The fascinating history of major cyber attacks, hacks and general electronic mischief

WannaCry, Stuxnet, the Anna Kournikova virus…even Marconi got burnt. The history of hacking is sure to surprise you.

There is a long history to hacking, and there are stories of fun, fancy and full-fledge destructiveness.

Believe it or not, hacking officially started a full 114 years ago.

Maskelyne also built this 50m-tall signal interceptor to drive the message home to Marconi.

1903: It begins with Marconi the ‘diddler’

The hacking saga begins at the dawn of the age of telecommunications, when Guglielmo Marconi’s was promoting his ‘wireless telegraphy machine.’ Marconi, ever the salesman, assured the public that wireless transmission was secure (something that presciently enough, the elite of the day were suspicious of). But Nevil Maskelyne, a magician and inventor, begged to differ, and proved it like a true showman. At a demo in London, awaiting a hertz-powered message from 300 miles away, the telegraphy machine activated unexpectedly. “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” it tapped out quite cheekily. And in one fell swoop, both trolling and hacking were invented.


Clues from what amounted to human error on the German side helped this complicated machine crack the Enigma code.

1939: The other ‘bombe’ that helped win the war

The first hack to have a profound affect on the world was a stealth blow to Germany’s war effort. Alan Turing and his team cracked the country’s Enigma encryption machine using the massive Bombe electromechanical device at Bletchley Park. They took a highly complicated, brute force approach to deciphering Germany’s encrypted communications, using some clever exploits of user behaviour to identify patterns. This greatly helped to win the war, and underlined that information (along with technology) is the eternal advantage in warfare.


Phreaking first referred to groups who had reverse engineered the system of tones used to route long-distance calls. Pictured is John Draper, aka Captain Crunch.

1957: A 7-year old hacks AT&T

‘Hacking’ gained a subculture in the late 1950s over the telephone, which was the highest-tech send-and-receive device that people had access to at the time. It started when a blind seven-year-old boy with perfect pitch, Joe Engressia, discovered that whistling at a frequency of 2600 Hz (commonly known as the fourth E above middle C) would interact with AT&T’s fully automatic switches. The trick caused the switch to think the call had ended, leaving an open line, which Engressia soon discovered could be used to make free long-distance calls. With that, phreaking was born. ‘Phreaks’ then discovered they could use the bosun whistle packaged in Cap’n Crunch cereal (frequency 2600 Hz) to spread the underground phreaking movement.


A very informative video on how the Morris Worm was built can be found here.

1988: The ‘it just got real’ moment

When it comes to modern hacking as we know it, Robert Tapan Morris is the forefather. As a curious graduate student, he programmed a worm (now known as the Morris worm) that exploited weaknesses in the nascent internet’s UNIX system. It quickly replicated across a large number of computers, and had the effect of slowing all devices down to the point of inoperability. In another first, Morris was convicted under the US computer fraud and abuse act, despite the fact he alleged to be ‘just trying to see how big the internet was’ with the worm, and didn’t mean any harm. He now works at MIT.


The cyber-utopians saw cyberspace as a new world order for the better, while the cynics felt it necessary to demonstrate the opposite.

1992: New York hacks the rose-coloured dreams of the cyber-utopians of California

Many dreams are made and crushed online, as we know today. As the internet proliferated across the US in the 90's, two visions emerged: one of an online libertarianism utopia, and the other of a authoritarian dystopia. John Perry Barlow was a leader of the optimistic cyber-utopians of California. He believed the internet would be ‘naturally independent of the tyrannies’ governments seek to impose. From New York and jaded, hackers Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak set out to prove to Barlow that he was completely wrong, and that corporations would use the internet to exert more control over the lives of people than governments had done in the past. They demonstrated this by obtaining Barlow’s credit record from TRW Inc. and posting it on the internet for all to see in a famous online dispute.


Hackers achieved cult classic status.

1995: The Net and Hackers are released

Hacking entered the mainstream with two marquee moments in 1995, which was also around the time the dot-com boom began. The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, introduced the mainstream to the idea that computer systems might be fallible, while Hackers demonstrated the joys and dangers of this new world of power to fun-loving Gen-Xers. These two films also introduced the world to many misconceptions of how hacking ‘looks’ and how computer systems work.


In 2000, Anna Kournikova was both a sex symbol and tennis star, so the promise of her .jpg was very appealing.

