In the beginning, like way back in the late 1800s, hackers were not even hackers—they were really more like practical jokers. When Bell Telephone first started up its operations, all incoming and outgoing phone calls had to be routed through a main switchboard, which created the perfect opportunity for some teenage boys who had been hired as “operators” to disconnect or midirect calls. Although this seems like a pretty innocent scenario with pretty low-tech equipment, it could be considered one of the first hacks ever. And from that point forward, the world of hacking only got weirder, more unpredictable, and decidedly darker.
The first real digital hack appeared in the 1960s when computers were mainframes, locked away in temperature-controlled rooms with heavy glass walls. At that time, running these machines was expensive stuff, so even programmers did not have unlimited access to them. But of course, these new technologies were positively fascinating to the young MIT students who wanted to accomplish as much as possible during their time on the keyboard, which is why they created shortcuts known as “hacks” to get things done faster—and oftentimes, better. One of most useful hacks of this time, called UNIX, was created by two employees from the Bell Lab’s think tank—Ken Thompson and Dennis Richie.
The beginning of this decade saw hackers poised and ready to start pushing the boundaries of what was possible. The future had arrived in the minds of many tech-savvy people, and the opportunity had finally arrived to explore it. The wired world had much to offer, and it was during this time that the endeavor of hacking transitioned from humorous mischief to something more serious.
Back in the 70s, making a long-distance phone call was not free. But in 1971, a computer programmer and Vietnam vet named John Draper—or more fondly, Captain Crunch—discovered a way to make free phone calls, a hacking method that became known as phreaking. Like freak but with a “p” for phone. This slang term was coined to describe the endeavors of people like the Captain, who were intent on studying, exploring, and ultimately manipulating the existing telecommunication operations.
Through reverse engineering of the phone system, phreakers were able to recreate the tones used to route long-distance calls to certain areas, thereby empowering themselves to phone up Aunt June in London without paying a dime. Even though there were no real laws in place to forbid this kind of phreaky behavior, it was clearly a step up from the mischief-based hacks of the 60s.
In the period between 1980 and 1983, the number of computers being used in the U.S. literally tripled, from 10 million to 30 million in just three years. And as this use drastically increased, so too did the number of hacks being seen in the wild. This spike in activity was directly caused by IBM’s development of the personal computer, one that could be fully loaded with CPU, software, memory, utilities, storage, and other cool things. And then the 1983 movie “War Games” came out with Matthew Broderick, and things went even crazier. It was the first film to ever show the inner workings of a hacker, and it put the nation on edge as we collectively began to realize the world was, indeed, changing technologically—and not always for the better.
Hacker groups started coming out of the woodwork, from 414 who broke into highly-protected systems at Institutions like Manhattan’s Sloan Kettering Cancer to a self-declared “Lex Luther” who founded the Legion of Doom (LOD) to a New York-based hacking group known as the Masters of Deception (MOD). And of course, these powerful entities often butted heads within their own community, most notably during the “Great Hacker War” when LOD and MOD tried to break into the opposing group’s networks, across the internet, X.25, and telephone services. Sure, a gang war in space definitely sounds criminal, but the truth is it was really more of a friendly competition between hacking heavyweights than a true fight.
As the 90s kicked into gear, there were still plenty of benign hackers on the scene; however, a new breed of malicious figures began to emerge as well. With a decidedly more nefarious intent, these “crackers” were more interested in stealing proprietary software from corporations, breaching systems for financial gain, launching computer worms, and even pulling off the first digital bank heist.
This also marked the period when the once close-knit hacking community began to splinter and fall apart. As the crimes increased in severity, so did the scrutiny by various authorities like the Secret Service who launched several sting investigations, conducted unexpected raids, and ultimately arrested a number of notable hackers. And as the penalties for hacking grew, the community began to shrink, even turning on one another in exchange for immunity.
Malicious hackers were so prevalent by this time, their actions began to throw shade on ethical hackers who were still motivated by traditional goals like discovery, innovation, and finding solutions. Denial-of-service (DOS) attacks became the hack du jour, taking down government entities as well as massive businesses like Microsoft, eBay and Yahoo. It felt a bit like the digital wild west, where the landscape was riddled with security holes, and digital outlaws roamed cyberspace equipped with the keyboard skills to exploit them. As malware infections forced the Pentagon to create a whole new military unit dedicated to cybersecurity, and the U.S. authorized the use of the first cyber weapon known as “Stuxnet” to infect a nuclear plant in Iran, the Department of Defense and International Space Station had its systems breached by a 15-year-old boy. Crazy times, indeed.
Just as a child grows from innocent pranks into a teenager with more discerning tricks, hacking in 2018 has clearly matured into a more sophisticated and complex adult. Lone wolves, Hacktivists, Wiki-Leakers, and other organized groups are now hiding in every corner of the internet, launching Ransomware or other network attacks to achieve a wide range of political, social, and financial goals. And as result, governments and organizations around the world are scrambling to harden their systems and try to learn the ropes of this new digital wilderness, where hackers have now become the predator—and they the prey.