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Magda Skrzypek
Media development worker

Prague-based media development worker from Poland with a journalistic background. Previously worked on digital issues in Brussels. Piqs about digital issues, digital rights, data protection, new trends in journalism and anything else that grabs my attention.

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piqer: Magda Skrzypek
Tuesday, 09 October 2018

The World’s First Cyberattack Happened in 1834. What Can We Learn From It?

The hacking of Democratic email servers in the 2016 elections, the WannaCry ransomware or, most recently, Chinese spy chips. It seems that a week rarely goes by without a cyber-attack making headlines. Hacks are an ongoing threat in the internet age, but their history goes back further than you might expect. You would think that nothing like the Equifax data breach could have happened, say, 184 years ago, but it kind of did.

In last week's podcast episode "Secret History of the Future", The Economist's Tom Standage and Slate’s Seth Stevenson recount a case of hacking that happened before the web, before the computer, and even before the phone. They discuss a 1834 attack on France's Napoleonic network of semaphore telegraph, which although reserved for government use only, was hacked by two bankers, François and Joseph Blanc, to serve as their personal stock market news wire.

I won't spill the beans on how the attack went down, other than say that it did involve an uncracked code and that the schemesters got off scot-free. But apart from being a good plot for a detective novel, this almost two-century old crime also holds lessons about contemporary network vulnerabilities and modern-day security.

“Hacking has the power to change the course of history. And that’s why a historical perspective can shed new light on the true nature of the problem. If we take computers out of the picture, we can see things more clearly. By standing back and looking at historical examples, we can look past the technology and see the underlying principles and problems of security,” say the hosts.

Although the podcast starts out slow with a somewhat awkward conversation between Tom Standage and his mother Ginny, it quickly livens up at about 3:00. Still, both cases – Ginny's recent experience with hackers and the semaphore telegraph's breach – show that when it comes to cybersecurity, it's not technology, but humans that are often the weakest link.

The World’s First Cyberattack Happened in 1834. What Can We Learn From It?
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