With the large-scale rise of commercially-available computers into and through the 1980s, millions of people across the globe were getting connected to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) as the primary medium of communication. There were many who simply sought information and file sharing, and there were many more who used them for public and private communication. Lurking behind all of this, there was, of course, a growing population of early hackers who sought to mess with normal users for comedic or malevolent purposes. Eventually, even some of these users would find their way into online communities where they would exchange techniques and source codes they had developed or taken themselves.
One such online community was Futile Frontier, a somewhat later BBS that operated from 1992 to 1996. Futile Frontier was a BBS led by the user Jay at 215-943-1309, and it was based in my hometown of Levittown, PA. Though visual observations are hard to find today, Jay himself provides a brief description of the board, at one point stating, “you had to get special access to know it even had a hacker side to it.” Once a user found their way beyond this facade, they had access to “the largest collection of virus source code available at the time…for about 18000+ viruses”. Jay even goes on to note that the board had regular international visitors as well. Clearly, the steady march of computer processing power and availability advancements played a major role in the development of a BBS of this scale in the mid 1990s. However, cultural recognition and, to a lesser degree, acceptance of hacking and viruses as a part of computer usage throughout the 1980s also bore a large contribution, especially within Pennsylvania collegiate communities.
Movies as early as WarGames (1983) present the computer whiz hacker as a teenager or young adult. While this certainly does not represent the whole spectrum of hackers, it is true that many seemed to be younger. It seems that American colleges, especially more prestigious universities, often kept pace with computer development and offered their students and faculty access to computers and networks that might otherwise be unattainable. Ironically, colleges seemed to become a common victim of viruses and hacking as a result of both their connectedness and production of young, tech-savvy minds. This is apparent in an October 1988 article from The Daily Collegian, a college press founded in 1940 and based in University Park, PA. On the opinion page, there is a sizable space dedicated to “Pranks” underneath some political commentary of the time. Upon closer inspection, the section turns out to be a rant against the rampant prank calling occurring on and around the campus. In an effort to stop the prank calls, university police found that the callers were likely gaining the communication information of their victims by using the BBS of the university, possibly reaching areas of prohibited access as well. Although these shenanigans were relatively harmless, they did seem to prompt the institution to create additional security measures, which can be seen by looking at another The Daily Collegian article printed almost exactly one year later.
In this October 12, 1989 edition of The Daily Collegian, both computer viruses and BBSs are mentioned on the front page. In particular, the article mentions the Datacrime-II virus, also known as the “Friday the 13th” virus. The German-developed virus made national news and there were legitimate concerns about files becoming damaged or deleted upon its activation. Those who had accessed and copied files from BBSs had a heightened risk of having accidentally downloaded the virus. PSU, however, showed minimal concerns about the virus and its effects. Upon learning about the virus, they made the SCANV38 program developed by John McAfee available on their mainframe system. This program was capable of scanning for and detecting numerous viruses and virus variations, the Datacrime-II being among them. In other words, PSU was taking active measures against viruses and hacking attempts as early as 1989, and they are but one of the many colleges likely doing the same at that time.
Ongoing security developments such as McAfee’s SCANV38 through the mid- and late-1980s pushed hackers to develop more complicated viruses, and the entire process could be described as a small arms-race that continues to this day. These security advancements also played a part in the covert collaboration of hackers in BBSs such as Futile Frontier. Whenever new and successful source code was developed, it could quickly and secretly be distributed to other hackers across the globe who could then make their own modifications. Thus, it is not surprising that a BBS like Futile Frontier, a safe haven for dedicated hackers, lasted as long or as late as it did.
Featured image by Jefferson Santos. Retrieved from unsplash.com.