The idea of hacking may conjure stylized images of electronic vandalism, banking frauds or some other ways of computer misuse. Most people today associate hacking with breaking the law and assume that everyone who engages in hacking activities is a criminal in this way or another. Sure, there are people out there who use hacking techniques to break the law in many ways, but hacking isn’t really about that. In fact, hacking is more about respecting and following the law than breaking it.
The concept of hacking first entered the computer culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1960s. Sometime in the late 1950s, the MIT model railroad club was given a donation of parts, mostly old telephone equipment which he club’s members used to rig up a complex system that allowed multiple operators to control different parts of the track by dialing into the appropriate sections. They called this new and inventive use of telephone equipment hacking ; many now consider this group to be the original hackers.
The group moved on to programming for early computers like the IBM 704 and the TX-0. While others were pleased with writing programs that just solved problems, the early hackers were obsessed with writing programs that solved problems really well. So they become practical problem solvers, always pursuing new ways to master the art of computer science.
The true hacker can’t just sit around all day and night; he must pursue some meaningful hobby with both dedication and flair. It can be telephones, or railroads (model, real, or both), or science fiction fandom, magic tricks, or broadcast radio. The hacker inventive spirit can never be stopped, nor can it be easily categorized to be good or bad one. Hackers will constantly be pushing the limits of our knowledge and acceptable behavior, forcing the human race to explore further and further.
Hackers method of working is basically attempting to find vulnerabilities on a given system. How they will use the end results is something completely different. This eventually results in an ultimately beneficial co-evolution of security through competition between attacking hackers and defending hackers. This is essential, as it produces smarter people, improved security, more stable software, inventive problem-solving techniques, and in this day and age we witness even a new digital economy. Hacking is really moving the world front. It has done so even more than 100 years ago.
On June 1903 before the audience in the Royal Institution’s lecture theatre in London, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting some secretive apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging new technological masterpiece: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer, and later Nobel prize winner, Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly and safely over long distances. Some 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a station in Cornwall. Just before the demonstration could begin, the aforementioned apparatus in the theatre began to tap out a strange message. At first, it spelled out just one word repeated over and over. Then it changed into a rude poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Their demonstration had been hacked – and this happened more than 100 years before the hacking and cracking out on the internet today.
It had all started in 1887 when Heinrich Hertz finally proved the existence of the electromagnetic waves predicted already by Maxwell in 1865. Discharging a capacitor into two separated electrodes, Hertz created a spark. Miraculously, another spark zipped between two electrodes a few meters away. So-called “Hertzian waves” – could be now broadcasted to represent the dots and dashes of Morse code. Wireless telegraphy was born, and Marconi was at the vanguard. Marconi claimed that his wireless messages could be sent privately, and safely, over great distances. “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages,” Marconi proudly said to London’s newspapers on February 1903.
But things would not go smoothly for Marconi because just minutes before Fleming was due to receive Marconi’s Morse messages from Cornwall, the silence was broken by a rhythmic ticking noise sputtering from the theatre’s brass projection lantern, used to display the lecturer’s slides.Arthur Blok, Fleming’s assistant, quickly recognised the tippity-tap of a human hand keying a message in Morse. Someone, Blok reasoned, was beaming out powerful wireless pulses into the theatre and they were strong enough to interfere with the projector.
Mentally decoding the message in his head, Blok realised it was spelling one word, over and over: “Rats”. Nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddle the public quite prettily,” it trilled. Further rude insults – also lines from Shakespeare – followed.
The stream of invective ceased moments before Marconi’s signals from Cornwall arrived. The demo continued, but the damage was done: if somebody could intrude on the wireless frequency in such a way, it was clearly nowhere near as secure as Marconi claimed. And it was likely that they could eavesdrop on supposedly private messages too. People realized in 1903 that this new wireless technology is not safe at all.
Marconi did not respond directly to the insults in public: “I will not demonstrate to any man who throws doubt upon the system,” he said at the time. Fleming, however, wrote to The Times of London. He called the hack “scientific hooliganism”, and “an outrage against the traditions of the Royal Institution”. He asked the newspaper’s readers to help him find who did it.
Just like today he didn’t have to wait long. Four days later a letter confessing to the hack was issued by The Times. The writer justified his actions on the grounds of the security holes it revealed for the public good. Our hacker was Nevil Maskelyne, 39-year-old British music hall magician. Maskelyne came from an inventive line – his father came up with the coin-activated “spend-a-penny” locks used for pay toilets. Maskelyne, however, was more interested in wireless technology, so he managed to teach himself the basic principles of the time. He waned to use Morse code in “mind-reading” magic tricks to secretly communicate with a stooge. He discovered on his own how to use a spark-gap transmitter to remotely ignite gunpowder. And in 1900, Maskelyne sent wireless messages between a ground station and a balloon 10 miles away. But, apparently he was frustrated by Marconi’s broad patents, leaving him embittered towards the Italian scientist. Maskelyne would soon find a way to strike.
One of the big losers from Marconi’s technology was likely to be the telegraphy companies that owned expensive land and sea cable networks, and operated huge flotillas of ships with expert crews to lay and service their submarine cables. Marconi presented a wireless threat to their wired empire, and they were in no mood to just give it away. The Eastern Telegraph Company ran the communications empire of the day and following Marconi’s feat of transatlantic wireless messaging on 12 December 1901, it hired Maskelyne to undertake spying operations.
Maskelyne built a 50-metre radio mast close to shore to see if he could eavesdrop on messages the Marconi Company was beaming to vessels as part of its highly successful ship-to-shore messaging business. In the journal The Electrician Maskelyne wrote on 7 November 1902, revealing the lack of security. “I received Marconi messages with a 25-foot collecting circuit [aerial] raised on a scaffold pole. When eventually the mast was erected the problem was not interception but how to deal with the enormous excess of energy.”
Marconi had patented a technology for tuning a wireless transmitter to broadcast on a precise wavelength. This tuning, as Marconi claimed, meant that confidential channels could be set up without problems. Anyone who tunes in to a radio station today will know that’s not true, but it wasn’t nearly so obvious back then. Maskelyne showed that by using an untuned broadband receiver, he could listen in those “confidential” channels.
Having established that interception was possible, Maskelyne wanted to draw more attention to the technology’s flaws, as well as showing interference could happen very easily. That’s the way he staged his Royal Institution hack. He did it by setting up a simple transmitter and Morse key at his father’s West End music hall that was nearby. The messages he sent drew attention to a legitimate flaw in the technology – and the only damage done was in the pride of Marconi and his company.
In our day, many hackers actually just highlight flawed technologies and security lapses just like Maskelyne had done it. But times had changed. One example is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) of 1998 which makes it illegal to discuss or provide technology that might be used to bypass industry consumer controls. This law was used against Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian computer programmer and hacker. He had written software to circumvent overly simplistic encryption in Adobe software and presented his findings at a hacker convention in the United States. The FBI swooped in and arrested him, leading to a lengthy legal battle.
There’s nothing good or bad about knowledge itself; morality lies in the application of knowledge.