Mesh and the History of Hacking – Part Two

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Mesh and the History of Hacking - Part TwoAs mentioned in the previous essay, Mesh celebrates the history of hacking, not just breaking into computers. It’s important to remember that legitimate hacking is an integral part of geek culture. Hacking also builds curiosity, discovery, and tenaciousness; necessary skills for any techno-minded individual hoping to make their way in this world. We covered some major hacking history up until the end of the 1980s, now let’s discuss what happened from the 1990s until now.

The Empire Strikes Back

From 1990 forward, it was clear that government looked at hacking, not just a harmless prank, but as a serious threat. Operation Sundevil was a multi-agency federal operation aimed at hackers. In the UK, Parliament passed the Computer Misuse Act 1990, criminalizing unauthorized access to computer systems.

Cybersecurity incidents continued, and hacking culture did, too. In response to Operation Sundevil, the EFF was founded in support of increased protection for Internet civil liberties. Hackers began to sponsor their own conventions with events like the DEF CON conference, which started in 1993.

The first elements of cyberwarfare began in this period, with the introduction of electronic warfare during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The FBI freely admits that electronic and information warfare were used to introduce viruses and logic bombs into Iraqi Republican Guard (IRG) command-and-control-center computers and peripherals, causing the disruption and alteration of the targeting and launching of Scud missiles.

Hacking incidents continued to proliferate, with incidents like the Citibank heist of $10 Million in 1994, Kevin Mitnick’s spree of system hacks throughout the 1990s, and a network sabotage incident in 1996 that cost Omega Engineering $10 Million to fix. On the side of law and order, some hackers worked to defeat rogue actors. As a ‘white hat’ hacker, Tsutomu Shimomura developed a method to back-hack into Kevin Mitnick’s method of system attack, and his efforts helped the FBI pinpoint and arrest Mitnick.

At the same time, popular opinion continued to float between celebrating hackers as counter-culture heroes and moral panic. Cringe-worthy movies like ‘hackers’, ‘The Net’, and other modern TV shows help explain just how flawed public perception of hacking was. Sadly, this is still a problem today.

Hacking and computer security incidents continued through the 1990s, taking on a new dimension as rogue state actors began to see hacking as a means of terrorism. At the end of 1999, a hacker claimed that al-Qaeda plotted to derail Amtrak trains. All trains were forcibly stopped over Y2K as a safety measure. While there is debate whether the Amtrak incident was a real threat to begin with, there’s no question that hacking had jumped into new territory.

Cyberattacks grew in both size and complexity through the end of the decade and the pre-9/11 era. The Melissa virus, ILOVEYOU worm, Code Red worm, and the Anna Kournikova virus traveled the Internet infecting millions of machines.

Hacking also took on a new dimension in the 1990s with the development of cryptovirology. This field field that studies how to use cryptography to design powerful malicious software, and it formed the basis of modern ransomware attacks we see today.

Entire corporations fell victim to DDOS attacks, including Microsoft, eBay, Amazon, CNN, and Yahoo. As the Internet grew in size and strength, hackers began to pass information around. Now kids could download basic code and create their own worms and viruses with little or no hacking experience. This is where we get the script kiddie insult from. New hacking attacks continued up to the point of 9/11.

Although 9/11 had nothing to do with computer hacking, it certainly affected governments’ perception of cybersecurity. In the post-Nine-Eleven era, hacking escalated beyond people like John “Captain Crunch” Draper and the script kiddies to enter the modern era. We’ll pick up the story in Part Three.


I’d like to thank the following web resources for the information that helped me write this article: