Hacker originally meant “one who makes furniture with an ax.” Perhaps because of the blunt nature of that approach, the word came to mean someone who takes pleasure in an unconventional solution to a technical obstacle.
Computer hacking was born in the late 1950s, when members of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club, obsessed with electric switching, began preparing punch cards to control an IBM 704 mainframe.
One of the club’s early programs: code that illuminated lights on the mainframe’s console, making it look like a ball was zipping from left to right, then right to left with the flip of a switch. Voilà: computer Ping-Pong!
By the early 1970s, hacker "Cap'n Crunch" (a.k.a. John Draper) had used a toy whistle to match the 2,600-hertz tone used by AT&T’s long-distance switching system. This gave him access to call routing (and brief access to jail).
Before they struck it rich, Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs made and sold “blue boxes,” electronic versions of Draper’s whistle.
Using a blue box, Wozniak crank-called the Pope’s residence in Vatican City and pretended to be Henry Kissinger.
Hacking went Hollywood in the 1983 movie WarGames, about a whiz kid who breaks into a Defense Department computer and, at one point, hijacks a pay phone by hot-wiring it with a soda can pull-ring.
That same year, six Milwaukee teens hacked into Los Alamos National Lab, which develops nuclear weapons.
In 1988 Robert T. Morris created a worm, or self-replicating program, purportedly to evaluate Internet security.
The worm reproduced too well, however. The multimillion-dollar havoc that ensued led to Morris’s felony conviction, one of the first under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
They all come home eventually. Morris now researches computer scienceat...MIT.
British hacker Gary McKinnon broke into 97 U.S. Navy, Army, Pentagon, and NASA computers in 2001 and 2002.
McKinnon’s defense: He wasn’t hunting military secrets; he was only seeking suppressed government files about space aliens.
According to rumor, agents of China’s People’s Liberation Army attempted to hack the U.S. power grid, triggering the great North American blackout of 2003.
It took IBM researcher Scott Lunsford just one day to penetrate the network of a nuclear power station: “I thought, ‘Gosh, this is a big problem.’”
Unclear on the concept: When West Point holds its annual cyberwar games, the troops wear full fatigues while fighting an enemy online.
Think your Mac is hackproof? At this year’s CanSecWest conference, security researcher Charlie Miller used a flaw in Safari to break into a MacBook in under 10 seconds.
Cyborgs beware: Tadayoshi Kohno at the University of Washington recently hacked into a wireless defibrillator, causing it to deliver fatal-strength jolts of electricity.
This does not bode well for patients receiving wireless deep-brain stimulators.
The greatest kludge of all? Roger Angel of the University of Arizona has proposed building a giant sunscreen in space to hack the planet’s climate.