At 10:55 am on April 30, 2021, all the TV screens and classroom projectors at six schools in Cook County, Illinois, started controlling themselves. Screens that were turned off powered up. Projectors that were already on automatically switched to the HDMI input. “Please standby for an important announcement,” read a message that flashed up on the displays. A five-minute timer, counting down to zero, sat under the ominous message.
A teacher in one classroom tried to turn the projector off using the infrared remote, but it was useless. “They overtook our projector,” the teacher, caught on video, told students. The group speculated that it could be a message from President Joe Biden, failing that, “big brother.” The same scene was repeating itself across dozens of classrooms in Illinois’ school district 214—home to 12,000 students. In classrooms and hallways, more than 500 screens displayed the countdown. The system had been hijacked.
Tucked in the corner of one classroom was Minh Duong, a senior on the verge of graduating. Duong sat pouring over his laptop, chatting with three other friends—Shapes, Jimmy, and Green—on encrypted messenger Element, making sure the last of his custom code executed correctly. As the countdown hit zero, a grainy, gyrating Rick Astley burst into the first notes of “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
“I was walking down the hallway, and everyone was kind of laughing—it was kind of fun to watch,” Duong, who also goes by the moniker WhiteHoodHacker, tells WIRED. Later that day, at 2:05 pm, Duong and his friends took over the schools’ PA systems and played the song one last time.
The elaborate high school graduation prank—dubbed The Big Rick by its architects—was one of the largest rickrolls to ever take place, taking months of planning to pull off. “I was actually extremely hesitant about doing the entire district,” Duong says.
During the process, the group broke into the school’s IT systems; repurposed software used to monitor students’ computers; discovered a new vulnerability (and reported it); wrote their own scripts; secretly tested their system at night; and managed to avoid detection in the school’s network. Many of the techniques were not sophisticated, but they were pretty much all illegal.