A history of hacking and hackers

A security professional’s view on criminal hacking has shifted away from the traditional stereotype of the hacker, towards a much more diverse cross-section of wider society

During the early 90s, the US government decided to crack down on criminal computer crimes in a series of raids dubbed Operation Sundevil. The raids were carried out by the US Secret Service working alongside local police and telecoms engineers and targeted “bulletin boards” (now more often called forums) that were engaged in blatant and open credit card fraud and telephone code abuse.

The people involved in such illicit activity mostly fitted a very narrow subset of society: teenagers and young adults from middle-class suburban homes. They had the disposable income to acquire what was at the time cutting-edge general purpose computing technology and had access to modems(extremely slow in the age of today’s broadband, but life-changing technology at the time).

The modems allowed them to connect to the internet and the fledging World Wide Web and form cliques on those bulletin boards to engage in a range of activities – not all of them legal.

Although Sundevil was far from the only anti-hacking law enforcement activity of the time, it is interesting because it went on to create much of the image of the hacker in popular culture. The 1995 film Hackers features a teenage character targeted in an investigation by doughnut-munching federal agents. His suburban bedroom, where one of his floppy disks was hidden, was raided.

That film also captured many other aspects of hacker culture, such as the hacking of old analogue telephone networks, known as “phreaking”, to gain free calls, and the habit of hackers to study, and share, treasure troves of technical information from large companies, such as the so-called “Crayola Books” shown off by the characters.

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