Cracking MaGuS’s Fate Zero Encryption

I’m getting ready to upgrade my computer, and while going through some old files I stumbled across Fate Zero, the last version released of infamous Fate-X application. The tool was popular way back in the late 90’s since it added a lot extra functionality to AOL – some of which AOL was ok with, and some of which it wasn’t very fond of. It was created by two mysterious individuals known as MaGuS and FunGii. After Da Chronic (known for AOHell), MaGuS was probably the most widely known AOL hacker. Even though Fate-X 2.5 and 3.0 had a much bigger impact, Fate Zero was the most extensive in regards to features.

To maintain its status at the top of the heap, Fate Zero had to protect its external data, and this meant encrypting it so that other developers couldn’t snatch it up for their own progs. The prog scene of that time, however, is now long dead. Seeing these files today, I got curious. MaGuS was only 16 when he wrote Fate Zero. When I was 16, I knew almost nothing about encryption. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got a good exposure to the field of cryptography. Even though MaGuS seemed like a pretty smart guy, at that point in time he probably also didn’t know much about encryption. This made me think that the files might be easy to crack. It seemed like a fun way to spend a few hours, so I decided to see if I could decode them.

Interestingly (or not interestingly, depending on how you feel about it), the biggest source of external data for Fate Zero was AOL ASCII Art (ASCII Art done in 10pt Arial). This was typically used for scrolling into chat rooms. Fate Zero had over 500 files dedicated to this. You can see an example piece of art and its corresponding file encoding, below.

                         .--··´¯¯¯¨˜`·-.,
            .---··· ´¨¨¨                      `·.
       .·´                                        ',
    ,'                                               ',
   ¦             /|        |        /                  |
    ',     (     \\:\  |   /|      /''\     .|          |
      '·.  \|\ \.,'.|::\|\/ |¸,.-·´¨¨`·/.·´  |           |
         ` ·-\\|'/|¨`,     `|˜¨|¨˜`·„¸      |   |´¯`,    |
           ,'/||', \:'| ,     |_\::':/      |    |,  ,'     |
         ,'//|  ',¯¯·',                    |    | ¯        |
        ,'/  |  | ` ·.  --·´               |     |           |
        |´  |   |   _ ` ·.__ .·´        |      |/_        |
        |   |   |¨¯  ¯¯///,··\     ,.--·|      |  ',¯¨¨˜˜``'
        |.·´|   |--,··´¯//\ \ \    //   Aeka  _¸'·-By KioNe

File data for the above picture:

MDR恔…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f¡’ý)õý¦¡“rn~f”…f”…f”“sŽ¡ý”î
…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…fÁ,“Sk…f”…f,f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…mo恔…rˆ”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…fˆ rP”…쁔…f”…f”…f£áf”…f”…”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…Ân~f”Œr”…fœ…f”…¢½®Áfð…f£áf”…f£Œm½”…f”“”…f”…f”áSk…f”…m¢…f½ðÁf½¢‘mðŸ€½ðÁuðr¡ú
Åý¢ú”áf”…f”…f”áSk…f”…f”Åf¡Á¢Ý›”Â
Ô‘f”…fÁðýîÝý¦øf”…fð…fðõÁ …f”áSk…f”…f”…f›”ÂÝ›‘f½®ŒÂ …f”…ÂÀП€ˆ®”f”…fð…f”ár”‘m”…fðrP”…f”…f Œuð…fˆ õ›‘f”…f”…f”…f”…f”…”…fÝ”f”…f”…Ân~f”…f”‘m”…”áfÁ”t”’s)…f”…f”…f”…fð…f”…”…f”…f”…Ân~f”…f”áú”áf”áf”ÄfÁ”tÀÓ…t)…f”…f”áf”…fð”¥”…f”…f݁o恔…f”…”…”…Â
$…f$”u ý½”…f”‘tŽ¡”…f”áf›‘õ
ýÞÁÔŒSk…f”…fð“ýð…fð’s,ú£”¢Ð…¢”…f£…fµÊ±Â”…¥›s£í…‘Ê㳫n~

So right away it’s clear he’s not using a simple substitution cipher, yet due to the repeated use of white space in the source data, a pattern does seem to emerge in the encoded data. I compared the file sizes and found MaGuS’ encoded *.mdr files to be 5 bytes larger than their decoded counter parts. I chalked this up to the “MDR” that prefixed all the files, and the ending carriage return and line feed that seemed to end all of the files.

That meant there was probably one-for-one character encoding going on. After trying a few things out, I realized every 4th character seemed to use the same encoding. My guess was that he was combining 4 simple substitution ciphers, and using a different cipher depending on the index of the character. I created a quick script that read in an input/output combination and then tried to use that information to decode an encrypted file. To my delight, the script (mostly) worked! This was great, however, without knowing the full map of each cipher, I would only be able to get partial results.

