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Editor's Note: Hacked!

In June 1903, an audience gathered at the Royal Academy of Sciences in London to witness a scientific marvel so outlandish it seemed magical. Guglielmo Marconi aimed to prove for the first time that wireless radio waves could be sent more than 300 miles, from Cornwall to London. Marconi further boasted that the communications carried with his device were immune to interception.

The technological feat, a message delivered in Morse code, was due to be delivered at the end of a lecture by John Ambrose Fleming. But before Fleming started speaking, the device constructed to receive the message came to life and began tapping out a single word over and over: rats.

The taunts escalated. As Paul Marks notes in his article, “Dot-Dash-Diss: The Gentleman Hacker’s 1903 Lulz,” for New Scientist, “The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: ‘There was a young fellow from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,’ it trilled. Further rude epithets—apposite lines from Shakespeare—followed.”

The prankster stopped transmitting just before the actual demonstration, which went exactly as planned. 

Four days later, in a letter to The Times, Nevil Maskelyne confessed to sending the messages. A magician by trade, as well as an inventor frustrated by Marconi’s patents, Maskelyne had already covertly intercepted messages sent to ocean vessels from Marconi’s on-shore transmitters. In an attempt to prove that Marconi’s device was not secure, he set up a transmitter at a West End music hall and perpetrated the world’s first confirmed hack.

Though mean-spirited, Maskelyne did hope to bring out the truth. As Alexis C. Madrigal explains in “The Great Wireless Hack of 1903,” published in The Atlantic, “...his trick had a point: radio was not as private a channel as Marconi had made it out to be. Wireless messages could be intercepted and interfered with. Like many good hacks, the mayhem had meaning.”

Unfortunately, today’s hackers do not always have such lofty goals. Because data breaches and theft of proprietary information occur every day, security professionals must prepare for these events and the subsequent investigations. This month’s cover story, “The Cyber Incident Survival Guide,” by Assistant Editor Megan Gates, explores the aftermath of a data breach and outlines what information law enforcement agencies will require to investigate.

According to Marks’s article, Fleming dubbed Maskelyne’s antics “scientific hooliganism.” Today’s hacks go beyond mere disruption. Significant losses in revenue, trade secrets, and public trust often follow a data breach, making today’s hacking incidents crimes rather than pranks. Modern hacking victims suffer far more embarrassment than a bad limerick, but protecting data and preparing for the aftermath of a breach can help mitigate even the most modern hack.