A Brief History of Digital Security Threats

Whilst we think of digital security as a modern threat, in actual fact the practice of circumventing, manipulating or even breaking some form of digital technology has been around for quite some time. Forget the modern hacker for the moment, fifty-odd years ago the system was under attack from ‘Phreakers’.

Phreaking Historic

To many the name John Draper won’t mean much. However, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Draper, a.k.a. Captain Crunch was digital public enemy number one. Let’s take a look at the brief history of digital security.

1960 – Toward the end of the 1960s, information security was a term used solely by governments and big businesses; the average person on the street knew nothing on the subject or the meaning of the term. However, advances in telecommunications brought about a new phenomenon with the introduction of automatic switching: Phone Freaks or Phreakers.

1970 – The automatic switching of the telephone exchange led to a new wave of circumventing the system. John Draper, after a meeting with fellow electronics enthusiast Denny Teresi, came upon the extraordinary discovery that a toy whistle from the Captain Crunch cereal could emit a precise tone that bypassed the AT&T trunk line, thus allowing free phone calls.

Mid-70s – It’s hard to believe that a simple plastic whistle could cause so much chaos by unlocking the telephone network. Draper’s continuing Phreaking of the service led to the creation of Blue Boxes, electronic devices that would enable users to hack into the phone system for free calls. Interestingly Steve Wozniak, co-creator of the Apple computer, sold Blue Boxes.

1980 – The ‘80s saw the dawn of the home computer and a huge rise in digital technology. It was the beginning of this decade when the first Worm was created, in a Xerox research station. The PARC Worm was used to improve a computer’s efficiency; however, computer engineers later used the same code to alter data, or even destroy it.

Mid-80s – 1986 is regarded as the first time a true computer virus was developed and used. Called Brain, this was more of a test of the computer software engineering and wasn’t destructive. Later, Robert Morris released the Morris Worm to a then fledgling Internet to gauge the size of the connected computers in the world.

1990 – The nineties brought with it the rise of the machines, where connected computing was starting to gain considerable ground, along with sales of 16-bit computers, Apples and IBM and clone PCs. Viruses, and early forms of malware, were spread mainly through floppy disk exchanges, resulting in widespread havoc.

Mid-90s – Hacking has now become a common term, thanks to the vast number of home computer users and Hollywood accentuating a more glamorous side to it. Sharing sites are now common and alongside illegal music and film downloads, digital security is put to the test with countless viruses spread through users trying to obtain the latest games, programs etc. for free.

History of Digital Security7

2000s – The new millennium now, and the Internet as we know it. The ILOVEYOU worm infects millions of computers within the first few hours of its release. Originating from the Philippines, the ILOVEYOU worm heralded a new generation of destructive, and news-worthy, viruses and malware threats. In fact, the ILOVEYOU worm is still being reported as out there by anti-virus companies.

Mid-2000s – DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) are frequent by the mid-2000s and with them come a new generation of viruses, malware, worms, Trojan horses and ransomware. The FBI at this time ran Operation Bot Roast and discovered over 1 million botnet infected computers, costing an estimated $20 million in losses.

2010s & Beyond – Ransomware attacks to organisations across the globe, chiefly the WannaCry and Petya attacks on the UK’s NHS, are becoming more prevalent. A new generation of threats like AI viruses, attacks that can be made on Smart TVs, mobile device attacks, and Cyber-Terrorism are no longer Hollywood storylines but rather a part of our ever-evolving digital world.

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David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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