Top Five Greatest Hacks In History
Exploitation of technology resulting in significant historical impact.
- The breaking of the Enigma and Lorenz ciphers in World War II (Polish Cipher Bureau 1932–1939, U.K.’s Bletchley Park, 1939–1943)
The British Government Code and Cypher School shortened the war by two to four years at minimum, and may even have been crucial. The military grade Enigma ciphers should have been unbreakable but for flaws in the procedures used by the Germans first discovered and developed by Polish codebreakers. Hence the designation here as a hack and also the reason the British created a whole new level of secret (ULTRA) specifically for this single intelligence source, above the previously top designation of Most Secret. The British so feared the Axis powers would catch wind of their easily correctable mistake they sometimes even passed on valuable operations to avoid tipping their hand.
- Original reference implementation of a distributed blockchain database coupled with its first killer app: Bitcoin
(Version 0.1 released anonymously by “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2009)
Barring any technical walls that cannot be scaled (a sucker’s bet in 2017) this single open source project elegantly wraps a distributed database with a protocol for the exchange of scarcity in a digital world, and could be the end of capitalism.
- The Onion Routing project
(Tor alpha launched by Syverson, Dingledine and Mathewson, DARPA, 2002)
In the mid-1990s the US Naval Research Lab developed the core principal of onion routing which combines asymmetric key cryptography with a data structure wrapped in successive layers of encryption. The Tor project was unleashed on the public in 2002 by DARPA math and computer science geeks who were able to implement a cipher wrapped in an enigma, smothered in secret sauce. This clever hack of network protocols enables drug dealers on the darknet, Syrian rebels and anonymous leaks of proprietary and classified information.
(“The Equation Group” & U.S./Israeli intelligence services, 2005–2010)
Stuxnet, a malicious self-propagating computer program known as a “worm”, reportedly ruined almost one fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Stuxnet is important for being the first known cyber weapon deployed by a nation state and specifically targeted programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used to control machinery on factory assembly lines. Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. Stuxnet’s design and architecture are not domain-specific and it could be tailored as a platform for attacking modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and PLC systems in factory assembly lines or power plants across the U.S., Europe and Japan.
- The Morris Internet Worm
(Robert Morris, November 1988)
The first internet worm was created not to destroy, but to measure the size of a new but rapidly growing network of computers. Robert Morris created the software to exploit bugs in sendmail and fingerd services while a graduate student at Cornell, but released it on MIT’s network to muddy his trail. Morris went on to receive tenure from MIT in 2006 but only after earning the first felony conviction in the US under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As a result of the Morris Worm the internet was partitioned for days as regional networks disconnected from the backbone to prevent recontamination and the incident prompted DARPA to create the CERT Coordination Center for coordinating responses to network emergencies.
Operation Aurora & Shady RAT Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
(PLA Unit 61398 et al., People’s Republic of China, ~2011 to present)
For nearly a decade a shifting collective of government sponsored hackers in China has been stealing trade secrets and other confidential information from shipping, aeronautics, arms, energy, manufacturing, engineering, electronics, financial, and software sectors. The “Shady RAT” operation alone targeted United Nations, government agencies in the United States, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Operations are ongoing and recently included data breaches in U.S. veterans and federal employee registries.
Operation Fortitude “Special Means”
(WWII Allied nations, 1944)
In order to protect the Normandy invasion and avoid counter attacks the Allied powers undertook a sophisticated social engineering campaign. Physical deception with fake infrastructure and equipment such as dummy landing craft, dummy airfields, and decoy lighting was combined with controlled leaks of information through diplomatic channels, and the simulation of wireless traffic. Additionally, use of German double agents controlled by the Allies sent false information to the German intelligence services. The sum total of these efforts was to convince the German command of phantom forces such as the fictitious 1st US Army Group were planning invasions of Norway, Italy and the Dover channel.
Hack of U.S. Democratic National Committee e-mail server and subsequent leak to DCLeaks/Wikileaks
(“Cozy Bear/Fancy Bear” & “Guccifer 2.0”, Russian intelligence services, 2016)
Despite any political smoke screens, it’s been public knowledge since before the data was even leaked that the DNC hack and Guccifer 2.0 persona were a product of Russian intelligence services, and the January 2017 report from US intelligence agencies confirmed that support reached into the highest levels of the Russian leadership. By sowing the seeds of partisanship and lowering confidence of the American people in their government Putin hopes to drive a wedge between the U.S. and it’s NATO and European allies. Not to mention he has a grudge against Hillary Clinton for calling out his rigged election.