France created a national mechanical telegraph system in the 1790s; in 1834, a pair of crooked bankers named François and Joseph Blanc launched the first cyberattack, poisoning the data that went over the system in order to get a trading advantage in the bond market.
Tom Standage has a great stock-in-trade in this kind of story; his 1998 book The Victorian Internet was a fabulous look at the parallels between the telegraph bubble and the internet bubble of the late 1990s; his 2006 essay cataloged the predecessors of the moral panic over video games (like the waltz and the novel); he’s written about the great handwringing over the Facebook of the 17th century (cafe society); and his 2013 book The Writing on the Wall traces “the first 2,000 years of social media” (“from the papyrus letters that Roman statesmen used to exchange news across the Empire to the advent of hand-printed tracts of the Reformation to the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions”).
His essay on the first cyberattack is an excellent Standage riff, combining the technical (the crooks exploited a bug in how the backspace characters were handled by the mechanical telegraph) with the economic and social, and revealing lessons from history that bear close reading today.
All this holds lessons for us as we grapple with online mischief today. The first is to avoid complacency. Network intrusions (like that at Yahoo) often go unnoticed for many years, and many (if not most) may never be detected. Malware like WannaCry hits the headlines because its effects are so visible, but it gives an inaccurate picture of the scale of the cyber-security problem. Most attackers, like the Blancs, do not advertise their presence.
Second, regardless of the technology, security is like a chain and humans are always the weakest link. The French telegraph system looks hopelessly insecure to modern eyes, with its telegraph towers in plain sight. But its key weakness was the human failings of its users, something that remains true today. Focusing on security as a purely technological challenge misses an important part of the picture: it depends on setting the right social and economic incentives too.
Finally, network attacks do not just pre-date modern electronic networks – they are as old as networks themselves. The tale of the Blanc brothers is a reminder that with any new invention, people will always find a way to make malicious use of it. This is a timeless aspect of human nature, and is not something that technology can or should be expected to fix.