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Here's How the Most Famous Hackers Pushed Computing to the Limits

Individual hackers had the arena to themselves long before nation states got in on it.

Today, computer hacking and ransomware are common occurrences. Just this week, the U.S. managed to seize back $6 million paid in a ransomware attack against multiple companies. However, there was a time before organized groups of hackers operated out of windowless offices around the world seeking financial or political gains; this was a time when most hacking was conducted by lone teenagers working out of bedrooms in their parents' houses, whose only goal was the sheer joy of accessing information.

Below, we're going to take a look at some of the most famous — or, depending on your viewpoint, infamous — hackers of all time. But first, let's delve into the history of hacking a little bit. 

You could argue that the idea of hacking began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1950s and 60s, when the term "hack" was used for elegant or inspired solutions to problems. Many of these "hacks" were actually practical jokes. One of the most extravagant saw a replica of a campus police car erected on top of the Institute's Great Dome. Over time, the term became associated with the early computer programming scene, at MIT and elsewhere.

From MIT, the term spread out into the general computing lexicon.

Hacking as we know it began in the early 1970s with the increase in the use of mainframe computers and distributed computing. Early adopters of those technologies were government organizations and the military, and the Air Force conducted the first-ever penetration test of their systems in 1971, using what became known as "Tiger Teams".

In 1980, the New York Times described hackers as, "technical experts; skilled, often young, computer programmers, who almost whimsically probe the defenses of a computer system, searching out the limits and possibilities of the machine". Early hacker groups included the 414s — a group of six Milwaukee teenagers who, between 1982 and 1983, broke into computers at US institutions ranging from the Los Alamos National Library to the Security Pacific Bank, using cheap PCs, analog modems, and simple password-hacking techniques. 

By 1982, groups like the Legion of Doom, Masters of Deception, and Cult of the Dead Cow had turned hacking into a widespread subculture, complete with its own magazines. John Badham's 1983 science-fiction movie, WarGames, popularized this image of the hacker as an intelligent, rebellious, and fun-loving nerd.

During the 1980s, with the increase in the number of personal computers came an increase in hacking. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986, and that same year the first computer hackers were brought to trial. However, it was with the introduction and development of the World Wide Web, beginning in the early nineties, that more serious cybercriminals emerged. 

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Hackers test not only technological systems, but legal and ethical systems as well. Hackers are broadly divided into what are known as "White-hat Hackers" and "Black-hat Hackers", the difference being that White-hat Hackers argue that they hack for the greater good. They identify system weaknesses and alert the owners, they generally do not destroy data, although they do sometimes hack for profit — albeit, in a legal fashion.

On the other side are Black-hat Hackers, who have no compunction about stealing or destroying data. Profit and causing damage is high on their list of motives, and they often brag online about their exploits. While they may come from different motivations, one thing all top hackers tend to have in common is that they were passionate about technology from an early age. At present, our list of the most famous hackers includes only males, but we're sure there are female hackers out there with some wicked skills.

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7. Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz Source: Fred Benenson/Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1986 in Highland Park, Illinois, Swartz showed an early talent for programming. By 1999, Swartz had created The Info Network, a user-created encyclopedia, and he was awarded the ArsDigita Prize.

By age 14, Swartz was part of the working group that authored the RSS 1.0 web syndication specification. RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication allows both applications and users to access updates to websites, allowing for news aggregators that constantly monitor sites for new content.

After a year of college at Stanford, Swartz was accepted to Y Combinator's first Summer Founders Program where he worked first on Infogami which was used to support the Internet Archive's Open Library project, and was one of the builders of Reddit. When Reddit was purchased by Conde Nast, Swartz became a millionaire.

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Using his hacking skills, in 2008, Swartz downloaded 2.7 million federal court documents stored on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database. While technically free, PACER charges $.10 per page for downloads, and Swartz made the downloaded documents free online.

In 2010, Swartz became a research fellow at Harvard University's Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption. This position gave Swartz access to the JSTOR digital library which contains digitized back and current issues of academic journals and books.

In September 2010, JSTOR began getting hit with massive download requests coming from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) IP address. The requests were coming from a laptop computer connected to a networking switch in an open wiring closet. University officials installed a video camera in the closet which recorded Swartz.

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While JSTOR reached a settlement with Swartz, allowing him to return the downloaded files, the U.S. Attorney's Office and MIT pursued a case against Swartz, and he was arrested near the Harvard University campus on the night of January 6, 2011.

Swartz was slapped with dozens of charges including breaking and entering with intent, and grand larceny. Swartz was facing up to 35 years of jail time plus $1 million in fines, however, during plea negotiations, prosecutors offered Swartz a six-month sentence in a low-security prison.

