Captain Zap and the First Cybercrime

In recent years, data breaches and cybercrimes have been in the news quite frequently. From the CAM4 data breach in 2020, during which the sensitive information of over 10 billion records was hacked, to the Ashley Madison breach in 2015 when the information of 32 million users was compromised, data security and cybercrimes are things that are constantly on the minds of internet users everywhere.

But hacking is not a novel concept. In fact, the very first recorded “hack” happened all the way back in 1834, when two thieves managed to hack into the French Telegraph system, and stole financial marketing information.

Long before the advent of the internet, hackers were figuring out ways to steal information or financial gain through telephone lines. These “Phone Phreaks” as they would eventually be called, figured out that the American telephone system functioned through certain tones and pitches. Phone Phreaks learned that if they could replicate these tones, they could access the American telephone system for their own gain. Even Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs fancied themselves Phone Phreaks, says Robert Herjavec.

The very first “Phone Phreak” was a blind, seven-year-old boy named Joe Engressia, who was blessed with perfect pitch. In 1957, he heard a high-pitched tone coming through a phone line and eventually figured out that if he replicated this pitch through whistling, he could communicate with the US’s phone lines.

Though today, we would definitely consider these phone phreaks to be cybercriminals, at the time, there was no law against it, so there was nothing they could be charged with. So who was the first person ever charged and convicted of cybercrime?

Captain Zap

Today, Ian Murphy runs a successful cybersecurity business where, among other things, he helps companies determine their security risks by hacking into their systems and helps them guard against potential data breaches.

In 1981, however, Murphy was a young man about to be arrested and become the first person ever charged for a cybercrime.

Flashback about 18 months. Murphy, at the time going by the moniker Captain Zap, managed to hack into AT&T phone lines and rearrange their internal clocks. 

In the 80s, you were charged based on when you used your phone line and how often. During peak hours, the charges were higher, while during late-night hours, phone users received a discount. According to HackStory, when Captain Zap broke through AT&T’s almost non-existent security measures and rearranged their internal clocks, the result was that people who made phone calls during peak hours received massive discounts, while those who waited until midnight or later to make their calls ended up with massive phone bills.

Captain Zap was tried and convicted for the cybercrime and received 1,000 hours of community service as well as two-and-a-half years of probation. A paltry sentence compared to what he would have received today. The 1992 crime comedy film Sneakers was inspired by Captain Zap’s crime.

In 1984, three years after Zap’s conviction, a computer fraud law was included in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Two years after that, the initial law was amended to include the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Cybersecurity has never been more important than it is right now. It seems almost monthly there are news articles about data breaches taking place and sensitive information being leaked onto the Dark Web or the greater internet at large. 

So if you’re running an online business or website, it’s imperative that you have comprehensive cybersecurity set up in order to protect your information as well as that of your customers from potential data breaches and other cybercrimes.