Thursday, August 17, 2006

I Was Watching When This Happened!

If you're like me you've got a small box of video tapes that you recorded as a teenager full of pop culture events that you saved forever, through 4 moves cross country and inspite of your wifes desire to clean out the closet. When you finally get around to thinking about capturing some of it for posterity a quick YouTube search will reveal that someone else has already done it...

I was watching Dr Who the evening in 1987 when this happened. I also have it on tape, but the quality isn't as good as this:

As far as I can tell they never caught they guy who did it. But those that were able to actually understand the words he was saying suggest that he was referencing some of the staff at WGN and was probably a fired employee or someone else with a grudge against them. He first overpowered the WGN transmitter earlier in the evening, but it only took them about 30 seconds to switch the transponder to a second frequency, so later on he did the same thing to WTTW, the public television station in Chicago, and nobody there was able to stop him, if they even noticed as it was after 11pm. He was on for 90 seconds and shut it off himself when he was done and was not locked out or stopped by the studio or the police. In spite of some strong words by the FCC and the FBI following the incident warning how they were going to get the guy they never did.

I was a teenager at the time and was really amazed that such hacking was possible and that you coudl get away with it! I was just a little too young to have participated in the great age of hacking for it's own sake and had no interest in hacking for vandalism or profit. One might argue that this was vandalism but I wouldn't have agreed at the time.

How TV stations work is they rent space on tall buildings or put up towers to broadcast. But their studios aren't located in those buildings or under those towers so WGN and WTTW had a microwave link between the studios and the top of the Hancock building in the case of WGN and the Sears Tower in the case of WTTW. So all he did was to drive himself somewhere in between the studio and the dish on the transmitter and point his own transmitter at them and overpower the regular uplink transmitter. So he used their own transmitter to send his pirate signal! That has a certain amount of style ;)

If you happened to have the equipment this would have been very easy to do. If you didn't have the equipment it would have cost you close to half a million bucks in 1987 dollars to get it. There were some stories that he had actually done it with a microwave oven, but I thought that was stupid, you can't modulate the signal from a microwave oven. You could potentially turn the magnetron in an oven into a jamming tool, but not into a video transmitter.

What truly disappointed me about the act, was that he didn't really do anything. He had a large audience at this point and could have said something, ANYTHING. Want to make a political statement? Want to just mess with peoples heads? (in my mind the best kind of vandalism has always been that which leaves no physical mark but that just makes people question their reality ;) I'll share stories from college at a later date...) But all he managed to do was to get in a few digs at WGN management before dropping his pants on camera and getting a spanking with a fly swatter.

And because he wasted the opportunity most uplinks were updated shortly thereafter to make this more difficult to do so I'll never have the opportunity to take over the local station and do something truly weird.


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