Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The World’s First Computer Password

Robert Fano on a CTSS teletype
Hacking and computer security always seems to be in the news now and we're constantly being advised to keep our passwords secure; wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world without passwords? Wired.com has an interesting article about the first computer passwords, probably developed at MIT in the 1960s. The Universal Machine has a chapter on hacking called "Digital Underworld;" in this chapter I identify William Mathews, a student at MIT, who discovered a flaw in a text editor on the IBM 7094 in 1965 that revealed the system’s user password file to any user who was logged in. I don’t know what he did with this information.
    The Wired.com article states that in 1962, Allen Scherr a Ph.D. student at MIT was "looking for a way to bump up his usage time on CTSS. He had been allotted four hours per week, but it wasn’t nearly enough time to run the detailed performance simulations he’d designed for the new computer system. So he simply printed out all of the passwords stored on the system...To spread the guilt around, Scherr then handed the passwords over to other users. One of them — J.C.R. Licklieder — promptly started logging into the account of the computer lab’s director Robert Fano, and leaving 'taunting messages' behind."
    This predates my first evidence of hacking by three years. Oh well I can make the change in the second edition. BTW: the words hack, hacking and hacker also derive from MIT. Not from the computer lab, but the famous MIT Tech Model Railroad Club.