Hacking through time

Hacking has changed a lot over time. In this blog post we review the evolution of hacking, from pranks to industrial espionage.

25-05-2022 - 7 minute read. Posted in: hacking.

Hacking through time

Hacking has changed a lot over time. In this blog post, we review the evolution of hacking, from the innocent pranks of computer geeks and benign hackers to criminal hackers and modern industrial espionage.

The hacking phenomenon emerges

Hacking was initially a positive concept. The term "hacking" was first used in the 1950s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The term referred to modifying systems to give them new functions.

"A hacker" came to be used during the 1960s to describe computer geeks at MIT who experimented with creative solutions to software or hardware problems.

The term "hacker" spread during the 1960s from MIT to the rest of the United States and the meaning changed to refer to a larger group of computer enthusiasts who were concerned with computers and technical problems, especially in their spare time.

The first phreaks

Back in the early 1970s, the largest network available to the public was the telephone network. And at that time, telephones were controlled by an automated system that used specific analogue frequencies to make calls.

This led to a trend in hacking, namely phone hacking or "phreaking". The hackers behind phone hacking named themselves "phreaks" (contraction of "phone" and "freak"). Phone hacking was started by a man called John Draper, who some consider the first real hacker.

Draper found that by whistling into a toy whistle, he could hit a specific frequency that, when whistled into a telephone pipe, gave him operator rights to make free long-distance and international calls.

From this, he developed a device that could emit different frequencies that affected the telephone network in different ways. This device made it possible for other hackers to hack the telephone network.

Hacking goes mainstream

the 1980s was an important decade in the history of hacking, as personal computers were introduced to the general public. Computers were now basically available to everyone, not just large corporations or universities. This led to an increase in hacking.

Hackers were also no longer just concerned with optimising or modifying computer systems, more and more began to use hacking for criminal purposes, such as pirating software or stealing sensitive information.

Hacking also reached popular culture in the 1980s. Both movies and books were made about hacking, and the most famous movie is undoubtedly the film Wargames. In the 1983 film, a young man hacks into the computer system that controls America's nuclear weapons.

Some believe the film had an impact on US security policy. Legislation on hacking began to be proposed and in 1986 the first anti-hacking law, the Computer Abuse and Fraud Act, came into force.

Hacking reaches a free and open internet

In the 1990s, personal computers and Internet connectivity were quite common in American homes. This led to an increase in hacker attacks targeting the open Internet, such as malware attacks in the form of viruses. The term "hacker" was no longer a positive concept due to the rise of cybercrime, especially on the web. Cyber-criminal hackers were called "crackers".

The decade also saw major hacker attacks, for example by the Russian Vladimir Levin.

Levin carried out the first digital bank robbery when he stole more than $10 million dollars from Citibank. Levin hacked the bank's phone network and gained access to customers' passwords, which they had to enter on their phones when they called the bank.

Other well-known hackers from that time include Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen and Robert Morris.

Mitnick stole software from major companies, which earned him a place on the FBI's "most wanted list".

Kevin Poulsen hacked a radio station's network to win a car in a competition. He was later sentenced to 51 months in prison.

Robert Morris became famous for creating the first computer worm on the Internet.

From financial theft to identity theft

During the 00s, more and more ordinary people came online. The web started to become a place for consumption and transactions, as it was possible to buy goods online. In addition, social media, such as Facebook, began to emerge where ordinary people shared personal information about themselves.

This led to an increase in identity theft, as hackers had access to both images and personal data. In addition, new tools emerged that made it easier for hackers to steal passwords and credit card details.

In 2005, a security breach at Mastercard led to around 40 million users having their credit card details leaked.

Hacking goes global

On May 5, 2000, an email in the Philippines began spreading to Hong Kong. The email hade the topic "I LOVE YOU". The e-mail contained a text file which many of the recipients thought was a form of love letter and therefore opened the e-mail. The e-mail did not contain a declaration of love, but a virus that replicated itself and forwarded itself to the recipient's e-mail contacts.

Ten days later, the virus had infected about ten percent of the world's Internet-connected computers.

As the 00s progressed, cyber attacks became more sophisticated and it became easier for hackers to launch global hacking attacks. Cyber attacks also began to be categorised, such as DDoS attacks and watering hole attacks.

DDoS attacks in particular proved to be potentially destructive cyberattacks, with several major US companies such as eBay and Microsoft having their websites shut down by 15-year-old Michael Calce in 2000.

Criminal hackers are becoming socially aware

Although the term "hacktivism" originated in the 1990s, hacking activists became known among the general population when the Anonymous network began hacking large companies or public organisations in 2008. They hacked the Scientology website and shut it down.

Hacktivists are particularly associated with social, ideological and political protests.

Hacktivist groups often use cyber attacks to obtain information they believe is in the public interest. In recent years, several groups have released highly classified documents, exposed government secrets and waged digital crusades to defend and protect the public from being harmed or exploited by countries, companies or powerful individuals.

Since Anonymous' first major cyberattack, it has waged social cyberwar against the likes of Donald Trump, the Islamic State and the WTO.

Hacking into military or political intelligence

Stuxnet was a piece of malware created by the US and Israel as a weapon against Iran's nuclear facilities. Stuxnet destroyed between 10 and 30% of Iranian nuclear centrifuges. After Stuxnet, states and state actors around the world realised that they could use cyber attacks to achieve their political, commercial and military goals.

Before Stuxnet, cyber security was mostly about protection against hackers and cyber criminals, who are often motivated by economic goals. After Stuxnet, states began to employ hackers, either directly or indirectly, through their military and public institutions. State-sponsored hackers use hacking to obtain military information from other countries, spread misinformation, spread a political ideology, etc.

Russia, in particular, is now known to use state-sponsored hacking. Although Russia denies it, the US intelligence community believes that Russian hackers hacked Democrats' servers in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

Now what?

As we get more and more IoT systems, there will also be more and more targets that can be hacked. The constant evolution of technology also creates more categories of cyber attacks.

Computer security is more important than ever, and just as businesses need to protect their applications and data systems from security breaches and hacking, you also need to protect your own computer, mobile phone and tablet.

Cyber criminals exploit weaknesses - both technical and human, so increased knowledge of cyber security and the consequences of hacking is a must for everyone.

Author Sofie Meyer

Sofie Meyer

Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.

View all posts by Sofie Meyer

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