for several minutes with the officer looking at the dome before driving off. Finally, at 1:24, an officer walked through Lobby 13 again.

So what does this mean? The bottom line is that informing MIT police ahead of time is not a solution for hackers. The presence of three police cars almost guarantees that any hack we’d pull on the dome would end in police interfering with the hack and detaining us (you don’t send three cars to sit back and watch some kids putz around on a roof), and with MIT’s recent and continuing trend of pressing charges in Cambridge courts against students caught hacking, there’s a good chance that the ensuing legal complications would stay with us for a good long while.

DiFava — don’t hold your breath waiting for students’ trust. If we had pulled a hack, there’s a good chance that by now we’d have been arrested, booked, held, charged with B&E, bailed out, and we’d be looking forward to our arraignment hearings.

To be fair, there’s a chance we’d be let off with a slap on the wrist, but it’s very much out of our control, MIT has a pretty bad track record right now on prosecuting students caught hacking, and putting our academic and legal future on a roll of the dice just doesn’t sound that appealing.

We’re not going to make any inflammatory statements or call for change in the MIT administration or anything of the sort. We’ve described truthfully our actions, why we did them, and what happened as a result. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

Editor’s Note: The Tech granted these authors anonymity given the nature of their letter.

The Other Competition in China

While the United States and China vied for podium spots at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, Pentagon officials in D.C. pored over their strategic calculus to keep the Chinese military in check.

Sea-power trends in the Pacific Ocean are ominous. Chinese attack submarines will outnumber U.S. submarines in the Pacific by five to one in 2025 and Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines will soon “prowl America’s Western littoral,” according to the Heritage Foundation.

The country is in the midst of “the largest military buildup the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War,” said an expert speaking to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

China is driven by the operational objective of taking Taiwan and the strategic objective of being a modern power. The importance of the Olympic Games to the government was eminently observed; the gold medal recognition earned by Chinese athletes translated into global recognition of a new, powerful China.

Now the Olympic Games are over, but the competition continues.

In 2004, China’s Admiral Zhang Dingfa, a career submariner, was promoted to Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). He has ordered the acquisition of twelve modern Russian KILO submarines. Three Russian shipyards are at work constructing China’s new purchases.

Admiral Zhang has also increased production to 2.5 boats per year of the ultra-quiet Song-class diesel-electric submarine. China is also developing a new Russian-inspired class of submarine called the Yuan. Meanwhile, the United States plods along by producing one to two boats per year.

Whether this massive increase in military strength presages future conflict is the subject of a heated debate. U.S. military leaders look at two factors when analyzing possible threats: capability and intent. By 2025, China will have the capability.

Experts passionately disagree on China’s intent. A recent Pentagon report made the argument that China intends to coerce Taiwan or attack it. However, China says that its “peaceful ascendancy strategy” (heping jueqi) will make it a good neighbor and global citizen, not a threat.

Submarines are at the center of the U.S.-China tension. These $2+ billion “black holes in the ocean” use sophisticated SONAR, an anechoic outer coating, a streamline hull and a top-secret screw design to spy and conduct reconnaissance, track and sink ships and deploy Special Forces units undetected. Not to mention, the SSBN variant comes equipped with 24 Trident nuclear missiles.

Consider this: all of the weapons fired in World War II, including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, taken together contain less physical power than one U.S. submarine today. The country with the greatest underwater capabilities will rule the seas with an awesome deterring presence.

A high percentage of our MIT Naval ROTC Midshipmen swap their caps and gowns for submarine officer uniforms after graduation. The field they enter is the most intellectually demanding in the military — roughly a dozen officers, aided by 120 enlisted sailors, are responsible for a nuclear reactor, multiple weapons systems, SONAR, cryptographic equipment, etc., on a boat that is closer in complexity to a space ship than to a sailing ship.

To gain entrance into this challenging sector of the military, Midshipmen must interview with the four star Admiral in charge of the nuclear Navy. Admiral Hyman Rickover famously interviewed and approved or denied every prospective officer, and the tradition continues today.

These one-on-one interviews varied from arcane to combative to humorous, and books have been written on the subject of the “Rickover interview” alone. His personality shaped the modern submarine force. He had “little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity.” “If a man is dumb,” said a friend, “Rickover thinks he ought to be dead.”

After passing their interviews and earning their commissions, new submarine Ensigns report to Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina. Every year, MIT sends officers to this program, and this year Gregory Luthman and I were selected.

At Nuclear Power School, students spend 65-95 hours per week studying Mathematics, Nuclear Physics, Thermodynamics, Electrical Theory and Chemistry. The course material is classified, so students are prohibited from doing homework outside of the classroom. Graduates of the six month program go on to Nuclear Prototype Units for six additional months of hands-on training at operating nuclear propulsion plants.

The last stop before reporting to a submarine is a three month Basic Submarine Officer Course in Groton, Connecticut. Here, officers receive comprehensive training on basic systems, learn how to drive submarines and study contact tracking.

After the above training, officers report to their first submarine, where they are in charge of a division of sailors. While at sea, officers have limited communication with their loved ones back home. Submarines stay underway for months at a time.

Every year MIT graduates embark on this demanding career path, seeking to serve their country, protect American interests abroad and challenge themselves intellectually.