1903: Nevil Maskelyne. Just minutes before John Fleming would introduce the long-range telegraph to an awaiting crowd, his machine received a message. It wasn’t from the intended sender - Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian radio developer, who had been 300 miles away ready to showcase the fact that a telegraph would wirelessly receive Morse code messages. Instead, the physicist, Fleming, got the poem “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” sent to him over the telegraph, in reference to Marconi.
Five years prior to this showcase, Marconi claimed that he could specifically tune his instruments so that no other telegraph could send or receive messages on the same wavelength. He essentially believed he’d created a secure messaging system. He was, obviously, wrong. A British performance magician named Nevil Maskelyne confessed to the hack in the popular London newspaper, The Times, saying he revealed the poor security for the good of the public.
1943: Rene Carmille. French-born hero, Rene Carmille, was a punch card computer expert. This old style of computing allowed for data collection and storage. It was used in France in the 1940s to collect data for the National Statistics Service. Carmille was a double agent for the French Resistance, and he used his power as the head of the National Statistics Service to help the Resistance and the Jews during World War II.
Carmille began by causing delays by “mishandling” the census punch cards. This meant that the census counters would have to count the data manually instead of allowing the computer to handle it. When this wasn’t enough to protect his Jewish compatriots, he hacked his own computers. He reprogrammed them to ignore the ‘Religion’ column on the punch card. He was caught eventually and arrested in 1944. In January 1945, he was murdered in Dachau for his crimes against the Nazis. He was, inarguably, an extraordinary man.
1971: Fraser Lucy. A form of hacking called ‘phone phreaking’ was made famous by Esquire when Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article featuring Fraser Lucy and his little blue box. Phreaking utilized electronic tones to manipulate phones into switching calls -- letting the phreaker make a free phone call anywhere in the world. Lucy demonstrated for Rosenbaum by calling an 800 number (free dial) at a phone booth, recreating the tone for a dial to London with his little blue box (a costly, long distance dial), and dialing a phone booth in the city’s center. The call connected to a rain-drenched Londoner who picked up the ringing pay phone and discussed his 5 AM hangover. Once they hung up, Lucy got his dime back from the payphone - all because the payphone believed he’d made a local 800-number call.
The 1980s brought along a more mainstream view of hacking. Magazines devoted entirely to hacking were debuted, the “Hacker’s Handbook” was released in the UK, and the classic WarGames premiered. During this decade, hacking was thrilling. It was associated with teenage recklessness and dangerous excitement. It wasn’t yet the catastrophic thing it is now.
1982-83: The 414s. Six teenagers described as “young, male, intelligent, highly motivated, and energetic” comprised the 414s (so named for their Milwaukee area code). These kids broke into around 60 computer systems which included laboratories and financial institutions. This would be one of the first times that computer hackers were prosecuted in the United States, although none of them would see any jail time for this offense. Their attack was mostly harmless, but it did end up costing one laboratory a little over $1000 to rectify the data loss.
Unsurprisingly, the 414s utilized the exact same weaknesses we still see today: administrative negligence and bad passwords.
By the 90s, the harmlessness of hacking had ended. Cyber attacks were now being used for dangerous and destructive chaos. It wasn’t uncommon for hackers to have a monetary goal, but the general attitude during the 90s seemed to be “I hack because I can.” It was about proving your hacking chops and seeing just how much trouble you could cause.
1996: In the second half of this year, major US government websites were hacked and defaced. The US Department of Justice, the CIA, and the US Air Force were all targeted. This was the beginning of the push for cybersecurity. If someone could hack into government websites, what kind of damage could they cause? It is unclear if these attacks were committed by the same people, but the attack on the CIA was claimed by a group of Swedish hackers.
1999: Over a couple months in late 1999, a 15-year-old Texas hacker causes utter chaos for NASA. He was able to access international space station computers and Pentagon computers responsible for weapons. He intercepted over 3,000 emails, stole passwords, and expensive software used exclusively by NASA. As a result, NASA had to shut down for 21 days in order to clean up the mess. The teenager was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to 6 months in jail.
At the turn of the century, more and more cybercriminals began using their skills for financial prosperity. This is where more recent attacks like the theft of 40 million credit card numbers from Target in 2013 come into play. Cybercriminals now consider their illegal hobby a career. It’s how they make their living, and it’s more dangerous than ever.
Hacks, both big and small, are a daily occurrence now. It’s unavoidable, and the future is looking just as bleak. It is never going to be possible to stop cybercriminals from trying to steal money or personal data from innocent people.
2018: Marriott guests from 2014 to September of 2018 may have had their personal information shared with cybercriminals who could use that information to steal their identities. This hack may have affected up to 500 million people, but the damage done is still unknown.
In 2019 and beyond, it is more important than ever to protect yourself from cybercrime. While the hacks that hit the news are all massive (like Marriott and Target), there is a much deeper problem. Small businesses are the number one target for hackers. This is because it is so much easier to target hundreds of small businesses with weak security than it is to go after one large corporation with multiple levels of cybersecurity.
Make sure you can protect yourself and your small business by investing in cybersecurity that works.