Here’s How the First Cyber Attack Went Down
One hundred years before the first computer
It’s widely acknowledged that the internet is a marvelous, wondrous place with hardly any downsides to speak of.
Yet every day this veritable digital paradise is hit with cyber attacks. These range from malicious email attachments to coordinated assaults on the data infrastructure of entire nation states.
It’s hard to believe something as beloved and universally beneficial as the world wide web could be harboring such insidiousness.
But cyber attacks predate our modern internet. They predate the term cyber attack.
In fact, the first cyber attack happened 100 years before computers even existed.
Telecommunications, in their most rudimentary form, have been around since humans started rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. Smoke signals are a handy way to transmit information over long distances at essentially the speed of light — or in the time it took someone to notice the smoke in the sky.
Some time after that, we had homing pigeons with notes tied to their legs and polished shields to reflect flashes of sunlight and signal over long distances. But all of these methods were often haphazard or used infrequently during times of war or under extraordinary conditions.
But Claude Chappe had grander plans. He wanted to build a telecommunications network that would connect all of France. A nationwide internet — more or less.
But this was in the 18th century. The digital computer was over a century away. Electricity was just a twinkle in Benjamin Franklin’s kite. On top of that, a full blown revolution was underway in France. Suspicion, terror, and violence were everywhere.
In other words, it was a great time to be starting an internet.
At the time, the only reliable way to communicate was to write down your message on some parchment and give it to a person — preferably on horseback — and hope he eventually got around to delivering your message to your intended recipient without being accosted by brigands or succumbing to the bubonic plague. But recent improvements in telescopes had made the feasibility of communicating messages visually over long distances — without the intervention of person nor horse — a real possibility.
Claude Chappe called this telegraphy. Greek for far-writing.
For a nation not only at war with itself but in constant conflict with the countries surrounding it, a method for long distance, speedy, and most importantly secret communication was exactly what they were looking for.
Claude Chappe called his design a semaphore telegraph. Unlike the electric telegraph that would follow it, Chappe’s semaphore telegraph relied on two adjustable vertical rods connected by a horizontal beam. The apparatus would be perched atop a tower so that it could be seen for miles. If a message were to be sent, an operator could manipulate the rods into a series of predesignated arrangements that represented a letter of the French alphabet. Each arm could be moved into seven different positions while the cross bar could be angled 4 different ways, giving it the possibility of representing 196 unique symbols. A second tower a few miles away would then observe those positions via telescope, and replicate them. The message would then propagate down the line of towers, one symbol at a time.
Semaphore communication is still in use today. It can be seen at our airports and on our highways and high seas. Chappe’s system was fundamentally the same idea and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see how the arms and wands of airport groundcrew correspond the Chappe’s rods and beam.
At its fastest, Chappe’s semaphore telegraph could transmit information at 2–3 symbols or bits of information per minute. Nothing compared to today’s internet (even if all you have is dial-up) but it was much faster than a person on a horse and more reliable than a pigeon — which was about as good as it got back then.
The French government successfully used the Chappe semaphore line to transmit coded information to military units and receive intelligence on enemy movements faster than ever before. After seizing power, Napoleon invested heavily in its expansion and Chappe’s system eventually stretched all across France, comprising a network of 566 stations over a combined distance of 3,000 miles. By far, the largest national telecommunications network the world had ever seen and would remain so until the electric telegraph replaced it decades later. At its peak, Chappe’s telegraph relied on a system of one thousand telegraph operators to accurately identify a signal, copy it, and transmit it down the line.
That meant it was inherently prone to human error.
After all, it was in essence a huge game of telephone being played between people who were at an average distance of six miles apart.
But Chappe had anticipated that.
He built in error correcting instructions into the code.
If an operator made a typo, he could use these error codes to instruct the operator at the next station to disregard or “delete” the previous signal.
But this was also what opened the door to the world’s first cyberattack.
For its entire existence, Chappe’s telegraph system was used exclusively by the French government. But the network itself could be used for more than just snuffing out Royalist sympathizers and conquering much of the European continent. No, it could be used for so much more — like making money.
And that’s exactly what the Blanc brothers did.
The Blanc brothers were bankers — not hackers. They realized If one could somehow utilize the semaphore telegraph to communicate the latest economic figures from the stock market in Paris faster than everyone else, a savvy investor could stand to make a few francs. But the codes themselves were national secrets and only known by a limited number of operators.
But not all of the code was so secret.
The error codes had to be known by everybody who worked on the semaphore line.
So the Blancs pulled off their 19th century cyber attack like true financiers — they paid off a low-level employee at one of the intermediary stations and had them insert an error into incoming messages. Depending on the nature of the error, it could covertly indicate whether the stock market was up or down. A co-conspirator down the line would then know whether to sell or buy stocks while everybody else would still be waiting for their newspapers to arrive. The Blanc brothers ran this scheme for two years before being caught.
But their fraud was so ahead of its time though, the brothers escaped punishment. France had no explicit laws against cyber attacks or misuse of data networks at the time. So the Blanc brothers couldn’t be convicted of any wrongdoing.
But they wouldn’t get another chance to hack Chappe’s telegraph.
Within ten years, electric telegraph systems began to replace Chappe’s design. The last of his semaphore towers was taken out of service in 1880.
Although today’s internet doesn’t rely on semaphore to communicate information, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t.
In 2007, an astoundingly detailed April Fools joke laid out the protocol for transmitting internet data via semaphore signals. An email, a website, even streaming video could all be sent using nothing more than a person waving a pair of flags. Of course it would be amazingly slow and the data transfer speeds would invariably decrease as the signaler’s arms became more and more tired. But with the data in plain sight at all times and fallible human operators at every step, even a modern semaphore internet wouldn’t be any safer from an old school cyber attack.
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