Computer hacking was once the realm of curious teenagers. It's now the arena of government spies, professional thieves and soldiers of fortune.
Today, it's all about the money. That's why Chinese hackers broke into Lockheed Martin and stole the blueprints to the trillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet. It's also why Russian hackers have sneaked into Western oil and gas companies for years.
The stakes are higher, too. In 2010, hackers slipped a "digital bomb" into the Nasdaq that nearly sabotaged the stock market. In 2012, Iran ruined 30,000 computers at Saudi oil producer Aramco.
And think of the immense (and yet undisclosed) damage from North Korea's cyberattack on Sony Pictures last year. Computers were destroyed, executives' embarrassing emails were exposed, and the entire movie studio was thrown into chaos.
It wasn't always this way. Hacking actually has some pretty innocent and harmless beginnings.
CURIOSITY CREATED THE HACKER
The whole concept of "hacking" sprouted from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nearly 50 years ago. Computer science students there borrowed the term from a group of model train enthusiasts who "hacked" electric train tracks and switches in 1969 to improve performance.
These new hackers were already figuring out how to alter computer software and hardware to speed it up, even as the scientists at AT&T Bell Labs were developing UNIX, one of the world's first major operating systems.
Hacking became the art of figuring out unique solutions. It takes an insatiable curiosity about how things work; hackers wanted to make technology work better, or differently. They were not inherently good or bad, just clever.
In that sense, the first generation of true hackers were "phreakers," a bunch of American punks who toyed with the nation's telephone system. In 1971, they discovered that if you whistle at a certain high-pitched tone, 2600-hertz, you could access AT&T's long-distance switching system.
They would make international phone calls, just for the fun of it, to explore how the telephone network was set up.
This was low-fi stuff. The most famous phreaker, John Draper (aka "Cap'n Crunch) earned his nickname because he realized the toy whistle given away in cereal boxes emitted just the right tone. This trained engineer took that concept to the next level by building a custom "blue box" to make those free calls.
This surreptitious little box was such a novel idea that young engineers Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started building and selling it themselves. These are the guys who would later go on to start Apple.
Wire fraud spiked, and the FBI cracked down on phreakers and their blue boxes. The laws didn't quite fit, though. Kids were charged with making harassing phone calls and the like. But federal agents couldn't halt this phenomenon.
A tech-savvy, inquisitive and slightly anti-authoritarian community had been born.
A NEW WAVE OF HACKERS
The next generation came in the early 1980s, as people bought personal computers for their homes and hooked them up to the telephone network. The Web wasn't yet alive, but computers could still talk to one another.
This was the golden age of hacking. These curious kids tapped into whatever computer system they could find just to explore. Some broke into computer networks at companies. Others told printers at hospitals hundreds of miles away to just spit out paper. And the first digital hangouts came into being. Hackers met on text-only bulletin board systems to talk about phreaking, share computer passwords and tips.
The 1983 movie "War Games" depicted this very thing, only the implications were disastrous. In it, a teenager in Washington state accidentally taps into a military computer and nearly brings the world to nuclear war. It's no surprise, then, that the FBI was on high alert that year, and arrested six teenagers in Milwaukee -- who called themselves the 414s, after their area code -- when they tapped into the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapon research facility.
Nationwide fears led the U.S. Congress to pass the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986. Breaking into computer systems was now a crime of its own.
The damage of hacking started getting more serious, too. In 1988, the government's ARPAnet, the earliest version of the Internet, got jammed when a Cornell University graduate student, curious about the network's size, created a self-replicating software worm that multiplied too quickly.
The next year, a few German hackers working for the Russian KGB were caught breaking into the Pentagon. In 1990, hacker Kevin Poulsen rigged a Los Angeles radio station's phone system to win a Porsche, only to be arrested afterward.
The cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and hackers continued throughout the 1990s. Some hacked for money. Russian mathematician Vladimir Levin was caught stealing $10 million from Citibank. Others did it for revenge. Tim Lloyd wiped the computers at Omega Engineering in New Jersey after he was fired.
But hacks were still more of an annoyance than anything devastating, though it was quickly becoming apparent that the potential was there. The stock market, hospitals, credit card transactions -- everything was running on computers now. There was a bone-chilling moment when a ragtag group of hackers calling themselves L0pht testified before Congress in 1998 and said they could shut down the Internet in 30 minutes.
The danger was suddenly more real than ever...
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