I looked further and found each cipher was simply doing a character offset, meaning each cipher was a Caesar Cipher. The offsets were 70, 97, 116 and 101, respectively. If you look up the corresponding ASCII code for those numbers, you get the word “Fate”. I tried out this new decoding strategy and was able to successfully decode a directory of MaGuS’ files. I had broken the code! MaGuS was using what is known as the Vigenere Cipher, and for that particular directory, “Fate” was the pass-phrase.

In another interesting twist, I noticed certain types of files used different Vigenere keywords. For his *.mdf data files, the keyword “12151981” was used. My guess was that this was his birthday, since this date would have made him 16 when the prog was released and he mentions that he was 16 in the app’s about section. In this same about section he also mentions that he’s Asian and what high school he went to. This narrows down who he is to almost a T.

This got me thinking: “I wonder if I can track down who MaGuS was?” With the aid of some crafty googling, email addresses taken from webpages mentioned inside of Fate (if you dig through the machine code, you’ll find a dozen or so URLs), Rapportive (which can be used to look up social profiles based on email addresses), the internet archive, and leads taken from Fate Zero itself, I was able to pin point an individual who fit all of the criteria and was friends with people who got shout outs in Fate. I plugged their name and the “12-15-1981” birthday into dobsearch.com, and only one result came back, and it was from the state and city MaGuS said he lived in. I was stunned, I had found MaGuS.

I feel like it’d be wrong to out him, but at the same time I know it’d be a cop-out to not say anything. So I’ll just say that according to his LinkedIn and Facebook, he works for a consulting firm in the Washington DC area and is specializing in web related work. The rumors of him working for a security firm or of being this guy are false. He also seems to be somewhat of world traveler, and has a side hobby of being a photographer.

Part of me wondered for a second if I should contact him. He was a big inspiration to me back in the day, and Fate-X and its ilk are what led me to learn how to program. However, after talking with my wife, we thought that’d be too creepy. He made some cool progs a long, long time ago, no need to freak him out with some elaborate story that involves breaking some encryption he wrote over a decade ago.

Anyway, after I’d finished my little side quest, and I realized I still had 500+ decrypted AOL ASCII Art files, many of which haven’t seen the light of day in over a decade. Since some of that stuff is kind of cool, I decided to create a gallery for it. If you have a few moments check it out. Also, feel feel to grab and host any art there that you like, just be sure to leave in any artist signatures. It’s kind of strange to think that era is so far away, but also kind of neat to find remnants of it every so often.

2013.04.28 Update: A bit more has happened since I made the original post. MaGuS actually emailed me to congratulate me on the finding and to confirm his identity (though I’ll continue to respect his anonymity). He also mentioned that at the time he wrote Fate he had no training or knowledge of programming, and that he came up with his own encryption method as he went along. I don’t fault him for this, as Fate is still really impressive and I think most of us were in the same boat back then. He seems like a pretty cool guy, and I was glad to hear he enjoyed the post.

2016.03.10 Update: To reconnect with fellow former AOL developers:

219 thoughts on “Cracking MaGuS’s Fate Zero Encryption”

  1. I was around then also. I had a few names, xbhobx, went by CrypT KeepER also, among other things. Spent a lot of time distributing stuff in my warez group Anarchy Online haha.

    I had all these programs and wrote some myself in VB, taking decompilers to figure out the insides of stuff I made a random version of aohell also that I put out, among other random things. I remember making MACROS too, I loved scrolling my custom stuff in the rooms and contributed to MANY other programs that I can even remember. So funny looking back on it now (but I am grown up and a web developer, so something stuck with me!) If anyone has the programs hit me up I would love to get them all and keep the shit avail/alive.

    OTHER RANDOM TIDBIT: One of the contributors to FATE was in my high school (in Connecticut), an artist who is in the scrolling credits. Was friends with his brother at the time (middle school).

  2. This sure brings back memories. I wish I had my old Windows 95 machine. I left so many unfinished (and finished) projects on it. I wouldn’t be where I was today in my career without all those years screwing around on aol2.5/3.0/4.0.

  3. I went by Spoon and Moo. Anyone remember hanging out in The Island, private chat? Favorite place for the “AoHackers” to hang out in..

    Fate X was cool. But I was a fan of Pond Scum, and Ski’s amazingly fast scrollers.

    Aw, the good ole days of sending PW stealers to OH accounts and freezing up entire chatrooms, just because.

  4. This is mad old school, I remember everyone thinks that they’re l337, do they still use this word? I went by PoRnOGuY and had fun messing around. I remembered creating fake accounts using that magic Bank of America 4019 prefix, visiting freewarez / warez / newsgroups, phishing, TOSing and punting people. Great times.

  5. Ohhh those were the good old days of having fun online without the authorities spying on everything. Still miss punting people, used to be fun until they started having those CAT bots. Huge Thank You to MaGuS & FuNGii for their work, I’m sure I was the only one inspired by their Fate X proggies to eventually start a career in IT. And for those that used the faithful Fate X releases, I think you’ll appreciate listening to this song, just fast forward to 0:27 for the memorable part: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYBIRHi5-o8

  6. I, too, remember being all over AOL in the 90’s and it is the very reason I am a software developer to this day. AOL Proggies Forever!

