Remembering AOL’s FDO91 Programming Language

Back in 1999 I cofounded AOL-Files.com, which eventually grew into the largest AOL hacking site of its kind.

One of the primary methods we used to discover exploits in the AOL software was by writing our own script’s using AOL’s Form Definition Order (FDO) programming language. From the AOL-Files FAQs on FDO:

FDO stands for Form Definition Operator. AOL communicates using this programming language. For example, after clicking any icon or button in AOL, FDO code is sent by the AOL system and interpreted by your AOL to create a window. So, the FDO language is the language used to describe forms on the AOL client. This site has focus on learning how to program in FDO and provides a surfeit of examples and tutorials for those who want to learn.

When BMB, Rob, and I started AOL-Files, FDO was all but unknown outside of the AOL development teams.

We did not have any official documentation, but through lots of experimentation we were able to figure out how FDO worked and eventually how to use it to discover holes in the AOL software and service.

Here, for example, are three tutorials I wrote back in the day as an introduction to FDO91 (the version of FDO in use at the time):

To give you an idea of how much we sought after an official manual, I wrote this in the first lesson:

FDO tutorials are unheard of. I have heard rumors that very few people at AOL have the FDO91 Manual. I will pay money for any professionally written, extensive, and full tutorial. Name your price.

A little dramatic maybe, but we really did want the official manuals. Rather than reverse engineer it through experimentation, an official manual would tell us exactly what did what and with that information we could discover exploits at a much faster rate than ever before. Alas, we never got ahold of one and had to make due with figuring it through trial and error.

Why mention all this now? A friend recently pointed me to this photo on Flikr by Joe Loong:

We have:

  • Building an Online Service
  • New Building User’s Guide
  • Editorial Plan
  • FDO91 Manual – Volume 1
  • FDO91 Manual – Volume 2
  • Information Provider’s Guide
  • Bringing Information Online Using Rainman (more info on Rainman here)
  • FDO88 Manual

Wow. Only 12 years too late :)

AOL-Files Head Nod

I love running into folks that remember AOL-Files:

To be honest, my Dad gets the nod for buying me a VB book that included VB5 back in 5th grade (1997). But, I’ll have to say that you (with that AOL-Files.com site) and this guy named “Oogle” inspired me with the “hacker” curiosity by about 6th grade. In this case it was all black-hat though =)

From a HacherNews post about how folks got started in programming.

Good times.

Adrian Lamo AOL-Files Profile

Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned in Bradley Manning, a 22 year old Army Specialist who submitted classified documents to Wikileaks, used to be heavily involved in the AOL hacking scene many years ago.

Here’s his AOL-Files.com profile when he went by the name Magus:

Inverview taken on: 1/12/01

What is your primary handle? I’ve gone by Magus since I first started using online services – at the time, bulletin board systems – in the early 90’s.
What are your current AIM screen names? Line Trace
What is your e-mail address? adrian@adrian.org
Do you have a web site? inside-aol.com, terrorists.net, securid.org
What is your real name? Adrian Lamo. . if you want to be technical, its the Doctor Reverend Adrian A. Lamo, Ph.D . . Doctor of Divinity and minister through the Universal Life Church, the grandma of all diploma mills everywhere. . .i don’t take those seriously, and don’t expect anyone else to, but i put them on my resume and my business cards to make a point of my disdain for the certification and educational process.
Where do you live? i move around alot .. i like to travel, and have lived on both coasts, and spent a couple years in south america. . i’m in transit right now. . but am based out of San Francisco.
How old are you? 19
What are your hobbies? i like to break and explore. breaking things is integral to the progression of technology. . people accuse me of being directionless, but i think its important to drop dynamite into the pond sometimes, to see what floats up. in my copious free time, i like to explore abandoned buildings and sewer systems, as well as exploring occupied buildings – its amazing how many security guards will escort you up to the roof of a skyscraper if you only ask, or won’t even stop you if you look like you know where you’re going. . urban exploration is definitely a big passtime. one of the reasons i like to travel, too., i used to be involved in local activism and whatnot. . worked with the city government, stuff like that. . i’m massively disinterested in politics now though.
How would you describe your physical appearance? scrawny geek ; )
What do you hope to do as a profession? same as i do now. . short term, interesting contracts for worthwhile places. i’ve been working since i was 16, and have run through a pretty big variety of jobs and contracts. . most of them designed to be short term .. i did a 3 month security audit for a fortune 500 company once, that was probably the most interesting. . but i’ve worked for everything from nonprofits to law firms to private investigation firms. . i set up a Netzero account for one of kevin mitnick’s former attorneys at one of them, of all the ironic things. . thats the sort of thing i want to keep doing. i don’t want to be stuck behind the same desk all my life, working at the same place until i have too much invested in what i’m doing to be able to do anything to risk it.
How long have you been on AOL? used the service briefly when i was younger, when it was known as Quantum Link, and i was playing around with my commodore 64. . but i didn’t start to really use it til the mid-90’s. . i used AOL 1.6 for DOS/GeoWorks for the longest time, and actively resisted going over to the Windows version until they started disabling features one by one. .they eventually sunsetted it altogether in June of 1999. So. .something like 7 or 8 years now.
How much time do you think you spend online each day? it varies. . .depending on where i am and what i’m doing. sometimes, if i’m interested in something, i’ll spend days online nonstop. . sometimes i’ll spend days without touching a computer. on a really average day, anywhere between 4 and 12 hours ;x
What programming languages are you familiar with? i don’t really program. the only languages i’ve worked with are x86 assembler and OPL for the EPOC16 palmtop OS.
What do you spend most of your time online doing? breaking and exploring -=)
Who are your good friends online? They know who they are.

