The First Recorded Cyberattack

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Twins Francois & Joseph Blanc were men ahead of their time. They are quite possible the first people to hack technology in order to commit insider trading, and they got away with it! We’re talking about two guys who hacked the top-of-the-line highest tech communication networks in the world at the time they hacked it: Napolean’s Semaphore Line.

Napoleon Bonaparte might not have been the most popular world leader amongst his peers, but a minor Italian baron does not simply become the emperor of then superpower France through sheer luck or chance. Napoleon was able to grab and maintain power for two decades and reorder European and western society because he was innovative, embraced advancing technology, and relied on new, untested and controversial ideas. Napolean’s France may have picked a fight with pretty much every power of note at one time or another (including an undeclared war with fellow revolutionaries in the USA), but his armies were able to maintain power through years of uninterrupted warfare thanks to technological and philosophical advances. One such advance Napolean implemented was a mechanical telegraph system called the Semophore line.

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The Semaphore line was a series of towers spread 5-10 miles apart across France and foreign territories occupied by France. Each tower was in sight of it’s neighboring towers, and each tower was manned by agents who would watch the neighboring towers with telescopes. The agents used three wooden arms on top of each tower that could be moved with rope and pulleys to relay messages, and the various positions of the arms would spell out different messages, which were then replicated by the agents at the next tower, and then the agents at the towers next to those, and so on. In an era where communication only traveled as fast as the horse carrying it, this optical-mechanical telegraph system was a stark improvement, and could send messages from opposite corners of France’s territory in short order. For instance, it was said that a message could be sent from Madrid to Paris in 30 minutes, or Venice to Amsterdam in just under one hour. Compared to a horse dispatch, this nearly instantaneous system gave Napolean’s armies quite the communicative advantage.

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The system was reserved for the military and important government offices, so other information still traveled by horse. Twin brothers Francois and Joseph Blanc were stock and bond traders in the local market exchange in Bordeaux, a city in the southwestern part of Metropolitan France. During Napolean’s day, Government decisions such as what provisions to buy, what price to set the sell of government bonds, what regulations were to be implemented or changed, amongst other decisions that affected the prices and sales of bonds, stocks, accounts, etc. were decided by the French government in Paris in the north of France, and announced at the Paris stock exchange, the largest stock exchange market in Europe at the time. Since information on the Paris markets traveled by stagecoach and horseback, it took 5-6 days for the announcements of the Paris exchange to traverse the 361 miles it took to reach the local market exchange in Bordeaux , where prices would then be adjusted accordingly. The cunning Blanc brothers realized that if they could learn about price changes in Paris a couple days before their competitors, it could be quite lucrative for them as they could buy or sell futures, betting on changes in prices that they would know before anybody else.

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Consequently, the Blanc brothers paid two informants in Paris, one who worked in Paris Stock exchange and the agent of one of the Semophore towers near the Paris stock exchange to send information on price changes through the Semophore lines towards Bordeaux. In order to avoid detection and trouble with their bosses, the agents in Paris would ‘accidentally’ make an error in their messages on the tower arms. Errors happened occasionally, and would be corrected and omitted from the message when it was received by the agent at the destination tower who would edit and translate the messages from their visual cues to French when the message was written down to be delivered to its intended recipient. At the last tower before Bordeaux on the line from Paris, the Brothers also bribed the agent there, who would record the ‘error’ in the message which cued the brothers to the direction the markets in Paris were trending.

Using this hack, the brothers made over 250,000 Francs in 2 years before the authorities caught on. For comparison’s sake, 250,000 French francs in 1820 is roughly equivalent to $57 billion US dollars today, or $4 billion more than last years WannaCry cyberattacks. The brothers were tried, but were acquitted since, technically, there was no law on the books that they violated in what amounts to an early example of technology outpacing the legal code. However, the jig was up since Napolean’s government quickly adapted and passed laws to prevent further violations and misuses of the Semophore lines, but the Blanc brothers effectively committed the first documented case of a cyberattack and got off scot-free.

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