1903 Hacker / Phreaker: Hacking a “Secure” Wireless Link

    “My other hobby, also discovered at an early age, was practical magic (tricks). Having learned how this or that trick works, I practiced it many times until I reached perfection. To some extent, it was through tricks that I discovered the pleasure of gaining secret knowledge. ” Kevin Mitnick
    “Manage the adversary's sensory perception” in order to “confuse, delay, inhibit, or misdirect [his] actions” DARPA`s project “Battlefield Illusion” .


    As part of the training of young Habrr authors, a second nominee appeared in the Sauron category . Let me introduce Trephs (Lesha), he did most of the translation work from English (so with questions about translating to it).
    This time we decided to cover a topic that, in my opinion, is quite worthy of Habr, namely the history of the first hacking of an information system, about which I already mentioned in passing in the post “History of hacker hacks of information systems (1903-1971)” .
    It is worth noting that the hacking was exclusively “trolling” in nature.

    Maskelins - that is still a family. Grandfather-astronomer studied Venus and perpetuated the Meskelin family by the fact that he was named after the crater on the moon, the father of the hero of the text below, John Maskelin , invented a paid toilet booth and other tricks, and his son, Jasper Maskelin, drove Hitler by the nose (and maybe Churchill) and was a real battle magician, an illusionist, “hid” Alexandria harbor, conjured German the cruiser "Admiral Count Spee" and a bunch of "inflatable" tanks, as well as helping prisoners with shoots.

    About how Neville Maskelin hacked Marconi with his "super-protected" radio, read under the cut.


    More than a century ago, one of the first hackers in the world used Morse code hacking to disrupt the public demonstration of Marconi’s wireless telegraph.

    On a June evening in 1903, silence reigned in the famous lecture theater of the Royal Institute of London. In front of the crowd, physicist John Ambrose Fleming set up a mysterious device, intending to demonstrate a new miracle of technology: a wireless communication system for transmitting messages over long distances. The system was developed by the Italian pioneer of radio engineering - Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was for the first time to publicly show that messages from Morse code can be sent wirelessly over long distances. At a distance of 300 miles, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a station at the top of the mountain in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.



    But before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the audience began to print a message. At first he gave the same word over and over. Then it turned into a humorous verse accusing Marconi of swindling the public. Their demonstration was hacked, and this is a hundred years before the current disaster on the Internet. Who made the hack at the Royal Institute? How did cheeky messages get here and why?

    It all started in 1887 when Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865.
    Unloading the capacitor in two separate electrodes, Hertz ionized the air in the gap between them, creating a spark. Surprisingly, another spark darted between the two electrodes by several meters: an electromagnetic wave from the first spark created an electric current between the second pair of electrodes. These were long and short bursts of energy - “Hertz waves” - they could be broadcast to replace points and dashes of Morse code. So there was wireless telegraphy, and Marconi and his company became at the forefront. Marconi claimed that his wireless messages could be sent privately over long distances. “I can tune my instruments so that no instrument other than a similarly tuned one can intercept my messages,” Marconi swore at London's St James Gazette in February 1903.

    imageIt soon became apparent that this June afternoon, things at the Royal Institute for Marconi and Fleming would not go smoothly. The minutes before Fleming was supposed to receive Morse code messages from Marconi from Cornwall, the silence was broken by the rhythmic ticking noise popping from the copper projection lamp that was used to display the narrator slides. For untrained listeners, it was like the sound of a flickering projector. But Arthur Block, Fleming's assistant, quickly recognized the sound of typing a message in Morse code. Someone, Blok decided, was delivering powerful wireless pulses to the theater and they were strong enough to interfere with the electric arc of the projector's discharge lamp.

    Deciphering the message in his mind, Blok realized that it conveyed one humorous word, again and again, - "Nonsense." Looking at the output of a nearby Morse message printer, he confirmed this hunch. Then a more personal message was received on the Morse receiver, making fun of Marconi * verbatim *: “One Italian guy strongly fooled the public” (original: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily”). This was followed by crude epithets and relevant lines from Shakespeare.

