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On January 15, 1990, the information security of AT&T's nationwide network was shut down for almost nine hours. Rumors immediately spread that the telecommunications giant had been hit by a hacker attack. Although it is now believed that the cause of the failure was an internal bug in the company's computer system, that did not stop a nation wide crackdown on hackers that began only three days later. The series of investigations, searches and arrests that occurred in this period are often referred to collectively as Operation Sundevil.
AKA Dark Dante, nationally-wanted computer security hacker Kevin Poulsen, spent 17 months on the lam during the early 1990's, avoiding FBI charges for phone tampering. In one of his more creative exploits he jammed the calls to a radio prize line and was 'lucky' enough to be the winner of a Porsche.
There have been underground message boards almost as long as there have been boards. One of the first was 8BBS, which became a stronghold of the West Coast phone- phreak elite. The sysop of 8BBS was an ardent free-speech enthusiast who simply felt that *any* attempt to restrict the expression of his users was unconstitutional and immoral. Swarms of the technically curious entered 8BBS and emerged as phreaks and hackers, until, in 1982, a friendly 8BBS alumnus passed the sysop a new modem which had been purchased by credit-card fraud. Police took this opportunity to seize the entire board and remove what they considered an attractive nuisance.
Another of the famous computer security hacker clubs is the Cult of the Dead Cow. It claimed to perform a public service by looking for flaws in software. They would take a newly released Microsoft product and go and hammer at it from a technical point of view, and try to find the holes that might affect the people who use it. The Dead Cows found such a hole in every version of the Windows operating system, which potentially allows other people to spy on computers using those systems, or even remotely control them from the internet.
Part of gaining acceptance in the hacker community was adopting a handle, just as phreakers had done in the 1970s. Handles could be based on high-tech allusions or they could be darker and more violent. Nonetheless, lurking behind these grandiose names was often a young and rather isolated teenage boy. It remains true that the majority of hackers are male.
The popular conception of a hacker as a teenage boy hunched over his computer threatening information security and cracking firewalls was both reflected in and popularized by the 1983 movie War Games. Source: Cranky Critic Matthew Broderick played a juvenile computer genius who could break into his school's computer system, book free flights to Paris, and push the world to the brink of global thermonuclear war, all while sitting in his room. Most importantly, his exploits won him the praise of a young Ally Sheedy. Some of the most notorious hackers cite this movie as their original inspiration.
At 25, legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick secretly compromised theinternet security and email security of MCI and Digital Equipment and monitored the email of their security officials. He was convicted of damaging computers and stealing software and was sentenced to one year in prison. Now out of prison, he runs his own computer security consulting company.
Before the internet and the attendant problems of internet security, there was another type of hacker. In the early 70's hackers were "phone phreaks", who found ways to manipulate the phone system. One of the first phreaks was John Draper who figured out how to make a long-distance call for free by blowing a precise tone into a telephone that tells the phone system to open a line. Draper discovered the whistle as a give-away in a box of children's cereal. Draper, who later earned the handle "Captain Crunch," was arrested repeatedly for phone tampering throughout the 1970s.
Some of the leaders of the personal computer industry began as hackers. Two members of California's Homebrew Computer Club begin making "blue boxes," devices used to compromise the online security of the phone system. The members, who adopted the handles "Berkeley Blue" (Steve Jobs) and "Oak Toebark" (Steve Wozniak), later went on to found Apple Computer.
The Internet Worm written by Robert Morris in 1988 was a self-replicating program that spread from one machine to another. When Morris realized how much internet security havoc his worm was wreaking, he tried to send anonymous messages on how to disinfect the beast over the same network on which he unleashed the worm. Unfortunately, machines were so catatonic that the remedy never went anywhere. The Internet Worm attracted a great deal of media attention and Morris was eventually sentenced to three years of probation and 400 hours of community service, and fined $10,050. By the way, Morris was the son of the chief scientist at the National Security Center -- part of the NSA.
Some hackers formed more cohesive communities or groups. One of the first was the 414 Group, named after an area code in Wisconsin. The most famous was the Legion of Doom, which sprung up in 1984 with a hacker named Lex Luthor at its helm. The group was based around an elite bulletin board dedicated to breaking computer security and information security safeguards. The core of the gang only consisted of about ten members although more were granted access to the board.
Written by Cornell University Ph.D. student Robert Morris in 1988, a self-replicating program called "the Internet Worm" quickly writhed its way onto VAX and Sun systems throughout the country. Though Morris had intended for his creation to spread from computer to computer without causing any data security damage or leaving a trace, his code was flawed. The Internet Worm replicated so many times and sucked up so many CPU cycles that it rendered its computer hosts useless, effectively bringing the Internet to its knees. Though the worm left no scars on its hosts after it was removed, the United States General Accounting Office predicted that somewhere between $100,000 and $10,000,000 was lost in terms of cumulative productivity between all of the 6,000 systems infected nationwide.
In 1992, information security and data security hysteria swept over the planet as newspapers, magazines, and television networks proclaimed that on March 6, the birth date of Renaissance artist Michelangelo, up to one quarter of American hard drives would be completely erased. The media frenzy started through a coincidence. In January of 1992 one computer manufacturer claimed it had inadvertently distributed 500 PCs carrying the virus while another computer company issued a press release stating that from that point on it would bundle antivirus software with every PC it sold. The two events were completely unrelated, but apparently it was a slow news day and reporters tried to make a story out of it. By the time March 5 rolled around, the fever pitch had reached Y2K proportions. Even the respectable Wall Street Journal carried the headline "Deadly Virus Set to Wreak Havoc Tomorrow." When March 6 came, the virus struck only about 10,000 computers.
Phone Phreak (someone who "hacks" the telephone system) John Draper took phreaking to another level. The focus of his work was not attempting to obtain free phone calls as others did, but rather to access and manipulate the computer security system which lay behind the phone to place even more complex calls with each new attempt, sending calls around the world, bouncing them off satellites only to ask a passerby at Victoria station how the weather was that morning.
Hackers first evolved during the 1960's at university facilities with huge mainframe computers, like MIT's artificial intelligence lab. Because these computers lacked firewall software or modern internet security, they become staging grounds for hackers. At first, "hacker" was a positive term for a person with a mastery of computers who could push programs beyond what they were designed to do. Later it became associated with computer vandals intent on harming systems.
As with any group of people with a shared interest, hackers like to form clubs. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Chaos Computer Club, based in Berlin. It was a member of Chaos who during the 1980s was responsible for breaking into US military computers and selling the secrets to the Russians. This is not typical of their activities, however. For the most part they remain enthusiasts with a well-developed sense of curiosity - which can sometimes mutate into an equally well-developed sense of mission.