Swartz, fearful that his career would be over if he was labeled a felon, rejected the deal, but on January 11, 2013, he committed suicide. At his memorial service, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, delivered a eulogy. A release of documents following Swartz's death revealed that both MIT and JSTOR had asked prosecutors for all charges against Swartz to be dropped.

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6. Kevin Poulsen

Kevin Poulsen
Kevin Poulsen Source: Klpoulsen/Wikimedia Commons

June 1, 1990, was right in the middle of the radio giveaway craze. Los Angeles radio station KISS-FM was giving away a Porsche 44 S2 roadster to the 102nd caller, who turned out to be a young man named Kevin Poulsen, only Poulsen didn't win fairly, he had hacked the radio station's phone lines.

Seizing control of the radio station's 25 phone lines, Poulsen blocked all calls after the 101st call was received, allowing him to be caller number 102. Besides hacking into radio stations, Poulsen was also hacking into telephone provider Pacific Bell, government and military computers including those of government contractor SRI, the Rand Corp., and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

When caught, Poulsen was only 17-years-old, and his only punishment was the loss of his Radio Shack computer. SRI even hired Poulsen at the then-princely sum of $35,000 a year to perform penetration tests on computer systems.

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Everything was going swimmingly for Poulsen until someone named "John Anderson" failed to pay the bill on his storage unit. The owner of the storage facility opened the locker and immediately called the police. Inside the storage unit were lock picks, blanks for false IDs and birth certificates, and phone company communications equipment, manuals, and tools.

Poulsen vanished into the underground, and in October of 1990, his case was featured on the TV program "Unsolved Mysteries". While operators were receiving tips on hundreds of phones, suddenly all the phones went dead.

When FBI agents showed up at Poulsen's family's home in Los Angeles, the phone rang and it was Poulsen on the line, taunting the G-men. When they traced the call, it came back as originating from Pacific Bell itself.

After being found and convicted in 1991, Poulsen served five years in prison. Upon his release, he became a journalist, and became a senior editor at Wired News in 2005. In 2019, Poulsen outed the person responsible for posting a fake video that showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her words. Earlier, his work identified 744 registered sex offenders using MySpace to solicit sex from children. Poulsen, Aaron Swartz, and James Dolan designed and developed SecureDrop, which is used the world over by journalists for secure communications with their sources.

5. Michael Calce

Michael Calce
Michael Calce Source: Facebook

Calce, known as "MafiaBoy", got his first computer at age 6. On February 7, 2000, when Calce was 14-years-old, he launched a distributed-denial-of-service (DDS) attack against Yahoo! which at the time was the largest search engine on the web.

Calce didn't stop there, he also brought down eBay, CNN, and Amazon over the course of the next week. An attack against Dell was initially unsuccessful, but a subsequent attack was successful, and when Calce claimed responsibility for it, he came to the attention of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

On September 12, 2001, the Montreal Youth Court sentenced Calce to eight months of home arrest, one year of probation, and restricted his use of the Internet. Some analysts have put the cost of Calce's attack at $1.2 billion, while the Canadian court put the figure at $7.5 million.

Calce's attack in part contributed to the collapse of Web 1.0 that occurred in the very early 2000s. Today, Calce works as a white-hat hacker, helping companies identify security flaws in their systems and design better security features. In 2008, Calce wrote a book, Mafiaboy: How I Cracked the Internet and Why It's Still Broken."

4. Mathew Bevan and Richard Pryce

Mathew Bevan
Mathew Bevan Source: Kuji/Wikimedia Commons

It's not everyone who can say that they almost started World War III, but Bevan and Pryce definitely can. Both were teenagers when they connected with one another on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in their native Great Britain.

After stumbling onto a cache of documents about UFOs, government cover-ups, and conspiracy theories on a fellow hacker's website, Bevan made it his mission to uncover hidden truths about UFOs.

By April 1994, Pryce had conducted repeated computer break-ins at the Pentagon, the Rome Laboratory at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York, NASA, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base which was the repository for the military's UFO files.

From the Rome Laboratory, Pryce accessed a computer at the Korean Atomic Research Institute, and downloaded their database onto a computer at Griffiss. If North Korea had detected an intrusion coming from an American military base, the results could have been catastrophic, but the facility was actually located in South Korea.

While Pryce was arrested in London in 1994, it took two more years before Bevan could be tracked down in Cardiff, Wales. In March 1996, Pryce was fined £1,200 while charges against Bevan were dropped. Bevan went on to become a software developer at Nintendo, then created his own software firm.

