The Max Headroom Hack

Because last week’s investigation was chock-full of murder and mayhem, we’ll explore a crime that didn’t actually endanger anyone – but will still creep your pants off – this time around.

The Case

On a quiet Sunday evening in 1987, many in Chicago, Illinois were turned into their local television stations to watch the evening news, their favorite programs, sports, or the like. But, around 9 P.M, some viewers were exposed to an unanticipated interruption in the broadcast.

During their show The Nine O’Clock News, the airwaves of local station WGN-TV were hijacked to play the bizarre video below.

In the 20-odd second intrusion, a person disguised as 1980’s era character Max Headroom, a “computer generated” TV host who was often seen in movies, TV shows, and 80’s advertisements, bopped around a tilting frame. The technicians at WGN were able to switch the frequency of the signal broadcasting the hijacked channel a few seconds later, thus ending the hacker’s short stint of fame – or so they thought.

A few hours later around 11:15 PM, local PBS station WTTW was broadcasting a Doctor Who serial, when suddenly, the show began to cut out. The Max Headroom hacker was back, and this time, with a longer message.

*Note: The contents of this video may considered disturbing and inappropriate by some.


This interruption, almost two minutes in length, features the same distorted Max Headroom caricature in front of a tilting background, rambling about pop culture, newspapers, and art in a distorted voice. The video then cuts to the person leaning over a chair with their pants off as a woman, whose face is out of the frame, pretends to hit their behind with a fly swatter.

WTTN did not respond as quickly to the incident, as they did not have as many engineers on duty at the time of the hijacking, and by the time they were able to respond, the broadcast was over.

While no one was directly hurt by the broadcasts, hijacking airwaves is still a federal offense punishable with fines up to $10,000. Not to mention, the video itself was incredibly strange, and piqued the curiosity of audiences and investigators alike.

Who hacked into these TV stations’ airwaves to broadcast these strange videos, and why did they do it?

The Evidence

Even though the evidence in this case narrows down the field quite a bit, the hacker remains at large.

They Were Local

The hijacking of the stations took some strategic positioning – not only did the hacker(s) have to know exactly which stations they wanted to hijack and their physical broadcasting locations, they had to know a location central to those locations in order for the signal takeover to work.

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The lines indicate the paths between the stations and their respective transmitters, where the hacker was likely positioned. // Map by Alex Pasternak, Motherboard

According to Dr. Michael Marcus, assistant FBI bureau chief and FCC investigator assigned to the case, the suspect had to “get close to the receiving end” and just transmit their own TV signal that was stronger than the stations’.

As this positioning, as well as the targeting of these specific stations, indicates at least a basic familiarity with Chicago, it is likely that the suspect was a local or someone who lived relatively close. It is also possible that the suspect’s targeting of Chicago audiences for their “masterpiece” indicates that they have a special connection to the area, and sought notoriety with the public there.

They Knew What They Were Doing

In an extensive piece on the incident for Motherboard, Chris Knittel explains that hacking the airwaves began with knowing the paths the broadcasts take from the studios to high-power transmitters, or the studio transmitter link (STL), as indicated in the map above.

All the hacker had to do was overpower the STL by switching on transmission equipment with high-power frequencies somewhere close to the studios’ transmitters, thus tricking the transmitters into broadcasting the stronger signal – the hacker’s content.

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How TV transmission works. The Max Headroom hacker disrupted the path from the station to the transmitter by essentially jumping in between the two // Graphic from NEC Corporation

Given the technical set-up required for the signal intrusion, a Chicago media and TV blog explains that there’s no way “just a young prankster” could have pulled the piracy off. Rather, it’s likely that the culprits were versed in how commercial-grade broadcasting equipment worked, and had a working knowledge of broadcast mechanics, signal flow, and microwave technology.

They Were Making a Point About the Media

A number of components of the hack point toward the hackers not only targeting Chicago media specifically, but also trying to make a point about the future of the media in their broadcast.

The first signal intrusion happened to WGN-TV. Although that station was able to switch transmitters to cut the hacker off, the later intrusion against WTTN revealed that WGN may have been the true target. The character in the video mentions Chuck Swirsky, who worked at the time for WGN, and the “Greatest World Newspaper”, an amalgamation of “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, the meaning behind the WGN call letters.

