It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time before the Internet, a time when computers took up more space than the acolytes who tended to their needs. In the 70s I was one such boffin, a postgrad hacking away in a university R&D lab. Computers then were still quite dear, and so we made do with terminals that sucked electrons from the teat of a minicomputer several blocks away through fiber cable.
Our digital host had recently been hooked up to the Arpanet, the Internet’s predecessor, giving us real-time access to several dozen academic, government, and military computers scattered across the US. We used it to chat and exchange files and email with people we knew here and there, but mostly we wasted time and bandwidth psyching out the robot psychotherapist Eliza and playing text-based games like Adventure and Hunt the Wumpus, just like today’s youth do but more primitively.
DoD’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) had funded the network to develop a prototype military communications system. They let scientists play with it and observed what they were up to—how carefully, nobody without an appropriate security clearance can really say. For we geeks, it was a cozy play-space with a few thousand presumably collegial users. No spam, no malware, no ads, no Web, and so it would remain for another dozen years. But it did not remain free of intruders for long.
Soon it became evident that strangers were snooping around the…