Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cybercrime in the 1970s

Note: This is a section of the full research paper

In the early 70s computers were limited to large, expensive timesharing mainframe and Unix systems owned by universities, large corporations, and government agencies. In 1975 Ed Roberts released the first microcomputer for sale to the public – the MITS Altair 8080. No keyboard, no screen – just a box with toggle switches for programming and LED lights to show the output of the program. He sold 2,000 of the systems the first year. The following year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak released the Apple I. Again, no keyboard or screen. By the end of 1976 computing enthusiasts had purchased 40,000 microcomputers.[1] In 1977, the Apple II, the Tandy TRS-80 (I cut my teeth programming on this model), and the Commodore PET brought visual displays and keyboards to the market. People purchased 150,000 of these systems.[2]

Computer communications were pretty limited. The government, military, and a few universities had ARPA net and X25 networks. The public was limited to modem-based computer-to-computer phone calls, which was fine for dialing computers in your area, but a bit of a problem for those a long distance call away. The killer app for computer communications was Bulletin Board System software, which first came to public life, courtesy of Randy Seuss, during a snowstorm in February 1978.  This development connected computer enthusiasts across the U.S. in an electronic underground where they could publish ideas and communicate within their own realm on their own terms. From this technology the computer hacker underground took root.

While it took some time for microcomputers to take hold, the phone system was already built out and available. A large community of phone system fanatics – ‘phone phreaks’ – learned how to control the switching system of the predominant phone switching system in use at the time, largely in thanks to serious security flaws in the system and the publication of the details of the internal switching system in the November 1954 issue of the Bell Labs Technical Journal.

Motives and Crimes
The primary motives behind the computer crimes of the 60s and 70s were desire for system access, curiosity, and the sense of power attained from defeating security. The phone system was the first and favorite computer system targeted. The attraction to the phone system for the pioneers of phone phreaking was not free calls, but the desire to learn the system, the desire to beat the system, and the desire to control the system. John Draper, the father of phone phreaking, when asked about the techniques he developed for gaining operator access to phone systems, published in the October 1971 issue of Esquire Magazine, stated his motive behind unauthorized system access.

From Secrets of the Little Blue Box by Ron Rosenbaum, Esquire Magazine (October 1971)

The pioneers of ‘phone phreaking’ mastered the techniques for controlling the phone system and codified it in what is now called a ‘little blue box’. The box, commonly twice the size of a cigarette case, had buttons on the front that emitted tones. These tones could be used, if emitted at the right time and in the right sequence during a call would yield operator access to the phone system. The benefit, of course, was free calls to anywhere in the world.

Computers weren’t left alone. The first edition of Creative Computing magazine, published in 1976, had an article titled “Is Breaking Into A Timesharing System A Crime?”[3]

Besides the intellectual challenge of breaking in to systems, people were also motivated to break in to systems simply to gain access. In the 60s and early 70s time on the university-owned computer systems was limited. Students who wanted more time developed the first password crackers and trojan software in order to get the access they wanted.

With the introduction of microcomputers and Bulletin Board Systems in the mid to late 70s people wanted to connect to other computer systems. To foot the bill for the long-distance calls many resorted to stealing long distance access codes – wire fraud. Again, the primary motive to steal the access codes was not for profit, but curiosity – to connect and learn.

[1] http://jeremyreimer.com/postman/node/329
[2]http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2005/12/total-share.ars http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WIntHosts1981-2009.jpg

[3] http://www.atariarchives.org/bcc1/showpage.php?page=4