The First Cybercrime

 Take a wild guess? When do you think the first cybercrime was committed?

My personal thought process when asked this question was more or less as follows:

“If you’re putting it like that, it’s probably something super-unexpected. Let me think… Networking and the internet started around the early 70s. And cracking codes happened during WWII. So uhm… roughly around that same time, then? The 40s?”



“WHAT?! But computers didn’t even exist back then?”

Correct. But long-distance communication existed. Telegraph towers were used to send messages over long distances using semaphore (y’know, sending signals by making gestures with a little flag in each hand). And that could be messed with! Which is exactly what the Blanc brothers did in France between 1834 and 1836.

“But how?”

Alright. Here goes:

The Blanc brothers’ hack

In the 30s of the 1800s, the telegraph system was still in its infancy. Most information -including information on market movements and shares- was still sent by mail or with messengers. The Blanc brothers conceived the idea that they might gain themselves an advantage on the financial markets through the telegraph system.

“So how did they do that?”

They bribed a tower operator. This operator introduced “wrong signals” in the telegraph-messages and corrected them. The operator would perform the correction by following the wrong signal with the “backspace” signal. Because the message had to be passed between the towers quickly, both signals were sent along the entire route. It wasn’t until the destination station where the signals would be translated into the final message, that the wrong signals and backspace were removed.

The actual “hack”, then, was performed on one of the intermediate semaphore towers. The operator of this tower had no idea that a few miles away, an accomplice of the Blanc brothers was monitoring his tower with a telescope. This accomplice, a former tower operator, would pass the “wrong signals” (which could be recognized as it was followed by a backspace) on to the Blanc brothers. This way, the gentlemen got their financial information a lot faster than others in the same region. After all, communication using semaphore was a lot faster than waiting for the mail.

Pretty smart, right?

How the Blanc brothers got caught

 It took a few years before people found out what the Blanc brothers were doing. And even so, only because, on his deathbed, the operator that would originally introduce the wrong signals into the messages asked a friend to take over from him. That friend had a bit of a clearer conscience and warned the authorities.

The problem was; nobody had ever seen anything like this. Not a single law in existence prohibited what the Blanc brothers were doing here. Ultimately they went free and went on record to be the first that abused long-distance communications.

Good story, isn’t it?