Hackers Rule OK

People may associate it with the US, but hacking - both legal and illegal - is an international phenomenon. And Britain has its own distinct history of computer exploits

Hackers are often thought of as sinister computer criminals or a grubby and degenerate social underclass. In reality the history of hacking includes some of the greatest technological and intellectual innovations in modern times alongside the better-publicised computer crimes. Many prefer to draw a line between experimentation and programming, on the one hand, and illegal or destructive computer activity (often referred to as "cracking") on the other.

Hacking is intricately linked with the emergence of the open-source movement, the development of the Internet and the creation of computers, as well as the emergence of a new techno-savvy subculture. The contribution that Brits have made to this saga has been woefully under-represented in the histories of hacking that have proliferated on the Web.

Here, then, are some of the milestones of British hackerdom.

"Hacking might be characterised as 'an appropriate application of ingenuity'. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it." -- Eric Raymond, The Hacker's Dictionary


Alan Turing and other cryptanalyts apply the scientist's theory of The Universal Turing Machine at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park to crack the German military's legendary Enigma code. These tweed and corduroy cyber-cowboys received virtually no public acknowledgement for their exploits because of national secrecy as well as the lack of mean handles such as "laser boy" or pHr3Ak!n tUr1N9.


Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) located in Cheltenham takes over from GCCS as Britain's answer to the US' NSA (National Security Agency). In charge of developing and implementing computer surveillance technology, GCHQ still plays a vital role fending off the malevolent forces of freelance British hacking.


BT introduces Switched Packet System (SWP) paving the way for increased phone hacking.


IBM introduces the first Personal Computer (PC)


Thieves hack into the telephone line at Lloyds bank in Holborn in order to disable its alarm system.


Head of the metropolitan computer crime unit Ken McPherson predicts that in 15 years all fraud would be computer related.


Ribert Schifreen and Steve Gold break into BT's prehistoric Prestel messaging system and gain unlawful access to the personal account of beloved royal patriarch Prince Philip. Estimated to have cost Prestel customers a grand total of £11, Schifreen and Gold are fined £750 and £600 respectively.


Peter Sommer creates the influential classic "The Hacker's Handbook" under the pen-name of Hugo Cornwall. Although now largely outdated, the book is a testament to the heritage of phone phreaking in Britain and contains memorable guides to subverting all manners of computer and telecommunications networks.

The "Mad Hacker", also known by the slightly less intimidating handle Nick Whitely, is arrested and accused of running amok on the computer systems of the Ministry of Defence and MI5. Whitely claimed to have gathered evidence of Conservative government surveillance of the Labour party and CND. Despite this extraordinary behaviour, Whitely served only two months in prison in 1990.


Briton Tim Berners-Lee co-invents the World Wide Web, paving the way for thousands of script kiddie Web site defacements and denial of service attacks.

The Computer Misuse Act is amended to make it illegal to gain unauthorised access a personal computer or to alter the data on a personal computer without permission. Only a handful of individuals have, however, even been charged under this act. It remains far more practical to prosecute for software piracy and bizarrely even for stealing electricity.


A group of three hackers calling themselves the Little Green Men are arrested, although one famously escapes prosecution after pleading computer addiction.


This is the year when a couple of Limey computer tricksters give the might of the US government a bit of a shock. Matt Bevan and Richard Pryce, AKA Kuji and Datastream Cowboy, made headlines in the national press when they broke into the computer network of a modest little American government compound called the Pentagon.

Group of Russian hackers are arrested in London after breaking into the computer systems at Citibank and stealing more than $10m, one of the few instances of computer fraud that have reached the papers. The International Chamber of Commerce recently admitted it was aware of a number of cases of organised computer extortion and theft. Hardly surprisingly, however, no other British financial institution has ever come clean and admitted to having been targeted by computer hackers.


Conservative Party Web site is cracked in Britain's first ever politically inspired piece of Web defacement.


Coldfire (Leon Fitch) is arrested after alleged hacking activities. While on bail, he is charged with cloning cellular phones.

A group called Milw0rm, containing a number of British hackers, targets Indian nuclear bases at the time of India's controversial nuclear testing.

Paul Spiby is arrested and accused of nefarious telephone activities.

Pipex Dial 0800 loophole allows free unauthorised Internet access until details of the flaw were inadvertently published in underground magazine Port Sniffer.


Endorsing the view that one politician is as good as the next, another bunch of crackers deface the Labour Party's site, much to the annoyance of the supposedly techno-savvy new government.

An individual is apprehended for alledgedly gaining illegal access to a 0800 number created by a BT employee and enjoying the luxury of totally free Internet access (the case is ongoing).

Computer hacking appears to have entered public consciousness (albeit with particularly negative connotations) to such an extent that even the technophobic Tory party blames hackers for the exposure of its shady financial dealings.

British cyber activists attempt to co-ordinate even the most technologically inept into a mass denial of service attack on the World Trade Organisation. Misfires somewhat, but still illustrates the growing importance of computer "misuse" to the average Brit.

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