Crackpots in computer security: Don’t plug it in, man!


Some time a few years ago, some folks on the security team were swapping crackpots stories, and this one somehow lodged in my mind. The story below is paraphrased, but the essense remains intact.

"We had a crazy guy call into the security support line many years ago. He was going through a messy divorce and was convinced that his wife's lawyers were hacking into his computer in order to frame him, thereby gaining the upper hand during divorce proceedings. He wanted to know how to protect his computer against them. We played along and told him to keep the computer unplugged from the Internet, and he laughed a triumphant laugh and said condescendingly, 'They're coming in through the power lines, man! Don't you know anything?' Now, yeah, today we do have Internet access over the power lines, but still, that guy was crazy!"

Comments (24)
  1. Ripley says:

    I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.  It’s the only way to be sure.

  2. richard says:

    People have interesting ideas. It is interesting how people hold onto ideas that are … uhm … clearly wrong and more than that patently absurd.

    I often wonder which is more scary, the single individual who uncritically believes and accepts something incorrect as truth, or the majority holding and believing as true something that is false.

    My own "mains" story involves a customer who claimed that her TV "electrifying" everything in her house and she was getting shocks from everything in the house as a result of this. We checked her TV and it was fine (old, but fine). Eventually, she threatened to jump of a bridge if [major retail chain] did not replace her TV. They replaced her TV.

  3. Sean says:

    They could now get him via wireless too:

    http://www.lenholgate.com/archives/000638.html

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/30/ethereal_relationship_break-up/

    And not forgetting the recent proposals to use the Sewer Network for Internet:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/24/h20_sewer_rollout/

    ///which was a Google-April-Fool-come-to-life:

    http://www.google.com/tisp/

  4. Mike Dimmick says:

    Well, you could have two identical UPSs, one connected to the computer and not to the power outlet, the other connected to the power outlet and not the computer. When the battery running the computer gets low, you swap the batteries (assuming you bought a model with multiple batteries so it can remain on-load while you change them even without mains supply).

    Bit paranoid though.

    Any battery charger/inverter combination would be fine, of course. I mention UPSs because they’re readily available and well known.

    Oh, and you’d have to shut up the ‘on battery’ alarm!

    Or you could always use a generator.

  5. Xepol says:

    I hear tinfoil hats help with that. Heck, they probably help with everything like that.

    Did he do a security check on the dog to make sure it wasn’t carrying any bugs?

  6. I know someone – who shall remain anonymous for my safety – who believes that leaving power points turned on "leaks" electricity into the air and increases their power bill. She is in her fifties.

  7. MS says:

    I wonder if he knew that his cell phone was being recorded by Echelon, and the flouride in his water was being used to brainwash him, I figure those crafty divorce attorneys use every trick in the book.

    While we’re at it the moon landing was faked and Kennedy was killed by the Martians.

  8. Igor Levicki says:

    Moon landing was definitely faked.

    "Space may be the final frontier but its made in a Hollywood basement"

    Apart from the UPS, you could stack some low pass filters to prevent any unwanted signal from sneaking in :)

  9. Jeff Parker says:

    We hired a consultant for a short time. She was quite ummm interesting. She wrapped her chair in aluminum foil, then hid that below a coat so no one could see it, then she positioned 3 ring binders strategically placed, then the binders had sheets of foil inside them so at a glance everything apeared normal. She liked me though and one day I came in and she said here I have something for you. I turned around and she handed me a roll of foil, I looked at her and asked, "Whats this for?" she said to protect me from the EMF’s.

    While some of my coworkers decided to quietly slip off to inform the boss about this, I decided what the heck, I mean how often do you get a chance to seriously talk to someone that is truly nuts. So then I got the chance to discuss these EMF’s and discovered that there are people tracking you through the power lines. While I kept trying to get her to provide proof, she kept telling me I had to trust her, and that "They" were listening. I tried to convince her that foil wouldn’t protected from EMF’s and pointed her to NASA’s site where they explain that you needed some magnetic resistant special foil, and it has to be grounded, she looked me straight in the eye and said, "They’re lying." She didn’t last long after that.

