From UNIX to Ethical Hacks: A Brief History of Hacking

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A Brief History

On April 8, 2019, we take a look at the history of hacking.  Nowadays, hacking is considered one of the most serious threats faced by governments, organizations, and individuals alike. As more and more aspects of our daily lives are conducted online or thanks to the help of internet-connected devices, the fear that someone might gain unauthorized access to our personal information or gain control of our systems is one of our biggest concerns. But hacking is not always about the bad guys – and it certainly did not start out as such a nefarious undertaking.

Digging Deeper

The Origins of Hacking

With cyber-crime on the rise and ransomware attacks that have brought even multinational conglomerates on their knees, hacking is widely perceived as an illegal activity – even though it can serve different purposes. According to recent research published on Statista, only 16% of respondents believed that hacktivism – that is, hacking in order to promote a political or social cause – should be punished by the most severe penalty. By contrast, 30% stated that hacking for personal profit should be punished the harshest and a whopping 44% believed that espionage is the least forgivable type of hacking. As hackers have evolved in their methods and ability to inflict damage, so have IT professionals come up with more and more sophisticated protections. These include a wide array of solutions, from simple anti-virus software to data masking, which helps manage critical data relationships within and across databases.

Infographic: Espionage Is the Least Forgivable Form of Hacking | Statista
You will find more infographics at Statista

Even though we have buffed up our defenses, hacking wasn’t always such a solemn matter. In fact, a brief history of hacking reveals some interesting information about its origins. The first hack took place in 1878, when a handful of teenagers that were hired to work at the switchboard of Bell Telephone did their best to disconnect or falsely connect incoming calls. When it comes to computing, the first recorded hacking incident happened during the 1960s, as more people – usually researchers and programmers – began to have access to that era’s computers. These were mainly bulky mainframes that were kept under lock and key only for those who were granted authorized albeit limited access. Some programmers grew restless and tried to come up with programming shortcuts to make the most of their time with the computer. These shortcuts were called “hacks” and were often considered better than the original.

From Phreaking to Ethical Hacking

In 1969, two Bell Lab employees, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, came up with such a “hack”, which consisted of an open set of rules in order to run devices quicker. The hack’s name was UNIX and it soon became one of the most popular operating systems around the globe. In the 1970s, a Vietnam veteran by the name of John Draper took hacking to another level when he came up with a way to make free phone calls. The practice was called phreaking and was soon endorsed by a large number of people – including future Apple founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. With the advent of the personal computer and an early version of today’s internet in the 1980s, a new generation of tech-savvy users meant more opportunities for exploring hacking. It was around that time that the first movie about hacking came out: War Games, which was released in 1983 and holds a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes, tells the story of a young hacker who inadvertently accesses the US military computer system that was designed to deal with nuclear war.

As computer use became more and more widespread in the 1990s and the 2000s, hacking also increased – and hackers grew interested in the potential for profit. Yet not all hacking nowadays is carried out in favor of the dark side. Many people that were once malicious hackers have crossed over to join the forces of good and become “ethical” hackers. Ethical hacking is a process authorized by the intended victim and serves as a test in order to determine possible weaknesses that should be taken care of. In essence, ethical hackers work to improve the defenses of the system they are attacking. Although they may be allowed to use the tools that any proper hacker would use, they mean no actual harm, but instead, contribute greatly to improved cybersecurity across businesses. Their work is extremely important since the impact that a potential data breach could have on a company could well prove devastating.

Hacking has always been closely connected with excellent IT and programming skills, as well as a clear vision of what the hacker wants to achieve. And fittingly to its humble and playful origins, ethical hacking has once again put a new spin on the practice.

Question for students: Have you ever been the victim of hacking?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Menn, Joseph.  Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.  PublicAffairs, 2019.

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The featured image in this article, a photograph by User:Colin of a backlit laptop computer keyboard, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


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