These days, cybersecurity is such a pervasive concern that it’s easy to forget law enforcement and the courts once had no idea what to do with hackers. Some of the earliest cases of hacking and computer fraud predate the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which was enacted in 1986 and has been amended multiple times to deal with evolving threats.
One of these cases is the fascinating story of Ian Murphy, aka “Captain Zap,” who in 1982 was convicted of breaking into an AT&T computer system and monkeying with metering clocks so customers were charged off-peak rates at peak hours and vice versa. (Again, in the age of cell phones, it’s easy to forget long-distance charges were once a concern.) Murphy was convicted not of a computer crime, but of receiving stolen goods—perhaps the best law on the books at the time for this particular crime. Murphy paid a $1,000 fine, completed 1,000 hours of community service and was placed on probation—and parlayed his past into work as an early cybersecurity expert, even working as a consultant on the 1992 Robert Redford movie Sneakers.
Post CFAA, the feds caught up with Chicago teenager Herbert Zinn, who in 1988 was charged with breaking into high-profile systems, including the AT&T and NATO systems, as well as using a bulletin board service to “educate computer enthusiasts” about ways “to penetrate industrial and government sector computer systems.” Zinn was sentenced under the CFAA to nine months in federal juvenile prison and fined $10,000.
Of course, no discussion of early hackers would be complete without a look back at Robert Morris, the Cornell University grad students whose 1988 Morris worm crashed servers across the world and raised awareness about Internet malware. Morris served his sentence and is now a tenured professor at MIT.
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