Planning matters

The Secret History of the Future

In the cyber-centric world of today where it seems hackers and scammers are constantly threatening to steal or otherwise compromise our personal information, I often find myself thinking of this as a 21st century issue, born of current technology. But, after listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts—The Secret History of The Future—I was forced to re-evaluate. I thought I’d share what I found, which is, it appears, that as far back as any technology existed to be misused, someone has been determined to do so.

My earliest personal recollection of the idea of the modern “hacker” is from the 1983 movie Wargames, in which a young Matthew Broderick hacks into a US military supercomputer from his bedroom and begins a simulation of “Global Thermonuclear War”, thinking it is a computer game. Existence-of-humanity determining hijinks ensue. He eventually teaches the computer the folly of attempting to win a nuclear war by having it play tic-tac-toe against itself repeatedly. I wish I was in the room for the movie pitch. 

If you look up the history of hacking, most references will point to the origin of the term coming from MIT in the late 1950s or early 1960s, where students used out-of-the-box methods to modify, or “hack”,  the capabilities of machines, notably including the MIT Model Railroad Club. The relation of the term to computing seems to also originate from MIT, referencing talented computer programmers. At the time, the term was not specific to someone intruding upon private networks or computers, but rather to a group of talented programmers interested in exploring the limits of the capabilities of the software and hardware at their disposal. 

There is a famous phone-hacking case from the early 1970s, where a programmer named John Draper figured out how to build a tone generator to control a phone network and make free calls. Draper is also known as Captain Crunch due to discovering a toy whistle from the cereal box of the same name emitted the exact tone necessary to make a new call available on certain phone trunks. A form of this phone “hack” was first performed in the 1950s, as far as I can find, by a man named David Condon, who used a modified Davy Crockett Cat and Canary Bird Call Flute (I’m not kidding, pictured below) to perform the same type of function.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the computer “hacker” we would recognize today began to become known to the public. Arguably the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, was arrested in 1988 for penetrating a software company’s network and stealing proprietary software. He was arrested again in 1995 in a high-profile case and charged with multiple federal offenses related to a 2+ year hacking spree. Today, Mitnick runs a security firm that tests other companies’ security strength. 

Hacking, if not limited to computers, goes back quite a bit further than even the 1950s. In 1903 Guglielmo Marconi was demonstrating his invention—the wireless telegraph—which transmitted telegraph signals by radio waves, ostensibly to prove how secure the system was. During the demonstration, Nevil Maskleyne hacked into the system and sent the word “Rats” through the system multiple times, followed by a limerick disparaging Marconi. Maskleyne said it was done as a public service to show the information transmitted on this new device was not as private as advertised.  

Back to the Secret History of The Future for my favorite hacking story. In Napoleonic France, large towers with semaphores spaced miles apart were used in conjunction with telescopes to transmit coded signals over long distances (pictured below). They were called semaphore telegraphs. It was a revolutionary communication system invented by a man named Claude Chappe in 1792, and eventually covered approximately 3,000 miles. Consider the time-savings and reliability in using this system to send secure, important messages over long distances versus the previous method -horseback. My limited horse research suggests the average speed at a gallop is 25 to 30 miles per hour. A signal on the semaphore system could travel at approximately 300 miles per hour in ideal conditions.

This system included the ability to transmit an error code, call it a “backspace” function, to account for operator error. While the codes used to decipher messages sent through the system were tightly guarded, the error codes had to be universally known by tower operators. In 1834, two brothers who worked on the Bordeaux stock exchange, François and Joseph Blanc, decided to use this function to their advantage. They wanted early information on what was happening on the Paris stock exchange, so they bribed an operator near the Paris end of the system to insert specific errors into messages, followed by a “backspace” to remove the error from the final message. The nature of the error inserted indicated the direction of the Paris market. A former operator was paid to observe a tower near Bordeaux, discern the error codes and report the preceding error back to the brothers, who then possessed market trends days prior to their competitors. The brothers managed to do this for two years before getting caught and being arrested. Then, because there was no specific law on the books against what that had done, they were set free.

Given France’s telegraph semaphore system can be considered a data network, perhaps this qualifies as the world’s first cyber-attack.

Written By Johnson Bixby