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Famous Hacks Throughout History

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Although it hasn’t always been called hacking, breaking into systems that you aren’t supposed to have access to is as old as humans themselves. When we think of hacking in a modern sense, we can trace its roots back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

What are some of the most well-known hacks throughout history, and how much damage did they cause? Here are the 15 most famous hacks of all time.

The first public hack

The first public record of hacking that we have dates back to 1903. Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy technology. It was supposed to be secure. At a public demonstration of this technology, a magician and inventor named Nevil Maskelyne hacked into the system and sent insulting messages in Morse code to the auditorium’s projector.

Cracking the Enigma-machine

Hacking was around even before the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t as ubiquitous. That’s why a major event like Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, and Harold Keen developing the Bombe in 1939 to crack the Enigma-machine-encrypted messages sent by Germany during World War II was such a big deal.

The Cap’n Crunch hack

In 1972, John T. Draper figured out he could use a whistle from a Cap’n Crunch cereal box to hack into AT&T’s systems to make free calls. The whistle gave off a 2600-hertz pitch, which matched the exact tone needed to gain internal authorization at AT&T. Draper. Other “phone phreaks” — people who hack and tinker with telephone lines and systems — also used a device called a blue box to emit certain tones that would control the phone network. For the whistle hack, Draper gained the moniker Captain Crunch and has become a well-known figure in the hacking and security world.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, hacking started becoming more mainstream. Major news outlets covered cyberattacks and hacking events. The decade saw the birth of some of the most famous (and infamous) hacking groups. The hacking highlights from this decade include:

  • Captain Zap: In 1981, Ian Murphy, also known as Captain Zap, broke into AT&T’s computers and modified the clocks that managed billing rates so people making calls at midday paid late-night rates and vice versa. For this hack, Murphy became the first known hacker to be tried and convicted as a felon.
  • FBI acknowledges white hat hacking: Following a security breach of the National CSS (NCSS), the FBI acknowledged the usefulness of hackers in helping to resolve the issue. A New York Times story covering the incident referred to hackers as a “recognized asset in the computer industry,” letting the world know that white hat hacking has a definitive place in IT.
  • The introduction of the Trojan horse: Career computer scientist Ken Thompson mentions the infamous virus known as a Trojan horse for the first time in his Turing Award lecture in 1983.
  • Cult of the Dead Cow is formed: The Cult of Dead Cow, or cDc, is a famous hacking and media group known for “hacktivist” exploits. The group formed in 1984 and was one of several well-known hacking organizations that formed in the 1980s.
  • The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: In 1986, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, one of the first major pieces of legislation to address cybercrime and hacking. The law made it a crime to break into computer systems.

The first FBI most wanted hacker

Cap’n Crunch may have been the first person arrested for hacking, but the honor of the first hacker on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list goes to Kevin Mitnick. Starting his hacking career in 1979, Mitnick was finally caught by the FBI on February 15, 1995. Not only was he the first hacker to make the Most Wanted list, but he was also the first-ever to be convicted of gaining access to an interstate computer network for criminal purposes. A master of social engineering, Mitnick was charged with stealing $1 million worth of sensitive data.

The Melissa Virus

The Melissa worm was introduced in 1999 and was the first virus that made people worry about being hacked in everyday life. Up until that point, individuals hadn’t typically been the targets of hackers. David L. Smith changed that when he created a virus and disguised it as a Microsoft Word program. When opened, it would resend itself to the first 50 people in the victim’s address book. The Melissa virus ended up compromising 20% of all the world’s computers before Intel and Microsoft could solve the problem.

The NASA and DoD hacks

In 1999, 15-year-old hacker Jonathan James and 35-year-old hacker Scot Gary McKinnon hacked NASA and the US Department of Defense (DoD). The first was James, who breached NASA’s systems and compromised the life support systems on the International Space Station (ISS). McKinnon was next, hacking into 16 computers belonging to NASA and 81 computers belonging to other parts of the DoD. Both hackers caused significant damage that required more than $500,000 (USD) to repair.

The cyberwar in Estonia

In 2007, the government of Estonia suffered three weeks of repeated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that nearly brought down its entire IT infrastructure. It started with Estonian political parties and government agencies and eventually spread to news outlets, media websites, schools, universities, businesses, and the worst — the banking sector. At this time, 97% of Estonia’s banking transactions were online. Because these DDoS attacks were so crippling to multiple industries in Estonia, they’re not seen as just regular DDoS attacks but one of the first instances of cyber warfare.

Stuxnet

The Stuxnet incident was another hacking episode with geopolitical implications. It was a worm that destroyed one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2009. It also infected five organizations that were supplying centrifuges. Because of the sophistication of Stuxnet, some experts believe a country or nation-state was behind it.

PlayStation Network hack

In 2011, hackers caused a month-long outage of the PlayStation Network, costing Sony $171 million (USD). The LulzSec hack exposed 77 million users’ real names, postal addresses, countries, email addresses, dates of birth, and PlayStation Network sign-in credentials.

Yahoo

The Yahoo! hacks that spanned 2014-2016 are considered one of the largest data breaches to date. By the time Yahoo! totaled up all the damage in October 2017, the number of estimated user accounts affected was 3 billion.

Aadhaar

Aadhaar is the national ID database of India. It contains highly sensitive information of the Indian citizens registered to it, like fingerprints and iris scans. Indians use the biometric data saved in Aadhaar to open bank accounts, buy SIM cards, sign up for public utilities, receive state financial assistance, and several other important services. In March 2018, the Aadhaar system was hacked and 550 million records were lost. All registered Indians were affected and identity numbers and bank info went up for sale on WhatsApp.

Hacking’s long history

As you can see, hacking goes back a long time. It’s developed rapidly and will continue to do so, as long as we have reasons to keep the information confidential. Hackers are consistently adapting with the times and so should you. Be sure to check out our other helpful articles to stay secure. 

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