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Television Security

Television's Most Infamous Hack Is Still a Mystery 30 Years Later ( 116

It has been 30 years since the Max Headroom hack, arguably the creepiest hack in the television history took place. Caroline Haskins, writes about the incident for Motherboard: It was a few minutes after 9 PM on Sunday, November 22, 1987. Chicago sportscaster Dan Roan was cheerily summarizing the Bears's victory that day for Channel 9 local news. Suddenly, televisions went silent, and their screens went black. At first, it seemed like an equipment malfunction. Without warning, televisions in the area blasted loud radio static. It was overlain with the screech of a power saw cutting into metal, or a jet engine malfunctioning. At center screen, a person wore a Max Headroom mask -- a character who appeared on various television shows and movies in the 1980s. He appeared to have yellow skin, yellow clothes, and yellow slicked-back hair. As purple and black lines spun behind him, Max nodded and swayed back and forth. His plastic face was stuck in laughter, and opaque sunglasses covered his eyes, which seemed to peer through the screen. The screen went black again. After a moment, Roan reappeared. "Well if you're wondering what'll happen," Roan said with a laugh, unaware of what had happened during the interruption, "so am I." Two hours later, it happened again on another channel. This time, Dr. Who had just turned to get his companion, Leela, a hot drink, when a line of static rolled across the screen, revealing the yellow man. After 30 years and an intense FCC investigation, the people behind the Headroom hack remain unknown. The correspondent has spoken to the newscasters who were interrupted and mocked that day. You can read the interview here.
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Television's Most Infamous Hack Is Still a Mystery 30 Years Later

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  • Thus dude was one cool cat. Loved it!
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      Mitt Romney always reminded me of Max Headroom. I'm surprised the similarity was only lightly spoofed.

      "C-c-corporations are p-p-people, my friends."

    • You loved Max Headroom, or you loved the TV Pirate who wore a Max Headroom mask and exposed his bare ass to all within reception range?
      • You loved Max Headroom, or you loved the TV Pirate who wore a Max Headroom mask and exposed his bare ass to all within reception range?


  • This Hack Was... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Steve Jackson ( 4687763 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @02:19PM (#55604605)
    ...One of the most "Interesting" Parts of being a kid in Chicago in the 80's. It stands as one of the most successful TV hacks of all time. After 30 years. Whoever did this, was either a super genius, or should have flown to Vegas and hit the tables the day after!
    • by fisted ( 2295862 )

      Or they just resisted the urge to brag about their hack on the Internet. Wonder why that is.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not really a hack per se (but phreak as fuck). They just overpowered the uplink to the transmitter with their own signal. Back in the 80s no one bothered with spread specrtum or encryption or any of that crap. No one would build a microwave transmitter in their garage and then use brute force and ignorance to overpower competing signals....

      I've heard semi-credible reports it was a pair of brothers known to area phreakers of the day.

    • Re:This Hack Was... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Skuld-Chan ( 302449 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @03:40PM (#55605397)

      Really all he did was overpower the microwave input the broadcaster was using to the transmitter - which are relatively low power, but even then - it's not like building or buying that kind of equipment is easy and certainly would have left a paper trail (it sounds like the FBI investigated it as well). These days of course all those aux broadcast channels are encrypted.

      Maybe he was an ex employee who carted off backup or discarded spares or something?

      • Re:This Hack Was... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) <> on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @06:29PM (#55606843) Homepage Journal

        The studio-transmitter links of the time were all analog, all NTSC, no security at all. The transmitters were all on the same tower. All one really had to do was get a hold of the STL hardware, set the channel, beam a signal from a nearby location, and roll tape.

        It used to also be that you could set the brakes on a freight train with a walkie-talkie, by sending the right command to a device at the end of the train. It might even still be the case. Nobody considered that someone else could get on your frequency back then.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      A hack it may be, but I don't find it all that interesting. Interesting hacks make a point.

  • In other news (Score:1, Insightful)

    by rsilvergun ( 571051 )
    it's a really slow news day.
  • I was 16, dead asleep on the couch that night, never could make it through a Dr. Who on WTTW at that started at 11pm and sometimes ran as late at 12:30 or 1. The VCR did start on time and on channel, that spinup and hum allowed me to crash to sleep at 10:55. I heard about it on the news in the morning and sure enough I had a perfect recording of this "event". Beyond a few minutes of attempting to decipher gibberish, watched the Dr Who episode and taped over it the next week. Local story, thought
    • Local story, thought this happened everywhere when uplink signals were still sent up and down to national satellites in the clear.

      The local news program does not uplink to a satellite for distribution to the transmitter. It's a simple STL - studio transmitter link. Studio in middle of city needs way to get programming to the hilltop where the transmitter is. Radio. Not magic.

      If you have a transmitter that sends the same signal, and your signal is stronger, well, you get the idea.

      Back in those days, stations did not do live link to satellite feeds, they recorded the downlink for later play. I remember watching many programs coming

      • They were called wildfeeds, and some of them were rebroadcast live, especially news reports with the reporter standing around waiting for their turn, fixing their hair and picking their nose and stuff. []

        • They were called wildfeeds, and some of them were rebroadcast live,

          If the local anchor was interrupted in a story by hacked video, it wasn't because his video was being sent up to a satellite and the uplink or downlink was hacked. It was a simple terrestrial STL.

          If it was Dr. Who, then it was a tape delay feed from Lionheart. You would not try to do such a program live because what happens if the feed fails? If the feed fails while you are taping it you have some time to find a replacement program, or you can call the source and say you need it again. If the feed fails du

  • by jrmcferren ( 935335 ) <[robbie.mcferren] [at] []> on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @02:46PM (#55604877) Journal

    This kind of attack was easy for an advanced electronics experimenter to pull off. All that needed done was to overpower the studio's signal on the studio to transmitter link with the appropriate signal and you were in. Most of the information was provided by the sign off program as the studio to transmitter link station identification occurred during this time and the frequency was provided. This was basically a terrestrial version of the HBO attacks.

