TV hacking incident

Hacking Is Nothing New: Recalling The 1987 ‘Max Headroom’ Incident [Videos]

Most people believe that hacking, or illegal access to a computer system, is something reasonably new. Well, it’s not. If you were born in the 1980s, you probably don’t remember the TV character Max Headroom, who was used by what was quite likely the very first hacker — except he hacked into a TV station, not a computer.

These days hacking involves someone gaining access to a computer system, either to get information or to cause damage and mischief. Back in 1987, no one had really heard of the term “hacking” until the infamous Max Headroom incident, which, according to Motherboard, is still the creepiest TV hack ever.

The first occurrence happened at 9:14 p.m. on November 22, 1987, during the regularly scheduled programming on WGN Chicago, an Illinois news station.

While the presenter was talking, there was suddenly an interruption — the screen went black and hissing, strange sounds were heard. The picture then materialized into a strange figure wearing a mask who bounced around in front of a corrugated iron background.

Before the figure could do anything else, however, technicians at WGN managed to switch the signal back and returned to the local news, with the presenter laughing and apologizing for the interruption. Watch the first incident in the video below.

The problem appeared to have been solved, until around two hours later, when the TV show Dr. Who (yes, it was on TV that far back and more) was being screened on the Chicago area PBS affiliate, WTTW-11. The same eerie, masked figure appeared on the screen but this time, instead of just a hissing noise, there was garbled audio.

The hacking attack lasted for over one minute and twenty seconds, and locals got to hear peculiar cackling and laughter, accompanied by almost unintelligible speech from the masked invader. In the video below, the uploader has tried as best he could to translate the rambling speech and has provided sub-titles.

The video continued with the masked character saying he had “been caught” and he then flashed to his bare buttocks, which a mysterious woman began to swat with a fly-swatter. Warning, there is a little nudity in the video below.

The hacking incident quickly gained a lot of attention and a federal search was launched for the culprits, but almost 30 years later the culprits have still not been found.

According to Atlas Obscura, the mask worn by the hacker in the video is likely a crude representation of a character from the science fiction series, Max Headroom. That show involved a computer-generated TV journalist by the name of Max Headroom who reported the news from a dystopian future, dominated by the large media corporations.

The reference to “catch the wave” appears to relate to a Coca-Cola advert and the use of the corrugated iron background was reportedly the hacker’s attempt at recreating the background from the Max Headroom broadcasts.

While the culprits have never actually been caught, back in 2010, a reddit user by the name of “bpoag” gave some information about the Max Headroom hacking incident on an Ask Me Anything thread. According to bpoag, he hails from the suburbs of Chicago and was an avid “phreaker” back in the 1980s.

The reddit user explained in the thread that phreaking is “the art and science of manipulating telephone networks and the systems which live on them.” From that piece of information, it is evident that the Max Headroom incident was a precursor to computer hacking as know it today.

TV hacking incident
[Image via Flickr by Televisione Streaming/CC BY 2.0]
According to bpoag, who asked Atlas Obscura not to reveal his real name, he was involved with a group of phreakers in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange. He said the de facto leaders of that group were two brothers in their early 30s, which he named as “J” and “K” to protect their identities.

Visiting the reddit Ask Me Anything thread now shows that reportedly “J” and “K” have since been cleared of any involvement. However bpoag, who was only 13-years-old at the time of the hacking incident, was told by the two brothers that they were going to do something “big” over the coming weekend and they later told him to tune into channel 11 on the night of November 22.

The phreaker went on to say that it was relatively simple to pull off the actual “hack” and that it didn’t require any advanced or technical equipment besides that already owned by the phreaking community. He wrote: “All that had to be done, apparently, was to provide a signal to the dish that was of a greater power than the legitimate one.”

When bpoag was asked the motivations for the hacking incident, the phreaker said it was similar to a public service announcement that only lasted long enough to get its point across. He said the point was to show how woefully unprotected the airwaves were and how easy they were to exploit.

The Max Headroom hacking incident happened a few years before the World Wide Web was made available to the public and long before the words “trolling” and “hacking” were to become normal, everyday experiences.

Audiences who were subjected to the hacking incident were apparently deeply perturbed by what they saw and viewing the videos above, it is easy to understand why.

[Photo by jslander/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]