AOL-Files Fanfare on Digital Gangster

Ten years ago I helped cofound AOL-Files.com, a website devoted to finding and exploiting holes in the America Online service. Together, Rob, BMB, and I grew AOL-Files into one of the most respected community of amateur hackers on the net.

Recently I started Googling for information about the site, to see if anything other than the archive on this site was still online. To my great surprise, the site is still talked about regularly on hacker forums.

Digital Gangster, the most notable of the lot, appears to be where a lot of the former AOL-Files crew migrated after it was taken down.

Here are a few excerpts:

yes I do, you used to hang with the aol-files crew we used to chat on rob’s irc server and talk about hax0ring the world

O0O, April 2007

O0O was a major contributor to the site and eventually one of the staff. The word “brilliant” comes to mind when I remember his work.

i edited my aim 5.1 by learning the hex offsets via tauville from aol-files

mx, July 2007

I went by the alias Tau back in those days — never heard the term tauville before, but I think he’s referring to some of the articles I wrote. Glad to help!

There was a long discussion in 2007 about an article that appeared on Wired about a hacker named Smokey, the “self-professed ringleader in the AOL hax0ring scene”. There’s a lot of discussion in the thread about AOL-Files while they try to determine the accuracy of Smokey’s claims. O0O sums it up pretty well:

The only Smokey I remember from back in the day was a coat-tail rider of some of the old AOL-Files crew. The guy was a young newb that knew less than Cam0.

There are also several threads dedicated to people posting their old AOL-Files profiles:

In March 2008, omer downloads AOL-Files from Archive.org and posts a link to it:

thanks to webarchive.org ive been able to get a lot of documents from aol-files.com from 2001. most important thing is that ive recovered A LOT of the FDO documents/tokens/keywords/arguements/SOFTWARE (which is already on my site ) and including the People’s list, (which im sure a lot of you readers can find your names/handles on there.) I know a lot of you will look at it and be like what the fuck? Thats okay because i think i did an okay job with at least in some perspective bringing it back to life. and i made it for fun so <^> . Enjoy!

Later in the thread there’s some discussion about when AOL-Files.com launched in relation to Observers.net. O0O sets the record straight again:

In April `99, Moo/Brat and other ex-CLs filed their Department of Labor complaint asking the US GOVT to rule that CLs should be paid a wage, that they weren’t really volunteers, but workers in a sweat shop. I never really agreed with them and their interpretation of the law, but went with it cause it gave AOL bad press. This got Observers alot of mainstream media attention, etc. It was also Kelly’s shining moment in the spotlight, her 15 minutes of fame. Over the next year, Kelly took over more control of Observers, by the end of the year she owned the domain, paid for the webhosting and all the original staff had left. She brought in her own lapdogs and slowly ran the website into the ground with overt censoreship of the forums, not letting anyone ever criticize here or exercise an opinion opposite of hers. Around that time aol-files sprung up and all the real deal hax0rs moved over to those forums and eventually their IRC.

and

The Obs forums died once Kelly started censoring them in late `99. Newriot wasn’t even around until late `99 if I remember correctly. That website was pretty fuckin stupid and the forums there were filled with script kiddies who thought they were badass cause someone taught them one of the 6 methods to jack an AIM. AOL-Files was the best website/forums ever regarding AOL shit.

Newriot…wow… memories.

and

Good times while it lasted, AOL-Files was way better though, definately the best of all sites and the best msg board for the scene.

In June 2007, a2 posts another link to the archive.org version of AOL People, which people nostalgically browse through and post their old profiles.

i forgot who was in charge of that but i think you just had to email the template filled out to like people@aol-files.com

Rather than create a form that let people post their information, I had everyone email it to me and then I manually went formatted them and created pages for everyone. What a major pain in the ass.

From March 2009:

aol-files is still up if you guys didn’t know matt kept most of the archive up and the members and the database of aliases oh don’t we miss them days

And in October 2008, after I post the AOL-Files archive on this blog, people discover more profiles. The common response when people see their old profiles is “wow, I can’t believe I wrote this”. I wholeheartedly agree.

Good times.