Hacking: a History


Image courtesy of money.cnn.com The Hacker: A changing face with a changing name in a changing world.

Kevin Chiang, Photojournalist

Ah, the hacker. One of the more educated types of criminal scum defacing the world today, they break and steal with a few fingers on a keyboard and a mouse. That’s how it’s always been, right? Even senior Yusuf Khan thinks of “some pale kid in a dark room where the only light is from the computer screen.”

Well, he’s not quite right. Hacking has had a complicated history, but one thing that is clear is that its meaning has changed radically from its conception to its modern day reincarnation. “Hacking” started about 50 years ago, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead of conniving criminals cracking computer consoles, college students “hacked” electric train tracks and switches to improve performance. So hacking started out as an innocent thing; it was harmless nerdy, and actually beneficial, if the improvements in model train efficiency meant anything. So what happened?

Well, these hackers were also figuring out how to alter computer software. Not to break it or steal from it, mind you, but to speed it up, make it harder, better, faster, stronger. Hacking was an art, an art of problem solving. Unique solutions, applied to innovative problems. It took an insatiable inquisitiveness, with an increased interest in imparting increased efficiency to technology. A hacker wasn’t a criminal, he was an innovator.

Come the 1980’s, the world was changing. More people bought personal computers and hooked them up to a fledgling internet. Hacking followed. Now no longer limited to isolated systems, hackers would go from system to system, breaking in. Some did it for the hell of it, some did it because it was fun, and some did it to find out how it worked. Then, in 1983, the movie “War Games” came out. It depicted one of these hackers breaking into a military computer and almost starting a nuclear war. This made the FBI flip its lid and arrest 6 teenagers in Milwaukee. While this may sound drastic, you should know that those 6 teenagers tapped into the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapon research facility. Hard not to react in fear and paranoia when a couple of changeable teens get their hands on a nuclear facility, isn’t it?

Hacking became a crime. It also became more serious. Someone crashed one of the earliest versions of the internet. German hackers working for the KGB were found hacking into the Pentagon. Worst of all, the reasons for hacking began to change. The main reason most hackers hacked was because they wanted to see how things worked and because they couldn’t get those tools otherwise. The internet changed that. With the world at one’s fingertips, hacking became almost obsolete. But of course, hacking could still be used to break into sensitive places, like bank accounts. By the 2000’s, the group of curious teens was replaced by highly trained professionals. No longer was hacking for money; now, it was for profit.

Hacking has only gotten worse from there. With more and more services being rendered with computers, hackers discover more and more ways to cause damage. Hacking originally meant being an explorer, someone who experiments to make things better, to figure out how things work. Now, it’s a criminal. Yusuf Khan believes that “the way it’s used now… suits it, but then again, that’s only because it’s the most commonly known definition of the word.”