It was all fields round here

It is 1975, and at the Park Senior High School (as bog standard a comprehensive as they came) a group of curious schoolboys led by a farsighted maths teacher take the bus into Swindon town centre and enter the headquarters of the Nationwide Building Society. There, we potter down to the computer room where we are allowed access to their mainframe (a UNIVAC 1109 with drum storage, if my memory serves) because they didn’t use it in the evening. I will never forget that kindness from Nationwide and they still have place in my heart for it today. It was there we worked on our first serious programming project, a system to schedule appointments for the parent’s evenings! Can you imagine ringing up, say, Barclays Bank today and asking them if some school kids could use their mainframe in the evening if they’re not too busy? Astonishing.

Having a whole computer to yourself was then a novelty. When Brian Dyer, the then-deputy headmaster of Park asked me and a few friends if we’d be interested in sitting a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in Computer Studies (the school had no lessons in the subject, so we had to just read up in our spare time) my first contact with a general-purpose stored-value computer system came via punched cards sent to the University of Bristol once each week. You punched your cards, they were sent off and a week later you got back your print out. I think it was an ICL 1902A, the first IC-based range they produced (the A meant it had a floating point unit for scientific calculations), and we wrote in FORTRAN. The school got a teletype, and we had access to a GEISCO time-sharing system using Dartmouth BASIC. I think we were allowed an hour per week, or something like that. I got Grade 1, and was set for life…

Other weeks we took the bus up to the now-demolished Swindon College, where we used their Elliott 803B with a then-amazing 8Kb of core memory (you tell the kids of today that…) to write Algol programmes on 5-track paper tape. You loaded the compiler, the loaded your program and the machine produced a machine code tape (for their strange 39-bit word instruction set) and then loaded your machine code and executed. Here’s a video of someone using one of these beasts! I don’t remember much about what software we wrote, although I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time working on my football simulation that used random numbers to work out where the ball went after each kick.

Park PiratesPark School 1976: Me, Clive Debenham (Rest in Peace), Simon Turpin and Bob Kirby (Rest in Peace).

In the hot summer of 1976, we were also allowed, and I have no memory of how this came about, to cycle out to the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham and use their more advanced computer system — although I can’t remember what this was — to write in Algol 68-R. In those pre-Al Qaeda days, we were allowed to amble around the campus and wander in and out of the computer room essentially unfettered. This all stood me in good stead. When I got my first vacation job at college it was for the Southern Water Authority in Eastleigh. One day my boss asked me if I could help him with a problem. The IT department (in Brighton) were sending him the wrong statistics. Did I know anything about computers? We opened the cupboard at the end of the corridor and found a teletype connected to a 1900-series (a 1906?) running Fortran under GEORGE III, which fortunately I knew how to use. I was instantly appointed departmental IT supremo, and never looked back!


In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

None shall password

[Dave Birch] Technology does throw up some damned difficult issues sometimes, particularly when it has an impact on law enforcement. In the old days, when your door was kicked in by size 12s, all of your documents could be read and used in evidence. But it’s not so easy now.

Brazilian police seized five hard drives when they raided the Rio apartment of banker Daniel Dantas as part of Operation Satyagraha in July 2008. But subsequent efforts to decrypt files held on the hardware using a variety of dictionary-based attacks failed even after the South Americans called in the assistance of the FBI. The files were encrypted using Truecrypt and an unnamed algorithm, reportedly based on the 256-bit AES standard. In the UK, Dantas would be compelled to reveal his passphrase under threat of imprisonment, but no such law exists in Brazil.

[From Brazilian banker’s crypto baffles FBI • The Register]

I suppose you could always say that you were mentally ill and couldn’t remember the password, or something similar, but in the UK that wouldn’t keep you out of chokey.

The first person jailed under draconian UK police powers that Ministers said were vital to battle terrorism and serious crime has been identified by The Register as a schizophrenic science hobbyist with no previous criminal record. His crime was a persistent refusal to give counter-terrorism police the keys to decrypt his computer files. The 33-year-old man, originally from London, is currently held at a secure mental health unit after being sectioned while serving his sentence at Winchester Prison.

[From UK jails schizophrenic for refusal to decrypt files • The Register]

This is a really difficult issue. In the UK it’s illegal to not give the police your password to (I think) anything. Certainly, if you have encrypted email, files, disks etc and you won’t hand over the password (or decryption key) to the forces of law and order then you will go to jail. Someone else just has, in fact.

A teenager has been jailed for 16 weeks after he refused to give police the password to his computer. Oliver Drage, 19, of Liverpool, was arrested in May 2009 by police tackling child sexual exploitation. Police seized his computer but could not access material on it as it had a 50-character encryption password. Drage was convicted of failing to disclose an encryption key in September. He was sentenced at Preston Crown Court on Monday.

[From BBC News – Man jailed over computer password refusal]

He got 16 weeks in chokey for this. I can see three possibilities here: he is guilty of some child porn offence and his encrypted files would prove it, he is guilty of something else or he is not guilty but just doesn’t want the police looking through his files. Take the worst case (from society’s point of view, not his) and let’s say he is guilty of a serious child porn offence (I’m not saying he is, or isn’t, and I fully recognise that he wasn’t convicted of any such thing). I’m a parent. If he did such a thing, I want him locked up for a long time and I don’t want him back on the streets without treatment. 16 weeks is a joke. 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes