Lulzsec, lifehacks, script kiddies, and The NSA: hacking is now totally ubiquitous in media and culture, and it has changed much of our behavior, both online and off. Gamers in particular have been informed by hacker history since the days of Konami, and hacking is one of the most creative ways to problem-solve, meaning the difference between victory and failure in tough gaming situations.
The Greeks refer to the Trojan Horse as a "hack" (that term didn't appear until much, much later), but the giant wooden weapon became a metaphor for all kinds of modern creative problem solving. Modern hacking was born in an after-school club (OK, after school at MIT, but still) by a bunch of guys who were really into model trains, and perfected by pranksters using musical tones to make crank calls. Hackers today are scraping government sites, conspiring with the FBI, defaming corporate sites 4thelulz, and modern gamers are using hacking techniques to dominate in games like Watch Dogs.
The Birth Of Modern Hacking
The term "hacker" was born at MIT in 1955, right alongside the first computer. In his great history of computing, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, author Steven Levy explains how members of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club gained the nickname "hackers" as a nod to the way they learned to network early computer systems by practicing on electrical switching systems that power model railroads. The Tech Model Railroad Club became notorious for devising clever, if inelegant, ways of quickly reassembling power switching and in the process gave birth to the modern association of "hacking" computers.
Hackers have always used code names, one of the most popular of which is the nom de hack "Captain Crunch." The most famous of these cereal-hackers was computer programmer John Draper. In the 1970s, the Captain and his compatriots discovered that the whistle found in cereal boxes of the era would issue a tone with the frequency of 2600 Hz, the precise frequency used by AT&T to signal the start of a new call. The Capitan inspired a legion of proto-hackers known as Phone Phreaks, who would manipulate AT&T's network using a device called the Blue Box.
Hacked together using over-the-counter electronics, the Blue Box could be used to send a series of signals to the telephone network that allowed Phreaks to call anywhere in the world for free. Apple founder Steve Wozniak is fond of recalling his first meeting with the scruffy Captain in his college dorm, when Draper helped Woz hack the hardware schematics of the Blue Box, and stoked Wozniak and Steve Jobs' entrepreneurial zeal. Of course, Woz had bigger priorities than simply cofounding Apple — once he had the Blue Box figured out, he began making crank calls all over the world, including one to the Vatican while posing as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The lines between black and gray hat hacking have always been opaque. White hat hacking usually consists of penetration and security protocol testing and is considered above-board by government and corporate clients. Gray and black hat hacking blur the lines between malicious behavior, from site defamation and theft of personal documents to hacking for the sake of the competitive thrill of accessing a secure server.
One gray hat group called Legion of Doom was notorious for disseminating the Technical Journals, an online how-to manual that educated a new generation of hackers by explaining programming, subterfuge, and intrusion tactics. Hackers are nothing if not opinionated, and a heated internal disagreement over ethics spawned a dark splinter group, Masters of Deception. Masters of Deception used black hat tactics to steal credit card and bank account information. A series of skirmishes between the two groups quickly escalated and became known as the Great Hacker War. The war lead to the demise of the Legion of Doom, and was the impetus for early legislation that gave the Secret Service authority to investigate computer crimes and hacking.
Kevin Mitnick is one of the most notorious hackers in the world. From the late '70s to 1990s he hacked everything from corporate and government networks to the speaker at a McDonald's drive-through from the late 1970's through 1990. How did Mitnick snatch the passwords to systems beyond the reach of other hackers? He went dumpster diving — really. Mitnick was able to learn about security protocols, department names, and managerial titles in piles of garbage stored in dumpsters behind corporate offices. When the FBI got wise to Mitnick's social engineering tactics he was forced to create false identities and change his whereabouts constantly.
Mitnick was caught in 1999 and sentenced to five years in prison. The good-natured prankster who never stole or sold corporate secrets evoked such fear in law enforcement that he was sentenced to solitary confinement and accused at his trial of having the ability to start a nuclear war simply by whistling into a telephone. Today his social engineering tactics are employed by governments and corporations all over the world. Mitnick is one of the most highly-paid security professionals in the world and spends his time teaching corporations that garbage is as valuable as an entire IT department.
The Final Frontier: The NSA
Edward Snowden prepared for one of history's greatest hacks — social-engineering his way into NSA networks — by playing video games. If you've ever installed a mod or worked an in-game exploit, you're a hacker. And just like gaming, at its core hacking a computer network is about finding creative ways to subvert the system while having a good time in the process.
To learn more about how to make hacking your weapon, play Watch Dogs, available May 27.
Dan Patterson is a broadcast and digital journalist.