Hacking's History

Hacking has been around pretty much since the development of the first

electronic computers. Here are some of the key events in the last four

decades of hacking.

1960s: The dawn of hacking

The first computer hackers emerge at MIT. They borrow their name from a

term to describe members of a model train group at the school

who "hack" the electric trains, tracks, and switches to make them

perform faster and differently. A few of the members transfer their

curiosity and rigging skills to the new mainframe computing systems

being studied and developed on campus.

1970s: Phone phreaks and Cap'n Crunch

Phone hackers (phreaks) break into regional and international phone

networks to make free calls. One phreak, John Draper (aka Cap'n

Crunch), learns that a toy whistle given away inside Cap'n Crunch

cereal generates a 2600-hertz signal, the same high-pitched tone that

accesses AT&T's long-distance switching system.

Draper builds a "blue box" that, when used in conjunction with the

whistle and sounded into a phone receiver, allows phreaks to make free


Shortly thereafter, Esquire magazine publishes "Secrets of the Little

Blue Box" with instructions for making a blue box, and wire fraud in

the United States escalates. Among the perpetrators: college kids Steve

Wozniak and Steve Jobs, future founders of Apple Computer, who launch a

home industry making and selling blue boxes.

1980: Hacker message boards and groups

Phone phreaks begin to move into the realm of computer hacking, and the

first electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) spring up.

The precursor to Usenet newsgroups and e-mail, the boards--with names

such as Sherwood Forest and Catch-22--become the venue of choice for

phreaks and hackers to gossip, trade tips, and share stolen computer

passwords and credit card numbers.

Hacking groups begin to form. Among the first are Legion of Doom in the

United States, and Chaos Computer Club in Germany.

1983: Kids' games

The movie War Games introduces the public to hacking, and the legend of

hackers as cyberheroes (and anti-heroes) is born. The film's main

character, played by Matthew Broderick, attempts to crack into a video

game manufacturer's computer to play a game, but instead breaks into

the military's nuclear combat simulator computer.

The computer (codenamed WOPR, a pun on the military's real system

called BURGR) misinterprets the hacker's request to play Global

Thermonuclear War as an enemy missile launch. The break-in throws the

military into high alert, or Def Con 1 (Defense Condition 1).

The same year, authorities arrest six teenagers known as the 414 gang

(after the area code to which they are traced). During a nine-day

spree, the gang breaks into some 60 computers, among them computers at

the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which helps develop nuclear weapons.

1984: Hacker 'zines

The hacker magazine 2600 begins regular publication, followed a year

later by the online 'zine Phrack. The editor of 2600, "Emmanuel

Goldstein" (whose real name is Eric Corley), takes his handle from the

main character in George Orwell's 1984. Both publications provide tips

for would-be hackers and phone phreaks, as well as commentary on the

hacker issues of the day. Today, copies of 2600 are sold at most large

retail bookstores.

1986: Use a computer, go to jail

In the wake of an increasing number of break-ins to government and

corporate computers, Congress passes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,

which makes it a crime to break into computer systems. The law,

however, does not cover juveniles.

1988: The Morris worm

Robert T. Morris, Jr., a graduate student at Cornell University and son

of a chief scientist at a division of the National Security Agency,

launches a self-replicating worm on the government's ARPAnet (precursor

to the Internet) to test its effect on UNIX systems.

The worm gets out of hand and spreads to some 6000 networked computers,

clogging government and university systems. Morris is dismissed from

Cornell, sentenced to three years' probation, and fined $10,000.

1989: The Germans and the KGB

In the first cyberespionage case to make international headlines,

hackers in West Germany (loosely affiliated with the Chaos Computer

Club) are arrested for breaking into U.S. government and corporate

computers and selling operating-system source code to the Soviet KGB.

Three of them are turned in by two fellow hacker spies, and a fourth

suspected hacker commits suicide when his possible role in the plan is

publicized. Because the information stolen is not classified, the

hackers are fined and sentenced to probation.

In a separate incident, a hacker is arrested who calls himself The

Mentor. He publishes a now-famous treatise that comes to be known as

the Hacker's Manifesto. The piece, a defense of hacker antics,

begins, "My crime is that of curiosity ... I am a hacker, and this is

my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all."

1990: Operation Sundevil

After a prolonged sting investigation, Secret Service agents swoop down

on hackers in 14 U.S. cities, conducting early-morning raids and


The arrests involve organizers and prominent members of BBSs and are

aimed at cracking down on credit-card theft and telephone and wire

fraud. The result is a breakdown in the hacking community, with members

informing on each other in exchange for immunity.

1993: Why buy a car when you can hack one?

During radio station call-in contests, hacker-fugitive Kevin Poulsen

and two friends rig the stations' phone systems to let only their calls

through, and "win" two Porsches, vacation trips, and $20,000.

Poulsen, already wanted for breaking into phone-company systems, serves

five years in prison for computer and wire fraud. (Since his release in

1996, he has worked as a freelance journalist covering computer crime.)

The first Def Con hacking conference takes place in Las Vegas. The

conference is meant to be a one-time party to say good-bye to BBSs (now

replaced by the Web), but the gathering is so popular it becomes an

annual event.

1994: Hacking Tools R Us

The Internet begins to take off as a new browser, Netscape Navigator,

makes information on the Web more accessible. Hackers take to the new

venue quickly, moving all their how-to information and hacking programs

from the old BBSs to new hacker Web sites.

As information and easy-to-use tools become available to anyone with

Net access, the face of hacking begins to change.

1995: The Mitnick takedown

Serial cybertrespasser Kevin Mitnick is captured by federal agents and

charged with stealing 20,000 credit card numbers. He's kept in prison

for four years without a trial and becomes a cause c

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