Whilst the media is keen to portray hackers as suave super-spy characters with a range of gadgets at their disposal, zipping through pleasing graphical dioramas of color, in reality this is not the case. Some herald them as heroes, whilst others revile them as nothing more than criminals with a bit of technical knowhow. This list is an introduction to some of the most famous real-life non-fiction hackers/crackers from recent history. But ultimately, the best ones out there are the ones we’ll never hear of, because they’ll never get caught.
Jonathan James. AKA c0mrade. James was the first juvenile that was sentenced to prison for cybercrime, being only 15 years of age at the time of the crime and 16 when he was sentenced. After some minor incursions into telecommunications networks, what brought him to the attention of the authorities was that James had gotten into computers at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an agency responsible for analyzing threats to the US, either native or from abroad. He’d done this by installing backdoor programs on a computer server in Virginia, which in turn allowed him to collect sensitive data, including the emails of many DTRA employees, detailing usernames and passwords to whole range of things, including military computers. Upon detection, NASA had to shut down their computers for a number of weeks in order to make sure everything was ok and to fix any damage caused, costing $41,000 in the process. Unfortunately for him, the good times were not to last long, as James’ house was raided on a January morning in 2000 and he was arrested, being sentenced to six months in prison and probation until the age of 18. Sadly, James died in the middle of last year, with suicide suspected of being the cause.
Adrian Lamo. Dubbed the “Homeless Hacker” due to the fact he usually did most of his “work” from internet cafes, abandoned buildings and libraries. What Lamo did was to do “penetration testing” on several major companies, including Yahoo!, Bank of America and Microsoft. He’d break into their computer systems via security flaws and the like and would then notify the companies that he’d just broken into about the flaws in their computer systems, with some of his targets even being thankful for the security advice that he provided. However, in February 2002, Lamo broke into the computer network of The New York Times, where he was able to view all kinds of sensitive information and was subsequently arrested. He was sentenced to 6 months of detention at his parents’ house, two years of probation and ordered to pay about $65,000 in restitution.
Kevin Mitnick. AKA Condor. Whilst Mitnick’s feats are arguably not the most incredible, he is likely the most famous hacker in recent history and was – at the time of his arrest – the most wanted hacker in US history. Mitnick started on his life’s path at the tender age of 12, where he got around the LA bus punchcard system by buying his own punch, thus he was able to get free bus rides wherever he wanted. In later years he would then proceed to practice phreaking with cell phones, fast food speaker systems, amateur radios and drive-thru speakers. He would later be sentenced for hacking into the computer system for DEC, earning him some prison time and a period of supervised release. It was near the end of this release that Mitnick took it upon himself to hack into yet more computer systems and then fleeing before he could be caught. He went on an epic hacking spree that lasted for the next two and a half years, until his apprehension in February 1995. Ultimately, it was hacking into fellow (white hat) hacker Tsutomu Shimomura’s computer, after which Shimomura made it his personal mission to track down Mitnick. In total, Mitnick has served around 5 years in prison, with 8 months being in solitary confinement. The accompanying photo is Mitnick (middle) with Adrian Lamo (left) and Kevin Poulsen (right).
Kevin Poulsen. AKA Dark Dante. Currently a senior editor at Wired News, Poulsen was made famous with perhaps his best known hack, which netted him a $50,000 Porsche. An LA radio station was offering the Porsche as a prize to the 102 nd caller to the station, so what Poulsen did was to take over the station’s telephone line, block out all the other callers but himself, thereby ensuring that he was the 102 nd caller and winning the Porsche. However, it was his hacking into various Federal computer systems that attracted the attention of the FBI, leading to his arrest at a supermarket in 1991. In 1994, he was found guilty of mail, wire and computer fraud, as well as obstruction of justice and sentenced to almost 5 years in prison and forced to pay $56,000 in restitution. At the time, Poulsen was on the receiving end of the longest prison sentence a cracker had ever been “awarded”.
Robert Tappan Morris. AKA rtm. Creator of the Morris Worm, one of the very first worm viruses to be sent out over the internet, Morris inadvertently caused many thousands of dollars worth of damage and “loss of productivity” when he released the worm in the late 80s. According to Morris himself, it was an experiment to see how big the internet was by counting how many machines were connected to it. Unfortunately, the worm copied and replicated itself to a large extent; so much so that it caused the computers it infected to become unusable. Morris was ultimately discovered and although he was lucky enough to escape prison time, he was fined $10,500 and was sentenced to 36 months of probation with 400 hours of community service.
John Draper. AKA Captain Crunch. Although technically a phone phreak, the Captain is seen by many as the father of modern “hackery” and phreaking, as well as being somewhat of a legend. Born in 1944, his legend began when he was informed by a friend that a toy whistle given away in boxes of the Cap’n Crunch cereal would emit a 2600 hertz tone when the 3 rd hole was glued up. This tone was a frequency that was used in the making of phone calls at the time and would eventually lead to Draper creating “blue boxes”, devices capable of replicating other dialing tones, effectively making calls for free. So here was a man that could circumvent phone charges all thanks to a small cereal box toy. Having given an interview with Esquire magazine in 1971, it exposed the world to the subject of phone phreaking and Draper was arrested in 1972 on toll fraud charges, being sentenced to five years’ probation. In the mid 70s, he taught some of his skills to Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, after Wozniak had read the Esquire article. Draper was even temporarily employed by Apple, even writing the code for EasyWriter, the first Apple II word processor.
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