From Scientific Vandalism to Cybercriminals: A History of Hacking

While hacking is considered by most to be a modern phenomenon, you may be surprised to learn the first instances of it extend back to wartime communications in the early 1900s. The world we know of tablets, mobile devices and laptops haplessly connected to vulnerable public networks is only a modern iteration of decades-old issues with cyber security.

Although a comprehensive timeline of network issues is too lengthy to engagingly narrate, the following low-lights exemplify the crime’s change over time.

Hacking: The Beginning

In 1903, John Ambrose Fleming publicly demonstrated Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraph. Magician Nevil Maskelyne hacked the technology, changing the script to project insults in morse code to the audience as opposed to the presenter’s intended poem. This is believed by many to be the first realization that networked communications would need advanced levels of intentional security.

In the 1930s and 1940s, hacking can be said to have been used for good, thwarting enemy efforts in World War II. Recent film “The Imitation Game” narrates Alan Turing’s successful participation code breaking attempts built by the Nazi code machine called “Enigma.”

According to JSTOR, “some credit René Carmille as the first ethical hacker because he stalled Nazi demands to get France’s Jewish population registered by machine.”

Carmille and his fellow employees purposefully made mistakes when handling citizens’ punch cards, delaying the discovery of Jewish French citizens for four years. He also reprogrammed his own machines to exclude documentation of religion on census cards. “Ethical hacking” does not carry the same stigma as many modern security breaches, as it is performed with intentions that a majority believes to be morally right.

Telephones and Computers Create Bigger Hacking Opportunities

Hacking took a turn in the 1950s to 1970s with a focus on telephones and the emergence of phreaking: the action of hacking into telecommunications systems, especially to obtain free calls. Infamous phreakers, such as John Draper, developed blue boxes, electronic devices that could replicate tones used by phone companies such as AT&T to allow the handler control over phone lines.

Although Draper was eventually arrested and convicted of toll fraud in 1972, his innovations caught the attention of future Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who enlisted Draper’s help in product development.

During the 1970s to 1980s, computers won out as hackers’ main point of interest, with hacking groups sprouting up like digital gangs in a world that wasn’t sure how to police them.

In 1983, a group of American teenagers who self-identified as the 414 hacked into multiple computer systems.

“We ended up getting into about a dozen computer systems—from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to a major international bank system in Los Angeles to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of only two U.S. laboratories dedicated to nuclear weapons research,” Timothy Winslow, a member of the 414, said in a 2016 post on CNN.

The group, which claims it was just looking to play games and also existed in world devoid of hacking laws, did no real damage to any of the systems it hacked. Robert Tappan Morris, however, was a different story.

Harvard alum and Cornell Graduate student, Morris released the first “worm” virus in 1989, infecting more than 6,000 systems belonging to research centers, the U.S. military and universities. According to Mark Bowden of The Atlantic, “A worm is a cunningly efficient little packet of data in computer code, designed to slip inside a computer and set up shop without attracting attention, and to do what this one was so good at: replicate itself.”

What began innocently enough backfired due to an error in code, causing the worm to multiply at a significantly faster rate than intended. Although concrete figures are difficult to decipher, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated there was a loss between $100,000 and $10 million due to lack of internet access.

“We’ve built digital homes, only to leave the keys under the mat. “

Kevin Poulsen began his hacking career as a teenager in 1990, phreaking a radio station phone competition to win himself a Porsche. He continued on to slightly more invasive efforts. “The U.S. attorney in San Jose says that Poulsen had wiretapped the intimate phone calls of a Hollywood starlet, allegedly conspired to steal classified military orders, and reportedly uncovered unpublished telephone numbers for the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco,” reads an article by the LA Times.

David Smith followed not long after in 1999 with what is famously remembered as the Melissa virus. This macro-virus multiplied by way of email, sending itself to 50 contacts of each of its victims. The emails overwhelmed even the most reputable organizations, causing an estimated $80 million in damage as companies such as Intel, Lockheed Martin and Microsoft had to disable their email servers.

Hacking in the New Millennium

The early 2000s brought about the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which gained traction by hacking the Church of Scientology website in 2008. Gregg Housh, a former member of the group, describes it asan amorphous group of people that can include anyone who wants to use the brand to put forth their cause.”

The Conficker worm was released in 2008. After targeting a flaw in Windows 2000, it infiltrated a believed 500,000 personal computers in its first 30 days and grew to eventually infect millions. At less than 35 kilobytes of code, this worm went unnoticed on many devices. The attempted understanding and removal of this worm required the brains of many computer-security updates, whose efforts were thwarted multiple times by the worm’s original creators releasing updated versions of the malware.

PlayStation’s customer data was threatened in 2011, compromising names, birthdays, emails, passwords and other vulnerable information. Sony Pictures was hacked in 2014 in conjunction with the release of “The Interview.” According to The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson, “The attackers stole huge swaths of confidential documents from the Hollywood studio and posted them online in the following weeks—exposing them to everyone from potential cybercriminals to journalists who have been poring through the documents and reporting everything from the details of recent film productions to the extent of the employee data laid vulnerable on the Internet.”

Cyber insecurity is also believed to have played a role in recent political dealings in the U.S.

“On October 7, a formal statement from the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that Russia had been conducting hacking activity designed to interfere in the US presidential election,” reads a December 2016 Vox Magazine story.

The Never-Ending Fight Against Hacking

In research for this timeline, a consistently recurring idea was that hacks help experts see their systems’ weaknesses and flaws. They do so, however, at great financial expense, as well as the expense of private individual and company information.

We unfortunately perpetuate the pattern of increasing security measures after systems prove ineffective. A 2016 study from Fortune that surveyed 500 workers in technology revealed that after the Sony hack, 92.2 percent of respondents reviewed their security practices.

Relatedly, government response to these hacks has not matched the need. In many instances, there have been no precedents by which law enforcement could convict hackers once discovered. We’ve created a digital universe and set it loose with minimal governance. We’ve built digital homes, only to leave the keys under the mat.

It’s easy to believe cyber security is our upcoming doomsday scenario, that it could be the fall of modern society, and I suppose it could. Anything could. But in most of these instances, the victimized machines were targeted because of a lack of foresight. Creators overlooked the potential dangers. There was a breach, or a weakness, and something bad got in.

As much as I’d like to write an ending to the story, there isn’t one. This narrative will continue with time as both experts and amateurs seek to grasp hold of the unchartered, ever-evolving landscape they’ve created and let take hold.

It’s nearly impossible to foresee where all of this will go, but there are ways to better secure the digital neighborhoods we’re moving into. Additionally, there are good people continually working to further protect these landscapes.

My advice? Know how society is changing. Arm yourself with healthy doses of skepticism, criticism and proactivity without allowing it to overtake your worldview. Don’t accept until you’ve asked and received a sufficient enough answer. And please, for all of our sakes, use two-step verification.