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
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
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