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Oct 19 2023

What Is Hacking?

By Dean Jones, Data Protection Officer

With October being Cyber Security Month, we thought it would be interesting to look at the phenomenon of hacking, a brief history of it and what we can learn from this.


Hacking really has its beginnings in individuals who were students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 50s and 60s, and who enjoyed playing practical jokes. In the spirit of this, most of the early hackers were attempting to ‘game’ the system to discover weaknesses on behalf of larger corporations. As computers became more sophisticated in the 80s and 90s, hacking entered a new phase from both legal and illegal perspectives. Governments and businesses began to realise that this offered a new avenue for criminal activity and began to legislate against it. Most hacks were still not for financial gain in this period.

In the modern era, hacking takes the form we know now and the public perception of hackers is of shady, perhaps less well socially adjusted individuals. This negative perception is borne from those malicious individuals who have seen hacking as a chance to disrupt, defraud or destroy computer systems for financial profit.

Hackers are now usually split into three classes:

  1. White hat – those who work for companies and authorities attempting to identify weaknesses or exploits in software or security systems. They are more in line with the original ethos of hacking.
  2. Black hat – those who exploit the weaknesses or vulnerabilities for their own profit. They use various techniques such as phishing, ransomware or social engineering.
  3. Grey hat – those who straddle the line between good and bad. A good example of such hackers could be the group ‘Anonymous’.


There have been several more high-profile incidents and individuals throughout the last forty years.

Surprisingly, in 1903 a British inventor managed to disrupt a demonstration of Marconi’s reportedly secure wireless telegraphy technology, allowing him to send insulting messages via Morse code.

More widescale and destructive hacking didn’t reoccur until the 1980s, during the 80s individuals like Kevin Mitnick were able to attack the computer systems of North American Defence Command (NORAD). His actions inspired the 1983 film, WarGames, starring a young Matthew Broderick. Two years later, the Hacker’s Handbook was released in the UK. Several hacking groups formed across Europe and the USA.

Moving into the 1990s, the first annual DEF CON hacking conference took place in Las Vegas. The decade also saw the emergence of more cyber security related films including The Net, Hackers, and Enemy of the State. Windows 98 became a headline year for security, hundreds of patches and advisories were released in response to newfound bugs and vulnerabilities. Governments across the EU and USA began to pass legislation against the crime.

Coming into the 2000s, the hacking activist group, Anonymous, was founded in 2003. Anonymous would go on to be responsible for several widely publicly known attacks against the likes of the Church of Scientology, the United Nations, various American police forces, Russian national infrastructure, and commercial websites. A year later, the first Cyber Security Awareness Month was launched in the USA to run every year in October. By 2010, nation states were beginning to employ hackers to attack the infrastructure of other countries. The Stuxnet worm, widely suspected to have been created by Israeli and US security agencies, was identified as an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.


So, whilst this may make interesting reading (for some) the key point to make here is that often hackers are not always geniuses using incredibly advanced technology to access systems. They are, however, determined, and creative. Whilst we all work a set number of hours in a day, go home, spend time with our families etc., hackers can be active 24 hours a day, fixated on one target. They will see openings and entrances where others don’t, simply because their mindset is different. Another uncomfortable truth is that bigger companies are just as vulnerable through their supply chains. An individual seeking to access a global company like Amazon or Google will have much more success infiltrating the networks and systems of their smaller suppliers or partners that have access to those company’s networks already than they will attacking the huge company outright.

As a company, we are aware of our responsibilities collectively and individually to help create a cyber secure workplace and our security accreditations demonstrate this.

To find out more about safety when using the internet, visit Dean's other blog - Navigating The Seas of The World Wide Web.

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