Hacking History: The Chaos Computer Club (CCC)
The Chaos Computer Club (CCC) is the oldest hacking group (I would even say, oldest hacktivist group) known in history, but also brings us all the way to 1981. Before we go into the CCC’s history, let’s do a little catch up to give you better cultural context:
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Brief Hacking History from 1946-1980
After WWII, hacking became increasingly associated with criminal activity. After a few phone phreaking pioneers (such as Joe Engressia, AKA Joybubbles, deamed the Peter Pan of Phone Hackers by the New York Times) William D. Mathews, of MIT, found the first vulnerability in a standard text editor (CTSS running on IBM 1094). Telephone phreaking and the rise of hacking continued through the 1970’s, bringing us to 1981, when hacking incidents started being publicized.
After the FBI investigated a National CSS breach, the NCSS stated, in a letter of reprimand, that “The Company realizes the benefit to NCSS and in fact encourages the efforts of employees to identify security weaknesses to the VP, the directory, and other sensitive software in files”, which was published in the New York Times. This statement highlights an ethical debate, about hacking, which continues today. The article highlights other such relevant challenges in the field, exemplified in quotes such as ”It’s like the seatbelt problem,” by Chester Bartholomew, of Boeing Computer Services. As New York Times points out, this suggestion poses the question: how does one get people to take precautions against cyber-attacks, even if it is for their own protection?
The Chaos Computer Club (the Early Years)
It was somewhere around this time that the Chaos Computer Club was born, and like many of the questions brought up the same year, they’re legacy is still alive, and largely admired, today. With geopolitical turmoil rising alongside technological innovation, Wau Holland convened with friends, on September 12, 2981, about technological possibilities (both optimistic and pessimistic), the rise of fascism and technology’s role. With an anti-fascist ideology, encompassing the idea of free-information and access to the internet, the CCC was formed. The groups slowly grew over time, but really solidified themselves and their mission in 1984. What brought this sudden momentum? According to Bre Pettis, “Wau had become a software developer but when he found that the software he worked on was being used by the U.S. military, he quit and moved to Hamburg.”
The CCC in 1984
1984 was a big year for the Chaos Computer Club. They took to some of their most historically notable hacktivist activities and began opening up a larger conversation with Europe and the rest of the world.
1. The Dataloos
In 1984, the German telecom had a government monopoly on telecommunications and were largely over-charging citizens for modems. It was a crime to connect anything other than a telephone to the telephone network, posing a popular sentiment that having a computer answer a phone call was illegal. German citizens were getting turned in for owning a modem and imported modems were not only illegal, but impossible to come across.
In response to this, the CCC made a DIY modem and released their instructions to the public. Having made the acoustic coupler from plumbing materials, they dubbed their modem the “Dataloos”. They continue this tradition by powering their hacker camps with networked porta-potties.
2. BTX and the first case of Internet Censorship
Blidschirmtext (BTX) hit the scene in-a-big-way in 1984. These machines packaged telephone, television and keyboard capabilities on a single computer. Of course, in its origins, BTX were largely used for consumption of pornography. The CCC, excited about this invention, saw its potential and wanted to be involved. They began publishing public service announcements via BTX. One such announcement warned users not to masturbate with a specific vacuum, because its spinning blades could cause serious injury. The vacuum company pleaded to have the telecom company take down the PSAs, but due to the accuracy of their announcement- based on research- that plea was denied. This was the first case of internet censorship, and echoes many ethical considerations, still in question today.
3. Dial-up Robin Hoods
The Chaos Computer Club began accepting donations on BTX machines, but realized that this may not be the most secure way of handling money. After Wau Holland and colleague Steffen Wernery found a buffer overflow that would give them unencoded data, they acquired the password of a Hamburg Bank and began syphoning money from the bank into their donation page. The next day, they turned over the funds and alerted the bank, and made public the first electronic bank robbery. The Hamburg bank thanked them for making them aware of the problem and the world had its first exposure to hacktivism.
The First Hacker Conference
The Chaos Communication Congress had its inaugural conference in 1984. At its beginning, under 100 attendees shows up to talk about innovative possibilities and ethical issues concerning the internet, free-information and how to have both security and transparency. The Chaos Communication Congress still happens annually and still confronts many of the same ideological and ethical issues today that it had in 1984. The CCC is now seen as one of the strongest and highly-regarded IT expert groups. Government and tech industries alike, look to the CCCs members for a climate read on the future of technology. To see some of the most fascinating and relevant take-aways from 2015’s Chaos Communication Congress, check out this thought-provoking article.
The Chaos Computer Club changed not only the utility of hackers, but how we view the philosophical and social implications of internet security and transparency. Along with their rich legacy, continually relevant projects and publications and being my, personal favorite hacktivist group; it’s no question that the CCC will maintain an admired spot in Hacking History.