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August 19, 2019

A Throwback to Some 50 Years of Cybercrime

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It goes without saying that cyberspace is a dangerous place. Lurking within it are criminals seeking out unfortunate victims in order to steal their money, sensitive data, and sometimes even identity. Malware, pharming, phishing, cryptojacking and spamming are just a few of the weapons in the formidable arsenal of these perpetrators. 

Interestingly, though, cybercrime actually began rather innocently with a few young engineers who had a passion for model railroads about 50 years ago. These guys had altruistic intentions, but they unwittingly provided the foundation for people with more malevolent plans to do harm. So what happened half a century ago? Let’s take a look.

The Birth of Hacking

During the 1960s, the term “hacking” did not even involve computers. It referred to how members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) modified their toy trains to improve performance without having to re-engineer the entire system. 

It all started with Peter Samson and other club members who used to wander around the university halls prodding and poking wires, switches, and telephone junctions, trying to make sense of how things worked. Then one day they discovered the Electronic Accounting Machinery room in Building 26, with its gleaming multi-million dollar IBM mainframe computer.

Access to the computer was severely restricted, but Samson and his group would regularly sneak into the room and program the machine to compute ways for their model railroad switching systems to be more efficient. This is how Samson created the primary objective of what would later become the hacker’s first order of business — access to the computing device.

Samson defined the divide that separated the officially sanctioned users, who merely used the machine to speed up computing tasks, from the hackers who were looking to innovate and push the computer to its limits. As a result, a new breed of hackers was born, taking their talents from the miniature train tracks to the new toy they suddenly had their hands on.

The Virus Rises

Not long after, a programmer at a company called BBN Technologies would invent the next step toward enabling cybercrime. In 1971, Bob Ross created what is considered the first computer virus. The program, called Creeper, would print out a message on the computer screen, copy itself onto another hard drive it found on the network and then erase itself from the original storage device. 

It was totally harmless. Ross merely wanted to prove the theory that a computer program could successfully replicate itself on to other machines, based on a paper published by John Von Newman back in 1949. He succeeded. The term “computer virus”, though, would not be coined until a decade later, in 1986, by a Ph.D. student named Fred Cohen.

The Cybercrime Outburst

The original model train hackers defined hacking as “a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement.” Gaining access to computers was necessary to accomplish this. But it was only a matter of time before the hacker’s motivation for obtaining entry into systems transformed into malicious intent and material gain.

The first computer virus attempted to prove a concept, and it provided the perfect mechanism for attackers to secretly infect computers, propagate itself through systems, and disrupt their operations. Encouraged by these developments, people evolved other methods of assaulting these systems. And very soon phishing, pharming, cyber stalking, computer worms, identity theft and fraud, salami slicing and other such threats emerged. Cybercrime had arrived.

By 2018, securing and protecting computers and networks had become a $116.5 billion industry. It’s expected to grow even more in the coming years, given the importance of computing devices and the Internet in our world today. With the inevitable arrival of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the rapid development in artificial intelligence (AI), protecting and securing computing resources will certainly cause CSOs, IT departments and cybersecurity teams more sleepless nights.

“The road to perdition is paved with good intentions,” so goes the old saying. Peter Samson and Bob Ross certainly had not intended to do any harm with their seminal computer experiments. But they had inadvertently set the Information Age on a course that would see people with less benevolent intentions exploit the possibilities made evident by their discoveries.


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Alexandre Francois is a serial entrepreneur and tech enthusiast who believes that knowledge about innovations and emerging technologies should be easily understandable and available to everyone. Walking the talking, he is also the publishing director of Techslang — a tech awareness resource where cybersecurity and IT is explained in plain English.

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