    We should create an emulated AOL environment somehow and bring progz back. What do you guys think?

    1. Get me a machine with Windows 95 & a copy of Visual Basic 5 or 6, and I’m there 🙂 Maybe I’ll finally finish what was supposed to be my last proggie. It was really sick and had a 3d interface and custom animated / CGI intro. It was far too much work though, and new versions of AOL were coming out too often to keep up with, so I ditched it and decided to just do artwork for other proggies like Fate 🙂

  7. Holy cow… I was just reminiscing today and I thought about the “AOL Progie” days, and remembered that I was a huge, huge part of it back then.

    In fact, and I’ve never revealed this publicly before now, but I am the one who did the artwork for the “Fate” programs back then along with FuNGii 🙂 I actually did ALL the artwork for Fate Zero; I am aero1 🙂 My name is Brendan Davis, and I worked with MaGuS on Fate Zero the entire way through.

    Thank you for keeping this era alive with posts like this! It brings back fond memories of my childhood years (I was only about 13 or 14 when I worked with MaGuS on those). I am actually very ashamed of the intro I made for Fate Zero as well; way too filter-y, way too busy. But I was young, there were no Photoshop tutorials online for anything… hell, there wasn’t even a YouTube back then. Programs like Fate Zero, Materia (one of mine), Firetoolz (which I also worked on), etc. were the REAL beginning of file sharing (vis a vis “servers” and “mass mailers”) and not Napster 😉

    1. I didn’t read the whole article, so you ought to modify my comment to censor his name / protect his identity.

      I, on the other hand, do not care about my identity being revealed 😉

      I have, however, lost touch with him in recent years. If you have his email address, I would love to get in touch with him. In fact, he and I didn’t really talk much after Fate Zero; he was really burned out on “Fate” by then, and he got a lot of flack for it after the release as well, mostly by people saying Fate X 4.0 was better, and that 3.0 was his “Pieta”, in a sense. I think FuNGii leaving also had a lot to do with it.

      In any case, it’d be cool to get in touch with him and catch up. It’s been a really, really long time and I can only imagine what he’s up to these days. He was (and very likely still is) an absolute genius and was way ahead of his time!

    2. No way! Fire Toolz was the best back in the day. So many awesome memories. Didn’t the intro to one of the versions have a song from Prodigy in it?

      1. That was made by RJ2 right? I remember chatting with him back in the day and, I think, helping him out a little bit when he was learning in the beginning.

  8. That brings back a lot of memories. The good old days of the AOL scene and progs etc and not a responsibility in the world. Good to see your site is still up and running PatorJK, I used to stop by here regularly to look at your VB stuff. I think you had my VB3 or VB5/6 BAS file posted in your VB section (Layzie32.bas). Cheers

  9. <—-OH Account
    <—OH Account
    <–OH Account
    <-OH Account
    <–OH Account
    <—OH Account
    <—-OH Account
    <—OH Account
    <–OH Account
    <-OH Account
    <OH Account
    OH Account
    H Account
    Account
    Account
    ccount
    count
    ount
    unt
    nt
    t
    nt
    unt
    ount
    count
    count
    Account
    Account
    H Account
    OH Account
    <OH Account
    <-OH Account
    <–OH Account
    <—OH Account
    <—-OH Account
    <—-OH Account
    <—-OH Account
    <—-OH Account

    pwned. (^)O_o(^)

  10. Really miss the scene. MaGuS was a huge inspiration to me in programming. Same for Pat, dos, and Monk-e-God. Syber too. He was developing full featured MP3 players while the rest of us were still writing ccoms in AOL chatrooms. Syber was actually the one that made me realize I could take this from a hobby to a career. Never spent a day in school learning the program, and still to this day I use the self-taught knowledge from my time in this scene specifically on a daily basis.

    Anyone remember what this did pre-AOL4.0?

    So much fun! I would give up anything to still have some of the projects I started way back then.

  11. I found this by way of google imaging Fate x 3.0. I’ve spent the past half hour in a dazed out memory wormhole. A few memorable handles from the early days that I’d love to know what happened to:

    pizza – The rumor at the time was that he was arrested for fraud, true/false?
    face – back when having l33t sn’s was the jam, this dude had them all…
    hiwind – amazing programmer

    1. Big Pizza X wasn’t arrested for fraud. I last connected with him about 8 years ago or so. He’s doing well for himself. He was a smart kid.

      Are you WiLD?

  12. I am a cop now, I give it all up to have the internet go back to how it was in 1995. Remember, using computer back then was for losers. Look how times have changed now lol everyone can’t live without it!

    Ps: master congratulations on your work on planetsourcecode.com

    -511

  13. I was Merlin of the legendary “merlin tools” (pretty unstoppable punter at the time lol). That was a great time to be alive!

  14. He continues by saying that an “outside” supercomputer in the past wouldn’t have been powerful enough to run even the handheld game he is playing, much less crack the encryption and read any information they attained from Academy City.

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