Cyber Threats History: Rise of the Hacker Culture (1980s)

After John Draper and his electronic whistling abilities gained a wide audience, there was a major shift in computing and hacking enjoyed a golden era of sorts in the 1980s. Society started becoming aware of hackers as computers became increasingly accessible and as networks grew in both size (number of terminals) and popularity (number of users) throughout the late seventies and early eighties.

During the 80s, the hacker population probably went up 1000-fold and there are mainly three events credited with doing the most in this area. Personal computer and clones were made available to the public at cheap prices. People could afford to buy a terminal and set up a BBS. And, where you find BBS's, you find hackers.

The movie War Games depicted the existence of hacking and the potential power associated with it. War Games displayed hacking as a glamorous thing and made it look easy. The movie shone a flashlight onto the hidden face of hacking, and introduced the wider public to the phenomenon. This created a degree of mass paranoia with the threat of hackers getting into any computer system and launching nuclear missiles. However, for a vast teenager audience, the movie gleaned a different message. It implied that hacking could get you girls. Cute girls…

Almost simultaneously, two novels had a great impact in popular culture: Cyberpunk, by Bruce Bethke, and Neuromancer, by William Gibson. The combination of the aforementioned factors catapulted hacker culture into the mainstream media.

By the late 1980s, the home PC had become more prevalent but large corporations still cornered the market on the technology. However, computers were no longer limited to the realms of hardcore hobbyists and business users; anyone, including existing and yet-to-be-realized hackers, could acquire a computer for their own purposes. Modems, enabling computers to communicate with each other over telephone lines, were also more widely available and significantly extended the hacker’s reach.

While phreakers were still blowing whistles into phone receivers, a new type of delinquent emerged; the cracker. This term, disputed until today, refers to a criminal hacker who uses his skills with criminal intentions far beyond the simple exploration of computer systems. This new breed of “hacker” directed its knowledge and tenacity toward distinctly criminal pursuits, including the distribution of pirated commercial software, games, and viruses and worms that could virtually shut down systems. Hacker and cracker clubs surged in popularity becoming nothing short of an epidemic, and in 1986, the U.S. government tried to thwart the problem by passing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).  

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Steve Bellovin, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis develop and establish USENET for the UNIX to UNIX Copy (UUCP) architecture. USENET resembles a bulletin board system (BBS) but there is one major difference: the absence of a central server and dedicated administrator. USENET is a decentralized news network distributed among many servers that store and forward messages to one another.  


A group of German computer enthusiasts with a strong political orientation forms the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) in Hamburg.  

CCC Logo

Cyber Threats History: The Age of Phreaking (1970s)

The 70's were a magical decade, producing a new type of hacker, one focused on telephone systems. These hackers, known as phreakers, discovered and exploited operational characteristics of the newly all-electronic telephone-switching network that enabled them to make long distance calls free of charge. In the 1970s, the cyber frontier was wide open and hacking was all about exploring and figuring out how the wired world worked.

The phreaker movement is an important early example of anti-establishment subculture that spawns influential hackers and visionaries in the realm of the personal computer. Back then, phreaking offered hackers a potent allure. It meant unraveling a mystery and sharing the results with friends. It was not as much about the nefarious phone exploitation as it was about understanding the complexity of the system. The only thing missing for the hacking scene was a virtual clubhouse where all the best hackers could meet and to overcome that, in 1978 two guys from Chicago created the very first public dial-up Bulletin Board System.  

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After monitoring around 33 million toll calls to find phreakers, AT&T scores 200 convictions.   Universities and defense contractors begin connecting to ARPANET and the network keeps expanding.  

ARPANET December 1970  

Cyber Threats History: The Beginning (1960s)

In the early years of the 21st century the word "hacker" has become associated with people lurking into dark rooms and anonymously terrorizing cyberspace. But hacking and phreaking have been around since the 1960s when computers were true behemoths housed in restricted laboratories accessible only to a few geeks. Back in those days it was impossible for any teenager to buy a computer and only accredited professionals were allowed the privilege of programming these powerful machines.

The original hackers were only students, computer programmers and systems designers, adherent of a new subculture that originally emerged in the 1960s around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). The members of this model train group "hacked" their electric trains, tracks, and switches to make them perform faster and differently. A hack was simply an elegant or inspired solution to any given problem.

Later, a few of the members of the TMRC transfer their curiosity and rigging skills to the new mainframe computing systems being studied and developed on campus. At this time, MIT employed some nerds to do some artificial intelligence and computer research. These guys actually created the models for the machine you are working on right now and were truly the first programmers and engineers in the field of IT.

Cyber Threats History: An Overview

Before going over the history of cyberspace threats, let me take a moment to define what they are and to categorize them according to my personal view.

A cyber threat can be loosely defined as a conscious attempt to obtain unauthorized access to a computer system to extract or manipulate data or to violate the confidentiality, integrity, authenticity or availability of data inside the system.

There are numerous ways to organize these activities and you can find thousands of different takes on the subject, this one is mine and I say cyber threats can be grouped into 4 main categories:  

Cyber Terrorism

Cyberterrorism has become one of the most significant threats to the national and international security of modern states, and cyberattacks are occurring with increased frequency. Being a politically and emotionally charged subject, it was never possible to reach an international consensus regarding the development of an accepted comprehensive definition of the term "terrorism".

Therefore, there are literally hundreds of definitions of terrorism, many of them biased by the political view of its creators. I won't get into that debate but I will quote a political description of terrorism used by the United Nations General Assembly, back in 1994: "Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them." With this in mind, how can we define cyberterrorism? It is obviously a very controversial term with many possible definitions depending on the scope of the actions performed.

Trying to avoid all the debate around the motivation, targets and methods involved I would define cyberterrorism as the use of the Internet and information technologies to organize and execute attacks against networks, computer systems and telecommunications infrastructures with ideological motivations.
Cyber Terrorism