Hacking the Airwaves

Exploiting Wireless Technology Since 1903

In the digital age, hacking tends to be thought of as a modern phenomenon with unauthorized users illegally gaining access to computer systems to steal anything from credit card numbers to sensitive personal data. The recent Sony hack being the most prominent. However, the first hackers got started with the advent of radio broadcasting.

The history of tapping into the airwaves to interfere with information dates back to 1903 when British inventor Nevil Maskelyne disrupted a demonstration of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s brand new long-range wireless Morse code communication system. Physicist John Ambrose Fleming led the lecture to show off the wonderful new machine. But before the presentation could begin, to Fleming’s surprise, the apparatus suddenly began spelling out a message accusing Marconi of “diddling the public.” Maskelyne had taken control of the machine by transmitting powerful radio signals to interfere with it, and with that he exposed what he knew to be a severe security flaw in the system. Fleming and Marconi had just become the first victims of hacking, long before the invention of the computer or the internet.


(From left to right: Maskelyne, Marconi, and Fleming. Participants in the first hacking incident.

Whether it be for good or for harm, to send a message, or simply to make people think “WTF?”, a well orchestrated hack can be a captivating story of what happens when society’s regular routines are disrupted.

The Max Headroom Incident

On November 22 1987, an unknown person managed to successfully interrupt and take control of Chicago television station WGN-TV’s evening news broadcast. During the broadcast, viewers watched as the screen went from highlights of the Chicago Bears to a black screen, followed by a video feed of a masked person in a suit muttering in a distorted voice. The station’s engineers managed to shut down the interruption shortly after it began, but the incident played itself out again later that evening on WTTW, another Chicago television station, when a broadcast of Doctor Who was interrupted by what appeared to be the same masked individual. Watch a recording of the event below:

WTTW stated that they were unable to stop the illegal broadcast takeover due to the high microwave signals that were used, and not having engineers available. The perpetrator(s) have never been caught or identified, and the incident remains unsolved. The cryptic broadcast has been analyzed for years, with many ideas floating around about why it was done.

Captain Midnight Takes Over HBO

A less cryptic broadcast signal interruption occurred nearly 2 years prior to the Max Headroom Incident, when HBO’s broadcast was hacked by “Captain Midnight”, an American electrical engineer and satellite television dealer named John R. MacDougall. MacDougall jammed the HBO signal to protest the station’s rising fees for satellite dish owners. Through their investigations, the FBI was able to identify MacDougall as the man responsible for the interruption. He ended up paying a $5000 fine and was placed on one-year probation. MacDougall still owns and operates his satellite dish dealership in Florida.

Getting Revenge On Rude Neighbours

Most people have had to deal with awful neighbours at some point. These three ingenious thinkers came up with some creative (and hilarious) ways to get back at their rude neighbours using technology.

Barnaby Jack Hacks ATMs, Pacemakers, Insulin Pumps

In 2010, a programmer, computer security expert, and hacker named Barnaby Jack made headlines when, at a computer security conference, he demonstrated the ability to hack into two ATM machines and exploit weaknesses in their programming to dispense all the cash inside the machines. Jack was also known for his ability to hack medical equipment, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps. In 2012 he demonstrated the capability of assassinating a victim by hacking a pacemaker, a seemingly far-fetched concept that was used on the TV series Homeland. Jack also planned on demonstrating software he developed that could remotely detect insulin pumps within 300 feet, and take control of their dosage levels. He died in 2013, just a week before his demonstration, when he was found dead at age 35 due to drug overdose. Conspiracy theorists insist he was murdered by the government or other powers due to his dangerous knowledge.

The Father of Modern Computer Science: Alan Turing

Alan Turing is arguably the most important hacker of all time. Turing played a pivotal role in World War II when he successfully built a computer that was able to decipher encrypted Nazi radio signals. It is estimated that the war was shortened by as many as two to four years due to Turing’s work, which remained highly classified for many years after the war’s end.

Pirate Radio Stations

As rock and roll exploded in the 1960’s, traditional and conservative music broadcasters like the BBC vehemently refused to play the new music despite the strong demand from younger generations and music fans. In 1964, Irish businessman and musician manager Ronan O’Rahilly responded to the BBC’s radio broadcasting monopoly by launching Radio Caroline, a pirate radio station that took over the airwaves from offshore on a boat in international waters, operating in a confusing sort of legal grey area. The 2009 film The Boat That Rocked stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and is based pirate radio station boats like Radio Caroline.