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Card crime and nostalgia

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In America, card fraudsters are wrapping satellite dishes in tinfoil to stop terminals from going online and then using counterfeit and stolen cards to buy gas. Amazing! I had no idea that people still used satellites for this sort of thing.

I was flabbergasted to read in the September ISO & Agent magazine that “Crooks wrap parts of satellite dishes in cooking foil to stymie data transfer and then use bogus cards to ‘purchase’ gasoline” — Heun, D., “Foiling Tin-Foil Thieves” in “ISO & Agent”, p.99 (Sep. 2013). I had absolutely no idea that people still used satellite links for this kind of thing! The story triggered a wave of nostalgia for me because the first IT project I ever worked on for banks involved satellite connections. So gather round the yule log and listen to my tale…

Cast your mind back to 1982. The interweb tubes are a distant dream. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, a group of talented young men (for they were all men) are writing computer programs to run on the world’s first regional satellite system, the Palapa-B1 service (a Hughes HS376, for the technical, with 24 C-band transponders). One of these dashing you software engineers — for it was, indeed, me — was tasked with writing initially the (and here’s one for the teenagers) X.28 code and then the X.25 code to allow (amongst other things) bank terminals and other equipment to connect via the satellite network to allow communications between bank branches on far flung islands throughout the Indonesia archipelago and bank offices in Jakarta and elsewhere. You couldn’t buy communications software for the processors we were using. You had to write it from scratch. If you tell the young people of today that, they won’t believe you.

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We were working at a telecoms supplier’s site in Bandung. I know it doesn’t look much from the outside.

A Japanese team were building the baseband modems and implementing the Aloha link protocol that had originally been invented for Alohanet. This gave me the primitives to work with to implement the CCITT protocols on top. X.28 was the protocol for character input/output (using to connect terminals across a network to mainframes) and X.25 was the packet-switching protocol for interconnecting computers. I still think of terminals at DTEs (Data Terminating Equipment) and I still think of networks as DCEs (Data Circuit Terminating Equipment). All of these quaint terms vanished from the pages of history about a week after TCP/IP was invented.

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As you can see, inside we had access to many modern facilities.

Implementing X.28 meant that staff could log on to bank mainframes using terminals in the branches. Implementing X.25 meant that remote minicomputers could interconnect. Getting the code to work, and getting it to work quickly enough, and getting it to work in the limited memory available was a fantastic education.

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Here I am making a few small adjustments to the communications processors boards.

It was here I learned all my UNIX tricks and C programming stunts. Those were the days when if you didn’t like the way that the team wrote code you could quickly knock up a parser to force them into line (which one of my colleagues did, using YACC), when you had to pretend to the system administrator that you didn’t have root access (which we all did) and when the disk packs held 5Mb so you had to be very careful with the space available (wipes tear from eye).

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As you can see, the team really appreciated my mad programming skills and their contribution to the great success of the project.

A few years later, I worked on a similar system using VSAT terminals in K-band (too much information, ed.) for a US telecommunications provider, one of Consult Hyperion’s first US projects. In those still pre-internet days, if you wanted to get data from a branch office back to HQ reasonably quickly you had to pay for a leased data line from the phone company, which was very expensive. Putting a satellite terminal on your roof was a cheaper alternative and as the frequencies went up from C- to Ku-based, so the dish sizes came down. The cost of installing and maintaining a six foot dish compared very favourably with the costs of leased lines.

I remember that one of the users of the system was a chain of car dealerships who had come up with a tremendously clever business case. When a customer came in to buy a car, the dealership would use the new satellite network to instantly credit check them. If they had good credit, they would be offered dealer credit. If they had bad credit, they would be referred to the local bank. Nice one. 

In the late 1980s and very early 1990s, I enjoyed working on a wide variety of projects around satellite data communications. I worked on technical architectures, system designs and even on regulation in a team with the now-infamous Vicky Pryce (who was then chief economist at KPMG, and who I remember as a very impressive and really clever, but also really nice person). Hence my nostalgia for the days of link budgets, low-noise blocks and data broadcasting.

What’s kind of weird now is that the stuff we used to send via satellite (TV, data) now comes into my house by fibre optic cable (another technology that destroyed part of my life’s work, as life as a Physics undergraduate included months spent working on a dissertation about gas lenses for lasers) and the stuff that we used to send by cable (phone calls) now comes into my house via wireless.

Ah, the good old days.

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