    • by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @03:27PM (#55605245) Journal

      Exactly this. The STLs (Studio->Transmitter Links) are on 900 MHz and 2.8 GHz in Chicago. The studios are in smaller buildings (not many stories) but the main TX sites are all the tall buildings (Sears/Willis, Hancock, etc.).

      The links are directional beams or dishes and they are usually directly aimed at one another, but they are not that high power and can be overridden, especially if you have equipment maintenance penthouse access and can get up to the levels those things are at. Getting that access these days is much harder, post 9/11. It would probably be impossible to replicate that hack today, plus the STL's are digital and probably encrypted these days.

      Every once in a while some of my old acquaintances used to get drunk and someone would bump into one of the STL dishes causing a momentary "outage". :)

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      I think this makes sense as the most likely explanation.

      But....where would you get the equipment able to encode and transmit the signal correctly and at enough power to override the studio signal? I'd imagine your theoretical "advanced electronics experimenter" might be able to build something like this, but I'd also guess it wouldn't be a simple project and some key parts would have been expensive. I'd also guess there's probably some encoding/modulation info you'd have to know as well.

      And if the studio-

      • If it's analog, the signal will be simple UHF with a frequency shift, because that's easy for the transmitter to then shift down again for broadcast. Generating the UHF source is trivial, especially in the 80s - every VCR and home computer had a UHF modulator. Probably used a camcorder to film himself. The microwave side is harder, though. Any experienced radio amateur would be able to build the mixer and filters for a converter. That just leaves the power amplifier. How he got hold of one of those, I do no

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          My guess would be someone who's an actual broadcast engineer or in a closely aligned field. They would certainly understand the uplink transmitter technology well and know how to produce the right signal, and probably have sources for the parts and equipment.

        • If it's analog, the signal will be simple UHF with a frequency shift, because that's easy for the transmitter to then shift down again for broadcast.

          "UHF with a frequency shift"? The transmitter will "shift down again"? No. You send the video and audio signal via whatever band you were licensed to use for your STL (UHF, SHF, whatever), the received baseband video and audio is modulated onto the TV carrier, along with any other subcarrier signals.

          Generating the UHF source is trivial, especially in the 80s - every VCR and home computer had a UHF modulator.

          That's funny, because all of mine had VHF. You got a choice of channel 3 or channel 4. You were pretty sure to have one or the other empty because the FCC would not license two stations in the same market next t

          • "That's funny, because all of mine had VHF. You got a choice of channel 3 or channel 4"

            Oh, right. American. We don't do VHF TV over here in the UK - it's all UHF.

          • by havana9 ( 101033 )
            In Italy there was in use an analogue method of relay, called ping-pong, where the signal from the broadcast studio or the main tower was sent in a regular VHF or UHF channel and used by the local TV set, to cover the valleys and hills the signal was received and frequency converted in another VHF or UHF channel. This method was used to relay the channel from Switzerland, France or Yugoslavia.
            You could jam a signal with a CATV single-channel amplifier and a TV modulator, but the bigges problem on some sit
  • if still alive come clean the time for prison is over hell the captain midnight guy did zero 0 days and he had more risk of damaging stuff

  • by p51d007 ( 656414 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @03:22PM (#55605187)
    Reminds me of this []
    $12.95/MONTH ?
    NO WAY !

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @03:28PM (#55605255)

    I think it's a bit like hacking back then. Nobody really cared TOO much if you did. Getting caught meant a slap on the wrist, if that, and a stern lecture.

    Try any of this shit today and you'll probably be doing quite some time for a lot of ridiculous reasons and everything that COULD have happened. Not to mention the billions of damage you did because a network couldn't broadcast their bullshit for 2 minutes.

  • by Chas ( 5144 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2017 @03:42PM (#55605421) Homepage Journal

    He limited his exposure.

    And he hasn't succumbed to the need to "be famous".

    The FCC had essentially NOTHING to go on.


    • Back in the Day, fame was based on your skills, your ability to share, and signature style of the hack ( like putting up a sticker ). Not the public knowing shit but the people whom would you would respect.

      I had the best dumpsters back then, heck I could almost know the entire color code of a 64 pair twisted wire.

      funny thing is, I always look at telephone poles and try to understand some of the new devices mounted. amazing what you can learn.

  • See [] for more examples. The same prankster or different prankster? Who knows.

  • It is pretty simple to get away with a crime, just don't tell anyone about it. Ever. It is harder than you think.
  • Blank Reg was the pirate television broadcaster seen in the Max Headroom TV series of the 1980s. He traveled in his well equipped broadcast van, avoiding authorities and offering 'alternative' video that competed with the big broadcasters.

    Someone at Gizmodo []
    talks about the prescience of that TV show so long ago...

  • So, the the meta-story here is: noone knows anything worth writing about? Glad this was covered so well.

  • What sticks with me is the concept of the "blitvert." The Max Headroom writer(s) showed remarkable prescience by featuring that idea. Look at the commercials broadcast today. A large number of commercials are resorting to using a barrage of images many of which are irrelevant and utterly meaningless. It's not uncommon to see a commercial where they'll run a series of images at around 1 every 0.5 seconds if not faster. Then there's also the method of rapidly cycling the screen between brightness and darkness

... though his invention worked superbly -- his theory was a crock of sewage from beginning to end. -- Vernor Vinge, "The Peace War"