    The stream of swearing ended a moment before Marconi's signals from Poldhu arrived. The demonstration continued, but it suffered irreparable damage: if someone could interfere with the wireless frequency in this way, then the system was obviously not as secure as Marconi claimed. And apparently it was possible to eavesdrop on private messages.

    For Marconi, it was, at least, very offensive, but he did not answer directly to the insults in the audience. He did not want to deal with skeptics and incredulous people, and he had a convenient “excuse”: “I will not demonstrate the system to those who do not trust its work.” Be that as it may, Fleming sent an indignant letter to the London Times. He called this hack "hooliganism in the field of science" and "a crime against the traditions of the Royal Institute." He asked readers to help him find the culprit.

    He did not have to wait long. Four days later, a joyful letter regarding the hack was printed in The Times. The person who wrote it justified his actions in terms of demonstrating security holes that he revealed for the common good. The author was Neville Maskelin, a whiskered 39-year-old British anti-spiritualist illusionist and inventor. Maskelin came from an inventive family - his father came up with locks that open if you drop a coin in them and used these locks for paid toilets, and his ancestor was a famous astronomer. Maskelin was self-taught and was passionate about wireless technology. He used Morse code in mind-reading tricks to secretly talk to an assistant. He developed a way to use a spark transmitter to remotely ignite gunpowder. In 1900, Maskelin sent out wireless communications between the ground station and a 10-mile balloon. But, as the author of Wireless, Sanguk Hong correctly pointed out, his ambitions were spoiled by Marconi's patents, and Maskelin harbored anger at the Italian. However, soon Maskelin was given the opportunity to take revenge.

    The Marconi technology has been hit hardest by the wire telegraph industry. Telegraph companies owned expensive cable stations at sea and on land and operated fleets of ships with teams of experts for laying and servicing submarine cables. Marconi, with his wireless technology, posed a threat to their cable hegemony.

    imageThe Eastern Telegraph Company served the communications hubs of the British Empire on the sea side of the Porthcurno settlement, west of Cornwall, where submarine cables ran to Indonesia, India, Africa, South America, and Australia. After a skilful demonstration of the transatlantic transmission on December 12th, 1901, the BTK ordered Maskelin to undertake advanced espionage operations.

    Maskelin built a 50-meter radio beacon (the remains of which still exist) on the rocks west of Porfkurno to see if he could eavesdrop on the messages Marconi sent to the ships as part of his highly successful ship-to-shore communications business . By publishing his letter to the journal Electric / The Electrician on November 7, 1902, Maskelin was pleased to report the lack of a security system. “I got Marconi messages from a 25-foot chain [over the air] mounted on a scaffold rack. When the lighthouse was finally turned on, the only problem was not in the interception, but in how to cope with an unusually high amount of energy. ”

    It was not supposed that everything would be so simple. Marconi patented the technology for setting up a wireless transmitter to broadcast within a certain wave. This setting, Marconi stated, guaranteed the confidentiality of communication channels. Anyone who has ever connected to a radio station knows that this is not so, but at that time it was not so obvious. Maskelin proved this using a broadband receiver through which he could eavesdrop on the air.

    By intercepting data, Maskelin wanted to draw more attention to the flaws of the technology, and also to show that interference with the transfer is possible. So he organized a hack at the Royal Institute, setting up a simple morse code transmitter with his father, not far from the western music hall.

    The comic messages he sent could easily mix with those that Marconi personally sent from Cornwall, or he could destroy both messages if they were sent at the same time. Instead, they drew attention to a legitimate flaw in technology - and the only damage was done to the ego of Marconi and Fleming.

    Fleming went on for weeks to indignate in the newspapers that the hack that Maskelin carried out was an insult to science. Maskelin replied that Fleming should focus on the facts. “I remind Professor Fleming that swearing is not an argument,” he replied.

    In modern times, many hackers end up showing technological flaws and omissions in security systems, like Maskelyn. Small tricks always have their benefits.

    Source: Articleat NewScientist.

    PS Who knows interesting stories of earlier “hacks” of technical systems (do not touch pigeon mail), for example, wired communications - share, I will be very grateful.

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