On 27 April 1986, late night HBO subscribers watching the movie "The Falcon and the Snowman" were surprised by a sudden interruption of service. A color bar test pattern appeared on the screen for 4 ½ minutes. It was accompanied by a text message: "Good Evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95/month? No Way! (Showtime/Movie Channel Beware!)"
After the incident, the FCC launched an investigation to track down "Captain Midnight." It took several months of detective work to find him.
The FCC first deduced that Captain Midnight must have had access to a large dish with strong transmitter. This narrowed down the transmission locations to less than 600 facilities in the U.S. Their investigation was then further narrowed to 100 locations by the make and model of the character generator used for the color bar test pattern and Captain Midnight text message. The culprit was then finally tracked down when a witness called the police after hearing a pay phone conversation where the caller constantly referred to himself as "Captain Midnight."
It was revealed that "Captain Midnight" was John MacDougall, a 25-year-old engineer at a satellite transmission facility in Ocala, Florida. He was sentenced to one year's probation and was given a $5000 fine.
Why he did it
MacDougall explained that his hacker attack was motivated by frustration at HBO, whom he felt was overcharging satellite customers and hurting his business. (MacDougall owned a satellite dish business.) In the early eighties, many satellite dish owners had been able to view premium movie channels for free. But by the mid-eighties, the cable companies had developed new technologies that scrambled the satellite transmission signals for premium services. Like cable users, satellite dish viewers had to pay the cable companies for a converter to unscramble the signals and receive the premium channels. In HBO's case, satellite dish viewers had to pay an added $12.95 per month charge.
Other Television Hackers
The Captain Midnight attack was not the first hacker attack against cable television. In 1985 a hacker had interrupted Disney Channel family programming with the scrambled signal from a X-rated cable channel.
Other hackers subsequently followed in the footsteps of Captain Midnight. In 1987, a hacker interrupted a WGN cable superstation broadcast of an episode of the British sci-fi series "Dr. Who." He broadcast a man with a Max Headroom mask dropping his pants and mooning viewers as a second culprit whacked his bare butt with a flyswatter.
Also in 1987, broadcasts of the Playboy Channel and Exxxtasy Channel were interrupted with Christian religious messages: "Thus sayeth the Lord thy God. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Repent, the Kingdon of heaven is at hand." The FCC tracked down Thomas Haynie, an employee of the Christian Broadcasting Network. He received a three-year suspended sentence and was fined $1000. Haynie was the first person to be convicted of satellite piracy as a felony.
Where he is now
"Captain Midnight" or John MacDougall continues to own and operate a business
that sells and installs satellite dishes.
Links and References