Yohannon (yohannon) wrote,

A VERY Quick Entry...

(I just sent the following to UrbanLegends.com... and yes, it's true!)


Well, where does one begin?

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, as several of us were hanging out and having the kinds of discussions one has before finally giving up and getting sleep like some saner sorts, the topic came up of a bizarre incident I had during my tech support days (July, 1990, to be exact) and the even more bizarre reminder of it almost five years later (June of 1995).

I am referring to none other than the "Trinidad Coup", preserved at:


Which I discovered after getting a clue and realizing that if the darn thing re-surfaced in my in-box at Apple, then odds were good it had found its way onto some of the newsgroups, even then. A quick google search, and I found both it and Mr. Linn's attempt to debunk it. However, I'm afraid he went a little bit overboard, as there are actually some elements of TRUTH buried in all of the embellishment that you have recorded on your site.

I was a SuperMac Tech Support Engineer from 1989 through 1993 (someone had neglected to inform me that the average turnover in Tech Support was six months). Thanks to the fact that I saved the original E-mail I wrote regarding the incident, the event in question happened during July, 1990, indeed during the *failed* Muslim coup around the same period.

Here's a point by point of the original UL and Linn's reponse:

> This falls into the "Why did it have to happen on *MY* shift?" category.
>> A friend of mine is a chief engineer at SuperMac, and he related this
>> story to me.
> >
>SuperMac was a HARDWARE company. They made monitors and video cards and hard disks for
>Macs. The only software they ever wrote or sold was drivers for hardware.

Mr. Linn is in error here. True, SuperMac got it's start as a hardware upgrade company -- it's first product was a memory upgrade to Mac 512's that brought them up to a whopping 1 (as in *one*) megabyte. This was essentially the founder of SuperMac (Steve Edelmann) soldering memory chips directly to the motherboard. Scary stuff, kids.

Then, thanks to a series of acquisitions and distribution deals, SuperMac DID sell several software products. PixelPaint Pro (paint program), DiskFit (a backup solution developed by a Dantz before Retrospect), and a little product called Sentinel. More on that later...

Now, the reason behind Linn's mistake is simple: Mr. Edelmann had sold SuperMac to a company called SMS, but SMS essentially almost ran the company into the ground. Steve bought the company back, and once things were stable he sold off the software to concentrate on hardware products. One of those was a little side project by one of the engineers, one Randy Ubillos, who worked on one of the first video input cards for the Mac (this was before Quicktime was released) called ReelTime. You may know it better under the name the purchaser's decided upon: Adobe Premier. But I digress...

>> SuperMac records a certain number of technical support calls at random,
>> to keep tabs on customer satisfaction. By wild "luck", they managed to
>> catch the following conversation on tape.
>From help desk experience, monitoring is usually done live. Correcting
>some poor support guy the next day is not nearly as effective as
>correcting them at the time. Those of you who've trained puppies may
>understand this well.

Actually, our tech support department wasn't even THAT sophisticated. The only reason that story exists at all is that I created an after the fact transcript of the call (which I'm going to have to dig through countless old floppies to see if a copy still exists) while it was still fresh in my mind.

>> Some poor SuperMac TechSport got a call from some middle level
>official... > from the legitimate government of Trinidad. The fellow
>spoke very good > English, and fairly calmly described the problem.
>Well of course they spoke very good English. As a former British colony,
>it is their official language.
>A link to a Trinidad and Tobago homepage
>(http://caribbean-www.lcs.mit.edu/caribbean-www/islands/tnt/) shows that
>"The old French-based patois has almost died out; some Hindi is still
>used among the Indian community. "

I actually described him as having an english ACCENT. At the time I had no idea where trinidad was... in fact, I was disturbed how clueless I was about their "current difficulties", as he described it. He HAD mentioned he was in the government, but made no mention as to what part or level he participated in.

