A Brief History of Hacking & Cybercrime

Hacking is an online crime that has been getting more and more attention lately as bigger and bigger companies are hacked. This is, of course, a big problem as more and more of our life goes online. But the threat of cybercrime, and hacking itself, is much older than you may think.

You may be reading about the latest spying efforts by the NSA, ransomware, and WiFi hacking, but these are all cybercrimes that play off old themes that date back to the beginning of the digital era.

History of Hacking

Cracking codes – the original hackers

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The NSA is currently using a number of tactics to steal digital data. One such method is code breaking. These efforts seek to break through the encryption of the internet so that data can be laid out plain for them to steal.

This is nothing new as mathematicians first started cracking codes back in the 1930s. Yes, I know, there weren’t any computers as we know them today, but there was the Enigma Machine used by the Germans. This early encryption device was hacked by American code breakers who then stole information on Nazi activities. Some of the earliest hackers were heroes!

The Phreaks are coming – and they’re hacking the phones

One of the earliest examples of cybercrime that you would recognize today came thanks to the Phreaks of the 1970s. There were no computer systems or software at the time, Instead, Phreaks would use tricks to manipulate the phone system into allowing them to make free long distance calls, and make prank phone calls.

The most common way that phreaking would work is by using the tones created for long distance calls and duplicating them. These tones would dupe the phone system into allowing you to make the long distance call. Early users of the phreak method include dangerous folks such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

These were the last of the pre-computer age hackers, and most of them were just out to chat with friends for cheap, and make a few prank phone calls for laughs. While phreaking itself was illegal, there was no real effort made by any of them to destroy systems – they were just goofing around and exploring possibilities.

Crime comes to cyber land – The personal computer changes everything

The 80s was the decade that saw phreaks and hack culture move further away from exploration and testing of systems and start to commit malicious acts. Modems and PCs connected on networks were exploited and have lead to the viruses, Trojans, and worms we now know.

Some of the earliest worms and viruses were, as you’d guess, relatively harmless as the network was so small and what was on it was so limited. The Creeper Virus is the first known self-replicating program that was on ARPANET (the first system like the Internet) back in the early 1970s. The program was an experiment by Bob Thomas of BBN Technologies, and would simply display the phrase “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” on infected systems.

As far as the first computer virus outside of this experiment, the Elk Cloner was the first personal computer virus. Richard Skrenta wrote this virus back in 1981 and it was actually an Apple virus, and spread via floppy disk. The virus was put into a gaming program, and upon the 50th use of the game a poem titled “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality” would appear.

From heroic code cracking, to phreaks, to modern cybercriminals

These early forays into viruses, code cracking, and phreaks have lead to all of the later cybercrime that we now know today. It was a short trip from people goofing off with the phone system, to self- replicating poems, to ripping off thousands of people’s credit card data. But also, it was a short trip from ARPANET to the massive thing we now call the Internet.

As the Internet has grown, so has the threat potential. Being prepared is being safe, and a well reviewed VPN service provider can be your own personal Enigma machine as it encrypts your data – expect this tool can’t be cracked by the NSA!

Modern cybercrime is no longer the silly or mischievous thing it was back in the days of the Elk Cloner. It is run by sophisticated and organized criminal syndicates. You will find lone criminals from time to time, but they mostly deal in small time thefts and sell information to larger syndicates. Protecting yourself on the small scale is a possibility, when it comes to large corporations protecting you…good luck.


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