To Air Is Human; To Forgive, Divine: The Max Headroom hack of 1987

Nostalgia Nerd (a youtube channel, about retro tech and events) just released a video on the “Max Headroom” hack of November 1987, when the broadcasts of two Chigago TV stations (WGN, and PBS affiliate WTTW) were interrupted by an illicit signal on the same night.  Thirthy five years after the fact, the perpetrators has never been identified nor come forward to take credit for the intrusion despite the statute of limitations long having expired.



NN also mentions the “Captain Midnight” broadcast of April 1986, when HBO’s broadcast signal was interrupted for four minutes.  Unlike the “Max Headroom” interruption for which the motives have never been fully explained, the Captain Midnight” broadcast has.  More below.

James MacDougall was a satellite broadcast operator in Florida who took exception to HBO’s excessively high monthly fee (US$35 per month in today’s money for one channel).  In an act of frustration and with the abilities and resources he had, he chose to interrupt HBO’s broadcast for a few minutes.

MacDougall was convicted of a misdemeanour and a fine, but in typical US government overreaction, it wrote the Electronica Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which was used as the backbone and blueprint for the “patriot act” in 2001.  Violating the ECPA now is a felony with a long prison sentence.

35 Years Ago: ‘Captain Midnight’ Jams the HBO Signal

For four and a half minutes on April 27, 1986, HBO’s broadcast signal was jammed.

Viewers in the entire eastern half of the U.S. were beamed a protestation that read: “GOODEVENING HBO. FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT $12.95/MONTH ? NO WAY [SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]”

Eventually, the signal returned, and the movie that had been screening at the time, The Falcon and the Snowman, resumed, but not before presumably several million HBO subscribers witnessed the interruption.

For several days, the identity of Captain Midnight was unknown. It wasn’t until after multiple days of investigation and hundreds of false confessions from people around the country that 25-year-old John R. MacDougall, a satellite operator at a ground station in Ocala, Fla., was subpoenaed following a tip from a tourist who had overheard him discussing what he had done at a payphone.

On the evening of the signal jamming, MacDougall, who had previously written protest letters to legislators and other awareness groups arguing against excessive charges for customers, arrived for work as normal. When his coworker left around 6PM, MacDougall found himself alone at the station. In opposition to what he felt was an unreasonable monthly rate for HBO, he swung the transmission dish so that it was aimed at Galaxy 1, the satellite that carried HBO, which effectively overrode the company’s main signal. Using a pseudonym from the 1979 movie On the Air Live With Captain Midnight, MacDougall made his statement in bright white letters across millions of American TV screens.

While digital and cable broadcasting has made TV and radio interruption next to impossible, website hacking by groups such as Anonymous are the internet equivalent.  Unlike TV and radio broadcasts which as traceable, a skilled hacker likely isn’t, and more often than not the targets of their actions aren’t exactly the most popular people, companies or governments.  Few would willingly turn them in, even if they knew who the members of Anonymous were.

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There is a difference between interrupting radio broadcasts (similar to the over-the-air TV broadcasts above), radio jamming, and pirate radio.  Jamming is a form of government censorship or non-government actors attempts to interfere with authorized broadcasts.  But the future of pirate radio could be one of legality or become harder to stop.  As more and more radio stations broadcast digitally and AM and FM become empty, will there be a push to deregulate public airwaves as Stephen Dunifer championed in the 1990s?  Why shouldn’t low power (up to 5km) non-commercial broadcasting be legal as long as its content doesn’t violate the law (according to the same rules of speech and print)?

Pirate radio of the past usually meant operating in international waters or periodic raids by government agencies.  With the drone technology available now, pirate broadcasting without interruption could be much easier.  There are 5 watt FM transmitters which are commercially available, have a 10km range, and weigh under 3kg (not counting batteries).  A pirate could easily outrun attempts to stop it.