< The Gentleman Hacker of 1903

Transcript

Friday, January 13, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

We've spent a fair amount of time on this show talking about the Anti-sec movement, the hacker community that releases information lifted from supposedly secure sites, in order to expose security lapses before those lapses are exploited by actors with truly sinister motives. One such, Nevil Maskelyne, who took on the world's most cutting edge communications technology and exposed its back doors on the very day it was introduced to the public. This took place not at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but in the lecture hall of London's Royal Institution in 1903. Yes,  Maskelyne, a magician and inventor, was a proto hacker who 109 years ago made a spectacle of Guglielmo Marconi’s introduction of the wireless telegraph. Marconi’s assistant Ambrose Fleming was performing that demo and, as Paul Marks of New Scientist explains, it was supposed to be the unveiling of a technological miracle.

PAUL MARKS:

The idea was that Ambrose Fleming would receive wireless messages relayed from Cornwall 300 miles away, and they would be read to the audience and they would be a marvel because they would arrive without having come over the wires that everybody knew were needed for telegrams.

BOB GARFIELD:

And then what happened?

PAUL MARKS:

Marconi claimed that nobody else could listen in to the Morse Code being transmitted. But just before Fleming’s demonstration was due to start, one of his assistants heard a strange ticking sound, Morse Code, that was saying the word “rats” over and over again.

[BOB LAUGHS]

And then it got to a little ditty that the  attackers, [LAUGHS] if you want to call them attackers, had put together, which said, “There was a young fellow of Italy who diddled the the public quite prettily.” The point being made that was that actually anyone could tune in to the same frequencies, broadcast on them and get in there.

BOB GARFIELD:

Like having a police scanner or me going on to Gmail using the wireless signal from my neighbor’s router.

PAUL MARKS:

Yep. The guy who had set this up, Nevil Maskelyne, had done so at the behest of the cable telegram industry, which was completely beside itself at the thought that it was about to lose its monopoly. They ran global flotillas of cable ships to lay cable around the oceans to connect the world, and they didn't want this Marconi upstart coming along and pulling their business from under them.

BOB GARFIELD:

This gets to the questions of Nevil Maskelyne’s motives. Maskelyne had some malice behind his actions, no?

PAUL MARKS:

Not exactly. He was demonstrating a genuine security failing of wireless telegraphy, and that was that anybody could tune into it and transmit their own messages or intercept somebody else's messages. Marconi, rather foolishly, denied that that was possible. And it was only Marconi’s insistence that it was secure that had Maskelyne putting together a system to prove otherwise, though lots of people do that these days. They break into a bank security system just to prove that there's something wrong with it. And in some ways, Maskelyne did a pretty good public service.

BOB GARFIELD:

Didn’t Maskelyne have an ongoing beef with Marconi about Marconi’s patent control of certain technology that was interfering in Maskelyne going about his business as a fake mentalist?

PAUL MARKS:

[LAUGHS] Maskelyne was trying to do his own thing by pioneering various forms of radio technology, but he couldn't implement his own ideas and develop his own technology because Marconi had some basic patents that froze him out. He was certainly embittered towards him, let’s put it that way.

BOB GARFIELD:

So he gets this dream [LAUGHS] opportunity to make a fool of his nemesis. What happened that day to Marconi and his business?

PAUL MARKS:

Well, nothing immediately happened because the audience were unaware of it. But what happened was Ambrose Fleming was very upset that a demonstration in this hallowed hall of technology and science had somehow been impugned, and he wrote a letter to The Times demanding that the readers tell him if they knew who had done it.

And a few days later, Maskelyne writes to The Times, gleefully confessing that he did it and that he did so for the good of the public, because if they start sending their telegrams wirelessly, anybody can read them.

BOB GARFIELD:

So Fleming, who was the physicist and Marconi’s employee, actually outed the event for the security lapse that it was.

PAUL MARKS:

He did, indeed.  If he had kept quiet, it would have stayed among the experts and engineers. But the Royal Institution is almost a holy venue, if you can have such a thing in science. Ambrose Fleming was just outraged. He called it “scientific hooliganism” to interrupt any kind of demonstration.

BOB GARFIELD:

This took place in 1903. What was the course of wireless telegraphy? When did it become a  practical application?

PAUL MARKS:

It already was, short range. Its major application was ship to shore. As ships came up to the western approaches of England, they would radio to shore and say, I’ve crossed the Atlantic safely, I have a load of coal,  whatever.

After Marconi showed he could do the trans-Atlantic broadcast in 1901, a lot of people didn't believe him basically, so he went on a program of public demonstrations, which started with this one in 1903.

BOB GARFIELD:

But the inherent security flaws that Maskelyne revealed in 1903 didn't immediately go away. When was that problem solved?

PAUL MARKS:

That problem was solved by coding messages so that people couldn't intercept them. The Nazis seized the Enigma machine and, as you know, that caused enormous problems until it was broken by some brilliant mathematicians and physicists who worked out how you could build a machine that would decode the rotor settings of Enigma.

BOB GARFIELD:

So I glibly, to begin this conversation, compared Nevil Maskelyne to the Anti-sec movement.  Is that fair?

PAUL MARKS:

In exposing major security holes in a technology the public depended upon, Maskelyne was very much a forebearer of what we see today.

BOB GARFIELD:

He did it just for the Edwardian lulz.

PAUL MARKS:

I think he did, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD:

Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL MARKS:

Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Paul Marks wrote about Nevil Maskelyne and Guglielmo Marconi in the Christmas issue of New Scientist.