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Timeline: A 40-year history of hacking

PC World

By staff

(IDG) -- Hacking has been around pretty much since the development of the first electronic computers. Here are some of the key events in the last four decades of hacking.

1960s: The Dawn of Hacking

The first computer hackers emerge at MIT. They borrow their name from a term to describe members of a model train group at the school who "hack" the electric trains, tracks, and switches to make them perform faster and differently. A few of the members transfer their curiosity and rigging skills to the new mainframe computing systems being studied and developed on campus.

1970s: Phone Phreaks and Cap'n Crunch

Phone hackers (phreaks) break into regional and international phone networks to make free calls. One phreak, John Draper (aka "Cap'n Crunch"), learns that a toy whistle given away inside Cap'n Crunch cereal generates a 2600-hertz signal, the same high-pitched tone that accesses AT&T's long-distance switching system.

Draper builds a "blue box" that, when used in conjunction with the whistle and sounded into a phone receiver, allows phreaks to make free calls.

Shortly thereafter, Esquire magazine publishes "Secrets of the Little Blue Box" with instructions for making a blue box, and wire fraud in the United States escalates. Among the perpetrators: college kids Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, future founders of Apple Computer, who launch a home industry making and selling blue boxes.

1980: Hacker Message Boards and Groups

Phone phreaks begin to move into the realm of computer hacking, and the first electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) spring up.

The precursor to Usenet newsgroups and e-mail, the boards -- with names such as "Sherwood Forest" and "Catch-22" -- become the venue of choice for phreaks and hackers to gossip, trade tips, and share stolen computer passwords and credit card numbers.

Hacking groups begin to form. Among the first are Legion of Doom in the United States, and Chaos Computer Club in Germany.

1983: Kids' Games

The movie "War Games" introduces the public to hacking, and the legend of hackers as cyberheroes (and anti-heroes) is born. The film's main character, played by Matthew Broderick, attempts to crack into a video game manufacturer's computer to play a game, but instead breaks into the military's nuclear combat simulator computer.

The computer (codenamed WOPR, a pun on the military's real system called BURGR) misinterprets the hacker's request to play Global Thermonuclear War as an enemy missile launch. The break-in throws the military into high alert, or Def Con 1 (Defense Condition 1).

The same year, authorities arrest six teenagers known as the 414 gang (after the area code to which they are traced). During a nine-day spree, the gang breaks into some 60 computers, among them computers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which helps develop nuclear weapons.

1984: Hacker 'Zines

The hacker magazine 2600 begins regular publication, followed a year later by the online 'zine Phrack. The editor of 2600, "Emmanuel Goldstein" (whose real name is Eric Corley), takes his handle from the main character in George Orwell's "1984." Both publications provide tips for would-be hackers and phone phreaks, as well as commentary on the hacker issues of the day. Today, copies of 2600 are sold at most large retail bookstores.

1986: Use a Computer, Go to Jail

In the wake of an increasing number of break-ins to government and corporate computers, Congress passes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a crime to break into computer systems. The law, however, does not cover juveniles.

1988: The Morris Worm

Robert T. Morris, Jr., a graduate student at Cornell University and son of a chief scientist at a division of the National Security Agency, launches a self-replicating worm on the government's ARPAnet (precursor to the Internet) to test its effect on UNIX systems.

The worm gets out of hand and spreads to some 6,000 networked computers, clogging government and university systems. Morris is dismissed from Cornell, sentenced to three years' probation and fined $10,000.

1989: The Germans and the KGB

In the first cyberespionage case to make international headlines, hackers in West Germany (loosely affiliated with the Chaos Computer Club) are arrested for breaking into U.S. government and corporate computers and selling operating-system source code to the Soviet KGB.

Three of them are turned in by two fellow hacker spies, and a fourth suspected hacker commits suicide when his possible role in the plan is publicized. Because the information stolen is not classified, the hackers are fined and sentenced to probation.

In a separate incident, a hacker is arrested who calls himself "The Mentor." He publishes a now-famous treatise that comes to be known as the Hacker's Manifesto. The piece, a defense of hacker antics, begins, "My crime is that of curiosity ... I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all."

