Sometimes hackers are so impressive that the “work” they do inspires books and movies to be written about them. They obtain loyal followers who are intrigued by the amount of security they can get through. However, what happens to them after their hacking days are disrupted by law enforcement and their hacks are no longer making headlines? Listed below are five well known hackers, what they became known for, and where they are now.
In 1975, at the age of 12, Kevin Mitnick began his hacking career by using social engineering to bypass the punchcard system in the Los Angeles bus system. By 1979 he broke into his first network. He found his way into Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) computer network to steal software and was ultimately caught and arrested for it. In 1988 he was convicted for the crime and sentenced to 12 months in prison with three years of supervision afterwards. During his supervision, he hacked into Pacific Bell and, again, a warrant went out for his arrest. After fleeing for a few years, he was apprehended in 1995 and sentenced to a total of 68 months in prison for violating his original supervision terms and committing several federal offenses while he was a fugitive. Released in 2000, he was initially forbidden to use anything but a landline. He fought the ruling in court and was eventually given permission to use the Internet. Nowadays, Mitnick uses his skills for good instead of evil. He owns Mitnick Security Consulting, gives security presentations to businesses, and is the author of the upcoming book Ghost in the Wires.
2. Jonathan James
At just 16 years old, Jonathan James was the first juvenile to be sentenced to prison for hacking. His early hacking included the BellSouth Corporation and the Miami-Dade school system in southern Florida. But his hacking into the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the US Department of Defense, is what brought him to the attention of federal authorities. He created a backdoor to the DTRA, which allowed him to view sensitive emails and gather the usernames and passwords of employees. James’s hacking of this system led to him obtaining NASA information that controlled the physical environment of the International Space Station, including temperature and humidity of the living space. NASA spent $41,000 and three weeks checking and fixing their computer systems. James’s house was raided in January of 2000 and he was formally indicted six months later. After violating his initial parole, he spent six months in a federal correctional facility. Unfortunately James suffered from depression and, after believing he would be wrongfully convicted of a crime, committed suicide in May 2008. His suicide note wrote, “I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”
3. Robert Morris
Robert Tappan Morris created the first computer worm to be unleashed on the Internet. He released the worm in 1988 from MIT, to conceal his actual attendance to Cornell University. The worm’s intent was to count how many machines were connected to the Internet. It did this by testing if the worm was already present on the machine and, if false, copied itself to the system. To combat possible false positives, Morris instructed the bug to copy itself 14% of the time regardless of the test’s outcome. The worm resulted in copying itself an excessive amount, which resulted in computers being slown down to the point of being unusable. An estimated 6,000 machines were impacted, a large number for a time when computers weren’t in every home. Though he served no jail time, Morris was sentenced to three years probation, community service, and a fine of $10,000. Today, Morris is a professor at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He primarily researches computer network architectures, including distributed hash tables such as Chord and wireless mesh networks such as Roofnet.
4. Kevin Poulsen
In the 1980’s, Kevin Poulsen was a notorious hacker known to many by his handle, Dark Dante. He worked at SRI International during the day, and would turn to hacking at night. He taught himself lock picking, and engrossed in a brash spree of high-tech stunts that made him one of America’s best-known cyber-criminals. One of the many criminal acts he accomplished was reactivating old Yellow Page escort telephone numbers for an acquaintance that then ran a virtual escort agency. He also hacked into a Los Angeles radio station and took over all of their phone lines, guaranteeing he would be the certain caller who would win a Porsche. He was arrested in 1991 and pleaded guilty in 1994 to several accounts of mail, wire, and computer fraud. He was sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay $56,000 in damages. At the time of the ruling, this was the longest sentence to ever be given out for hacking. When Poulsen was released from prison, he became a journalist and left his criminal past behind him. He became a writer at the security research firm SecurityFocus until 2005 when he left to become a senior editor at Wired News, where he still is today.
5. John Draper
John Draper is a legend in the hacker community. Known as Captain Crunch, he received the nickname after using a toy whistle that came in a box of cereal. The whistle’s frequency happened to match the frequency that was used by AT&T long lines, the same frequency used to indicate that a trunk line was ready and available to route a new call. Knowing this, he could disconnect one end of a call and enter the other end into an operator mode. After experimenting with this, he used it to create blue boxes that could reproduce other tones used by the phone company. Attention was brought to him in 1971 after an article was published that told the world about phone phreaking. He was arrested on toll fraud and sentenced to five years probation. Also due to the article, he was contacted by Steve Wozniak and briefly worked at Apple, helping create an interface board for the Apple II personal computer. Draper claimed his reasons for phone phreaking were to learn about a system and not to use it for negative purposes. Today, Draper writes computer security software, is a senior developer for a VoIP client, and is a host for an Internet TV show, Crunch TV.
Growth Opportunity for Hackers Today?
While Wikibon doesn’t advocate creating worms and viruses, the skill of hacking can be put to good use. Everyone can’t end up an MIT professor, but hacking is also a necessary skill for data scientists. Many hackers find it thrilling and love the challenge, but end up where they don’t want to be. Be smart and put your valuable skills to good use, not evil.