The greatest hacks in history

All the guffor currently surrounding LulzSec's hacking shenanigans got us thinking. The more stories we wrote about the group, the more we wondered where it all began...

We set about sorting our DDoS attacks from our phreaks, our worms from our trojans and getting to the bottom of what all this cyber goofery was about. 

Who hacked the first computer? How did they do it? And above all what are the most infamous hacks in history?

So, join Pocket-lint for a whistle stop tour of the shady side of computing, complete with all the intrigue and glamour of an air conditioned room filled with server racks and sweaty geeks. 

The dawn of hacking

Most point to America's MIT as the origin of hacking, after all it is where the term itself originated. Things started all the way back in the 1960s when a group of students studying artificial intelligence at the college began forcing programs to perform tasks they weren't intended for. 

The term "hack" has some truly geek origins, taken from a model railway club at MIT famed for the "hacking" of trains, switches and track, forcing them to go faster and work in different ways. This was then adopted by the computer obsessed students who would hack away at their keyboards for lengthy periods of time. 

A group of friendly college students manipulating computer programs are a far cry from what we consider to be the modern-day hacker. The real dark art of hacking actually began not on computers, but on phones with a group of people nicknamed "phreaks".

These phreaks would take advantage of loopholes in national and international phone networks in order to get free calls. Amazingly one of the earliest phreaks, John Draper, discovered that free whistles from cereal boxes put out exactly the same frequency needed to open up the long distance switching system of America's AT&T network. Draper's invention, the "Blue box", allowed you to make sounds into the phone receiver which would grant cost-free phone calls.

The boxes became incredibly popular, famously being sold by Apple's Steve Wozniak in 1972 while he was studying as an undergraduate at Berkeley. He even constructed a law-avoiding safety feature which would mean the box could generate different frequencies to fool police if caught. Wozniak and Jobs actually set up a small business from home selling the boxes.

The Internet arrives

The advent of the Internet brought with it the true age of hacking. What we would consider modern cyber crime was all founded online. The idea that someone could access another computer, anonymously, from anywhere in the world, was where it truly all began.

Traditionally hackers have always operated in groups. Rarely do they work alone. The beginnings of message boards and forums online also saw places for hackers to unite. One of the first was the "Legion of Doom". Starting out in the early 1980s and, founded by Lex Luthor or Vincent Louis Gelormine, the group was split between hackers and phreaks.

The Legion of Doom Technical Journals became a vital resource for the early days of hacking, acting as an information resource for the computer dark arts. The group itself however, was rarely responsible for any damage to phone networks or computers it took over. As of now, it remains a mystery exactly what happened to these forefathers of modern computer hacking. So many adopted the now customary fake name under forums and message boards that their real identities have never ever been found.

One of the most notorious early hacking gangs were the 414. The group, who were named after the area code under which they were traced, went on a 9-day-long hackathon which saw them overtaking no less than 60 machines. Going after high profile targets like Security Pacific Bank and Los Alamos National Laboratory drew them plentiful media attention. That and the release of the first ever film that glamorised hacking itself, WarGames, earlier that year.

In typical geek tradition, the group met at that well known trend setting establishment, the Scouts. Comprised of highly intelligent 16- to 22-year-olds, they set the standard for hacking that was to follow. Many were to copy their techniques and use them for far more malicious purposes.

I fought the law and the law won...

By the mid 1980s, governments were beginning to catch on to the massive legal holes left in cyber crime. Hacking was on the up and legal systems were beginning to fight losing battles. Enter the American Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.

The act was designed specifically to target federal related hacking. Current terms include things like "knowingly accessing a computer without authorisation in order to obtain national security data". The Patriot act added even more flexibility to US government organisations in terms of the access they had to email accounts and mobile phones. In the UK the most important statute relating to hacking is the Computer Misuse Act of 1990, which relates to unauthorised access of computers. 

This global legal reform brought with it the beginnings of ultra organised hacking outfits like that of LulzSec and Anonymous. 

One of the most high profile takedowns of a hacking outfit following the new legislation was of the US's Operation Sundevil. Based across the entirety of the country, it saw three arrests and mass computer confiscation in 15 different cities. Unsuccessful prosecutions and government failings to drastically reduce the number of hackers out there made the operation much more of a public relations stunt than anything else. The idea was that it would scare hackers into stopping whom, up until now, had been relatively untouched by the law. 

