Hacktivism, codebreaking or Twitter hijacking; hackers are as old as technology itself. Here, we look back on its ultimate rule breakers
Assaults from hacktivists like Anonymous seem to come from nowhere. Last week they seized the account of the Ku Klux Klan after the hate group distributed leaflets in Ferguson threatening to use “lethal force” against protesters awaiting the verdict of Darren Wilson. Anonymous’ first tweet from @KuKluxKlanUSA was their slogan “you should have expected us”, but the KKK almost certainly didn’t. Cyber skirmishes like these may appear out of the blue, but, just like any other art form, they have a long and varied history. After all, hackers are as old as technology itself, and tracing their history will take us on a journey across telephone networks, telegraph wires and all the way back to computer punch cards, and as long as one person has had a code, somebody else has wanted to break it. In paean to the hacker-instinct that has survived every technological revolution of the past century, we take a look at the ultimate hacks in history. Rules are made to be broken, after all.
THE FAST-FOOD TWITTER SWAP
There are as many pranksters cracking into Twitter accounts as there are political activists. Last year, a group set out to shame the fast-food giant Burger King. They hacked the company’s Twitter handle and changed the name to MacDonalds, claiming the King had sold out to its biggest rival. The bio read: “Just got sold to McDonalds because the whopper flopped =[”
SKINT STUDENT? NUH...
Whilst studying at New York University, Kristina Vladimirovna Svechinskaya took on a particularly lucrative extra-curricular activity. Working for a gang that made her £2 million a month by stealing login details of online accounts using Trojan horse software. According to the FBI, the ring raked in a whopping £40 million. Reconciling her new millionaire lifestyle with her student lifestyle probably would have been challenging. At least she could have paid off her study fees easily – well, if she hadn’t been caught.
THE COLD WAR CRACKER: KARL KOCH
German hacker Karl Koch was involved in selling hacked information from US military computers to the KGB at the height of the Cold War. He was found burned to death with gasoline on 23 May, 1989, aged just 23. Officially, his gruesome death was claimed as suicide, but conspiracy theorists suggested he was murdered to stop him talking about the espionage. It was Koch’s extraordinary story that inspired the German film 23.
Accused of masterminding the combined credit card theft and subsequent reselling of over 170 million card ATM numbers, Albert Gonzalez is among the biggest computer fraudsters in history. He was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for stealing computer data from several corporate systems. Apparently, he threw himself a $75,000 birthday party during this two-year hacking spree. You may hate his ethics, but I bet you would have killed to go to that party.
Scottish systems administrator Gary Mckinnon is accused of hacking into 97 US military and NASA computers from his girlfriend's aunt's house over a period lasting more than a year. It was the largest military hack in history, but he claimed he was only looking for proof of a UFO cover-up (aren’t we all?). He shut down a network of 2,000 US military computers, and deleted weapon logs and – adding insult to injury – posted a notice on the military’s website reading: “Your security is crap.”
Raphael Gray would probably have evaded the law if he hadn’t been really annoying. Aged 19, this Welsh boy genius hacked computer systems the world over and published details of over 6,500 credit cards online to show just how weak security on consumer websites was. He subsequently posted a message boasting the police would never find him "because they never catch anyone. The police can't hack their way out of a paper bag." Gray’s arrogance pissed off ex-hacker Chris Davis so much that he came out of retirement to hunt the boy down. After a day searching, Davis uncovered Gray’s information and forwarded it to the FBI. Game over.
CAPTAIN CRUNCH, JOYBUBBLES AND THE LITTLE BLUE BOX
Captain Crunch and Joybubbles (real names John Draper and Josef Engressia) were phone phreaks; a bygone brand of hackers who targeted phone networks. They became cultural icons in 1971 when a feature in Esquire magazine exposed the phreaking scene to the general public – an article that inspired Steve Jobs. Joybubbles, a blind man with perfect pitch, worked out how to dial phone numbers by whistling into a receiver at set frequencies. He was part of a network of blind phone phreaks that enlisted the tech-savvy Captain Crunch to build a multifrequency tone generator – the “blue box” – which would let them hack the networks of phone company AT&T. He built the devices using a whistle from boxes of Captain Crunch cereal that emitted a tone of exactly 2600 hertz – hence his cracking name.
PROGRAMMERS FIGHTING CHILD PORN
Proving tech-talent can be used for a good cause, the hacker known by the name Natasha Grigori set up antichildporn.org in the late 1990s to battle online child pornography. An on-going fight against one of the internet’s greatest evils, her site is one of the largest crusaders against online child pornography. Countless hackers use techniques learned from Grigori to help law enforcement agencies find and prosecute distributors.
THE HERO-HACKER RENÉ CARMILLE
Working in the days of punched card computers, René Carmille acted as a double agent for the French Resistance during the Second World War. Heading up the Demographic Department of Vichy, and later the National Statistics service, he worked from inside the system to sabotage the Nazi census of France, saving countless Jewish lives. The Nazis did eventually catch him, however, and sent him to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1945. Check out Carmille’s story in animation-form below.
BREAKING THE ENIGMA CODE
Polish cryptologists first broke Enigma ciphers – the German encryption system – in 1932, but when war broke out, the code started changing at least once a day. With invasion of Poland imminent, they asked for help from the Brits in 1939, who set up the now-legendry Bletchley Park where mathematicians worked tirelessly to crack the German system. Although many of today’s headline-grabbing hackers seem to be motivated by greed, arrogance and mischief making, their forefathers were in fact war heroes. Even the government agencies these war efforts gave rise to seem to have lost the plot. GCHQ and the NSA have become wildly unpopular for their invasive methods. So, even hacker groups with noble beginnings have lost their moral shine in the internet age.