9 of the Strangest Hacking Incidents in History

Alongside general mayhem and political protest, humour and strangeness have always been key parts of internet hacking culture.

Hacking has a very colourful history, and weird hacking incidents form some of the brightest and most appealing shades on its spectrum.

Join us as we explore nine of the funniest and most bizarre hacks the world has seen to date.

1. Merry Christmas… or not

Christmas tree with decorations

Let’s begin with a weird hacking festive classic. Cast your mind back, if you will, to December 1987. An industrious student at the Clausthal University of Technology decides to spread some holiday cheer with a network-harming computer worm, which worked by sending itself to every contact in a person’s email list.

Christmas Tree EXEC was the first worm to widely disrupt computers, affecting several major international networks. The message it contained looked like this:

               *
               *
              ***
             *****
            *******
           *********
         *************                A
            *******
          ***********                VERY
        ***************
      *******************            HAPPY
          ***********
        ***************            CHRISTMAS
      *******************
    ***********************         AND MY
        ***************
      *******************         BEST WISHES
    ***********************
  ***************************     FOR THE NEXT
            ******
            ******                    YEAR

The worm itself was activated when the user typed ‘Christmas’, as prompted in the email. This incident, though not as well-known as the notorious ILOVEYOU worm of 2000, was a fascinating indicator of technological battles to come.

2. Hackers on planet earth against infowar

Toy Soldiers

On January 7th, 1999, eight prominent computer hacking groups signed a joint statement against acts of “Cyberwar”. This was mainly in reaction to fellow hacker group Legion of the Underground’s declaration of war on the governments of China and Iraq for human rights violations. Legion of the Underground wished to disrupt servers and mainframes in these countries to attack their governments.

The statement says: “We – the undersigned – strongly oppose any attempt to use the power of hacking to threaten or destroy the information infrastructure of a country, for any reason. Declaring “war” against a country is the most irresponsible thing a hacker group could do. This has nothing to do with hacktivism or hacker ethics.”

The statement goes on to argue that attacking strict political regimes may negatively affect hackers in the long-run if the affected countries were to strike back, causing more harm than good.

What makes this incident so notable? The statement shows that hackers realised that their online exploits could bring real harm to the world—and thus forms an important part of Internet history.

3. When Burger King became McDonalds

Think a fast food chain Twitter account is relatively safe from the attention of hackers? Think again. In 2013, someone took over the Burger King Twitter account and transformed it into a rude, lewd, pro-McDonald’s paradise. After about an hour of shenanigans, Twitter suspended the account, adding insult to injury.

It wasn’t all bad for Burger King: their account gained thousands of followers due to the incident, as people were itching to know what came next in the fast food social media saga. Even McDonald’s apologised for what their rivals were going through, from their own (legitimate) Twitter account:

Not everyone was buying this, however:

4. Man forgoes CV and simply hacks security firm for job

Job application paper and pen

Well, this is certainly a memorable job application! In 2010, a hacker attempted to threaten the Marriott International Corporation security firm into giving him a job.

26-year-old Attila Nemeth, from Hungary, transmitted a malicious code to the company’s computer network. He then threatened to reveal confidential information if they did not offer him a job maintaining their computers.

Unfortunately for Nemeth, Marriott was having none of this malicious and frankly weird hacking. They responded to the security threat by creating a fake employee account, which the U.S. secret service used to flush out Nemeth.

Nemeth responded enthusiastically to the fake account, even sending a copy of his passport as ID. Marriott then booked him a flight so he could come for an interview — except, in reality, the interviewer was actually a Secret Service agent, who wanted to find out more about Nemeth and how he hacked the Marriott system. He was detained soon after. Head over to Forbes for the full story.

5. News Trolling: Tupac and Biggie Smalls Are Alive

Waxworks of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls at Madame Tussauds

In 2011, PBS NewsHour reported that the rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were both alive and well, in fact living in a small New Zealand town for many years. A lot of people thought this was a weird claim, seeing as both artists had died in the 1990s.

As it turns out, hacking group LulzSec claimed responsibility for infiltrating the PBS page and then posting the story. Apparently, this was a protest move in response to a PBS documentary about WikiLeaks.

This weird hacking revelation didn’t stop a lot of the ‘Tupac is alive’ conspiracy theories, the latest of which claims he is living in Cuba.

6. “Davey Cameron is a pie” – Jeremy Corbyn reveals his true thoughts

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is noteworthy for refusing to fling insults at his rivals, but this all changed one day in January 2016, on his Twitter account. A series of out-of-the-ordinary tweets informed the world that Corbyn really thinks “Davey Cameron is a pie”, clearly an insult of the highest order. He didn’t have anything nice to say about the Trident nuclear weapons programme either.

However, eagle-eyed followers soon realised these weren’t regular Corbyn tweets. The informality of the tweets, one of which included three exclamation marks, was enough to tip off most that someone had hacked the party leader’s twitter account—not to mention the considerably blue language being slung left, right and centre.

The Corbyn team quickly took back control of the account and deleted the tweets, but not before people had retweeted them hundreds of times. Well played, hacker, well played.

7. When Captain Crunch asked Richard Nixon for Toilet Paper

President Nixon with his edited transcripts of the White House Tapes subpoenaed by the Special Prosecutor, during his speech to the Nation on Watergate

Even before the Internet was a thing, political leaders were at risk of trolling. In the 1970s, computer programmer John Draper discovered that recreating the correct frequency of sound meant you could hack tone dial phones to make free long-distance calls. This type of hacking was soon nicknamed ‘phreaking’, and Draper found himself to be very good at it.

Using phone manuals with tips on tone frequencies, Draper figured out he could use a whistle from a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal to mimic a range of tones. He even managed to phreak Richard Nixon, and, in the tradition of funny and weird hacking, asked him to fetch some toilet paper for a public restroom as it had run out. We can only imagine the president’s flabbergasted response.

Draper, known as Captain Crunch, was eventually caught and served time for phreaking—an honourable predecessor to the weird hacking online to follow it. Prison wasn’t a totally bad time for Draper; he programmed the Apple II computer from his cell.

8. GODZILLA ATTACK – TURN BACK!

Godzilla

As it turns out, the Internet of Things isn’t safe from hacking either. Where there’s a connection, there’s a way. Hackers proved this to amusing effect in 2014, when a group worked out how to hack electronic road signs in the San Francisco area.

They programmed some of the signs to read ‘GODZILLA ATTACK – TURN BACK!’ Nobody was fooled enough to panic and turn around, but the signs did cause a lot of bemusement.

9. Telegraph Hack, 1903

British Post Office engineers inspect Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraphy (radio) equipment in 1897

Let’s take weird hacking back to its origins for this last entry. In 1903, the Royal Academy of Sciences was preparing to demonstrate a long-distance, wireless telegraph message between Cornwall and London. Orchestrating the call, 300 miles away from London, was Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor and radio pioneer.

Just as the demonstration was about to begin, the eager gathering in London started receiving some unexpected messages. At first the word ‘Rats’ was repeated over and over, then they were treated to a rhyme: ‘There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily‘.

These messages were from a mischievous interceptor, fellow wireless telegraph technician Nevil Maskelyne. According to The Atlantic, Maskelyne was hired by the Eastern Telegraph Company, who felt insecure about the newly introduced wireless technology. Maskelyne certainly made the point that Marconi’s wireless telegraph was not the most private and secure mode of communication.

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