Shall we play a game?


TL;DR I started a new job as the Chief Marketing Officer of Recorded Future. We empower organizations to reveal unknown security threats before they impact business, and enable teams to respond to alerts 10 times faster. If you want to hear the why, read on…

Let’s face it, the 80s was the best decade for movies. This is inarguable. Before you ok boomer me, know that I’m a proud Gen X 🙂 So what’s the best movie from 80s? Acceptable answers include: almost anything from John Hughes, Spielberg, or Kubrick; the Empire Strikes Back; Say Anything. Or the best of them all, Wargames.

Wargames tells the story of bored high school student and aspiring hacker David Lightman. In the first 15 minutes of the movie, they show Lightman playing Galaga, the GOAT of all 80s arcade games. And even better, they show how Lightman was able to break into his school database and change his grades.

But really his dream is to break into the server of his favorite game company Protovision. So he wardials every phone number in Sunnyvale CA until one day he connects to a system that doesn’t identify itself. He pokes around to see if the server hosts any games and he finds a list that starts with chess, checkers, backgammon, and poker, as well as titles such as “Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare” and “Global Thermonuclear War”, but to his dismay, he can’t play any of them. Later, two hacker friends explain the concept of a backdoor password and suggest tracking down the Falken referenced in “Falken’s Maze”, the first game listed. Lightman discovers that Stephen Falken was an early artificial-intelligence researcher, and guesses correctly that his dead son’s name, Joshua, is the password.

Chaos ensues as the server he’s broken into is the WOPR at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. It uses artificial intelligence to simulate millions of possible outcomes from various military strategies (e.g. wargames). But, the Joshua AI has a hard time knowing the difference between gaming and reality (hey, it happens) and because the WOPR has access to the missile launch codes, Lightman almost causes WW3.

By the time Wargames came out, I was already well into my obsession with computers and programming BASIC on my trusty TI-99 4/A. But Wargames threw my obsession into overdrive. I figured out how to lock down my computer with a password (Joshua obv) to prevent unauthorized access my from snooping parents. I got a 300 baud modem for my birthday, fast enough to read scroll text in real time from remote systems. I discovered the magic of the BBS where I could play games, chat with other nerds, and yes, download WaReZ (look, I was 11). It was absolutely magical. I kept programming all the way through high school and went to the University of Illinois to study math and computer science. At Illinois, I worked as a UNIX admin responsible for maintaining DNS. I read the 1992 first edition of O’Reilly DNS and BIND cover to cover. Eventually I realized at age 22 that I wasn’t very good at programming and that it was time to find something else to do.

Would I have gone down that path without Wargames? Maybe. But decades later I still think back to how inspired I was. And reflecting on it now, I think Wargames is as relevant today as it was to me in the 80s. Sure, we’ve moved beyond wardialing, but anything connected to a network is a potential risk. And while an AI that can pass a Turing-test like Joshua is still a ways away, it’s certainly on the horizon. Could a modern day David Lightman start a real war through an SSH terminal? Quite possibly. Look at the success of the Stuxnet program. Stuxnet is believed to be responsible for causing substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear program by exploiting a collection of zero-day exploits to gain control of programmable logic controllers, ultimately shutting down nuclear centrifuges.

From the national security to risk management at organizations large and small, security has never been more important to our future. Because there are tens of thousands of bad David Lightmans across the globe looking for ways to hack into your organization. The results of their efforts ranges from the mildly annoying DDOS attacks to catastrophic events. And maybe worse.

That’s why I’m excited about the opportunity at Recorded Future.

For the past 10 years, Recorded Future has focused on empowering organizations to take a proactive approach to cybersecurity. We’ve done this by collecting and analyzing threat data from the broadest range of sources and producing threat intelligence to help organizations gain insight into the intentions and techniques of cyber adversaries. This enables them to work smarter and stop threats faster.

4 responses to “Shall we play a game?”

  1. You did a lot of the things I did to get started in computer programming. For me, it was the Radio Shack TRS-80 computers that I learned on. I just wish that U of I had music as a possible major with computer science back then, because I could already play piano, and I wouldn’t have had to struggle with math or statistics.

  2. Really well written Tom! The move makes complete sense for you – not only from a career standpoint, but also given the background story you told here. Recorded Future is in great hands and should be happy to have you 🙂

  3. Oh my, this brings back memories, although mine was learning BASIC on an Atari-400. There was nothing like the thrill of running my first program and getting a fireworks display! I wasn’t deep into BBSes but my computer geek friend was and he was able to get me some great WareZ for my Atari-800 (I came up in the world!)

    I was the only girl learning FORTRAN and PASCAL in High School and to this day I know how to score bowling games from the program I had to write to do it. I even did better than my computer geek friend on the AP test but, sigh, I wish I had not convinced myself in college that I had to choose between writing and programming. I don’t necessarily regret going in a communications direction, but I wish I’d been able to integrate my passion for technology with my affinity for writing earlier in my career.

    Good luck at Recorded Future! It’s becoming increasingly more evident how important it is to be proactive with cybersecurity. I feel like most of the companies I’ve worked for are ripe fruit for the Lightmans of the world.

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