The choice of Max Headroom as a main character also alludes to a broader point about the media. As Matt Soniak explains for Mentalfloss, Headroom was a computer-generated TV host that lived in a dystopian future when evil media corporations controlled the world, and on the Headroom TV show, people hijacked these corporations’ TV signals to broadcast messages of freedom. Thus, the hacker in this case may have been trying to make a point about media and society in general – the “masterpiece” the hacker mentions in the second video.

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Max Headroom on the Cover of Newsweek, 1987

The Suspects

Eric Fournier

Although the resulting FCC/FBI investigation of the incident never yielded any suspects, some citizen sleuths have put forward theories of their own about who could have hacked the station.

One theory is that weird video vanguard Eric Fournier, creator of the notoriously creepy Shaye Saint John series, was behind the hack. His Shaye Saint John videos, meant to be an artistic representation about online fame, mirror the extremely creepy vibe of the Headroom hack and the scattered dialogue style, as seen below.

This theory suggests that Eric, who lived in Bloomington, Indiana (close to Chicago) at the time, wanted publicity for a band he was playing in called Blood Farmers. Originally, Eric was supposed to play a video of his band over the airwaves, but chickened out at the last moment and opted instead for anonymity.

However, Eric’s friends have since denied his involvement, stating that even though Eric has clear experience with video editing, he did not have enough knowledge about actual broadcasting to pull of the heist.

J and K

In 2011, Reddit user bpoag posted a ground-shaking revelation that seemed to crack the case wide open again.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-3-52-34-pm

In the post, bpoag explains his lengthy “circumstantial evidence” that seemed to point directly toward his friend “J” as an almost unquestionable culprit.

Bpoag explains that, during the time of the hack, he was living in that area of Chicago as a teenager with two friends named “J” and “K” for anonymity. J and K are brothers who live together, he explains, because J is pretty severely autistic and is cared for by K. He describes how J is sociable and has a weird sense of humor that is often scattered and sexually deviant, like the Max Headroom video.

He recalls in the post that one weekend, J was bragging to him about planning something “big” over the weekend, and that J had been learning how broadcast signals worked by breaking radios apart and putting them back together again. Bpoag also remembers that J was a big fan of newspapers, which matches the “newspaper nerds” the character in the video mentions.

The evidence provided by bpoag seems to draw a direct line to J as the culprit. However, in further posts, he explains that after interviewing people who worked at the station during the hack, he has determined it would have been almost impossible for J to have the skills and knowledge necessary to hijack the signals. Thus, he concludes, while the personalities might have matched up, there’s no way J and K could have actually pulled it off.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-4-00-48-pm

The Theory

This theory was definitely difficult to come by, and may not be as extensive as last week’s, as there’s been such little evidence.

However, I believe that the hack was committed by someone who worked at WGN and was disgruntled or wanted to play a prank – perhaps an intern or a mad ex-employee.

First, not only did the person know how the entire broadcast system worked, they knew the intimate details of the Chicago broadcasting community and the WGN station specifically. Second, they seemed to have an agenda to disrupt WGN, and when that was interrupted, they made sure to call WGN out in the hacked message on WTTN.

The motive is probably quite simple – disruption. It’s likely that the person/people got drunk/high, recorded the video, and thought it would be funny or vindictive to play it on the airwaves of their least favorite past employer.

The ambiguity of this description, and the timing of the case, is probably why investigators have never found the culprit. Plus, as I mentioned, it’s not like anyone was actually physically harmed by the video, so… no foul, right?

The End?

The Max Headroom hack may eventually fade into the darker corners of the internet, but for this week, provided an interesting, non-bloody investigation to complete.

What do you think? Who hacked the Chicago airwaves, and why did they do it?

Next week, we’ll be exploring the still-mystifying disappearance of beauty queen Tara Grinstead. But until then, don’t stop searching for the truth.

One thought on “The Max Headroom Hack

  1. I can tell you worked really hard on this blog. Also, this conspiracy is extremely interesting. I have never heard of this before but you did so much research on it I feel as if I know everything I need to know about it. I also like the way you structured your blog in different sections as the case, the evidence, the suspects, and the theory while also asking the audience what they thought. I also enjoy the videos your provide as the evidence for the audience. I do suggest if you can to shorten it for people who may not read something longer. Overall great job!

    Like

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