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Hacking a Celebrity's Phone in the 1930s Was Actually Similar to Today

Myrna Loy in 1934 (Getty Images)
Myrna Loy in 1934 (Getty Images)

Myrna Loy was a huge movie star in the 1930s and 40s. She starred in classic films like The Thin Man (1934), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Ed Sullivan crowned her “Queen of the Movies.” But celebrity always has a dark side.

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Loy was the focus of unwanted attention from overeager fans and weirdoes, as many celebrities of every era are—so much so that the FBI eventually got involved. And documents newly released by the FBI to Gizmodo reveal that invading Myrna Loy’s privacy wasn’t too different from hacking a celebrity’s phone today.

Phones of the 1930s were nothing like the smartphones of today, of course. But the people who wanted to get Myrna Loy’s personal contact information to harass her used many of the same tactics that are used by hackers here in the 21st century.

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When we talk about hacking into a person’s social media account, computer, or phone, the average person automatically assumes that this is achieved through sophisticated software and programming skills—and sometimes it is. But the open secret about hacking is that information acquired through speaking with other people is often the single most important tool in any hacker’s toolbox.

If you can get a phone company or relative or friend to give up valuable information that can lead to a password reset or rerouting a 2-factor authentication phone number, that’s 100 times more valuable than trying to brute-force your way in through the front door. And that’s precisely what Myrna Loy’s 1930s “hackers” did.

Loy started receiving calls in 1938 from what sounded like a woman at her home and at the movie studios where she worked. At first they were rather innocuous crank calls, but they soon turned disturbing, according to Loy.

The private security force at Paramount Studios contacted their friends at the Los Angeles bureau of the FBI just to let them know what was going on, and the FBI sent some agents out to investigate. Unknown suspects also started to call random men in the LA area, pretending to be Loy and giving out her real address, inviting them over for some “fun.” It wasn’t clear if these were the same people who were making the same crank calls to Loy at her home and at the studio.

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Pretty soon Loy changed her home phone number, which stopped the phone calls at home, and Paramount Studios and MGM started to screen outside calls better. But once the FBI finally tracked down one of the people who made threatening calls, they learned the weakness in the system: the caller was able to bluff his way into getting Myrna Loy’s home phone number by calling the studio and posing as a friend.

Excerpt from Myrna Loy’s FBI file from a page dated August 10, 1938
Excerpt from Myrna Loy’s FBI file from a page dated August 10, 1938
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It’s precisely this kind of social engineering that makes the best modern day encryption and technical expertise a relatively futile effort when you consider the number of weak points that you have no control over. Swatting, phone hacking, and impersonation will always be vulnerable to the whims of people who know how to manipulate other people. And it turns out they always have been.

I’ve uploaded Myrna Loy’s entire FBI file below. Accusations that she had Communist ties are in there, but that was pretty par for the course for a lot of high-profile lefties who were politically active in the 1930s. By almost all accounts, Loy was a pretty standard FDR Democrat. Happy reading.

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Myrna Loy (FBI File)

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

Fun fact: Myrna Loy and William Powell invented the buddy action comedy with The Thin Man series of six films. They played a married team of well-heeled, wise-cracking, tippling amateur sleuths. Even the 1934 original, taken from the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, holds up very well even now.

Myrna was a screen goddess in her day, one of the few who successfully made the transition from silent to sound; she continued making films into the ‘80s. She is remembered for her turn in Airport 1975; see the publicity still with Sid Caesar below.

If I had a time machine... ahhh, Myrna.