Before the days of e-mail viruses and information leaks (Wiki and otherwise), hacking existed in a more primitive form. The most notorious hackers throughout history have been a mixture of genuinely malicious cyberterrorists and nonthreatening pranksters whose schemes got a little out of hand. The so-called "original teenage hackers" were firmly in the latter categories, but their hijinks set the stage for the US government's legislative approach to cybercrime. The 414s, a documentary short that tells the fascinating and often humorous story of four computer nerds from 1980s Milwaukee, is one of the best selections to come out of the American Film Institute's documentary festival in Washington, DC.
Neal Patrick, Timothy Winslow, Gerald Wondra, and John Sauls were high school classmates who bonded over their love of computers. In 1983, while randomly trying to connect with other modems, they inadvertently found themselves at the center of attention not only on the national news, but also in matters of national security. They simply punched in random modem numbers in hopes that they would make connections, but in the process gained access to the computer systems of various high-profile entities, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a top-secret facility that developed nuclear weapons. I would use the word "hacking" to describe their transgressions, but the information-technology definition of the term was barely recognized at the time.
The four teenagers had no intention to cause harm, but their digital intrusions caused certain systems to malfunction, and some classified information was destroyed in the process. The film captures the combination of wonderment, panic, and humor that arose from a bunch of benign teenagers finding themselves in over their heads. The FBI was soon knocking on their doors, and while the three 18-year-old hackers awaited word on criminal charges, the underage (and thus immune from prosecution) Patrick found 15 minutes of fame, as his charisma and good looks put him in demand on the talk-show circuit. Meanwhile, prosecutors struggled to determine their course of action, because there were no laws on the books to address The 414s' unprecedented security breaches.
The film takes the viewer back to an age of simpler, seemingly cheesy technology, and really gets to the heart of the mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment that many of us feel when it comes to our high school exploits. And while it finds plenty of humor in The 414s' situation, it raises legitimate questions about the perks and pitfalls of experimenting with technology. The viewer can't help but laugh at the decidedly nonthreatening teens and their predicament, but there are also reminders that hacking has become a much more serious and potentially devastating offense. With its thrills, laughs, and philosophical questions, The 414s is compulsory viewing for those interested in the evolution of information technology, especially those who, like me, are too young to have experienced the story of the original teenage hackers as it happened.
To watch the film, visit CNN. Also, check out our own video with Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain on "cybersabotage" (a much cooler word than "hacking"):