The Hacks Heard 'Round the World
10 hackers who changed media
The term hacker is complicated to define. Originally, the word applied to technologically proficient individuals who modified hardware or software to better suit their needs. They were the electronic version of a handyman. However, as computers became responsible for more and more, the modifications were occasionally nefarious in nature, and the term began to be used to describe less savory characters. Classifications of hackers suddenly were needed, with "white hat" hackers being individuals in computer security that worked to secure systems, "grey hat" hackers as individuals with neither altruistic nor malicious intentions, and "black hat" hackers as those on the criminal side of the law.
In truth, those classifications may have further diluted the term. A more accurate description, in the spirit of the original usage, would be a technologically savvy individual who modifies other systems to achieve his desired aims, regardless of obstacles, whether technical or legal. When described in this way, the term refers to a group of individuals that play a unique role in the shaping of the media landscape.
Today, very large organizations have embraced technology, using it for one major aim: generating revenue. While often this aim serves the public in a symbiotic relationship, in some instances companies might make anti-consumer decisions that serve their own interests. When that happens, hackers tend to appear. Here are 10 of the hackers that have played (or are playing) a significant role in the media landscape:
Sorry, Ma Bell
Most people, even in the hacking community, don't recognize the name Thomas Carter. Yet he was responsible for a legal precedent without which we would be living in a very different world. Carter created a device called the Carterphone in 1955, which allowed a two-way radio to be hooked up to a phone line and enabled phone calls away from the physical phone line. AT&T didn't like this device, claiming customers could only use AT&T authorized devices on their network. Carter took them to court, which finally resulted in the FCC Carterphone decision, without which telephone modems or faxes would have been illegal (or telecom controlled). The Internet as we know it couldn't have existed without Thomas Carter.
Josef Engressia, better known as 'Whistler,' was 7 years old and blind when he became the first phone "phreak." Engressia had an ability called 'perfect pitch,' by which he could create a tone vocally spot-on. He realized that by creating certain tones, he could make calls and control the phone system. He also discovered that the toy whistle in Cap'n Crunch boxes happened to create the key tone that could control the entire U.S. phone network. The phone phreaks, and their underlying culture, became the hacker underground as computers became more mainstream (even Steve Jobs toyed with phreaking).
The Jailbreak Kid
George Hotz, also known as geohot, was one of the early iPhone hackers. As part of the IRC channel #iPhone, he contributed to the first jailbreak of Apple's device on July 10, 2007. This allowed third-party developers to subvert Apple's "WebApps Only" policy and demonstrate the utility and demand for third-party development on the phone, to which Apple later caved. Hotz also was one of the first to unlock the phone, using a now outdated hardware modification for use on non-AT&T carriers. He reportedly traded the phone for a new car with a very impatient early adopter. In late July 2010, over three years after the first jailbreak, the U.S. Copyright Office finally agreed that jailbreaking one's iPhone is not a violation of Apple's copyright.
When the Sony PSP was released, hackers immediately started to play with the device, installing "homebrew" applications on it. These applications varied from music and movie players that could play media stored on the device, to classic Nintendo emulators which allowed PSP owners to play games like Zelda and Mario. The modification could also be used to pirate PSP games and, as a result, Sony tried to shut the practice down. This became a cat-and-mouse game, with Sony constantly releasing "firmware updates" (updates to a central part of the system) that would try to block holes created by hackers. Eventually, a hacker calling himself Dark_AleX appeared, creating his own custom firmware which allowed other hackers to completely subvert Sony's attempts at controlling the usage of the PSP device from thereon out. Ironically, many of the legal homebrew applications saw similar features released in future official PSP updates (such as Web browsers and media players).
Disarming Digital Rights Management (DRM)
Jon Lech Johansen, known as DVD Jon, was a Norwegian teen upset that DVD protection, known as CSS, prevented DVDs from being played on Linux, which did not have a licensed player to decrypt the protection. Like a true hacker, he and two others created DeCSS, a program that allowed them to bypass DVD encryption. Secondarily, this helped open up the world of film piracy, and resulted in a closely watched court case in which Johansen was finally acquitted. More recently, Johansen has taken on Apple's FairPlay DRM, and co-created the company doubleTwist, which offers a player that can sync iTunes libraries with non-Apple devices.
One of the most commonly used hacks owes its popularity to Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay, who created a device that could record a live TV stream digitally, allowing it to be paused or fast-forwarded. They are better known by their company name, TiVo, which was one of two firms releasing the DVR in 1999. This device has done a lot to reshape consumer behavior and expectations for living-room media, and certainly shook up the advertising world.
A Very Private Book
Doesn't everyone deserve a right to a little privacy? Phil Zimmermann certainly thought so. He took some of the advances in the public domain regarding cryptography and created a program that could give anyone with a computer NSA-level encryption. At the time, the U.S. government considered exportation of encryption technology to be a munitions export, with serious punishments. The software ended up leaving the country, and Zimmermann was placed under investigation. Finding a legal loophole, he knew that exportation of a physical book was protected under the First Amendment, so he published the program's source code as a book that could just be scanned page by page, and made the whole investigation moot. These encryption technologies allowed the international hacker underground to stay just that -- underground and private.
From NYT Hacker to Leaker Leak
In 2003, Adrian Lamo was in some hot water. A nomad hacker, he broke into systems across the country and then informed the companies how he accessed them and how he could help fix the vulnerability. He was in trouble because he had broken into The New York Times via their wireless network, and accessed the personal information of their entire guest editorial database (among other things). While not in and of itself media changing, he's suddenly appeared in headlines again as the person who turned in the alleged leaker of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks, which will undoubtedly bring its own repercussions to Internet publishing.
The 102nd Caller
Some might recognize Kevin Poulsen as one of the senior editors of Wired. They might not know he was also known as Dark Dante, a hacker supposedly called the Hannibal Lecter of computer crime by the U.S. government. Poulsen was a pretty serious black-hat hacker who went on the run when authorities were after him, breaking into FBI systems and releasing information on shifty government behavior. One of his better known hacks while on the run was when he and two friends rigged a radio station contest in order to be the 102nd caller and win a Porsche. After Poulsen was caught, he served roughly five years in prison, the most anyone up to that point had served for computer crimes. After his release, Poulsen still set out to expose security news, but legally, as a journalist with one of the most valued perspectives in the industry. Most recently, Lamo went to him with the chat logs surrounding the recent WikiLeaks military documents, and Wired broke the story.
Nothing Beats Free
On a lighter note, perhaps the most influential hacker didn't just hack technology, he hacked the copyright system. Richard Stallman was a computer programmer who realized very early on that there needed to be protections for software in order for it to remain open to those who would modify it. He created the Free Software Foundation and was one of the pioneers of the "copyleft" movement. Stallman used copyright to create license agreements under which software could be published, forcing any corporations that used the software to keep resulting products "open source" (i.e., able to be modified by others). With the protection of copyright, the crowd-sourced programming movement has become the backbone for much of the computer world, including Apple's OS X and iOS, Google's Android, and nearly every Web browser with the exception of Internet Explorer.