Hackers, whether they be white hat or black hat, push the envelopes of security and software design. These are 10 hackers who innovated new approaches to cyberspace.
Some of the most important breakthroughs in computer technology haven’t come from big companies, but rather from lone wolves. Hackers, whether they be white hat or black hat, push the envelopes of security and software design. In this feature, we’ll spotlight 10 hackers who innovated new approaches to cyberspace, whether through technology, social engineering or something else.
Dubbed the Homeless Hacker by the media, Adrian Lamo proved that electronic espionage could be carried out from any location. Lamo worked as a “grey hat,” meaning that he took jobs from corporations to test their security systems but used immoral or illegal tools to do his work. With no fixed place of residence, Lamo would tote his laptop to Internet cafes, libraries and other open hotspots, disguising his trail expertly. Most recently, he grabbed headlines by outing WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, and is currently in hiding.
The whiz kid on this list, Jonathan “c0mrade” James was a mere lad of 15 when he gained access to a litany of very desirable computer networks, including the United States Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Agency. Literally nobody should have been able to worm their way in there, but the teenage Florida hacker did it. Because he was a juvenile, he dodged a prison sentence, but it wasn’t long before he was in trouble for a massive credit-card data-collection program that compromised shoppers of OfficeMax, Barnes and Noble, and many other huge retailers. Knowing the end was in sight, James killed himself in 2008.
Robert Tappan Morris
Many of the tools used by modern day cybercriminals were developed by accident. When Robert Tappan Morris released his “Morris Worm” in 1988, he had no idea that it would lay the groundwork for the next few decades of malicious software. Morris just wanted to use his self-replicating program to gauge the size of the Internet as a grad student at Cornell, but it rapidly spread and, because of a failsafe, started slowing operating systems and causing a massive drain on productivity. Morris was the first person ever sentenced under the new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and has stayed on the right side of the law ever since.
The head of the international hacking syndicate known as “Shadow Crew” makes this list for his incredible theft and resale of over 170 million ATM card numbers, the largest crime of that nature in history. Using SQL injections, he compromised multiple financial companies — most notably CJX and Heartland Payment Systems — and raked in insane amounts of cash. His innovation was understanding that computer crime could pay big money. Gonzalez was never in it for the thrill of exploration and discovery like some of his counterparts; he was a pure mercenary, and now he’s serving 20 years in jail.
The legendary hacker known as Cap’n Crunch perfectly illustrates the “anything goes” approach to technology that the best minds have. Crunch got his nickname when, as a young man, he discovered that a toy whistle given away for free in boxes of cereal perfectly emitted the 2600-hertz tone that AT&T phone systems used to communicate an open line. He used that knowledge to build “blue boxes,” little electronic devices that enabled the phone phreakers of the day to make unlimited calls to wherever they wanted. He was arrested in 1972 and given five years probation, but went on to develop one of the first word-processing programs.
Probably the most famous hacker of all time, Kevin Mitnick started using social engineering to bend the rules to his own benefit at the age of 12. Motivated by nothing besides the challenge, Mitnick used a wide variety of tools to penetrate computer systems, from advanced software to his own ingenuity. What made him so innovative was his willingness to go in person to the physical location of his targets, in direct contradiction to the image of a hacker as someone who never leaves their computer den. The best hackers can manipulate people as easily as they do machines, and that was Mitnick’s forte.
Military and government servers are the most precious jewels that hackers pursue, so the exploits of British computer criminal Gary McKinnon are hard to believe. Over a 13-month period, McKinnon accessed 97 U.S. military and NASA computer networks, putting up notices that read “Your security is crap.” He had no financial motivation for perpetrating these intrusions, just a grudge against the United States. He was caught, but is currently using a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome as a reason he shouldn’t go to prison for his actions.
Some hackers are actually trying to use their powers for good. German computer-science student Sven Jaschan was just trying to develop a solution to the MyDoom and Bagle worms that were infesting computers in 2004. Naturally, he fixed on another worm that would identify infected computers and remove variants of the worms, letting users identify and purge the malicious software. Unfortunately, Jaschan’s invention, the NetSky worms, proved to be just as damaging as the worms it was targeting, but he has to get points for innovation.
It’s common knowledge that the future of warfare will be fought in cyberspace as well as the physical battlefield, and no hacker has displayed more innovation for online warfare than Israeli-born Ehud “The Analyzer” Tenenbaum. At 19, he infiltrated NASA, the Air Force, the Pentagon and dozens of other high-security networks, even taking down Hamas’s website. The United States thought they were dealing with a concerted Iraqi online attack, only to be flabbergasted when it turned out to be one Israeli teen. After he served his prison sentence, Tenenbaum went briefly straight before getting busted again in a credit-card scam.
Hackers have needed to evolve with the times, and the one man who has shown where the true money can come from in data access is hacker Cameron Lacroix. Known in online circles as “cam0,” Lacroix was the Massachusetts teen who weaseled his way into Paris Hilton’s cellular phone in 2005 and leaked incriminating photos of the heiress to the public. That kind of hacking laid the groundwork for dozens of other incursions into the private lives of celebrities, something America can’t seem to get enough of.
The 10 most innovative hackers of all time