In today’s world, the word 'hacker’ has become synonymous with people who lurk in darkened rooms, anonymously terrorising the internet. But it was not always that way. The original hackers were benign creatures. Students, in fact. To anyone attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1950s and 60s, a hack was simply an elegant or inspired solution to any given problem. Many of the early MIT hacks tended to be practical jokes. Over time, the word became associated with the burgeoning computer programming scene - at MIT and beyond. For these early pioneers, a hack was a feat of programming prowess. Such activities were greatly admired as
they combined expert knowledge with a creative instinct. The high was to discover loopholes in computer software and hardware and to use that to achieve a task they were not
HACKING WAS FUN
The first ‘hack’ that gained worldwide
notoriety was discovered and executed by John Draper, who went on to earn the alias of ‘Cap’n Crunch’. His claim to fame was the discovery that the toy whistle that came with a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal emitted an exact 2,600Hz frequency; the same frequency that was required to authorise long distance calls on the Bell telephone system. This, in hacker terminology, is called a 'vulnerability', something Cap’n Crunch decided to capitalise on. Armed with this knowledge, he went on to invent the first hacking device dubbed ‘the blue box’, which at the push of a button, emitted frequencies to tap into the switching circuits of telephone networks. ‘Phreaking’ was born. It might be interesting to know that John Draper shared this secret with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc, who along with his friend Steve Jobs made a profit by making blue boxes and selling them to other hackers. Young pranksters as they were, the Apple founders too had some fun with their own blue box. Steve Jobs is known to have made a long distance prank call to none other than the Pope himself!
In those days, phone phreaking offered hackers a potent allure. It meant unravelling a mystery and sharing the results with friends. It wasn’t much about nefarious exploitation as it was about understanding the complexity of the system. Draper, for instance, revelled in the ability to route calls through multiple countries just to talk to his neighbour. But no matter how harmless the intent might have been, he was arrested in 1976 and had to spend four months in prison for fraud. But what he had given birth to has made him a demigod for the hacker community. The 2,600 Hz tone exploit has inspired the name of the well-known hacker underground magazine – 2600.
THE CRACKS APPEAR
Throughout the 70s and early 80s,
enthusiasts blew whistles into telephone receivers as computers were quietly asserting ubiquity. Though tinkering with them was still the domain of the elite electronics and computer science students at top universities, the possibilities were widening with the
increasing number of personal computers.
In 1983, Mark Abene (aka ‘Phiber Optik’) was an 18-year old who just had too much time on hand and no computer of his own; he used to cosy up in the nearby Radio Shack and use their computers to get into other people’s computer systems. Soon, he was the master of redirecting traffic through switchboards and routers. He was arrested and became the first ‘computer criminal’ to serve time in federal prison, after he caused a network crash which left 60,000 AT&T telephone customers without service for over nine hours. Certain notoriety was creeping in with the geek gods going towards the dark side. Kevin Poulsen ( aka ‘Dark Dante’), pulled one of the most famous hacks in history. He hacked all the phone lines running into the Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM, so that he would be the 102nd caller and hence, win a Porsche 944. He was successful. He later resurrected old, unused numbers to help his friend start an escort service. He was later arrested and fined $50,000 with a 51 month prison term for fraud and money laundering. While hackers were ruling the phone
systems, a new generation of computer whiz kids were ganging up to crack the new PCs and the nascent Internet. There were clubs, notably Germany’s Chaos and New York’s Masters of Deception, set up solely with this aim. Code tinkering for sport was becoming quite a menace. The US government tried to thwart the threat by passing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in 1986. Robert Tappan Morris, a Cornell
University grad student, wrote the code for a worm; a destructive program that replicates itself as it moves through computer networks at breakneck speed. His intent was simply to exhibit his coding prowess and also to show how the MIT network was insecure and vulnerable to attack. But the worm went out of hand, forcing many universities to shut down entire networks and spend a lot of money to clean the infected computers. The hacking worm was out of the can.
HACKING GOES CRIMINAL
By 1990’s hacking had gone from children’s whistles to a whole new world of technological crime as most organisations rapidly moved to adapting computer technology to run businesses and manage data. Kevin Mitnick, a cleaner at Radio Shack with a penchant for computer code, became the first hacker to earn the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ distinction. He broke into the computer systems at Motorola, Nokia, Sun Microsystems, and Fujitsu. Though Mitnick denied intent to cause serious harm, he was sentenced to a five-and-a-half-year prison term and a restraining order preventing him from using computers.
Though he did not cause serious damage, Mitnick did two things – expose the fact that networks and data are vulnerable, and anything from defence mainframes to personal e-mails could be hacked; he was also the inspiration for generations of hackers to come. A war had begun.
Governments and corporations are increasingly realising the need for Internet security, and pranksters are turning criminals. Internet security companies now recruit hackers to find vulnerabilities and then fix them. Many governments purportedly run covert hacking departments that safeguard their most sensitive networks and at the same time try to hack into networks of enemies. Hacking is no longer the hobby of a bunch of computer geeks.
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
Because they can. This has always been the driving force behind hackers, who, psychologists say, might lead a socially unrewarding life; this is their way to satisfy emotional needs of being important and respected. On the outside a hacker might be a pimple-faced, lanky kid who is picked on by his classmates – but in front of his computer screen, he is ‘Dark Demon’, reading into personal emails and setting up elaborate pranks with a twinkle in his eye. Some are driven by an anti-establishment feeling and they just want to give a hard time to the government. Whatever the reasons, with computers and computer networks becoming the cornerstone of modern life, they are a force to reckon with.