Tech Time Warp: Teen hackers breach Los Alamos - August 1983

Posted by Lauren Beliveau on Aug 5, 2016 12:00:00 PM

TTW-hackers.jpgThis Tech Time Warp goes back to 1983 when computer security became a hot topic after a few teens called the 414s broke into more than a dozen computer systems including Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a major bank in Los Angeles, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Questioning computer security

After the 414s made headlines, David Burnham wrote an article for the New York Times on Aug. 13, 1983 titled Computer security raises questions. According to the article, a group of teenagers electronically breached an unclassified computer at the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, causing people to question the security of governmental resources.  While it was not seen as national security threat, the “incident illustrated the extraordinary difficulty of guaranteeing the security of any information stored in a data base accessible by telephone” wrote Burnham.

In the article Burnham explained that Congressional investigators had often criticized the Federal Government for not doing enough to protect “personal information about hundreds of millions of Americans that is held in the computers of such civilian agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.” One way that organizations were trying to make breaches like this less likely was by encoding information. “To prevent the theft of computerized information stored in widespread computer systems, business and government are increasingly adopting a procedure to scramble the information while in transit,” Burnham wrote.


Security today

The 414s started before there were any cybersecurity laws, and they infamously got their name from their Milwaukee area code. In a recent interview with CNN, one of the boys explained, “After about a year of back and forth with the FBI, three of us were eventually charged under a federal provision against harassing phone calls, which carried a maximum of six months in prison and a $500 fine each.”

Since then laws have been developed to address this type of crime, but the punishment has only increased slightly. For example, on July 21 an Oregon man was sentenced to six months in prison and required to pay a $3,000 fine for a phishing scam that ran from March 2011 to May 2013 where he exploited “approximately 448 usernames and passwords for 363 e-mail accounts.”

The FBI has said that “because of the global reach of cybercrime, no single organization, agency, or country can defend against it.” Cybercrime has increased significantly since 1983, and with the opportunity to snag millions there is very little deterring malicious hackers and cybercriminals. No wonder there are so many data breaches and ransomware attacks these days!

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Topics: Tech Time Warp

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