Q&A with Kevin Murrell

National Museum of Computing boosts its collection with items from a hacker
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Eleanor Mills
In 1985, a 22-year-old Robert Schifreen demonstrated his hacking abilities by showing that he could access Prince Philip’s Prestel mailbox.

As a result, Schifreen became the first person charged with illegally accessing a computer system, but no law could incriminate him.

On trial his actions were moulded under prosecution of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act of 1981, which Schifreen appealed against. Instead, his hacking led to a two-year legal ordeal, acquittal and the creation of the Computer Misuse Act in 1990.
Robert Schifreen has recently donated all the material associated with the case to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

Representing a time before the worldwide web, and a series of events that rose the bar and brought in a new act of parliament, the first high-profile hacking case and resultant archive is an enormously important acquisition for the museum.
Here, Kevin Murrell, a trustee for the museum explains the significance of Schifreen’s donation:
Why is the Robert Schifreen archive such an important acquisition for the National Museum of Computing?

The legal case over the hacking of the Prestel system led to the Computer Misuse Act.

It was at a time when the idea of hacking into computer systems was almost unheard of in the UK, and the police and British Telecom were unable to form a proper case without any supporting law.

In the mid-1980s, very few individuals had home computers and even fewer had modems to allow them to dial in to large remote computer systems.

Fewer still had the ability or tenacity to try to investigate these systems and push against the restrictions in place. It is fair to say that the professionals looking after these systems at the time really didn't expect anyone to hack into their systems and were woefully unprepared.
What objects have you acquired with the archive? And how will you put it on display?

The archive consists of a variety of things including Schifreen's original notebook of computer access numbers, usernames and passwords for all the systems he used or tried to gain access; the jury’s bundle of documents; the voluminous case documents that BT prepared for the prosecution; the correspondence between Schifreen and his lawyers as they prepared their defence; transcripts of Schifreen’s police interviews; and a wealth of newspaper cuttings about case.

We will use the archive to explain several issues that are likely to come as a surprise to many visitors to the museum, especially digital natives [those that do not know pre-digital culture].

Firstly, it helps us explain the origins and novelty of early home computers and how in pre-broadband days individual dialling up of different remote computers was necessary. Such equipment, much of it still working, already exists in the museum and the Schifreen case will provide a personal link back to that time.

The archive also highlights the original meaning of the term “hacking”, how that has come to change over the years and the current legal position over it.

In British terms, the archive is extremely important because it was almost a test case to demonstrate that new legislation was necessary, and ultimately resulted in the landmark Computer Misuse Act of 1990, a law that is relevant to every computer user today.

The archive is therefore likely to be referred to on tours and to inform the museum’s very popular learning programme for schools and universities.
In a relatively new discipline like computing history how do you prioritise for your archive?

We can trace the origins of modern computing back to Babbage in the 19th century, but computer museums are a relatively new phenomenon. There are a very small number of computer museums across the globe.

At our museum we are primarily concerned with the history of computing in the UK since the second world war. The amount of potential museum artefacts starts to escalate in the 1970s so we need to very selective over what we keep.

Personal papers from computer pioneers are always important to us. Sales material from UK system providers, including original proposals and invoices are invaluable when curating new displays, given our desire to exhibit working machines where possible, manuals, operating instructions, and original software.
What is next for the National Museum of Computing?
We have plans for a rigorous oral history project to capture, transcribe and generally make available the back-stories of key people in the development of computing in the UK. One of our first objectives is to tell the stories of the female operators of the Colossus computers who worked in our museum building in the 1940s.

Their stories are largely untold and we have regular contact with several of the former operators, who are now in their 90s.

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