In 2021, it’s impossible to talk about hackers without the negativity and apprehension that reminds us of the tremendous hidden threat of information theft and digital destruction, but it wasn’t always like that.
Initially, society saw hackers as technological enthusiasts, nonconformists, testing software and computers to increase their functionalities and drive technological progression. Little by little, with the emergence of viruses and cybercrime, hackers came to be seen as a hidden public threat, dividing society’s opinions.
Ready for a journey through history?
The term “hack” was born and popularised in the 50s and 60s at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club to define the practice of modifying the operation of model train sets to change or improve their functions. From trains to computers, these MIT students began to apply the same technique with the IBM 704 to explore, change paradigms and increase computer functionality. At that time, the only intention was to experiment and even improve the programs’ possibilities. In some cases, this practice even led to software production substantially superior to those already existing, such as the UNIX operating system by Dennis Ritchie and Keith Thompson.
In the 70s, while the world was getting used to computers, phreakers appeared. Early hackers, as John Draper – a former US Air Force electronics technician, found a way to use the network switch on electronic phones to make long-distance calls for free. The secret was a toy whistle, packaged in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal, which reproduced the exact tone needed to hijack a phone line, allowing the caller to enter an operator mode.
The phreaker trend has opened new paths for digital visionaries, including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who have both been phreakers, and learned a lot from this trend.
The arrival of the 80s marked the beginning of what is considered the Golden Age of Hacking. That is justified by the increase in sales of personal computers, which communicated with each other through telephone lines. Back then, kids hacked computer systems just for the fun of it. New hackers gathered digitally to share passwords and tricks to get into systems. Some new groups emerged that were also beginning to use computer experience and knowledge for personal good and criminal practices, pirating software, creating viruses, and hacking into systems to steal valuable information.
In 1983, the film WarGames helped to popularise the hacker culture, with the story of a teenager who managed to get into the computer of a military headquarters and almost caused the beginning of World War III. That same year, a group of teenagers in Milwaukee, known as 414s, began hacking – for fun – network systems used by high-profile institutions like the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research centre for nuclear bombs that produced atomic bombs used in World War II. Eventually, the FBI detained this group, and the case raised a societal discussion that led to the first law related to hacking in the United States: the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in 1986.
Despite the new law, the digital curious continued their way, and in 1988, the world knew the first computer worm. Created by Robert Morris, son of chief scientist at the US National Center for Computer Security, this virus infected around 6,000 computers, rendering them completely unusable. Morris was convicted under the law created in 1986 but never served time, and he is currently an MIT professor.
The ’90s were marked by the increase in the number of “crackers” (as they start to call “malicious” hackers). Besides Robert Morris, Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen and Vladimir Levin were also arrested and judged for stealing software from large companies, fraud to a radio station to win a car and the first digital theft of a financial institution.
With intense investigations carried out by the Secret Services, the previously impenetrable hacker community began to denounce itself, leading to many arrests. In an attempt to reduce or avoid punishment, community members began to give information about each other.
With the evolution of the Internet and the complexity of systems, in 2000, the word “hacker” gained even more negative connotation with high prominence in the media.
Ironically, the decade started with a lot of love disseminated around the world. On May 5, 2000, an email with the subject “ILOVEYOU” began to spread worldwide, infecting more than 10 million Windows computers. The virus, hidden in the email attachment, damaged the computers, destroying different types of files and was automatically forward to all Outlook contacts, making it the fastest distributed email virus so far. This malware was created by Onel de Guzman, a 24-year-old man residing in Manila, Philippines.
The decade was also marked by massive attacks on big companies like Microsoft, eBay, Yahoo and Amazon, raising many cybersecurity concerns.
The present and future of Hacking
Today, with people and the Internet becoming inseparable, life takes place primarily online, and the hacker community is becoming more sophisticated, complex and challenging to control than ever before.
There are still lone hackers fighting for the evolution of systems or profiting from their fragility, but the organised groups are the ones marking the decade. “Hacktivism” gains space in the social vocabulary. By revealing high-profile documents and exposing government secrets to allegedly defend society with the truth, groups like Anonymous divide public opinion. Villains or vigilantes? For some, they are true heroes; for others, the greatest enemies of public safety, but in one way or another, the impact is undeniable.
Hacktivists and cybercriminals have been the primary concern of government entities and large companies around the world. Cybersecurity has become one of the most repeated terms in a business context, and never, as now, has there been so much talk about protecting data. Will institutions be able to find defence systems capable of deterring the creativity and ingenuity of today’s hackers? The future will tell.