3. Albert Gonzalez

Albert Gonzalez
Albert Gonzalez Source: Secret Service/Wikimedia Commons

The model definition of a Black-hat Hacker, Gonzalez was barely out of his teens when he formed the ShadowCrew hacking group, which trafficked more than 1.5 million stolen credit card and ATM numbers. They also trafficked counterfeit documents such as passports, driver's licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, debit cards, birth certificates, college student identification cards, and health insurance cards.

Besides Gonzalez, hackers from the U.S. and those from Bulgaria, Belarus, Canada, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine, and the Netherlands were swept up. Gonzalez, however, avoided jail time by providing evidence to the Secret Service.

It was while he was supposedly cooperating with authorities that Gonzalez hacked into TJX Companies, the parent company of TJMaxx and Marshalls, and the companies DSW, Office Max, Barnes & Noble, and Sports Authority. From TJX Companies alone, more than 45.6 million credit and debit card numbers were stolen.

Authorities seized from Gonzalez over $1.6 million in cash. On March 25, 2010, Gonzalez was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $1.65 million, a Miami condominium, and his BMW 330i automobile. He is scheduled for release on December 4, 2025.

2. Jonathan James

Jonathan James
Jonathan James Source: Naranj8/Wikimedia Commons

Between August of 1999 and October of that year, authorities detected intrusions into the computer systems of BellSouth, the Miami-Dade School District, and computers at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the Department of Defense.

Included in that data was the source code for the International Space Station that controlled among other things, the temperature and humidity within the living space.

Authorities tracked the break-in to Pinecrest, Florida, and on January 26, 2000, they raided the home and arrested the teenage James. Taking a plea deal, James was sentenced to seven months' house arrest and probation. When a routine test turned up drugs in James's system, his probation was revoked and he served six months in an Alabama prison.

In January 2008, when the hacks on TJX and other companies occurred, the authorities detected someone whose initials were "J. J." as being part of the scheme. While James swore that he had nothing to do with that crime, he may have feared he would be prosecuted regardless, and he killed himself. He left a suicide note that said, in part, "I have no faith in the 'justice' system."

1. Kevin Mitnick

Kevin Mitnick
Kevin Mitnick Source: Matthew Griffiths/Wikimedia Commons

As a kid, Los Angeles resident Kevin Mitnick was always fascinated with how things worked. His curiosity led him to ham radio during his high school years, then Mitnick got interested in the L.A. bus system. He noticed that bus drivers used a punch to mark transfer slips, and he convinced a bus driver to tell him where he could purchase a similar punch by telling him it was for a school project.

Mitnick then dove into a dumpster next to the bus company garage where unused transfer slips were thrown out, and soon he could ride anywhere he wanted for free. Next, Mitnick became fascinated with Pacific Bell's phone system, and he frequently dove into dumpsters outside of Pacific Bell's offices looking for discarded manuals. Mitnick's alleged hack into the North American Defense Command (NORAD), which he has always denied conducting, served as the inspiration for the 1983 film, War Games.

In 1979, when Mitnick was 16-years-old, he hacked into Digital Equipment Corporation's system where he copied their RSTS/E operating system. For that crime, he began serving a 12-month sentence in 1988 along with three years of supervised release. Just before his three years of probation were to end, Mitnick hacked into Pacific Bell's computers, and a warrant for his arrest was issued.

Mitnick fled, staying on the lam for two-and-a-half years during which time he hacked into dozens of companies' computers using cloned cell phones. On February 15, 1995, the FBI caught up with Mitnick at his apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was charged with wire fraud, interception of wire or electronic communications, and unauthorized access to a federal computer.

Pleading guilty, Mitnick was sentenced to five years in prison, and spent eight months of that time in solitary confinement after the FBI convinced a judge that Mitnick could whistle into one of the jail's payphones, access NORAD, and start a nuclear war. Mitnick denies this was ever possible, and blames media reporting for creating an atmosphere of fear around his abilities.

In a CNN interview, Mitnick said that the claims he might hack NORAD were based on, "fictional events that were tied to real events, like when I took code from Motorola and Nokia when I was a hacker to look at the source code. That was true, that was the truth ... But a lot of accusations I wasn't charged with. If I hacked into NORAD or wiretapped the FBI, I certainly would have been charged with it. I got into trouble largely because of my actions. However, because of the media reporting, I was treated as "Osama bin Mitnick." "

Released from prison in January 2000, Mitnick became a computer security consultant, forming Mitnick Secuirty Consulting LLC. In 2002, Mitnick wrote a book about his exploits entitled, The Art of Deception. Additionally, the New York Times writer John Markoff, and security researcher Tsutomu Shimomura, wrote a book entitled, Takedown, that described the pursuit of Mitnick. That book was turned into the 2000 film, Track Down.

Learn more about hacking

If you want to learn more about hacking and hackers, some great books are: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick, and The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll.

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