Security

The top 10 hackers of all time

Black hat, white hat, or somewhere in between, hackers have had a huge impact on the evolution of information technology. See if you agree that these 10 hackers belong on this list.

Hacking is not a recent invention. In fact, it has been around since the 1930s, although not always associated with computers. Here's a rundown of some of the most noteworthy hackers in history.

1: Kevin Mitnick

Kevin Mitnick, once considered the most-wanted cybercriminal in the United States, is often touted as the poster child of computer hacking. Kevin mastered an early form of social engineering (scamming operators) and computer hacking to gain access to and modify telephony switching systems. After a very public two-year chase, arrest ,and incarceration, the hacker community collectively rose in protest against what they viewed as a witch hunt.

2: Robert Tappan Morris

On November 2, 1988, Robert Morris released a worm that brought down one-tenth of the Internet. With the need for social acceptance that seems to infect many young hackers, Morris made the mistake of chatting about his worm for months before he actually released it on the Internet, so it didn't take long for the police to track him down. Morris said it was just a stunt and added that he truly regretted wreaking $15 million worth of damage, the estimated amount of carnage caused by his worm.

3: Vladimir Levin

Seeming like the opening of a James Bond movie, Vladimir Levin was working on his laptop in 1994 from his St. Petersburg, Russia, apartment. He transferred $10 million from Citibank clients to his own accounts around the world. As with most Bond movies, Levin's career as a hacker was short lived -- with a capture, imprisonment, and recovery of all but $400,000 of the original $10 million.

4: Yan Romanowski

Yan Romanowski, also known as MafiaBoy, was arrested in February 2000 for launching a denial-of-service attack that brought down many of the Internet's largest sites, including Amazon, eBay, and Yahoo. Yan's lawyer claimed, "If [MafiaBoy] had used all his powers, he could have done unimaginable damage." It is widely believed that Romanowski is no more than a script kiddie. His attacks, however successful, were implemented using computer scripts that clogged networks full of garbage data.

5: Kevin Poulsen

Kevin Poulsen, known as Dark Dante in the hacker community, specialized in hacking phone systems, particularly radio stations. This talent allowed only calls originating from his house to make it through to the station, assuring him of wins in listener radio contests. His iconic 1991 hack was a takeover of all of the telephone lines for the Los Angeles KIIS-FM radio station, guaranteeing that he would be the 102nd caller and win the prize of a Porsche 944 S2. The bold Poulsen was wanted by the FBI for federal computer hacking at the same time he was winning the Porsche and $20,000 in prize money at a separate station. Poulsen spent 51 months in a federal prison, the longest sentence of a cybercriminal at that time.

6: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

The now-famous founders of Apple Computer spent part of their youth as hackers. They spent their pre-Apple days (circa 1971) building Blue Box devices (an early phreaking tool allowing users to make long distance calls without the financial charges) and selling them to fellow students at the University of California, Berkeley.

7: David Smith

Smith's fame comes from being the author of the infamous email virus known as Melissa. According to Smith, the Melissa virus was never meant to cause harm, but its simple means of propagation (each infected computer sent out multiple infected emails) overloaded computer systems and servers around the world. Smith's virus was unusual in that it was originally hidden in a file containing passwords to 80 well-known pornography Web sites. Even though more than 60,000 email viruses have been discovered, Smith is the only person to go to federal prison in the United States for sending one.

8: Jonathan James

James gained notoriety when he became the first juvenile, at age 16, to be sent to prison for hacking. James specialized in hacking high-profile government systems, such as NASA and the Department of Defense. He was reported to have stolen software worth more than $1.7 million.

9: George Hotz

While George Hotz may be a renowned jailbreak artist, he's best known for being named as the primary reason for the April 2011 PlayStation breach. As one of the first hackers to jailbreak the Sony PlayStation 3, Hotz found himself in the middle of a very mean, public, and messy court battle with Sony -- perhaps because of his public release of his jailbreaking methods. In stated retaliation, the hacker group Anonymous attacked Sony in what has been the most costly security break of all time. Hotz denied any responsibility for the attack and said, "Running homebrew and exploring security on your devices is cool; hacking into someone else's server and stealing databases of user info is not cool."

10: Gary McKinnon

In 2002, a decidedly odd message appeared on a U.S. Army computer: "Your security system is crap," it read. "I am Solo. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels." It was later found to be the work of Gary McKinnon, a Scottish system administrator. Gary has been accused of mounting the largest ever hack of U.S. government computer networks -- including Army, Air Force, Navy, and NASA systems. The court has recommended that McKinnon be extradited to the United States to face charges of illegally accessing 97 computers, causing $700,000 in damage. Adding even more interest to McKinnon's actions is his insistence that much of his hacking was in search of information on UFOs, information he believed the U.S. government was hiding in its military computers.

Alan Wlasuk is managing partner of 403 Web Security, a full-service secure Web application development company.

