Throwback Attack: The Marconi wireless hack of 1903

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Courtesy: Brett Sayles

Sometimes the gap between the unveiling of a life-altering new technology and the corruption of that technology is exceedingly small. Take, for example, wireless technology, a potent attack vector in modern times. It’s also something we’ve come to rely on as part and parcel of our everyday existence. How would we make a dinner reservation, know when our next meeting is or figure out when the Magna Carta was signed without our ubiquitous wireless devices, never more than a pocket or purse away?

But the inventor of wireless technology, Guglielmo Marconi, didn’t even make it through the initial public demonstration of his new wonder before it became clear security was going to be a concern. In other words, hacking wireless technology is essentially as old as the technology itself.

The first wireless hack

Most people think of cybercrime and hacking as a modern phenomenon, but its provenance actually dates all the way back to June 4, 1903, in London. That’s when Marconi, generally considered the father of modern radio technology, was holding a very important test of his new wireless system, which he claimed could securely send messages over long distances without the inconvenience of a wire.

For his demonstration, Marconi was transmitting from a cliff in Poldhu, Cornwall. His plan was to wirelessly send a message some 300 miles to his colleague, physicist John Ambrose Fleming, who was stationed at the Royal Institute of London’s famous lecture theater. The version of wireless technology Marconi was using operated much like a telegraph, in a point-to-point system.

Just as the demonstration was about to begin, however, something strange happened. Someone – not Marconi – began sending powerful wireless signals into the theater. The projector Fleming was using flickered, and the Morse code printer sparked to life, spitting out one word repeatedly: “Rats.” It then followed with an insulting limerick designed to taunt Marconi – “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily” – and some rude Shakespearean verses.

This was a very public humiliation for Marconi, who had boasted his wireless telegraphy would be completely private and totally secure thanks to the use of a tuned system. Clearly, it was not.

Marconi’s deception

Marconi’s technological wonder, because it was so similar in function to the telegraph, had made wired telegraph companies nervous. They rightfully feared wireless transmission would cut into their business. After learning of Marconi’s demonstrations, a rival telegraph company enlisted the services of one of Marconi’s rivals, an inventor, magician and general ne’er-do-well named Nevil Maskelyne.

According to an article on the matter on “[Maskelyne] was the manager of a rival wireless company and had been involved in a number of disputes with Marconi over the patents that covered wireless telegraphy systems. He decided that the most effective way to show that Marconi’s claims were hollow was a practical demonstration.”

Marconi’s theory was because his system worked with a tuned signal, the only way it could be interfered with is if someone were using the same frequency. Maskelyne was unconvinced by Marconi’s assurances, so he set up a transmitter not far from where Fleming was giving his lecture. From there, he sent his own Morse signal, hoping to interfere with Marconi’s messages from Cornwall.

“His plan worked,” wrote “Towards the end of the lecture, Maskelyne’s signals were picked up by the receiver, decoded and noted by Fleming, who wrote to the Times complaining of ‘Scientific Hooliganism.’”

It turned out the receiver Marconi and Fleming were using was not, as they claimed, tuned to a specific frequency because that type of receiver would have been too large to use for the demonstration. Marconi’s small deception gave Maskelyne exactly the window he was looking for.

Security concerns

There wasn’t much mystery behind the threat actor in this early case. Maskelyne happily claimed credit for his work, writing papers bragging about his exploits. He and Marconi also staged a public relations battle in the press, writing letters arguing about the true cause of the interference.

Maskelyne said he disrupted the presentation for the public good, to prove wireless messages could be intercepted and, despite Marconi’s claims, radio transmission was not secure and private. Researchers soon began exploring how wireless signals could be manipulated and interfered with, which ultimately led to the wireless encryption systems used in World War I and World War II.

Maskelyne’s work had little impact on Marconi’s career, other than an imparting a little public embarrassment. Marconi is still known as the father of modern radio and, in 1909, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun for their “contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.”

Maskelyne is probably best remembered for his career as a magician and went on to write several seminal books on the topic. However, if his words can be taken at face value, he was also one of the first ethical hackers. He found a vulnerability in Marconi’s system and raised legitimate concerns about the privacy of wireless telegraphy – concerns that are still relevant to this day.

In the trade journal The Electrician, Maskelyne summed up his position perfectly: “In conclusion, I can only say that, however much or however little the interferences may have proved, the facts above mentioned prove a very great deal. Personally, I am quite satisfied with the results obtained. And when it is complained that my action in the matter resembles ‘getting in at the back door;’ I merely rejoin that the fault lies with those who had not left the front door open.”




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