2001, 2002: ILOVEYOU and the Anna Kournikova viruses

The email attachment introduced the world to a new and rapidly insidious form of system infiltration, and this has been throughly exploited since the new millennium began. “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt.vbs” and “AnnaKournikova.jpg.vbs” were attachments that begged to be opened (and were often displayed with the ‘.vbs’ portion hidden, thanks to a Windows oversight). With LOVE-LETTER, the system would have been quite damaged by the malware, and all contacts would have been relayed the message. With Anna Kournikova, contacts would have been mailed the attachment, but no damage would have been done. That’s because it was nothing more than a curio project of young Dutch programmer Jan de Wit, who had downloaded the worm and released it with no ill-intent.


Guy Fawkes masks have become Anonymous’s signature.

2003: Hacktivist group Anonymous forms

Protest, activism and suspicions of domestic threats enter the digital space when hacktivist group Anonymous forms in 2003. This loosely associated group, centred around the web forum 4Chan, targets Scientology first, then: the U.S., Israel, Tunisia, Uganda, ISIS, child pornography sites, copyright protection agencies, the Westboro Baptist Church, and corporations such as PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and Sony. All the while, it is widely disputed whether Anonymous is a force for good or a force for evil. It appears chaotic to many.


The statue that purportedly started the first ‘cyber war,’ although it was really more of a ‘cyber riot.’

2007: Hacking as a new form of rioting (and a way to show who’s still boss)

By 2007, hacking had started to become a virtual-world component to real-world protests. Following Estonia’s decision to remove a Soviet World War II memorial from downtown Tallinn, rioting among Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority erupted, along with protests from the Russian government and people. At the same time, Estonian government networks were harassed by denial of service attacks. They devastated the country’s government systems for some time, and acted as a symbolic blow: Russia ‘pwned’ Estonia in many ways still.


By 2007, governments were hacking each other quite often.

June 2007: US government is hacked, China to blame

When the world’s superpower and the world’s emerging power started to square off in cyberspace, hacking became a high stakes geopolitical concern. The US Secretary of Defence’s unclassified email account was hacked by unknown foreign intruders in 2007. The Pentagon blamed the Chinese government, while the Chinese government said this accusation was ‘groundless,’ and that the country ‘opposes cybercrime.’ No government in the world could probably get away with claiming to ‘oppose cybercrime’ in 2017.


China has been blamed for many attacks, but has received them as well.

October 2007: China hacked, the state-on-state cyberwar plot thickens

Shortly after the US attack, China’s Ministry of State Security said foreign hackers had been stealing information from ‘Chinese key areas,’ including the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC). The Chinese authorities claimed 42% of the attacks came from Taiwan and 25% from the US. Increasingly, a picture of governments hacking other governments started to emerge.


STUXnet exploited four zero-day flaws in Windows systems.

2010: Stuxnet and the complexities of cyberattacks

The world’s first known digital weapon — not just infiltration device — was like no other weapon before it. Stuxnet, a complex piece of malware, was reportedly an Israeli-American cyber weapon aimed at the Iranian nuclear program. The 500kb worm targeted Microsoft Windows machines, repeatedly replicated itself, sought out Siemens Step7 software (like that found in centrifuges for uranium enrichment in Iran), compromised the programmable logic controllers, and allowed the worm’s authors to spy on the industrial systems and even cause centrifuges to tear themselves apart.


Wikileaks later disclosed all documents from the Guardians of Peace hack on Sony.

2014: Guardians of Peace hack Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures fell victim to a highly embarrassing leak of emails, salary disclosures and then-unreleased films in 2014. It was discovered the attack originated in North Korea by a group called Guardians of Peace. They have one more very specific and threatening demand: Sony pictures must pull its film The Interview (a comedy about an assassination attempt on NK leader Kim Jong Un) from theatres. The group hints at the possibility of terrorist attacks at screenings. Sony, not willing to take the risk, obliges, and a new type of attacks — state-sanctioned attacks aimed at corporations — first emerges.


The tagline for Ashley Madison has recently changed from “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” to “Find your moment.”

2015: Impact team breaks into Ashley Madison

A moral crusade against a dating website for extramarital affairs shows the world an example of hacking that many might agree with. Hackers as part of “The Impact Team” released over 20gb of profile data on Ashley Madison users. Following the hack, communities of internet vigilantes began combing through the data to find famous individuals in the aim of publicly humiliating them. Online shaming, fuelled by data leaks, becomes a new issue for the general public.


Cybersecurity firms are seeing opportunities after WannaCry’s capturing of the public’s attention (and files).

2017: WannaCry, the largest ransomware attack to date teaches us a thing or two about data security

And this brings us to this week in history, where a seemingly indiscriminate attack on Windows-based systems worldwide has shown how fallible we are to exploitation, and how this can affect us on very personal levels. The fact that the ransomeware’s underlying backdoor-exploiting software was developed by the NSA further complicates things. And the fact that these tools are increasingly available to groups around the world urges us to reassess how we build and update our systems.

So, what will be next?

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