BBC News

Exposing the hidden history of computer hacking

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionToday many rely on computer hackers to find bugs before the bad guys get hold of them

In 1998, Chris Wysopal and friends discovered a way to shut down the internet.

With just 30 minutes of work they believed they could do enough damage to stop the world wide network operating for a couple of days.

They told people about what they found but not in a chat channel or discussion forum. They did it in a much more public place. In the US Senate, in fact. In front of its Committee on Governmental Affairs.

At the time Mr Wysopal and his friends were part of a Boston-based hacker collective called L0pht Heavy Industries. They testified using their hacker handles. Alongside Mr Wysopal (aka Weld Pond) were Mudge, Space Rogue, Brian Oblivion, Kingpin, Tan and Stefan Von Neumann.

It was a pivotal, if surreal, moment. Pivotal because the hacking group, which the committee's chairman described as "rock stars of the computer world", was giving advice rather than being accused of causing trouble.

L0pht had been founded with a view to helping change that perspective, said Mr Wysopal.

"The fact that people were getting found and detected and arrested meant it was real and we did not want to go down that path," he told the BBC.

The L0pht's testimony in the Senate generated headlines around the world. Hackers were no longer considered just unruly kids. They were on their way to becoming the security gurus and guardians they are regarded as today.

Bigger machines

It took about 15 years for that shift in perspective to take hold and for the image of hackers as teenage troublemakers to fade.

Mark Abene was one of those teenage hackers. He got started in the early 80s before the net was widespread, before Google was founded and about the time Mark Zuckerberg was born. The connection software he used on his 8-bit TRS 80 home computer came on a cassette tape and he had to dial numbers each time he wanted to make a connection.

When he did connect he frequented places known as Bulletin Board Systems (aka BBS') which at that time were all text-based.

"Initially I was just looking for people with the same computer I had to trade software," he said. "Then I found out about mini-computers and mainframes and got interested in accessing those."

He discovered them because many of the BBS' he visited were repositories of text files that detailed how to dial them up, how to interact with them and how to program them. The files were compiled by others who frequented the boards and were happy to share them with any other visitor.

His interest in security grew as an unintended consequence of the time he spent exploring the US phone network.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionEarly hackers had to know how to get free calls or face paying a huge phone bill

"That kind of exploration was kind of like a game, it was a really big adventure," he said. "I had no idea what I was going to find at the end of the carrier and that's what made it more interesting.

"The interest in security was tangential," he added.

"We just wanted to maintain access or improve it and to do that we had to understand the security mechanisms," said Mr Abene. "Not because we thought we would get caught and arrested and get put in jail, but because we didn't want to get noticed. That would have meant they would change the password and we'd lose access and then it would be no fun anymore."

Mr Abene and his friends were not alone in exploring. The hacker sub-culture was growing with the help of 2600 - a magazine which published useful information and, just as importantly, helped organise meetings for like-minded network explorers all around the US.

"It was about connecting people to each other," said Eric Corley, founding editor of 2600, "about finding people that share your interests."

"Getting to know people who know your views and understand them, and helping you realise you are not alone is a good thing," he said.

The ethics of what it meant to be a hacker were also solidified in those days of innocent discovery. And it was innocent not just because in the early 1980s there were no laws in the US or other nations which prohibited unauthorised access to telephone and computer networks.

There was no need, said Mr Abene, as most of the hackers were curious rather than destructive.

"It was never about attacks and never about monetary gain," he said. "The underlying principle was to understand the system and make some kind of logic out of the chaos."

The innocence began to fade in the mid-to-late 80s when laws were passed to tackle those trespassing on computer and phone networks.

Arrests followed and many of those hacking pioneers, including Mr Abene, faced charges for trespassing on the networks where they had previously had free rein.

"We could do anything and go into anywhere," he said. "It was liberating and there will never be a time like that again."

The over-arching ethic of that time has been preserved, said Mr Corley, and has led to a time when those teenagers are now pillars of the establishment. They are helping to keep safe what they once ran rings around. The skills they learned in those dawning days are now in wide demand.

"They have become more mature and responsible because they have to feed their families but they held on to their values and that's an admirable thing," he said. "They profit from their skills but that's not why they started out, that came from their passion for these things."

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