    The consultant company was quite amazed when they came in to clean her desk out for her, they honestly couldn’t believe all the foil she has hidden all over her desk in various places.

    I knew where she came from before working for us and I knew some of those people from our local .net user group, so I decided to ask them about her one day. The one guy always jovial and fun to talk to looked at me real seriously and said that he is under a court order not to discus anything about her and then said no more the rest of the evening.

    This is a true story, there are people running around that honestly swear up and down this is going on in the power lines, and foil is the ultimate protection. If you ever get a chance to have a serious long conversation with one, I really recommend it. They are interesting, they are also self conscious because most people tell them they are nuts, so don’t start off telling them they are nuts. Just listen, ask educated inquisitive questions. You would be amazed at just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

  10. James Day says:

    Kent, that may be a sad result of teaching about electrons flowing in wire like water in a pipe.

  11. SM says:

    @Jeff Parker: I’m reminded of the foil helmets site http://zapatopi.net/afdb/

  12. John C says:

    @Jeff Parker:

    That’s a great story! I once overheard a network tech telling another developer about using foil for protection once. I was across a cube divider, so I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Just as you implied, the developer asked serious, insightful questions, and the network tech had a well-thought-out answer for each one. It’s amazing how much time they must devote to reading about foil, EMFs, and related issues!

  13. Triangle says:

    So, this is why people always say that the only safe computer is one turned off! I always thought they were talking about software security.

  14. David Walker says:

    I like the "virus warning" a while back whose description said it would do several plausible-sounding things, then reverse the spin on all your disk drives and demagnetize the strips on all your credit cards.  Oh yes, this virus arrived on the 1200 Hz carrier frequency of your modem.

    Some more elaborate versions said the virus would drink all your beer and make obscene phone calls to all of your ex-girlfriends.

    I would hate to live in a world where we actually had to protect ourselves with tinfoil.

    I would like to ask one of these people why those who don’t protect themselves are not harmed or jailed (or whatever is supposed to happen if you don’t protect yourself).

    I know you can’t reason with them, but still, they must have thought of this.

    Besides, LET the black hats listen to me, and track my every move.  I don’t care.  What are they gonna do with the info they gather?

    I’ll just tell the next paranoid that I come across, that I know "they" are listening, but I don’t care, and I don’t want to protect myself.

  15. Adílio Fonseca says:

    Somehow, since I realized the number of people that believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories,this paranoia doesn’t really surprise me.

  16. Paul says:

    it’s ain’t surprising to me either. I got such calls into my support lines as well. This happens quite frequently eversince the 9/11 thing

  17. Jack Mathews says:

    I remember one time when my mom heard like 10 years ago that you could get a virus just by *opening* an email.

    Oh wait, that happens now too.  Nevermind. :-)

  18. Anthony Wieser says:

    I’d worry about the foil manufacturers.  They’re probably using "Smart Water" or "Select DNA" to track you now.

    We had an arrest in our village just yesterday.

    http://www.towncriertoday.co.uk/news/Six-arrests-made-in-connection.3717575.jp

  19. Name required says:

    And not forgetting the recent proposals to use the Sewer Network for Internet

    The towns get called "Fibrecities" apparently. I suppose the people who came up with the name were just regular guys who did give a sh*t.

  20. ChristW says:

    @David Walker: Sounds like "Virus Alert" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. See http://www.tsrocks.com/w/weird_al_yankovic_texts/virus_alert.html for his take on virus hoaxes.

  21. SvenGroot says:

    Don’t these people realise that the idea that you can protect yourself with tinfoil is just what the tinfoil companies *want* you to believe!?

    :P

  22. Jonathan says:

    why those who don’t protect themselves are not harmed or jailed

    They:

    1. Are brainwashed not to remember anything that was done to them, or
    2. Disappear without a trace.

    So obvious…

  23. Igor Levicki says:

    Don’t drink the water… it will make you forget things…

  24. Mr Dictionary says:

    "essense" == Electronic sense?

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