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6 Most Famous Hackers in History

Hackers do what they do for many reasons. Sometimes it’s in the name of social justice, sometimes it’s a bored genius with something to prove, and other times it’s just plain greed. Regardless of their motives, you have to agree that these are brilliant and highly motivated individuals. Here’s a look at some of the most famous hackers in history.

1. Kevin Mitnick

This young man was once dubbed “the most wanted computer criminal in U.S. history” by the Department of Justice. In 1982, he broke into NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), inspiring the 1983 film “War Games.” He’s also hacked into Digital Equipment Corporation, Nokia, Motorola, and the Pacific Bell voicemail database. After serving a prison sentence, he now runs his own cyber security company. We’re betting it’s a good one.

2. Gary McKinnon, aka “Solo”

This computer prodigy was single-handedly responsible for executing the largest military computer hack of all time. Initially, he was interested in UFOs and believed that the U.S. government knew all about them and was hiding the information from the public. He also thought that the government knew about free public-access energy sources and was concealing those, too.

Operating out of his girlfriend’s aunt’s home in London, this feisty Scot broke into nearly 100 computers belonging to NASA and the U.S. military. He quickly developed a taste for anarchy and began deleting files and leaving taunting messages for the U.S. cyber security team such as “Your security is crap.” McKinnon managed to shut down the military’s entire Washington network — more than 2,000 computers — for 24 hours.

After a decade-long attempt to extradite McKinnon to the U.S. for prosecution, Home Secretary Theresa May made a decision to stop the extradition process on the grounds of maintaining his human rights. McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and was suffering from severe depression. Theresa May saved him from what could have been 60 years in an American prison.

3. Jonathan James, aka “cOmrade”

Another NASA fan, James had been hacking into government and commercial computer systems since he was old enough to type. He was even imprisoned while still a minor — the first one in America to serve jail time for cybercrime. His claim to fame was hacking NASA’s system and downloading enough source code to practically build the International Space Station. The cash value of the stolen code was estimated at nearly $2 million.

James’ hacking career didn’t have nearly as happy an ending as McKinnon’s, however. When a group of corporations (including TJX, Boston Market, Forever 21, and OfficeMax) was attacked in 2007, James was accused. He was friends with the hackers involved but utterly denied any involvement in the attacks. Believing he would be convicted for crimes he didn’t commit, he took his own life in 2008.

4. Albert Gonzalez, aka “Cumbajohnny,” “Soupnazi,” and More

Gonzalez was the ringleader of the hacker group that was responsible for the aforementioned corporate attack. As young as 14, he was already hacking into NASA’s computers (they were a popular target, indeed) and forming alliances with other hackers. His circle was known as the ShadowCrew.

They stole millions of ATM and credit card numbers, opened a members-only online shop, and sold the data to the thousands of registered customers on the site. They also trafficked in fake passports, birth certificates, driver licenses, and other tools for identity theft. Gonzalez used his ill-gained wealth to stay in fancy hotels and once threw himself a $75,000 birthday party.

Gonzalez was responsible for the theft of more than 170 million credit card numbers from 2005 to 2007 alone and was heavily involved in the TJX attacks for which Jonathan James was also investigated. This is said to be the single-largest act of computer fraud to date. In 2010, Gonzalez was given a 20-year sentence in federal prison for his crimes. Maybe he should have focused on hacktivism instead of greed.

5. Kevin Poulsen, aka “Dark Dante”

Another computer hacker who couldn’t resist the financial honeypot was Kevin Poulsen. He used his hacker skills to break into the phone company’s network and take control of every phone line for Los Angeles-based radio station KIIS-FM. When their contest to win a Porsche 944 S2 began, can you guess who made himself the winning 102nd caller?

Once the FBI caught on, Kevin went rogue. When his story appeared on NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries,” in an effort to track him down, all of the show’s toll-free phone lines mysteriously crashed. The FBI did catch up with Poulsen, eventually, and he was given a five-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

Dark Dante’s story ends well, however. He still lives in sunny California but is now a journalist and a senior editor at Wired magazine. He also does software development and serves as a technical advisor for the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

6. Anonymous

Anonymous is not an individual but a loosely associated group of hacktivists that got its start in 2003. They’re known for ethical hacking and have hit many government institutions, mega-corporations, and political groups. Most famously, Anonymous managed to bring down the Church of Scientology’s website in 2008. Members were marching around Scientology centers all over the world, wearing the now-famous Guy Fawkes masks used in the film “V for Vendetta.”

Under the name Anonymous, hackers have executed numerous social justice maneuvers. They’ve interfered with the workings of the Westboro Baptist Church, various child pornography sites, and branches of the U.S. government. Members wearing masks (though not always of the iconic Guy Fawkes variety) have shown up at countless protests and direct actions and were staunch supporters of the Occupy movement.

Since Anonymous has no central leadership, law enforcement and private corporate-security teams find it impossible to eradicate Anonymous and its members. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Whether you believe in their causes or not, one thing is certain — hackers are a fascinating bunch. To learn more about the dark side of the digital world, check out #WarGames, Eko’s series of interactive stories. You make the decisions, as Kelly and her hacker friends become immersed in a tale of internet intrigue, deceit, and vengeance.

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