Do you know when the first cyber attack took place? Many attribute this to Robert Morris – a 20 something graduate student at Cornell – back in 1988. He was also the first person to be successfully charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. However, this was not the first cyber attack. The very first cyber attack took place when optical telegraphy known as semaphore was being used, much earlier than our computers and the Internet actually.
The semaphore system comprised of a chain of towers with each tower possessing a system of movable wooden arms on its top. Different configurations of these arms were used for denoting different letters, numbers, and symbols. Operators in each tower would use a telescope for checking the configuration of the adjacent tower and then reproduce them on their own tower. This enabled messages to be delivered much quicker. The semaphore network was reserved strictly for government use; however, in 1834, two brothers, François and Joseph Blanc came up with means of hacking into the system for their personal benefit.
François and Joseph Blanc were trading government bond at the stock exchange in Bordeaux that was following the market movement at the Paris stock exchange. Paris stock exchange was the primary market, whereas the secondary markets always lagged behind on account of the time it took for the information to travel via mail coach. If traders could somehow get the information earlier, they could make more money by acting before the market moved.
The brothers bribed a telegraph operator in the city of Tours who was provided with the stock market information via an accomplice in Paris. The operator would send the news from Tours to Bordeaux by making use of the semaphore system. However, he did so by adding errors as codes to the government messages that were then deciphered by another operator that was placed by the Blancs close to the last station on the line to Bordeaux.
This went on for about two years and was exposed only when the operator in Tours fell ill and shared the secret with a friend in hopes to continue the practice. The said friend reported the operator to the authorities, and Blanc brothers were arrested for their cyber attack. However, due to the lack of proper law; they were released. Tom Standage of the Economist writes, ‘The tale of the Blanc brothers is also a reminder that with any new invention, people will always find a way to make malicious use of it. This is a timeless aspect of human nature, and is not something that technology can or should be expected to fix.’