When the first computer networks went online in the 1960s and 1970s, it didn’t take long before computer whizzes found ways to “game” the system. The earliest so-called “hackers,” “phone phreaks,” learned how to access long distance lines to make free calls. By the 1980s, hackers were illegally accessing banks and other institutions for financial gain, and today, cyber-crime costs businesses worldwide some $400 billion a year. But hacking is a very nuanced issue. Many hackers have used their skills to highlight flaws in computer security, sparking a debate about “black hat” hackers who work for malicious purposes, “white hat” crackers with beneficial intentions, or “gray hats,” who fall somewhere in between. Even the term “hacker” has fallen out of favor in the computer world, replaced by the less-judgmental term “cracker.”
However you classify them, the following 10 individuals all made headlines for their hacking and cracking exploits.
10. David L. Smith
In early 1999, the age of e-mail innocence ended with the creation of the Melissa worm virus. Melissa was a macro mass-mailing virus that, legend has it, was named after a stripper favored by Smith. The virus would read a client’s address book and send piles of emails along with a header reading “Here is the document you asked for…” clogging the computer networks of the day. Links in the e-mail led to various pornographic sites. Melissa went on to inspire several copycat viruses. Smith pleaded guilty to the charge of malicious activity in late 1999, and served 20 months. Following his arrest, Smith went undercover to assist the FBI in tracking other virus producers.
9. Mark Abene
An early hacker activist, Mark Abene was a member of the cracker groups the Legion of Doom and later the Masters of Deception. Abene operated under the stylish moniker Phiber Optik, and was profiled after his arrest as the toast of hacker society in Esquire and the New York Times. In the early 1980s, these hacker groups sought to understand how early mainframe systems operated and hacked into various telecommunications systems. These groups were largely disbanded after individuals such as Abene were prosecuted. As is the case with many in this field, Abene successfully remade himself as a computer security consultant after serving his time.
8. Jonathan James
In late 1999, 15-year-old Jonathan James (known online as cOmrade) began hacking into the computer systems of the Miami-Dade school system and Bell Telephone South. But what really brought the youth to the attention of officials were several successful hacks carried out against Department of Defense systems. Notably, James even cracked NASA’s source code that controlled the environmental systems aboard the International Space Station. James was the first juvenile to serve prison time for computer hacking. He committed suicide in 2008.
7. Loyd Blankenship
Another alumnus of the Legion of Doom, Blankenship wrote the 1980’s hacker manifesto, The Conscience of a Hacker, after his arrest in 1986. In contrast to the modern efforts by large crime organizations, the efforts of early hacker activists almost seem quaint today. Known in the hacking community as The Mentor, Blankenship’s manifesto has been republished and was mentioned prominently in the 1995 film Hackers.
6. Eric Corley
To be fair, many grassroots hackers see themselves and their ilk as simply curious individuals, or “do-it-themselves” operators interested in merely dissecting software. Such could be said for Eric Corley, who’s earned notoriety in the hacker world as the publisher of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, under his pen name, Emmanuel Goldstein. In addition to running the 2600.com website, Corley has written books, is host of the long-running radio shows Off the Hook and Off The Wall, and has testified before Congress on hacking activities.
5. Fred Cohen
As a student in the University of California’s School of Engineering, Fred Cohen wrote one of the first computer viruses back in the 1980s when the term had yet to gain vogue. Cohen’s creation was a simple program capable of copying itself and moving from machine to machine via floppy disk. Cohen also pioneered efforts to mitigate computer viruses, and demonstrated that no one algorithm can effectively detect all viruses.
4. Adrian Lamo
Arrested in 2003, Adrian Lamo first gained notoriety for hacking into the networks of Yahoo, Microsoft and the New York Times. Lamo entered the spotlight again in 2010 for turning in Army Specialist Bradley Manning during the WikiLeaks affair. Lamo was still in hiding as of 2011 due to threats and fallout from the WikiLeaks scandal.
3. Kevin Poulsen
A famed computer cracker turned journalist, Poulsen was known by his handle Dark Dante and pulled off several high-profile stunts in the early days of computing. In addition to creating a virtual escort agency via the Yellow Pages for an accomplice, Poulsen commandeered all of the telephone lines for KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, assuring that he would be the 102nd caller to receive a prize of a Porsche 944 S2. After serving five years in prison, Poulsen has reinvented himself, serving as the news editor for Wired.com.
2. Robert Tappan Morris
Son of National Security Agency scientist Robert Morris (a cowriter of UNIX code), Morris set one of the first worms loose on the Internet in 1988. Unlike a virus, a worm is a standalone program that does not need to attach itself to a host application to replicate. Morris claimed he created the “Morris worm” as a method of merely testing the extent of the then-infant Internet. Whatever his intent, Morris became the first person convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for which he was fined $10,050 and served three years probation plus community service time. Morris later went on to found the successful Viaweb site and Y Combinator firm. Morris is now a tenure-track professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1. Kevin Mitnick
The most famous computer hacker of all time, Kevin Mitnick began his hacking career at age 12, procuring his own ticket punch and digging up unused transfer slips to ride the Los Angeles bus system for free. This later led to hacking the Digital Equipment Corp. system to view source code, and gaining access to such corporate systems as Motorola, Nokia, and IBM. On the run for years, Mitnick was the most wanted computer hacker by the FBI at the time of his arrest in 1995, and had been suspected of hacking the Pentagon and even wire-tapping NSA agents. Mitnick served five years in prison and later wrote a book about hacking entitled The Art of Deception in 2002. Mitnick claims he served time in solitary confinement because officials feared he could initiate a nuclear war simply by whistling into a pay phone. The questionable veracity of this, of course, only added to Mitnick’s legendary stature. Like many retired hackers, Mitnick now runs a cyber-security consulting agency, Mitnick Security Consulting LLC.