Dec 292011

Paul Marks has a fascinating article at The New Scientist about an old example of hacking.

LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. At first, it spelled out just one word repeated over and over. Then it changed into a facetious poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Their demonstration had been hacked – and this was more than 100 years before the mischief playing out on the internet today. Who was the Royal Institution hacker? How did the cheeky messages get there? And why?

There are a lot of lessons in this tale of use for us today.

A key one highlighted by the article is the importance of hacking in innovation.  Marconi had thought his radio system was secure.  Turns out he was wrong.

Marconi had patented a technology for tuning a wireless transmitter to broadcast on a precise wavelength. This tuning, Marconi claimed, meant confidential channels could be set up. Anyone who tunes in to a radio station will know that’s not true, but it wasn’t nearly so obvious back then. Maskelyne showed that by using an untuned broadband receiver he could listen in.

Would society have benefited from use of a technology that its creator insisted was secure but apparently wasn’t?  Of course not.  But is it reasonable for society to expect the innovator to expose all of the technology’s achilles heels?  Of course not again.  Hackers thus form a sort of necessary peer review, putting technology through its paces to make sure it can stand up as advertised.  It does no one any good for this vetting not to take place — or, worse, to criminalize it! — and make the oblivious public vulnerable to exploits that are obviously there, whether anyone ever gets to publicly discuss them or not.

In this instance Marconi accused his hacker of professional jealousy and malice, and he may have been right.

[The hacker] was Nevil Maskelyne, a mustachioed 39-year-old British music hall magician. Maskelyne came from an inventive family – his father came up with the coin-activated “spend-a-penny” locks in pay toilets. Maskelyne, however, was more interested in wireless technology, so taught himself the principles. He would use Morse code in “mind-reading” magic tricks to secretly communicate with a stooge. He worked out how to use a spark-gap transmitter to remotely ignite gunpowder. And in 1900, Maskelyne sent wireless messages between a ground station and a balloon 10 miles away. But, as author Sungook Hong relates in the book Wireless, his ambitions were frustrated by Marconi’s broad patents, leaving him embittered towards the Italian. Maskelyne would soon find a way to vent his spleen.

But it hardly makes a difference what his feelings toward Marconi were: bottom line, the technology was vulnerable.  It was, of course, also valuable, even with these vulnerabilities, but surely it could be even more valuable if others could contribute their improvements.  As the article notes, however, this was difficult, thanks to Marconi’s “broad patents.”

Anyone who has ever watched or read any of James Burke’s work knows that innovation does not happen in a vacuum.  It is built on that which has gone before.  But law has a way of creating artificial vacuums, boxing out further innovations through intellectual property controls and prohibitions against hacking.  It is worth considering whether doing so is truly effective.  As the saying goes, “two heads are better than one.”  The contributions of many of course will be greater than the contributions of just one.  Rather than forbidding it, the law should instead be encouraging that sort of collaboration; further innovation depends on it.

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