The Helpful Hack That Started It All

Conducting offensive cyber-attacks is an activity almost as old as networking itself. As communications become more instantaneous and society increasingly relies on rapid interactions, savvy individuals, with sundry goals, find value in conducting attacks and hacking these evolving systems.

However, as hacking has become more prevalent, and the adoption of technology increases, the attacks have continued to occur, to both positive and negative effect. While these incidents succeed in creating atmospheres of concern, they also lead to greater innovations in the security field.

Today, nearly everyone alive risks the impacts of a successful cyber-attack. However, our ancestors presented a much smaller target pool.

In fact, comparatively, only a handful of players were involved in what most consider the first hack, conducted by professional magician Nevil Maskelyne in 1903. Maskelyne conducted this earliest hack at one of the first public demonstrations of the wireless telegraph. Interestingly, prior to the demonstration, the technology’s inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, touted it as a new manner of secure and private messaging. Specifically, Marconi stated that he could “tune [his] instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap [his] messages.” 

However, as Marconi prepared his message for transmission, his receiving partner, 300 miles away, received a series of crude telegraphs while he presented to the Royal Academy of Sciences. This embarrassing attack, performed by Maskelyne hijacking the wireless frequency of the telegraph, appeared, on the surface, as an innocent hijack of the presentation – meant for maximum embarrassment to encourage evaluation of the security of a technology.

Yet additional research uncovered that Maskelyne’s actions were funded by the Eastern Telegraph Company to discredit Marconi and ensure greater dependence upon their wired telegraph infrastructure.

More than 100 years later, every person with a cellphone finds themselves in the same situation as Marconi. Everyone presents themselves as a potential target for attack, exploitation and discreditation.  Additionally, the attacker types have expanded from large companies, hoping to secure profits, to an assortment of companies, nation-states, cyber criminals and activists.

Newly developed applications, promising secure communications, are released and compromised on a regular basis. One of the more recent instances occurred when NordVPN announced that one of its European servers was compromised. As one of the most prominent virtual private network (VPN) providers, globally, this type of attack put thousands (if not more) at risk of a man-in-the-middle attack wherein the attacker could view and maintain a copy of all online activity of the victim using the VPN server.

Just as Marconi learned that his technology couldn’t protect people from compromise, NordVPN users learned that there is no such thing as a perfect security solution.

While an argument can be made that the NordVPN attackers and Maskelyne are nothing more than “scientific hooligans,” a term readily used by Marconi, it is important to remember that these attacks also served a vital purpose for information technology users worldwide. Without the efforts of Maskelyne, many would have been convinced that unencrypted wireless telegraphs were secure and that individuals could comfortably broadcast their private information without fear of interception.

While Marconi may have viewed Maskelyne as a painful thorn in his side, the rest of the world benefited from the magician’s actions. Indeed, to this day, encrypting wireless communications is one of the very first actions consumers perform when they install a new wireless access point.

Additionally, while NordVPN most likely suffered certain business loss from the attack that compromised one of their servers, users will benefit from the new security measures that the company enacted.

There will always be an argument that there is no good time period for a hack to occur. However, if we examine hacks that have occurred over the past 117 years, it quickly becomes clear that while they present inconveniences for organizations and individuals, they also provide unexpected silver linings in the form of increased security and safer communications. This ironic reversal is probably something that would bring a smile to the face of the magician who started it all.

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