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.  

Historical Landmarks:



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  


Esquire Magazine publishes an article about phreaking which attracted the attention of many young technophiles as it features John Draper, his friend Josef Engressia and the blue box. The author, Ron Rosenbaum, exposes the phreaking world in his history called "Secrets of the Little Blue Box", portraying Captain Crunch as a romantic hero.

Abbie Hoffman and Al Bell start the pioneer phreak magazine The Youth International Party Line (YIPL). Later, the name is changed to TAP for Technological American Party or Technological Assistance Program and it is a phone phreaking newsletter that teaches the techniques necessary for the unauthorized exploration of the phone network.

Creeper is an experimental self-replicating program written by Bob Thomas at BBN Technologies and it is designed not to damage but to demonstrate a mobile application. Creeper infects the DEC PDP-10 computers running the TENEX operating system used on the ARPANET. The program is able to gain access independently through a modem and copy itself to remote computers via the ARPANET. Infected systems display the message, “I’M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.” While it is now widely credited as being the first computer worm, the concept did not yet exist at the time of its creation.

Ray Tomlinson of BBN sends the first email message between users on different hosts connected to the ARPANET, initiating the use of the "@" sign to separate the name of the user from the machine's name.

ARPANET September 1971  


The Esquire article leaves John Draper under such a pressure that he is arrested on toll fraud charges and sentenced to five years' probation.

The Reaper program, anonymously created, is also a computer worm, like the Creeper, but its purpose is to delete the latter. It spreads to networked machines and if it locates a Creeper virus, deletes it.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is renamed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
ARPANET August 1972    


Robert M. Metcalfe starts to develop the Ethernet technology as part of his PhD dissertation.

Vinton Cerf, from Stanford, the developer of the existing ARPANET NCP protocol, joins Robert Kahn to work on open-architecture interconnection models with the goal of designing the next protocol generation for the ARPANET. This new protocol was to allow diverse computer networks to interconnect and communicate with each other.

A cashier at New York's Dime Savings Bank uses a computer to embezzle over $2 million.

DARPA is renamed back to ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency).

By the end of the year there are 37 sites on the ARPANET, including a satellite link from California to Hawaii. Also in 1973, the University College of London in England and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway become the first international connections to the ARPANET. The backbone is still running at 50 kbps.
  ARPANET September 1973    


A virus named Rabbit appears and it doesn’t do anything except multiply and spread to other machines. The name is a comment on the speed with which the program multiplies. It clogs the system with copies of itself until it reaches a level of low performance threshold where the computer crashes.

Telenet, a commercial version of ARPANET, debuts. It is the first commercial packet switched network and its available to the general public.

First use of term Internet by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn in a paper on Transmission Control Protocol (TCP).
   ARPANET June 1974  


John Walker writes Pervading Animal, a game for the Univac 1108. The rules of the game are simple: the player thinks of an ANIMAL and the program asks questions in an attempt to identify it while the related program, PERVADE, creates a copy of itself and also of the ANIMAL program in every directory to which the current user had access. When users with overlapping permissions discover the game, it spreads across the multi-user UNIVACs, and it infects other computers when tapes are shared.

After some time, as a result, all directories would contain copies of 'Pervading Animal.' Univac programmers attempted to use the Creeper-Reaper model to control the situation: a new version of the game scanned for older versions and destroyed them. However, the issue is fully resolved only when a new version of the operating system is released, modifying the file system and preventing the game from multiplying. Though non-malicious, analysts are still debating today whether "Pervading Animal" was another virus or the first Trojan "in the wild".

John Brunner publishes the novel "The Shockwave Rider", in which an omnipotent "tapeworm" program runs loose through a network of computers.  

The Shockwave Rider

Bill Gates and Paul Allen start Microsoft.
  Bill Gates and Paul Allen

Two members of California's Homebrew Computer Club begin making "blue boxes," devices used to hack into the phone system. Oak Toebark (Steve Wozniak), the technical whiz, builds the boxes, while Berkeley Blue (Steve Jobs), the marketing genius, sells them for $150 a pop. They split the profits and, along the way, realize they make a pretty good team.
   Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs   ARPANET July 1975  


Stephen Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Ron Wayne form Apple Computer.
   Apple Logo

The Department of Defense begins testing the TCP/IP protocol and soon decides to implement it on ARPANET.

After testing and registering the patent, Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs publish a seminal paper on Ethernet technologies opening a new era for computer communications.
    ARPANET November 1976  


UUCP (Unix-to-Unix CoPy) is developed at AT&T Bell Labs and distributed with UNIX one year later.
   ARPANET December 1977  


The first intentional commercial spam is sent by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) marketing manager Gary Thuerk in 1978. Rather than send a separate message to each person, which is the standard practice, he orders an assistant to write a single mass e-mail to 393 West Coast ARPANET users, advertising the availability of a new model of DEC computers. Although the term "spam" has not yet been coined, Thuerk's message gets the same response as modern spam; users are outraged at the misuse of an information network for commercial purposes but the spam does generate some sales.

Randy Suess and Ward Christiansen, creates the first personal-computer bulletin-board system: the CBBS (Computerized Bulletin Board System). It is the dawn of a new means of communication for the electronic underground.
  ARPANET December 1978  


John Shoch and Jon Hupp at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center design a computer worm, a short program that searches a network for underused processors. Though built to improve computer efficiency, it is the genesis of the destructive, modern worm. The term "worm" is taken from the book "The Shockwave Rider," to describe a program that propagates itself through a computer network.
  ARPANET December 1979

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