20 comments
puppy249
puppy249

don't think hackers should be given to hard a punishment rather they can be used to better the cyber world


online
online

I'm amazed that Tech Republic is allowed to get away with this by its readers. These are not "hackers" -- they're criminals, or perhaps "crackers." Hackers are people who use their skills to make things work...perhaps not in ways expected or even condoned, but practically. Richard Stallman is a great hacker. Woz is a great hacker. Lee Felsenstein is a great hacker. So is John Draper (Cap'n Crunch), though some of his acts were indeed illegal. Even Gates and Allen were hackers, creating their BASIC language without the benefit of the machine it was being written for. These are the kinds of names I expected to see, not those who set out only to use their skills for greed and mayhem.

eanderson
eanderson

From Wikipedia, "Markus Hess, a German citizen, is best known for his endeavours as a hacker in the late 1980s. Hess was recruited by the KGB to be an international spy with the objective of securing U.S. military information for the Soviets." [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markus_Hess]

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

This list seems to only cover a few folks with hacking skill that lead to criminal ends. How about doing a list of 10 top hackers from within the law? Johnny Long - http://www.hackersforcharity.org/ - physical and computer security hacker, founder of Hackers For Charity Dan Kaminsky - the hacker who discovered and reported critical issues in DNS Moxy Marlinspike - the hacker who discoverd and reported issues in SSL HD Moore - creator of Metasploit - standardized exploit research by developing a framework security professionals (security hackers) could work within The guys who created TCP/IP and the internet - hackers and far more "top 10 hackers" than anyone listed given that they created the internet we now inhabit. The guys from the model train club who literally started computer Hackerdom. It would be a fear more interesting list than this "10 people who committed crimes and happen to be Hacker problem solvers".

Simon_T
Simon_T

Yan Romanowski is the name of the lawyer for MafiaBoy. If you check wikipedia and google, both list the real name of MafiaBoy as Michael Calce.

mlglaw
mlglaw

Surely, no one can argue that the writer of STUXNET is not the alltime master and far superior to everyone else.

yawningdogge
yawningdogge

Dan Kaminsky. He owned the entire internet by discovering the most deadly DNS cache-poisoning vulnerability of all time.

mig25jet
mig25jet

Would the writer of the THE STONED VIRUS please stand up! In my opinion, yours was the ONLY "virus" out there. (Not trojans, worms, bombs, etc) It truly infected / relpicated itself so well. When I finally found it on my PC, I stepped thru it with a debugger. It was obviously written in machine code. The way it deftly stepped over and around the Operating System was genius! (It was benign if your disk wasn't too full.) My conclusion is that it could only have come from at Microsoft itself. Anybody at MS gonnna own up to this one?

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

These are the most notorious that were caught. It's kind of like trolling the highest profile malpractice suits to find the best doctors of all time.

vitamin.delta
vitamin.delta

The "Hacker" by definition has been so boiled and brewed into a media hype word that its ridiculous. Crackers are what these guys are, (illegal crackers some of them). Either way, there's nothing really wrong with exploiting security with the right guidance and permission. However, like anything, with great power comes great responsibility. When you have this precious information in hand, do you steal it? Or do you let the superiors know that "Hey, beef up your security if you want to keep your secrets, secret."? It's why we're made to change passwords regularly, using complex or hard to guess patterns. It's why we have firewalls, to stop firewalls. It's why we have locks: To keep honest thieves honest. Cracker: One who maliciously cracks, (i.e. overcomes) computer software or security restrictions. Hackers - A person who displays skill, particularly with computers Simple enough?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

This is blatant propaganda... shows that the tide is turning, they didn't have to defend their "truth" ten years ago, but now they have to.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

fixed it for you. :D (couldn't resist what with the rumours of STUX being government produced)

ITOdeed
ITOdeed

You're right, of course. Anyone who understands and uses machine code instructions and processor architecture can hack at will. The best hackers in the world are the ones who roam the world wide web with total freedom and nobody even knows they were there. Only an idiot would call attention to themselves by bragging about it. Only the shadow knows. :-)

pgit
pgit

Of course getting caught might look like a failure, but then in these cases, especially KM, they were notorious because they were the best and brightest... of course the authorities would put a lot of resources into finding them, and crow about it afterward. I think it's more valid today to say that getting caught = not a good cracker/hacker. But in the wild west days or yore, these guys were the Jesse James and Billy the Kids of the digital world.

mark
mark

They might have been right up there with the best, but they got caught. What about Captain Crunch? Where is he in the list of all time hackers? The best hackers are the ones that are found by the various government intelligence agencies and are offered jobs rather than doing time.

ed34222
ed34222

Officials basically confirmed it, unofficially of course. It was a cooperative effort between the US and Israeli governments and the company that made the centrifuges, that were used by Iran. That virus set Iran's nuke program back years. The whole world owes its authors a debt of gratitude.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The top criminals of the Wild West era were the railroad barons and their ilk. They were all too happy with these gunslinging brutes distracting the public. Likewise: The top crackers of the twenty-first-and-second century are (so far) the economic crackers who caused the current financial crisis. You'll know they're they best exactly because you don't know who they are. As in Scott Free.

dayen
dayen

I agree with AnsuGisalas the best are not caught and can either hide the crime for a long period time or blame someone else. the object of a good hack is don't get caught

pgit
pgit

Points well taken. Of course "crime" is as relative as anything, mostly speaking. Whoever controls the most money no doubt has a say in what "crime" is and who's engaged in it. Yes, the robber barons were some of the biggest criminals ever, overshadowed now by today's wall street banksters. The latter has gotten away with the biggest heist in global history with this "too big to fail" bailout baloney. But as you say, there's no public face on any of the biggest criminals. Too bad, 1/2 of the "financial sector" should be wearing orange jump suits and handcuffs, and be paraded in and out of jail for the 'perp walk' shot on the nightly news...

Editor's Picks