BUCHAREST, Romania—At the edge of Europe, Romania’s University Politehnica of Bucharest has long been the most prestigious engineering school in the region. Here, a terracotta-tiled building looms large over the campus, hosting the faculty of the Automatic Control and Computer Science (ACCS) program. On the ground floor, close to the entrance, is a humble computer lab. The label reads ED011.
Back in the early 1990s, after Romania escaped the grip of communism, this room was one of the few places offering an Internet connection free of charge. So every night, when no one was watching, students descended upon the lab to connect to the rest of the world. Eager to learn about life in Western Europe and the US, these students already had the look of their counterparts there—long hair, blue jeans, and Metallica shirts.
“Computers gave us the possibility to communicate with people around the world, which was extraordinary,” a former student named Lari tells me today. The ED011 computer lab did more than that, of course. It gave these students total freedom—to not only chat on the early Web but to explore all the odd nooks and crannies of computer science.
And if you ask former ED011 students, many of them did just that. They built programs to find dates (and watched as things took off far beyond the computer lab). They found the gnarliest malware on the early Web (and built applications to combat it). Some even tried to flex amateur pentesting skills on some of the biggest organizations online at the time (much to the school administration’s chagrin).
Within this seemingly nondescript university room, Romania’s first truly digital generation was born. And some of today’s best technical minds anywhere developed the necessary skills to become industry leaders in everything from app development to security research.
In the beginning there was Lari
In the early 1990s, Dean Theodor Danila’s desk seemed constantly in disarray. It would pile up with faxes saying that one of his students had hacked someone’s servers again. Who’s furious now? A neighboring university? Some foreign organization? Maybe a military base?
From 1993 through 1996, whenever this happened, the dean knew who to blame: Lari—a thin, long-haired metalhead who spent all his nights in the ED011 computer lab at the University Politehnica of Bucharest.
“If I were to do today what I did back in the early 1990s, I would be facing thousands of years in jail,” Lari tells me in Romanian. The hacker lives in Western Europe now, and he’s still hesitant to use his real name when discussing his past due to the high-profile targets he and his fellow former students claim they attempted to hack two and a half decades ago.
On paper, it’s hard to determine if the following stories represent tall tales, rosy revisionist history, tech-savvy bravado… or a proper recollection of the truth. But Ars talked to a dozen former students, sysadmins at the university, and professors, all who largely corroborate each others’ stories. Some of these individuals still work in technology in capacities like security research, and their skills are also praised by their current communities. To be safe we also approached the organizations apparently targeted from within ED011, but many of these technology departments have changed several times over within the last 25 years. Most said they couldn’t verify or deny the information for us.
Lari remembers first going to ED011 in 1993 as a freshman at the Faculty of Automatic Control. The room was dark at night, only a neon tube flickering. Computers lined the walls, and the center of the lab stayed empty. The most sought after machines were the 286 and 386 IBM PCs running Linux and DOS, often used by senior students for their homework. The lab had about a dozen of those, and the scarcity led to a hierarchy of seniority. The freshmen had one IBM PC to share, the sophomores had two, and the remaining computers had been assigned to senior students.
There were also six DEC VT320 terminals with black-and-green screens and time-stained cases, and these were typically less crowded. Freshmen like Lari could get a seat at a DEC if they were quick enough. The terminals were attached to a VAX computer that had 4MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive.
Generally, students spent hours in the lab browsing the Internet, sending emails, and talking to people. They used the Lynx text browser and, later, AltaVista or Lycos for Web searching. The university was connected to the Internet by two 56kb lines, which were used by up to a hundred students at the same time during rush hours. Download speeds of 1KBps were seen as pretty good, but sometimes students had less than 200bps.
Lari remembers his fame as a hacker rose early in his freshman year, starting one night before Christmas in 1993. He was chatting with a girl from Illinois, but he lost the connection. He was also in a hurry, as he had to catch a train to visit his parents. Lari tried repeatedly but couldn’t connect back to the chat. He feared he would soon disappoint the girl. “I didn’t know whether she was still waiting for me or not,” he recalls. “So in that frenzy, I hacked her university’s server to see if she was still active.”
The server had a standard vulnerability, Lari tells me. Easy. However, there was an issue: Lari didn’t have the time to delete the logs. “After the winter break when I returned to the university, there was a huge scandal,” he recalls. “And that escalated until it reached the dean.”
Lari understood he had made a mistake. But instead of convincing him to give up, the incident made him want to become better. Next time, he’ll definitely delete the logs, he thought. Next, he’ll be a better hacker.
“I wanted to see how far hacking could take me.”