The Hacker Card

By: Walter Metcalf
Date: 07/07/99


If you run a computer system you have thought about security. Security is protection: protection against viruses, misuse or abuse by others, theft of the computer, theft of the data contained in the computer, or corruption of the computer data. These are just a few types of problems that can beset a computer. Another we did not mention is data loss or corruption due to user error.

Ideally any security system you purchase and install should provide as complete protection as possible against all of the above threats to the integrity of the computer and its data. Unfortunately the better the protection a security system provides, the more it costs and, often more importantly, the greater the inconvenience to the user or owner. Often technology can provide a solution to help reduce the cost and inconvenience with tight security measures. The ingenious design of the Lenten Hacker Card has indeed reduced the cost of the high-level of the security it can provide to the point where its price should not be a barrier to anyone who can afford a PC in the first place: it currently costs about $30 U.S. Inconvenience is another matter.

  1. Design

    The Hacker Card consists of two parts:

    1. Expansion Card

      • A small ISA card whose primary component is a flashable memory chip; and

    2. A 3.5" diskette to program the memory chip.

      • After the unit is installed, the Hacker Card controls the startup of your computer. The code inside the the card is the first thing to be executed after the basic system BIOS. From there, you select which OS you wish to run, much the same as with Boot Manager or System Commander, or you can press a special key combination, followed by a password, to execute a special procedure. Again, this is similar to System Commander.

  2. Protection Provided.

    1. In general the level of protection afforded is quite extraordinary:

      1. Fast backup and recovery.

        Several features in this category are are provided:

        1. The system BIOS is (always) stored on the Hacker Card.

          • If a change is detected, the original is automatically restored, and you are warned of the change attempt.

        2. A bootable partition can be copied into a hidden location on the drive.

        3. A physical disk can be copied (cloned) onto a second disk.

          1. Obviously, for features b and c to be useful for backup and recovery, they must be performed regularly.

          2. This feature is especially valuable in a retail or VAR situation where the setup of one computer can easily be replicated on to several other machines.

      2. Read-only protection.
        • Optionally a partition can be designated read-only. Warning: Be sure the partition does not contain a file the system needs to update before making it read-only!

      3. Several levels of protection can be chosen by the administrator.

    2. Viruses, etc.

      1. The special backup and recovery techniques listed above make a powerful addition to traditional system backup techniques, which should still form the heart of a computer data security system.

      2. The automatic detection and rejection of changes to the the CMOS goes beyond this, and provides active protection and recovery of vital data not normally saved by traditional techniques. The same statement holds true of the "off-disk" partition table storage in the Hacker Card.

  3. Other Strengths

    1. Multi-Platform

      1. Supports DOS, OS/2, Win 9x, and Win NT

    2. Multi-Filesystem

      1. Supports FAT16, FAT32, HPFS, and NTFS

    3. Supports large number of bootable partitions--10.

  4. Weaknesses

    The weaknesses in the Hacker Card fall into two categories: simple design or programming restrictions, and inconveniences due to the Hacker Card's high level of security protection.

    1. Restrictions

      1. The restriction that pinched me the most was the limitation to 3 non-bootable (or data) partitions. My main disk isn't all that big (5.2G), but a restriction of 4 bootable partitions--all I need--and 3 data partitions is far too few to be practical. The situation would be even worse on a really big drive (>8GB).¹

      2. Only the first physical drive is accessed/processed.

        • Many users (including the reviewer) have multiple hard disks, with bootable partitions on the 2nd and beyond disk. There is no way to protect such partitions.

      3. The user's manual differs from the online text in many areas. For example, the entries in the main setup menu displayed on the screen bear little more than a passing resemblance to those displayed in the manual. It's possible this is due to language translation, but whatever the reason, it caused the reviewer considerable confusion, made worse by the critical nature of the data these functions deal with.

    2. Inconvenience

      • By far the worst inconvenience imposed by the Hacker Card is the complete incompatibility between the partition table created by the Hacker Card and the standard format used by FDISK and Partition Magic. This incompatibility sends us back to the days before Partition Magic where the only way to change a partition was to back up the complete physical drive on to tape, re-create the partition table, and then restore the complete physical drive. With the current sizes of most hard drives, this is an operation of draconian proportions. Note that this must be done to make even the slightest change to the size of one partition. One can only hope the developer will soon design a solution to this problem.

The Lenten Hacker Card is a unique product, completely compatible with OS/2, that offers a great deal of security protection at a low price. If you are in an environment requiring this level of protection, and can tolerate the restrictions and inconveniences, then this is a product you should definitely look at. Most single-computer users, however, will probably find, as I did, that the Hacker Card provides too much unneeded protection that requires giving up too much control of their system.

¹The current model of the Hacker Card has a small bug if the disk drive exceeds 8.4GB. A fix is being prepared as this is written. By the time you read this, the products being sold may have this fix incorporated in them. Check with your dealer.

For Further Reading:

The Hacker Card A review from OS/2 e-Zine by David Wei.

Partition Tables From Focus on OS/2 by Walter Metcalf.

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