The Freshman Fishwrap / IHTFP Hack Gallery

Hacking ``The Great MIT Hack Talk''

Location: 26-100
Date: 4/8/91

Brian Leibowitz '82, MIT Hack Archivist 1984-91, periodically gives a talk and slide show for students, parents, and alumni. The talk describes MIT's long history of hacks and pranks and is copiously accompanied by slides of various hacks. On April 8th, 1991, he gave this presentation as an LSC lecture in 26-100 for a crowd of MIT students.

As the talk progressed, the pitch of Brian's voice slowly crept higher. About 15-20 minutes into the talk, his voice was one half-tone above the normal pitch at which he started the talk. ...but, Brian's newly acquired tenor did not come from nervousness, hackers had tapped into his audio system.

As the audience began to realize that something was amiss, so did LSC, the sponsors of the the talk. They quickly found a point in their audio system where hackers may have tapped into their signal and patched it out, successfully restoring Brian's normal voice.

Brian, who did not know what he sounded like over the audio system, didn't quite know what was going. After the incident Brian described his response:

While I was speaking, a few people in the audience started to laugh at unexpected times. Then a minute or so later, more people were laughing. I looked around the room to see if anything had happened. My bewilderment caused even more laughter. I couldn't find anything wrong, so I tried to continue. By then the effect must have become more drastic because the whole audience would break out laughing whenever I said anything. This was very confusing because I could not hear what was happening (I learned empirically that when you speak, you hear your own voice mostly through your head and very little from the outside; I could not tell that the sound system was being distorted.) After a few more attemps to continue the talk, I realized that the sound system had been hacked. About a minute or so later, the sound system was restored to normal and I was able to continue without the audience laughing. I did not find out what had been done to my voice until after the talk.

Hackers had patched their own electronics into the audio hookup in 26-100. They ran the microphone input signal through a mixing board which included a set of pitch shifters -- which they used to ``modify'' Brian's voice during the talk.

Brian's high-pitched hack talk was amusing in itself. The irony of the hack talk being hacked was also worth a chuckle. But, the real irony in this hack came from the fact that Brian had effectively suggested it during previous discussions with hackers.

Brian had used the example of frequency shifting a lecturer's voice as an example of a ``good hack'' when explaining the basic ethics of MIT hacking to a group of new students. He pointed out that it is a hack that can be done to a lecturer that neither disrupts the lecture too much nor causes any real damage. Additionally, the hack has more subtlety than simply taking over the sound system.

The hackers, however, were not finished when the audio hack was removed. Shortly afterwards, a live phone on the stage began to ring. In order to stop the phone from ringing, Brian, of course had to answer it. ...but to answer the phone Brian first had to find it. The audience enjoyed watching Brian hunt for the ringing phone, which was hidden in a nearby podium in the lecture hall. Once he answered the phone, the hackers attempted to order a pizza for delivery to 10-1000. Brian replied that the location was a bit outside of his delivery range.

The talk was covered in an article in The Tech, but the hack was not mentioned.

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