The world of technology will always be full of geniuses. Some use their talents for the greater good, highlighting flaws for the sake of improvement, while others use their technical gifts for slightly more selfish reasons – personal amusement, bragging rights, spirit of adventure mixed and a bit of notoriety. They work in mysterious ways, are secretive and hidden from the world, and they get great kicks out of taking the mickey out of someone. Seduced by the dark side, their acts of mischief have brought them widespread fame.
Happy Birthday Joshi
Legend has it that Prof Joshi taught at one of India’s premier technical institutes, where colleagues and students made fun of his shy, reclusive nature. He turned a blind eye to all of that, but when not a single person on campus remembered or wish him on his birthday, as part of a prank, they didn’t quite realise they were messing with the wrong guy. Prof Joshi vowed to teach everyone a lesson by making them all bow down to their knees – metaphorically speaking, obviously. By combining his unappreciated genius with his mad computer skills, Prof Joshi was ready to announce himself to the rest of the world. The year was 1990 and he had just created India’s first computer virus and it worked in a no-nonsense way.
While the above story may or may not be true, what certainly can’t be denied is the outbreak of Happy Birthday Joshi virus in the early ‘90s. It spread mainly through floppy disks, infecting the boot sector of DOS-based computers at the time. The virus protected itself very well, flaring up on January 5 every time an infected machine was booted up by simply asking the user to “Type Happy Birthday Joshi”. If they typed the message as per the instructions on screen, their computer would proceed to boot up normally. If they didn’t, they were locked out of their machines as it hung after the message screen, forcing the frustrated user to reboot. You either did Joshi’s bidding or remained locked out of your PC – there was no other choice. If the virus christened by his name was any indication, one would think several times before messing with the Mysterious Mr Joshi.
You don’t mess with the Prof
“Your security is crap”
In one of the most epic instances of hacking ever, Gary McKinnon – a British national and hacker extraordinaire – singlehandedly breached the cyber networks of multiple US government agencies. In a 13-month period in 2001-2002, McKinnon hacked into thousands of government computers belonging to NASA and the Pentagon, disrupting sensitive communications and causing damages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Under the pseudonym “Solo”, McKinnon allegedly found incriminating evidence of the US government’s suppression of UFO evidence and “free energy”. Due to the damages and worldwide humiliation caused to them, the US government tried to extradite McKinnon from the UK for ten long years, but the hacker who pulled off the “biggest military computer hack of all time” fought them off successfully. He still resides in the UK, having started his own SEO business.
In a BBC interview in 2005, McKinnon said that when he realised that US military used Windows, he just assumed it would be easy to hack into them if they weren’t secured properly. He encountered many US military machines without adequate password or firewall protection, and left that famous message – Your security is crap – on several machines he penetrated. Way to drive home a point, eh?
Laughing at your security since 2011
I think we can all agree that hacker group LulzSec were a lot of fun until they lasted. An Internet sensation with six founding members, LulzSec burst onto the scene by hacking into popular targets and defacing their properties – all for the sake of a few online laughs, it seemed. From hacking Fox News’ website, internal emails, leaking passwords and sensitive company information, to hacking accounts of Sony Pictures and bringing down the CIA’s website, LulzSec’s every act was a global headline. They even posted a fake story of media baron Rupert Murdoch’s death in News Corp’s several publications that he himself owned – if that doesn’t demonstrate the group’s sense of irony, we don’t know what does.
Their self-proclaimed ideology claimed to just hack for fun by causing mayhem, and not being motivated by hacking for financial profit. Many online and security commentators have given LulzSec credit for one thing, though. By defacing online properties of reputed organisations and companies, they definitely helped ramp up the security preparedness of every online entity that heard of them – and that is a greater testimony to their legacy than all the laughs and giggles they had at their victims’ expense. While LulzSec’s founding members have officially “retired” and the group has ceased its activities, their motto – “laughing at your security since 2011” – continues to inspire other splinter groups to follow in their infamous footsteps.
Keep calm and hack on, good sir
Am I the 102nd caller?
Kevin Poulsen began his life on the dark side. A smart, intelligent fella with rare technical acumen, Poulsen was prone to mischief, meddling in the world of hacking from a young age. In fact, he was a very good black hatter back in the day, pulling off one of the most insane LOL moments in America.
Around the same time Happy Birthday Joshi virus started replicating across systems in India (and around the world), 25-year-old Kevin Poulsen was trying to get himself a brand new Porsche – for FREE! How? By taking over all the phone lines of Los Angeles-based radio station, KIIS-FM’s, virtually guaranteeing no one else could call in during the live raffle (the car was supposed to be awarded to the 102nd caller on the day), thereby ensuring he won himself the Porsche 944 S2 – selling for up to US $50,000 at the time.
Obviously, the radio station smelt a rat and called the Feds. Poulsen went underground sensing the FBI on his tail but couldn’t evade arrest for long. He was caught, sentenced to five years in prison, and an additional three years of ban from using computers or the internet – thus becoming the first person to serve an internet ban in America – an infamous feat.
But after his release, Poulsen did a complete 180, transforming his life and becoming one of the good guys. He joined Wired as a Senior Editor in 2005, successfully blowing the cover of sex offenders and helping law enforcement.
Well, not anymore
Long before guys like McKinnon, Joshi, Poulsen and LulzSec came along, Captain Crunch reigned supreme. Leading by example and inspiring a generation of hackers and pirates after him, John Draper – the phone phreak extraordinaire – is a legend among the original mischief mongers of the technology space.
Choosing to stay out of the limelight and leading a nomadic lifestyle, Draper was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club – the crucible from which Silicon Valley culture and practices emerged. Draper’s legendary status in the history of technology is forever cemented due to his phone phreaking prowess and the invention of the (now) mythical “blue box” – a piece of hardware that played a critical role in the lives of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, inspiring them to start Apple Computers.
Send some over please
“What’s the blue box,” you ask? It was an electronic frequency generator that when connected to an AT&T landline phone’s receiver would help a caller make trunk calls and even international calls… for free. His nickname of Captain Crunch came from a toy whistle that was sold in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, whose 2600 Hz frequency matched with AT&T’s long line frequency to connect to a trunk call.
God knows how many blue boxes Draper sold, and helped others to make. But he was arrested for toll fraud in 1972 and sentenced to five years’ probation. Still a cool thing to do, though, don’t you think?
This article was first published in October 2016 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit's articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit e-magazine app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit's previous issues here.