(CNN) — Computer hacking was once the realm of curious teenagers. It’s now the arena of government spies, professional thieves and soldiers of fortune.
Today, it’s all about the money. That’s why Chinese hackers broke into Lockheed Martin and stole the blueprints to the trillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet. It’s also why Russian hackers have sneaked into Western oil and gas companies for years.
The stakes are higher, too. In 2010, hackers slipped a “digital bomb” into the Nasdaq that nearly sabotaged the stock market. In 2012, Iran ruined 30,000 computers at Saudi oil producer Aramco.
And think of the immense (and yet undisclosed) damage from North Korea’s cyberattack on Sony Pictures last year. Computers were destroyed, executives’ embarrassing emails were exposed, and the entire movie studio was thrown into chaos.
It wasn’t always this way. Hacking actually has some pretty innocent and harmless beginnings.
Curiosity created the hacker
The whole concept of “hacking” sprouted from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nearly 50 years ago. Computer science students there borrowed the term from a group of model train enthusiasts who “hacked” electric train tracks and switches in 1969 to improve performance.
These new hackers were already figuring out how to alter computer software and hardware to speed it up, even as the scientists at AT&T Bell Labs were developing UNIX, one of the world’s first major operating systems.
Hacking became the art of figuring out unique solutions. It takes an insatiable curiosity about how things work; hackers wanted to make technology work better, or differently. They were not inherently good or bad, just clever.
In that sense, the first generations of true hackers were “phreakers,” a bunch of American punks who toyed with the nation’s telephone system. In 1971, they discovered that if you whistle at a certain high-pitched tone, 2600-hertz, you could access AT&T’s long-distance switching system.
They would make international phone calls, just for the fun of it, to explore how the telephone network was set up.
This was low-fi stuff. The most famous phreaker, John Draper (aka “Cap’n Crunch) earned his nickname because he realized the toy whistle given away in cereal boxes emitted just the right tone. This trained engineer took that concept to the next level by building a custom “blue box” to make those free calls.
This surreptitious little box was such a novel idea that young engineers Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started building and selling it themselves. These are the guys who would later go on to start Apple.
Wire fraud spiked, and the FBI cracked down on phreakers and their blue boxes. The laws didn’t quite fit, though. Kids were charged with making harassing phone calls and the like. But federal agents couldn’t halt this phenomenon.
A tech-savvy, inquisitive and slightly anti-authoritarian community had been born.