“Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.” – The Hacker’s Manifesto, 1986
Hackers are often depicted in the public eye as caricatures of bored teenagers, Russian cybercriminals and government spooks.
But the history of hacking is rich with self-taught minds, skilled in mining the abstract for world-changing ideas.
Take for instance Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who in the above photo were busy working in an early Apple headquarters located in the garage of Jobs’ parents. As we’ll discover later on, these two had their shadier moments and could perfectly well be seen by society as some sort of juvenile delinquent wrecks.
Here’s a look at 6 odd things about the history of hacking. These might just change your perspective of the whole ordeal that is computers and their security.
A toy whistle, Nixon and toilet paper
As writers like Bruce Schneier have spent entire careers trying to explain, when humans build stuff, security is an economic tradeoff. Or the mother of afterthoughts.
A grand example: In the ‘70s, one John Draper realized that
1. The creaky, old tone dialing system would hand out free long-distance calls if the caller generated the correct sound frequencies operators would use to route calls
2. Phone system manuals with lists of tone frequencies were available in many libraries
3. A toy whistle bundled with Captain Crunch cereal could produce said dialing tones
Enter phreaking, or phone hacking. Like many others, Draper, who adopted the moniker Captain Crunch, had some fun. Captain Crunch even learned how to reach the President, who just so happened to be Richard Nixon. The Commander in Chief was told to fetch toilet paper for a public restroom in Los Angeles (they were all out).
Run-ins with the law ensued, especially when purpose built tone generator devices, or “blue boxes,” became a business idea. Such an enterprise was run by a young Steve Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak. John Draper aka Captain Crunch went on to write the first word processor for the Apple II while serving time.
WWII + Cyber Warfare = a thing
Cryptanalysis, the art of deciphering codes without a key, changed the course of the Second World War. After having pretty much created the basis of programmable computers as a pre-war civilian, British math and logics prodigy Alan Turing broke the cryptography used in the prolific Enigma encryption device of the early 1900s. Turing’s cryptanalysis allowed Allied forces to get a grip on Axis powers communications during the war’s final stages.
Networks made crime a whole lot weirder
Online crime, first in the shape of playful exploratory intrusion, started appearing as the world got more connected throughout the 80s. The media narrative of mostly young, male cybercriminals of the day caught on and stuck, hacker terminology and all.
The all-encompassing catchphrase of cybercrime appeared in the late ninteties. Over the following decade, the world slowly started to recognise increasingly financial incentives behind hacking and malware.
Even now, after massive uncovering of international government efforts to weaponise networks for exploits like mass surveillance and targeted attacks on infrastructure, we are still catching up with what it means for trust, society and commerce to be thrown into a world where security threats are less local.
To hack is to tinker
A great deal of hacking history is really all about artful and cool engineering tricks. There are still those who prefer to refer to hacking, as a criminal activity, by the word “cracking”.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hacking as to “cut with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion.” At M.I.T. in the 1950s, the word found new meaning in playing about with machines and electrical systems. In 1955, the Tech Model Railroad Club requested that “anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”
Soon after, computer labs started to occupy the minds of the science club demographic. At MIT, the tradition of hacking as cool tinkering lives on. In 2012, someone turned an on-campus building into a game of Tetris.
In internet culture, there remains some relatively common understanding of hacking as engineering, i.e. through blog phenomena like “lifehacking”, the endeavour of documenting clever improvements to everyday life and workflow.
The internet was preceded by a military project planned with nuclear war in mind. To pull this off, the US government needed minds capable of churning out weird things, such as algorithms for complicated networks where data packets are assumed not to flow uninterrupted or to arrive in the right order. Freaks with the required mindset seemed to generate a mutant culture where snarky, business-minded libertarianism merged with hippy ideas of the commons. Consequently, people with little respect for “The Man” started flowing into IT during the seventies.
One such person is John Gilmore, who wrote a precursor to DHCP. DHCP is the magic you use every time your game console or smart phone nicely join your home network requiring no more tedious bullshit than a Wi-FI password. Gilmore is more known for co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation and his great one-liner: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Not to mention his taking to court the lost right to fly domestic without showing ID (an unsuccessful endeavor).
Below is a 2005 photo of EFF founding members John Gilmore, John Perry Barlow (known as the major lyricist of The Grateful Dead) and Mitch Kapor (founder of Lotus Software).
The world’s most famous imprisoned hacker is a con artist
Here’s a shocker: computer systems are used by confused people. The art of social engineering, or manipulation to gain information such as passwords, can take you far if you’re into sandbagging people. As far as eight months of solitary confinement because the judge got convinced you can “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone.”
The above happened to Kevin Mitnick. After a widely publicized trial he spent the latter half of the ‘90s imprisoned for breaching computer systems of telecom and tech companies. Mitnick, who says he did it all impulsively out of curiosity, got started by getting free bus tickets as a twelve-year-old. Being amazingly good at getting people to comply by posing as an authority, Mitnick now runs a security consulting company.
Are you upset by us ignoring René Carmille, the Frenchman who hacked a punch card system used by Nazis to track Jews? Are you disappointed by us not quoting Richard Stallman, who gave man-birth to the truism that our gadgets are despotic little spying devils? Well, so are we. But you’re welcome to share stories of more astonishing computer tinkerers in the comments below.