The first hacker

The Timothy Winslow story

Imagine you’re 18 years old. A few hours after midnight you are woken by your mother. She tells you that some men in suits have called for you. They said it was federal business.

You go downstairs to find the suits sitting at the kitchen table. Your mother has collapsed into her chair weeping. They tell you they are from the FBI and they want to question you about your computer activity.

It is the 1980s, the computer geek is Timothy Winslow, the first hacker.

In the Autumn edition of the Smith Journal, Winslow relates his fascinating passion for computers and his brush with the law.

Winslow wasn’t excited by school. But in junior high school his maths teacher brought in a computer and showed the students a few programs. Winslow wasn’t selected to try the machine but he stayed back after class to look at this device. As soon as his fingers glided over the keyboard, he was smitten.

He signed up for computer programming in senior high school. He later joined an Explorer Scout group sponsored by IBM. There he met like-minded teenagers and together they spent hours on their machines.

Then the group were introduced to modems. The thought of accessing other computers remotely captured their imagination.

In those days if someone wanted to link two computers they would dial (yes dial) the number of a modem on their phone then place the receiver in a special cradle.

The challenge was guessing the number of the other computer.

By the mid-1980s modems became readily available. More computers were accessible, however, password protection was now a standard feature of these devices.

After searching for a way to unlock the many passwords the group encountered, one of them hit on the idea of using the factory set password which was normally “admin” or “password”. They struck gold!

Very few modem users bothered to change the device’s password once it was connected.

The real adventure was about to begin.

The group called themselves the “414s” after the Milwaukee postcode.

They broke into dozens of computers over the following months. At first they just “looked around”. But as happens, after months of exploring they became bolder, if not mischievous.

At one location they caused the printer to print a ream of paper. They reprogrammed another computer to spit out movie quotes at unexpected times.

Their favourite activity was playing the games that were programmed into the larger computers and leaving their names when they achieved a high score.

But as they became more daring, they also became sloppy. Sometimes they forgot to cover their tracks as they exited. On another occasion they hacked a computer during business hours and their activity was detected by the network manager.

On another occasion they accidentally deleted a large quantity of billing information.

The group hacked the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, the State Library, a major international bank and even the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of only two nuclear weapons research centres in the country.

Winslow decided to tell the FBI all he knew, to come clean. The difficulty he experienced was that these agents did not know what he was talking about.

Months passed with no word from the authorities. Had the group been given a reprieve?

In truth, there were no cyber crimes in the statute books. There was little to charge the group with. Ultimately, Winslow was charged with making harassing phone calls. He pleaded guilty.

At that time he had met the love of his life and together they had a child. He was 20 years old. The judge took pity and fined him.

This first hack was a wake-up call to government and industry. By the late 1980s, the first cyber-crime laws were introduced. Computer security became a priority.

Today, Winslow is still fascinated with computers. He is a network engineer. He is still married to the love of his life.

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