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 generation 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...