Believe it or not, the Internet — as most Americans tend to know it — is about 25 years old. A timeline of Internet history points to 1987 as the start of commercialization, even though hardcore techies will know the Internet existed before then through the Arpanet and other avenues.
Rise of the Hackers
Through the years, tricksters, hustlers and con-artists played games upon the fragile Internet, opening up lids, lifting up hoods and showing the powers-that-be how the Internet works and how it can be tested. By showing off their skills, they helped nurture a new term for our culture — hackers. These hackers were skillful subversives who played pranks, but rarely with malicious intent.
For decades, hackers were given a hero’s interest from the Web underground. Hackers such as Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen made their names as teens finding their way into corporate networks. Today, we know that the early misdeeds of hackers have led unwittingly to today’s Internet thieves — gangs of Web anti-security activists who prey on and steal the Internet identities of companies and individuals.
Joining the Dark Side
This is a big reason for the rise of Web security firms, network security consultants and identity theft protection companies such as LifeLock that help manage the overload. With hacks becoming so common, Web users should consider some form of identity theft protection just to keep themselves safe.
In many ways, today’s Internet thieves are far more sinister, sometimes involving the collapse of big banks or entire country’s governments. These hackers want to upend the way things are done; they want to overthrow economies and cause disruption of accepted societal processes. Internet thievery has moved from fun-and-games to multibillion dollar security breaches, which is why the industry has evolved into a big-business game of cat-and-mouse, involving the United States, China, security consultants and much more.
But in the early days, the Internet’s thieves were by and large just Web pranksters. Here are a few whose stories you can share with the grandkids someday.
Lamo made a name for himself in the ’00s by breaking into computer networks, TV networks and even companies like AOL, Yahoo! and The New York Times. As he hacked his way into these companies’ sites, he offered to help fix the holes for free. The companies responded by mostly praising him for helping to secure their networks. Once, during a live taping of “NBC Nightly News,” the host asked him to prove his talents for the TV audience, and he used this opportunity to actually break into NBC’s internal network in less than five minutes. Today he works as a Web-security expert.
Derek (aka Cosmo)
Cosmo is a young California kid who has hacked his way into infamy. In recent years, he has led denial-of-service attacks on government and financial sites, including NASDAQ, ca.gov and CIA.gov, according to his Wired profile. His group posted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s address and Social Security number online and also hacked into a billing agency’s account and posted more than 500,000 credit card numbers online.
Back in the 1980s, Kevin Mitnick broke into a Pentagon computer. As a thrill, he kept breaking into other government networks. The FBI eventually caught up with Mitnick and made him an example of what the law could do to the hacker underground. He served five years in prison. Today, he is president of his own security company called Mitnick Security.
Poulsen is currently the news editor for Wired, but he too made early inroads in the Web underground by breaking into computer networks, making him an object of notice for the FBI. He was eventually arrested and served four years in jail for his network hacks.
Hackers have come a long way from tapping into corporate networks to articles published on WikiLeaks exposing the darkest secrets of nations and public figures, which could lead to a national security crisis in many countries. The battle continues as hackers try to stay one step ahead of their government counterparts. To keep up with and hinder these hackers, governmental bodies continually create laws, such as new twists on copyright infringement to protect intellectual property, to take down websites and their creators that violate such laws. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Sara Bird is a computer programmer who is working on her Ph.D. in robotics, Sara loves talking about Higgs Boson and reading New Scientist, and she is getting tired of her thesis but glad that it’s nearly finished.