1990: Operation Sundevil

After a prolonged sting investigation, Secret Service agents swoop down on hackers in 14 U.S. cities, conducting early-morning raids and arrests.

The arrests involve organizers and prominent members of BBSs and are aimed at cracking down on credit-card theft and telephone and wire fraud. The result is a breakdown in the hacking community, with members informing on each other in exchange for immunity.

1993: Why Buy a Car When You Can Hack One?

During radio station call-in contests, hacker-fugitive Kevin Poulsen and two friends rig the stations' phone systems to let only their calls through, and "win" two Porsches, vacation trips and $20,000.

Poulsen, already wanted for breaking into phone-company systems, serves five years in prison for computer and wire fraud. (Since his release in 1996, he has worked as a freelance journalist covering computer crime.)

The first Def Con hacking conference takes place in Las Vegas. The conference is meant to be a one-time party to say good-bye to BBSs (now replaced by the Web), but the gathering is so popular it becomes an annual event.

1994: Hacking Tools R Us

The Internet begins to take off as a new browser, Netscape Navigator, makes information on the Web more accessible. Hackers take to the new venue quickly, moving all their how-to information and hacking programs from the old BBSs to new hacker Web sites.

As information and easy-to-use tools become available to anyone with Net access, the face of hacking begins to change.

1995: The Mitnick Takedown

Serial cybertrespasser Kevin Mitnick is captured by federal agents and charged with stealing 20,000 credit card numbers. He's kept in prison for four years without a trial and becomes a celebrity in the hacking underground.

After pleading guilty to seven charges at his trial in March 1999, he's eventually sentenced to little more than time he had already served while he wait for a trial.

Russian crackers siphon $10 million from Citibank and transfer the money to bank accounts around the world. Vladimir Levin, the 30-year-old ringleader, uses his work laptop after hours to transfer the funds to accounts in Finland and Israel.

Levin stands trial in the United States and is sentenced to three years in prison. Authorities recover all but $400,000 of the stolen money.

1997: Hacking AOL

AOHell is released, a freeware application that allows a burgeoning community of unskilled hackers -- or script kiddies -- to wreak havoc on America Online (AOL). For days, hundreds of thousands of AOL users find their mailboxes flooded with multi-megabyte mail bombs and their chat rooms disrupted with spam messages. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of

1998: The Cult of Hacking and the Israeli Connection

The hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow releases its Trojan horse program, Back Orifice -- a powerful hacking tool -- at Def Con. Once a hacker installs the Trojan horse on a machine running Windows 95 or Windows 98, the program allows unauthorized remote access of the machine.

During heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf, hackers touch off a string of break-ins to unclassified Pentagon computers and steal software programs. Then-U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre calls it "the most organized and systematic attack" on U.S. military systems to date.

An investigation points to two American teens. A 19-year-old Israeli hacker who calls himself "The Analyzer" (aka Ehud Tenebaum) is eventually identified as their ringleader and arrested. Today Tenebaum is chief technology officer of a computer consulting firm.

1999: Software Security Goes Mainstream

In the wake of Microsoft's Windows 98 release, 1999 becomes a banner year for security (and hacking). Hundreds of advisories and patches are released in response to newfound (and widely publicized) bugs in Windows and other commercial software products. A host of security software vendors release anti-hacking products for use on home computers.

2000: Service Denied

In one of the biggest denial-of-service attacks to date, hackers launch attacks against eBay, Yahoo!,, Amazon and others.

Activists in Pakistan and the Middle East deface Web sites belonging to the Indian and Israeli governments to protest oppression in Kashmir and Palestine.

Hackers break into Microsoft's corporate network and access source code for the latest versions of Windows and Office.

2001: DNS Attack

Microsoft becomes the prominent victim of a new type of hack that attacks the domain name server. In these denial-of-service attacks, the DNS paths that take users to Microsoft's Web sites are corrupted. The hack is detected within a few hours, but prevents millions of users from reaching Microsoft Web pages for two days.


• Hacking Lexicon

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