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Unsolved hijacking: the Max Headroom hack

Decades after the infamous broadcast hijacking in Chicago, the culprits remain unknown.

Exactly 34 years ago, millions of Chicago-area residents became unwilling witnesses to a major broadcast hijack. On the evening of November 22, 1987, a masked person took over transmission twice, spouting seemingly incoherent jokes and trivia for around two minutes in total.

The event, dubbed 'Max Headroom signal jacking' over culprits' choice of mask, spurred speculation albeit without closure. Despite a lengthy investigation, authorities could not get their hands on the persons behind the attack.

However, lack of clarity has immortalized the event, making it a must-know for every connoisseur of hacker culture and subversive art.

The first interruption

From a modern perspective, the Max Headroom hack looks like a scene from a hacker flick like Mr. Robot or even a techy horror movie. And the more you read about the hack, the stranger it gets.

The first intrusion occurred during the sports segment of Chicago's WGN-TV newscast and lasted for about 25 seconds. A ten-second black screen interrupted the broadcast at first, followed by a creepy-looking masked person in front of a corrugated metal background.

It was unclear whether the character had anything to say, as a screeching digital noise accompanied the interruption.

Baffled, WGN-TV's engineers cut off the intrusion by changing the signal frequency linking the broadcast studio to the station.

"Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I," sports anchor Dan Roan commented once the stations' engineers managed to get the regular broadcast back on-air.

Who is Max Headroom?

The creepy aesthetics were not random. The culprit was wearing a mask imitating Max Headroom, a fictional British TV character.

The original show featured a fictional 'artificial intelligence' character. In reality, the computer-generated appearance of the character was created with prosthetic makeup put on by Canadian-American actor Matt Frewer.

In the TV show, Max Headroom was a journalist who was assassinated over digging dirt on the corporation that owned the TV station he worked at. Headroom's hacker friend preserved his brain and uploaded it to the network, making the former journalist a digital entity.

Like in a tale of modern horror, the ghost of Headroom used to pop into broadcasts, sharing snarly, sometimes off-beat jokes with a pinch of social commentary.

'Giant masterpiece'

It took a second attempt at hijacking the TV signal for viewers to hear what the people behind the Max Headroom mask had to say. Around 11:20 PM on the same night, hackers penetrated the signal of another Chicago-based station, WTTW.

The culprits interrupted an episode of Doctor Who, opening with a line 'He's a fricking nerd,' followed by a digitalized laughter akin to the one heard in the original Max Headroom show.

There wasn't much coherence in the 90-second-long video, as the culprit glided over seemingly random subjects. WGN's sportscaster Chuck Swirsky was singled out as a 'frickin' liberal,' followed by a show of a Pepsi can while calling a slogan used by Coca-Cola.

Later, Swirsky said he was concerned about his safety as he was seemingly singled out in the transmission for no apparent reason.

Max Headroom Original
The original Max Headroom character.

The hijacker proceeded to hum a tune of the 1966 song 'Your love is fading' by the Temptations. However, the somewhat juvenile presentation makes it hard not to see a movie villain in the twitchy, strange-sounding character.

"I just made a giant masterpiece for the Greatest World Newspaper nerds," the hacker proudly stated in the middle of the video. WGN-TV, the first station hackers breached that day, stands for 'World's Greatest Newspaper.

The interruption continued to a side view of exposed buttocks, spanked with a fly swatter by a female character. A few seconds after that, the broadcast returned to normal, leaving many baffled by the ordeal.

The second hijacking ended because the hackers unilaterally ended the transmission. WTTW did not have engineers on sight who could counter the disruption of the signal.

Targeted attack

Television engineers speculated that whoever was behind the attack had to have access to an expensive transmitter as it took extremely high-powered equipment to hijack the broadcast.

It's believed that the intrusion was done by using a transmitter to overturn the signal TV studios sent to transmitters that amplify the signal to reach audiences in the Chicago area. The culprits likely used a high-rise apartment or a roof in place between the studio and the transmitter.

"You need a significant amount of power to do that. The interfering signal has to be quite strong," Robert Strutzel, WGN's director of engineering, told the Chicago Tribune the day after the event.

The FCC launched an investigation into the attack. However, it never found who was behind it. No one took the blame for the hijacking either, even though the five-year statute of limitation for the case was surpassed in 1992, meaning the culprits would not face any charges even if they identified themselves.

Students, disgruntled employees, and radio enthusiasts were speculated to be behind the attack. However, up to this day, 34 years later, only people behind the attack truly know who did it. The cryptic broadcast, bizarre broadcast, and the lack of people held accountable have made the attack among the best-known hacking attempts.

The Max Headroom hack happened just one year after John R. MacDoughall, a satellite dish salesman, interrupted the transmission of HBO with a written message criticizing the company for preventing non-subscribers from receiving the stations' transmission. Even though millions saw the message, authorities fined MacDougall only $5,000.

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