Top Information Security Breaches in History
Data security may seem like the battleground for computer hackers and digital pirates, but the safety of information has been a concern long before the online world made it a matter of leaked emails and weak passwords. In fact, ever since the dawn of spoken—and, in this case, written—language, the ability to intercept messages has led to both good and bad results for society at large. Today, most of our data is digital and at high risk of being hacked.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of some of history’s most memorable breaches of information security to share the legacy of the importance of protecting communications and its resounding impact over the years.
The Gunpowder Plot
Who: Guy Fawkes
When: November 5, 1605
What happened: It was an anonymous letter that spelled out an English Catholic group’s scheme to assassinate King James I of England using 36 barrels of gunpowder. After Guy Fawkes was found guarding the barrels under the House of Lords, a national holiday was born (Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night or Firework Night) in England, which, to this day, commemorates the failure of the plot.
Learn more: Traditionally, in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day, children roam the streets asking passersby for a “penny for the guy.” The funds raised are then used for the fireworks displays families enjoy on the holiday evening. Author T.S. Eliot memorialized this tradition in his 1927 poem, “The Hollow Men.”
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Who: Giacomo Casanova
What happened: Better known for his womanizing ways, Casanova was actually a spy for the Venetian Inquisitors of State. Casanova kept a diary of the gossip he gleaned while sleuthing, but he was eventually exiled from Venice for writing a vicious satire that ridiculed the Venetian nobility.
Learn more: Casanova’s original 3,700-page manuscript has a home today in France’s National Library, which acquired it in 2010 from an anonymous donor. The original barely survived World War II, when German publisher Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, who owned it at the time, found it miraculously intact after a bomb destroyed his Leipzig offices.
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The Midnight Ride
Who: Paul Revere
When: April 18, 1775
What happened: There’s no denying the importance of Revere’s famous midnight ride with fellow Patriots William Dawes and Samuel Prescott between Boston and Concord in 1775. After Massachusetts Provincial Congress leader Joseph Warren received intelligence that British General Thomas Gage was ordered to march his troops to Lexington and Concord and imprison the rebellion’s leaders—specifically, Samuel Adams and John Hancock—Revere and Dawes set out to warn the colonists, allowing both the Patriot army’s leaders and the colonists’ stockpile of weapons to disappear long before the British troops’ arrival.
Did you know? You can visit the house from which Paul Revere left for his Midnight Ride, now downtown Boston’s oldest building.
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West Point Secrets
Who: Benedict Arnold
When: April–September 1780
What happened: Long regarded one of the most notorious spies in American history, Benedict Arnold attempted to sell secrets to the British regarding American troop movements and gain access to the fort at West Point—a plan that surfaced with the arrest of Major John Andre, the British general’s spy chief, after a secret meeting with Arnold. Andre had been given the plans for West Point, and Arnold was forced to flee before General George Washington’s forces captured him.
Learn more: Before turning traitor, Benedict Arnold was an ardent patriot, and was known as “America’s Hannibal” for his success in leading over 1,000 troops through the harsh Maine wilderness in a campaign against Quebec at General Washington’s request.
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The Enigma Machine
Who: Polish Cipher Bureau
When: December 1932
What happened: The Polish government’s cryptography agency decoded the cipher for Germany’s early Enigma machines—mechanical encryption devices widely used by the German military in the run-up to World War II. The intelligence gleaned through the decryption techniques (code-named “Ultra” by British code-breakers) is believed to have hastened the end of the war by nearly two years, and was credited by Winston Churchill as one of the key elements in winning the war.
Learn more: In Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel From Russia, with Love—the fifth installment of his James Bond series—the “Spektor Code Machine” intercepts and decrypts Russian communications for James Bond’s MI6 allies. The machine was based on the ciphers for the Enigma machines used during World War II.
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Soviet Union Spies
Who: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
What happened: After U.S. citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg passed thousands of documents—including designs for aircraft and an atomic bomb—to the Communists over several years, the couple was implicated by Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, a former machinist at the U.S. Nuclear Development department at Los Alamos. Their arrest was one of the biggest sparks in the bonfire of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into anti-American activities during the 1950s.
The price they paid: The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed on June 19, 1953, the first civilians executed for espionage in U.S. history.
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The Watergate Scandal
Who: Mark Felt, also known as “Deep Throat”
What happened: Following one of the best-known information leaks in history, former U.S. President Richard Nixon was forced out of office because of his involvement in the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The FBI connected cash found on the burglars to a reserve fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a fundraising group for the Nixon campaign. Details regarding the scandal—and the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover it up—eventually saw the light of day due to anonymous sources leaking information to the media, including one official nicknamed “Deep Throat” who was only recently identified as former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt. Chief among the evidence against Nixon and his administration was a series of tape recordings from the Office of the President that he was forced to hand over. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
Learn more: The famous Watergate Complex where the burglary occurred has undergone a number of renovations over the years. In 2012, the developers of the Watergate Office Building announced plans for a facelift that will “restore Watergate to its glory days.” The Watergate Hotel has been closed since 2007, undergoing a $70 million renovation that developers hope to see finished by 2013.