>> It seemed there was a coup attempt in progress at that moment. However,
>> the national armoury for that city was kept in the same building as the
>> Legislature, and it seems that there was a combination lock on the door
>> to the armoury. Of the people in the capitol city that day, only the
>> Chief of the Capitol Guard and the Chief Armourer knew the combination to
>> the lock, and they had already been killed.
>The fact that the national armoury would be in the same building as the
>legislature seems "fishy" to me. This is not some tinpot dictatorial
>government here, but a peaceful former British colony, with a
>democratically elected government. Its also disputed in the letter
>quoted below.

Ok, and this is where the ultimate game of "telephone" that is the internet comes into play...and how an off-hand humorous comment can morph into something ludicrous.

After the transcription in question, I had a conversation with a couple of passing engineers about the incident. One comment, included in the note as such, was "Heh...it was probably the combination lock to the armory or something," to which the other replied "Wow, what a great marketing opportunity... 'Sentinel: The product so secure that the government of trinidad fell before it could be broken."

Now, regarding that last bit of the UL saying that people had been killed: That was NEVER said. I had asked the caller if there was any way the person who had encrypted the files in question (which were not identified) could be contacted, the response was "They are, unfortunately... [pause] ...unavailable". In my original e-mail, I mention that it sounded like something ominous had happened to the people who had the password.

>> So, this officer of the government of Trinidad continued, the problem is
>> this. The combination to the lock is stored in a file on the Macintosh,
>> but the file has been encrypted with the SuperMac product called Sentinel.
>> Was there any chance, he asked, that there was a "back door" to the
>> application, so they could get the combination, open the armoury door,
>> and defend the Capitol Building and the legitimately elected government
>> of Trinidad against the insurgents?
>In 1994 I conducted an extensive review of Macintosh security software.
>Sentinel did not exist as a software package. There is a product called
>Sentinel which is a dongle sold by Rainbow products. A dongle is a
>hardware device you attach to a serial port (sometimes parallel) which
>some types of software use to verify the legitimacy of the ownership.
>Often used by high end CAD programs costing thousands of dollars (and
>almost exclusively on the PC platform). Given the longstanding existance
>of the Sentinel dongle, I am highly dubious that another product could
>have the same name. We are talking America here, where there are lawyers
>just aching to sue.

This is only half correct. Sentinel DIDN'T exist as a software package in 1994... because we stopped selling it as a product two years earlier, and didn't exactly push it much before that. It was a fairly simple product (written by the master programmer, Peter Barrett in the later 80's), remarkably trouble free...in fact, the only support calls I ever got on the product were INVARIABLY "I forgot my password" calls, to which we had a series of set responses to.

Since the product was discontinued, it's unlikely SuperMac (who had the pre-existing claim in this case, BTW!) would have bothered to sue Rainbow. Of course, I was not privy to the legal machinations that may have included purchase of the trademarked name from S'Mac, so for all I know there WAS an issue...but it was resolved by '94.

>As a former desktop computer security guy, I can tell you that you would
>have to verify one's identity somehow before getting tech support to try
>and subvert security. Been there - passwords, signatures, letters of
>authorization from senior executives etc. You can't just call up, and
>say, "Gee I forgot my password, can you help me break in?". Think about
>how absurd that is.

It is. There was no way we COULD have helped to break in, even if we wanted to.

I should note that this individual was a bit of a hot potato support-wise: He had already been calling everyone at the company, and had been verified as legitimate before he hit the tech support queue. It was no mistake he was sent to me, either -- My boss, Tim Calica (no longer with us, I'm afraid) passed it over to me after letting me know the nature of the call, at least from a product support standpoint. It was only the DETAILS of the call that took me a bit aback.

>> All the while he is asking this in a very calm voice, there is the sound
>> of gunfire in the background. The Technical Support guy put the person on
>> hold. A phone call to the phone company verified that the origin of the
>> call was in fact Trinidad. Meanwhile, there was this mad scramble to see
>> if anybody knew of any "back doors" in the Sentinel program.
>> As it turned out, Sentinel uses DES to encrypt the files, and there was
>> no known back door. The Tech Support fellow told the customer that aside
>> from trying to guess the password, there was no way through Sentinel, and
>> that they'd be better off trying to physically destroy the lock.
>The DES encryption algorthym is classified as a munition by the US
>government and cannot be exported outside of the US and Canada. Go to
>the store and read the boxes people (Try Symantec's Disklock for
>example). In France, where it is considered a munition as well, you have
>to get a permit to import such software.

