Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

On the rebound...

Virus protection boomerang

Andrew MacTavish recalls, in the early days of the internet, taking on would-be hackers from the school down the road, armed with a boomerang from an unlikely ally.

Mark was in the sixth form. A happy loner with a head of tight blond Grecian curls and a cherubic grin, the problem was that Mark was not always on the same side of the fence as the rest of us. As a result, he and I had a number of run-ins during his career.

But he was very clever - and in the early days of computing, he was the first real buff I came across. For example, he arranged a personal cable extension from the school's BBC computer suite to a room some way away. He then hacked his way into every corner of the system. Nothing vicious, just out of interest.

Finally the day came when we were having our first modem installed. We were going online for the first time.

Those who understood the potential were excited; I got on with my work. Then Mark asked to see me. This was intriguing. Usually the request for an audience was the other way round. I asked him to sit and he commented with an arch grin that he had never before been invited to sit when he was in my study.

I countered that was because he had been silly and immature in the past, but now clearly had some matter of import to discuss. How could I help him? To my surprise, he said it was the opposite. He had come to help me. He glanced around as if he feared being overheard and asked if I knew that we were about to go online. I confirmed I did. His friends in the school on the other side of town were just waiting for this to happen. They were itching to hack into our system.

They were not that clever at hacking (by his standards) but enough to give us a serious headache. He urged me to stop the connection until some defensive action was taken.

He hesitated, so I thanked him and said I would speak to my friend, their head. Then it came out. He had a better idea. He produced some totally unintelligible sheets he had written - a boomerang programme that would crash the system of any user who tried to hack into ours.

It would not take long to install, he said, and it wouldn't interfere with our usage. He gave me a short set of figures and symbols that he said was the trigger. It was something very simple - almost as simple as 123abc#. He said they would be hoisted with their own petard.

I was quietly impressed that he had remembered the phrase I had used during a previous interview about the wisdom of extending his knowledge of practical chemistry by attempting to make nitro-gelatine - but I did not comment.

I merely thanked him very sincerely for his advice and his hard work on the program, and gently refused his offer. I said I would ring the other head and the teacher in charge of the network.

He said he was sad but he did understand my position, even if it was a rather boring way of going about things.

So I rang the head, who knew as much about computing as I did and he passed me on to their computing expert. When I told him about 123abc# boomerang, he laughed. It would take more than a simple entry like that to crash a system.

I admitted I had wondered if my leg was being pulled. I didn't really understand these things. He explained some of the mysteries of computing in depth, and I grunted when I thought it was the right moment to do so.

He said that he also had clever boys who thought they knew it all. It was important to show them the limitations of their knowledge. He would run a check so that I could advise Mark and would get back to me...

..but he didn't. I rang after a couple of days. The school secretary said he was unavailable. He had a major problem as he had tried something on the network and the entire system had crashed. Classes were being cancelled and he had been taken off the timetable to try to solve the problem. She would leave him a message.

Mark knocked on my door and slid conspiratorially into a chair, with a grin from ear to ear. "That was brilliant, sir, absolutely brilliant! You've got him to crash his own system! My friends told me. They think I've installed the boomerang here and that was a warning not to try to hack in. I think we've done it."

Before I recovered from the suggestion that he and I were somehow in league together, he was halfway out the door. He turned back and me a double thumbs up: "That's why you're the head!" He winked at me, and was gone.

It was one of those occasions when I wasn't sure whether to pursue the matter or not.

Andrew MacTavish is a retired headteacher from Buckinghamshire.


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