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The Iran-Contra Affair
Who: Mehdi Hashemi
When: November 1986
What happened: This international political scandal was initially exposed by Iranian Shia cleric Mehdi Hashemi, who leaked information about the Iranian government’s involvement in a weapons-for-hostages deal with the U.S. The arrangement between the two governments—which was prohibited by both U.S. and Iranian law—was revealed in November 1986, and infamously resulted in National Security Council staff member Oliver North shredding piles of documents that implicated himself, his staff and possibly President Ronald Reagan.
Learn more: In 1987, Mehdi Hashemi was executed in Iran, allegedly for activities unrelated to the scandal. Some find the coincidence of Hashemi’s leak and the subsequent prosecution highly suspicious, since he made a videotaped confession admitting to numerous charges.
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The X-Men Origins: Wolverine Leak
Who: Gilberto Sanchez
When: March 31, 2009
What happened: Hugh Jackman fans received an unexpected treat when an unfinished version of the movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine found its way online before its official release. The studio estimated that the film was downloaded more than 4.5 million times before it hit theaters, and the leak continues to be held up as one of the most prominent—and allegedly damaging—examples of media piracy in recent years.
Learn more: The film opened at the top of the box office, and has grossed $179 million in the U.S. and Canada and more than $373 million worldwide. A sequel titled The Wolverine is set for release in July 2013.
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WikiLeaks and the Iraq War Logs
When: April–October 2010
What happened: The whistle-blowing site, launched in 2006, found itself in the American media spotlight when it released a series of leaked government documents and classified video from the Iraq War that showed journalists being fired upon by military forces, among other incriminating files. The Pentagon later referred to the leak of the “Iraq War Logs” as “the largest leak of classified documents in its history.”
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The Stuxnet Virus
What happened: An aggressive computer virus created to hinder the development of Iran’s nuclear power program, Stuxnet spreads via Microsoft Windows and targets Siemens industrial software and equipment. Reports have pegged the destructive program as the product of a joint U.S.-Israeli intelligence operation, and the virus’s release has been described as one of the most significant large-scale breaches in recent history due to its effect on real-world systems.
The plot thickens: In May 2012, Russian antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab discovered that the new malware Flame has a strong relationship to Stuxnet after analyzing its code.
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The Gawker Media Hack
When: December 2010
What happened: The email addresses and passwords for more than 1.3 million readers of Gawker Media’s websites—including Gawker, Gizmodo and Lifehacker—were compromised in this breach. A hacker group calling itself Gnosis claimed responsibility for the incident, which resulted in millions of accounts on other networks being hijacked due to people using the same password for multiple sites (sound familiar?). Along with stealing the user data, the group also managed to snag the source code for Gawker’s proprietary content management system, leading to a major (and likely expensive) overhaul in the period following the attack.
The aftermath: As of March 23, 2012, it became mandatory to sign in to any Gawker site using a Twitter, Facebook or Google account. But that’s not affecting their fan base: Gawker Media has 17.9 million monthly readers, 910,000 Twitter followers and 1.1 million Facebook fans.
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The Sony PlayStation Network Breach
Who: Unknown hackers
When: April 2011
What happened: Gamers everywhere were disappointed when more than 77 million of Sony’s PlayStation Network accounts were hacked in this attack that has been widely regarded as one of the worst breaches of all time in gaming network security. The network was down for more than a month, and the breach resulted in the leak of more than 12 million credit card numbers as well as millions of email addresses, passwords, home addresses and other data stored in the Sony PlayStation Network database.
Looking forward: PlayStation Mobile is an upcoming software framework that will be used to provide downloadable PlayStation content for devices that currently run Android 2.3 and meet specific unannounced hardware requirements. The Open Beta version of the software was released April 19, 2012.
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WikiLeaks and the Syria Files
When: July 2012
What happened: More than 2.4 million private emails to and from political figures in Syria found their way online thanks to WikiLeaks, which is now working to translate the confidential messages into various languages. Hacktivist group Anonymous claimed to have played a significant role in obtaining the emails, which is one of the site’s largest collections of leaked documents so far. The emails, which were sent between August 2006 and March 2012, include messages from within the Syrian ministries of Presidential Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Information and Transport.
Undercover report: CNN’s Special Investigations reporters took an undercover look at Anonymous when the group became involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. CNN’s Amber Lyon said that some of those “anons” are calling for a full-out revolution here in the U.S., similar to those seen in the Middle East and North Africa.
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The KT Corporation Hack
Who: Unknown hackers
When: February–July 2012
What happened: One of the most wired countries in the world fell prey to a massive theft of digital data this year when two men allegedly stole user information from more than 8 million KT mobile phone subscribers in South Korea. The hackers sold the data to various marketing companies, which reportedly used the information to solicit subscribers and convince them to switch service providers.
Learn more: In August 2012, South Korea’s network carriers became the world’s first VoLTE providers when they announced plans to offer Voice over LTE (Long Term Evolution) services. Call quality is about 40% improved over that offered on a 3G network; this is achieved by using a wider bandwidth to pick up lower and higher sound frequencies.
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As history has clearly demonstrated, there has always been a need for skilled professionals to maintain the safety of sensitive information and to counteract security breaches. And in today’s world, that need is greater than ever, especially in the realm of cyber security. Jobs in cyber security are growing at one of the fastest rates in the country, more so than most other career fields. It’s a great time to explore a career in cyber security, and perhaps the positive job outlook will help change the course of history in the years to come.