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Historic Hacks of the 2000s, Part 2

Last month, we investigated hack attacks from the infancy of the internet era. Now we're moving forward in time to more sophisticated hacks and more diabolical digital malefactors.

Note: This is Part 2 of 2. To read Part 1, click here.

 

A famous 2006 hack brought L.A. traffic to a standstill.The 1990s saw the fall of Communism, the rise of alternate media and the widespread adoption and integration of the World Wide Web. It was also the decade where cyberattacks came out of the shadows and onto the front pages of newspapers.

 

Hackers may have come of age in the 90s, but it was during the following decade that they really hit their stride in both notoriety and level of damage done. In this installment of our series, we’ll consider five historic hacks of the new millennium.

 

Los Angeles Traffic Light Attack (2006)

 

Never underestimate the impact of a little premeditated random violence.

 

In August of 2006, unionized traffic engineers in the City of Angels scheduled a work stoppage, declaring that the city “wasn’t going to be a fun place to drive.” Frightened officials took the threat seriously and blocked access to the computer that controlled 3,200 traffic signals.

 

Longtime engineering employees of city, Kartik Patel and Gabriel Murillo decided to do more than walk the picket line — they hacked the traffic system, changing the timing of signals at four busy intersections located near freeways and major destinations. Red lights for the most congested approaches to the intersections were set to be of an unusually long duration. They also inserted a code that prevented an easy fix of the hack.

 

Normal gridlock was nothing compared to the chaos unleashed by Patel and Murillo. It was a Gordian mess; traffic snarled at the Los Angeles International Airport; the Glendale Freeway was clogged; and the streets around Little Tokyo and the Civic Center completely inaccessible. The impact rippled outward from each location.

 

It took four days for managers to figure out what was happening. Patel and Murillo were soon arrested and charged with seven different felonies. They refused to admit guilt but did eventually accept a plea bargain and received a two-year probation sentence — an extremely light punishment for endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Los Angelinos.

 

Aftermath

 

City officials learned that little hacks can have major consequences. There are 4,400 intersections in L.A., Patel and Murillo brought traffic to a standstill targeting just four of them.

 

The upside was that the hack actually awoke government officials around the world to the risks of having city and state systems for power plants, water and sewage departments, and other essential services accessible from outside computers.