Hacking gets serious

The late 1990s saw the Internet become a normal commodity in every home. The world got smaller as every computer became connected. This meant an even bigger playground in which hackers could wreak havoc.

Gesturing by hacking groups, following the somewhat failed Operation Sundevil, became commonplace. One of the most famous was that of outfit L0pht, who famously told congress they could close the Internet down in less than 30 minutes. 

L0pht heavy industries became a manufacturer of hacking software such as a password cracker for Windows NT. They operated a business, quit their day jobs and worked for profit. Slowly, as time went on, the group became gradually more white hat, working on cutting edge security systems for those that needed them. Their merger with internet startup @stake helped transform them into a legitimate developer business and set the group up for an extremely ironic purchase by Symantec, the security software producer, in 2004. 

The individual hacker also rose to prominence in the 90s, with characters like Dark Dante and Mafiaboy frequently grabbing headlines. Mafiboy succeeded in closing down sites like eBay and Amazon, even managing to stop Yahoo from operating briefly. Dark Dante's claim to fame was phone rigging, where he made himself the 102 caller into a competition so he could win a Porsche 944. Dante eventually materialised in the form of Kevin Poulsen, Wired's senior editor.

The Noughties

The broadband generation meant that hackers could swap massive files across the Internet as well as host sizeable documents online.

The worm, trojan and botnet also developed to the point where they permeated everyday life. Antivirus software hit the big time and the joys of Windows Vista plagued our home computers. The ILOVEYOU worm has become one of the most notorious viruses in history, even founding its own world record. The virus spread by enticing users to open it in mail with an I love you subject line. Once released it would spread to the first 50 address book contacts, emailing itself to them. It would also replace things like .jpeg and .mp3 files on computers. To date more than $5bn dollars in damage is expected to have been caused by the worm. 

Crucially the 90s saw the beginning of DDoS attacks which see websites overloaded by hits from botnets managed by hackers. The load becomes so great that the site is simply shutdown. These DDoS attacks are regularly used by groups like LulzSec and Anonymous to close down websites. Microsoft was one of the first to be hit in 2001.

The here and now

Nowadays hacking is dominated by the likes of Anonymous, LulzSec and the Jester, all of which have used a combination of anonymity, social media and high profile hacks to rise to the fore. The age of the hacktivist is upon us - those who blur the lines between malicious hacking and using technical knowledge to bring down or expose that which they believe is damaging to the public. 

The Jester for example has established a reputation for bringing down jihadist websites, but also has been outspoken with regards to his anti-LulzSec sentiment. He famously brought down Wikileaks, tweeting "www.wikileaks.org - TANGO DOWN - INDEFINITLEY - for threatening the lives of our troops and 'other assets'”.

Anonymous are one of the most mysterious and high profile hacking outfits to date. It is well known for its links to WikiLeaks and image hosting website 4chan. The group once succeeded in bringing down the controversial Westborough Baptist Church`s website whilst conducting a phone interview with its leader. 

China has also now emerged as one of the most prevalent hacking nations. Its government even recently spoke out against a slew of accusations connected with Gmail attacks. As Google themselves revealed in January 2010, they had been subjected to a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google".

LulzSec has utterly dominated headlines over the last 50 days with its never ending spree of DDoS attacks. The recent release of Arizona law enforcement documents has made them extremely well known. But as quickly as its rise to fame was, the group has evaporated just as rapidly. A tweet today, coupled with AT&T leaks regarding the new iPad and iPhone, announced the end of its operations. 

So where to next? What does the future have in store for the modern day hacktivist? If anything, expect an even greater blurring of the lines between what is right and wrong when it comes to online security. But the real future is likely to be dominated by the age of the smartphone. As viruses are developed and increasing numbers of mobiles are connected to 3G networks daily, a massive infrastructure is being put in place for the hackers to dominate. Whilst things may not be as straightforward as the glory days of phreaking, expect the phone to return as the hackers weapon of choice.

Missed anything? Lets u know your favourite hacks!...