The hacking scene is definitely not what it used to be. Though it seems hard to remember, there was a time before vulnerabilities were posted to mailing lists every day, you could sell exploits to corporations and hacking groups were being turned into security companies. There were few established laws restricting hacking and a simple Internet search returned a massive amount of detail on how to hack. It was a time when a few small groups of elite technology enthusiasts, driven largely by curiosity and mischief (vs. malicious) became some of the most notorious and powerful hackers of all time.
This was the era of groups like the Legion of Doom, the Cult of the Dead Cow, the Masters of Deception, the Chaos Computer Club, the P.H.I.R.M., the genesis of zines like Phrack and 2600, and the days when blowing a whistle found in a cereal box into a telephone receiver gave you control of a phone line.
In those days, communication between hackers was mostly over BBS and teleconferencing. Neophyte hackers would have to dial into a BBS that they happened to hear about and slowly worm their way into boards frequented by the “elite”. Eventually, they might have been invited onto private BBSs where the real hackers exchanged high profile hacks.
With the Internet still in its relative infancy, systems existed on a variety of networks that used differing protocols such as ARPANET, DECNet, and other custom and propriety networks. Many of the computers on these networks were mainframes, government computers, and telephone network systems – and they posed an extremely tempting and easy target for many hackers. Unlike the average compromise you read about today, compromises in those days gave hackers immense power, such as the ability to tap into the phone conversations of an entire network. Although back then, simply knowing the ins and outs of a specific operating system was often considered elite, compared to today’s hacker who typically must have extremely advanced technical skills to perform current exploits.
In the early 1980's, there still no laws established to deal with what would later become computer crimes such as hacking and phreaking. During this period, a large number of now infamous groups were forming. In 1984, the Legion of Doom (LOD) was founded and quickly trampolined to stardom in the hacking scene. They were notorious for their sophisticated hacks and in-depth technical knowledge, which was often obtained by breaking into computer systems and learning their every detail through trial and error. A rift in the group resulted in one member, Phiber Optik, jumping to a new group, Masters of Deception (MOD). In the resulting “war”, some in MOD suspected some LOD members were working for the FBI (which turned out to be true) and began turning over hackers. During this time, MOD is said to have controlled most major communication nodes, including Internet and telephone, in the entire state of Texas, where most of LOD were based.
In 1986, after numerous high profile computer crimes, the US government created a new law that would allow them to prosecute many of the suspected hackers. The first major arrest was of LOD’s the Mentor, who soon after became infamous for the release of the Hacker Manifesto in Phrack magazine. This small paper inspired hackers throughout the world and no doubt resulted in a surge of hacking activities.
After numerous arrests in the community over the years, many of these groups began to die off. However, this brief period saw some of the largest and most impressive hacks recorded, as well as the original incarnation of the computer hacker scene as we know it today. As brief as it is, the period is well worth researching and numerous publications have been made available regarding these groups, attacks, and hackers. Highlights include Cuckoo's Egg, Masters of Deception: The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace, The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick, Forbidden Secrets of the Legion of Doom Hackers, and The Watchmen.