This is actually true. I actually informed the caller of this as well, though I was never clear if they had obtained it legitimately or not... Even Mr. Linn mentions that permits and special circumstances CAN allow the importation of such products.

>This doesn't preclude the fact that someone might have bought it in the
>states and stuck it in their briefcase. But governments would try and
>avoid such embarrasments.

Well, it wasn't embarrassing until someone forgot the password. ;-)

>There are many people (other the NSA which have the backdoor, as its
>their algorithym) who could break the DES encryption, given enough time
>and horsepower. In 1990, it was beyond the means of most, unless you had
>access to a supercomputer.

And since this response was crafted, distributed computing has rendered DES effectively useless. What a difference 12 years makes.

>> The official was very polite, thanked him for the effort, and hung up.
>> That night, the legitimate government of Trinidad fell. One of the BBC
>> reporters mentioned that the casualties seemed heaviest in the capitol,
>> where for some reason, there seemed to be little return fire from the
>> government forces.

Just a point: They DID thank me for my help, though they also kept calling the company.

>This is where the story falls to pieces. I point you to a letter which
>debunks this theory totally;
>Net_culture_ and_hacking/Folklore/Humor/encryption_foils_coup.response

A dead link, unfortunately. A search of EFF's site came up empty as well. Darn...

>The orginal posting in a previous issue of the above newsletter can be
>found at http://www.dbai.tuwien.ac.at/marchives/ece/0201.html

I just saw the original UL here... no sign of the debunking.

>another debunking occurs in

ANOTHER dead link, darn it all!

>The coup was not successful, the governement did not fall, the
>casualties were light. The return fire was low because the attackers
>took hostages. After 6 days they gave up.

This is true. A note can be found on the old clarinet news feeds:


It contains specific details regarding the coup that, to be honest, I didn't learn until tonight. It actually sounds a bit more complicated then Mr. Linn's account (the Prime Minister and part of the legislature were amongst the hostages).

>In reseraching this on the Web, I found this story, told verbatim, on
>many humour or joke pages, as well as some computer newsletters which
>reported this as fact. The story seems not to have vectored at all, but
>remained a copy and paste job, and survived intact. Interesting that.
>This is a relatively easy one to debunk, but yet it persists (first
>sightings through Alta Vista, Sept 1995). You have to wonder why.
>Having borne the brunt of many users opposed to the concept of security
>software on their workplace computers, I have to think that stories like
>the above UL exist because of a deep seated mistrust of technology. Look
>what could happen if we trust technology too much. Why, the government
>might fall.

My surprise at the dissemination of this particular UL (aside from the simple fact that I somehow started it) is that the original e-mail I authored was NOT sent to the 'Net in any way. SuperMac used a proprietary e-mail system in '90, CE Software's QuickMail. It was entirely an internal system, not gatewayed to any of the various online services at the time (if I recall correctly, gateways to such services...CompuServe, GE's Delphi, et all) came a year or so AFTER this incident.

In any case, that note went to maybe 8 people, mostly within the department as a "Geeze, what a wild call!" story. I'm sure it spread throughout the company, though I never really thought about it after the next month or so (at least until '95, when it was sent to me in it's current form).

While there's no way to tell for sure, it's possible that the "new" version was the result of someone mentioning the e-mail several years after the fact. That it appears on the Net in 1995 doesn't surprise me -- that was pretty much the year the WWW hit it's stride, resulting in a lot of people with this cool new toy and very little to say. Since I received it at Apple in *June* of '95 (a full three months earlier than the 9/95 date listed here) it may actually have come out as much as 2 years earlier, perhaps undergoing the occasional tweak. Once it hit the 'Net at large, it seems to remain completely unchanged until late 1997, when I'm guessing it became too dated to be of interest (though there are derisive allusions to the UL in posts well into 1998...fully 8 years after the original events!)
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