Hacking Isn't Just a 21st Century Problem

Meet the mischievous computer whizzes who started it all.

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"):


  

Photo credit: Bertrand LAFORET / Getty Images Contributor
Related Articles

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less