Hacking has evolved dramatically since its beginnings in the 1960s and 70s. It started as a hobby for early computer enthusiasts interested in tinkering with systems and gaining unauthorized access. The original hackers- often called “white hat” hackers- were driven by curiosity and a passion for technology, not malicious intent.
Some early hacking pioneers included students at MIT like Bill Gosper, who wrote some of the first computer hacking programs. Another influential figure was John Draper aka “Captain Crunch“, who discovered how to hack into AT&T’s long-distance phone system in the early 70s.
Over time, hacking progressively became more about breaking into computer systems illegally.
This illegal hacking gained notoriety in the 1980s with the rise of adolescents like Kevin Mitnick hacking into systems like Digital Equipment Corporation and Pacific Bell. Hacking was becoming a cat-and-mouse game between computer hackers and security experts.
The proliferation of personal computers and the internet in the 90s brought hacking further into the mainstream. Hackers like Jonathan James gained notoriety as teenagers by hacking into businesses and government systems like NASA and the Department of Defense.
Hacking has become a sophisticated cybercrime industry, making billions of dollars annually. Individuals like Julian Assange use it to leak classified data, and criminal groups target businesses with ransomware and phishing scams.
However, ethical “white hat” hacking has also grown through consulting firms that help organizations find security flaws. In many ways, hacking has come full circle back to its roots of using skill and creativity to solve technical problems, both legally and illegally.
The Top 10 Hackers and Their Greatest Hacks
Hacking has been around since the early days of computers and networks. While some hackers use their skills for malicious purposes, others aim to expose vulnerabilities to help make systems more secure.
Here, we count down the top 10 most notorious hackers and their biggest hacks based on the creativity of their methods, the impact of their attacks, and the sheer audacity of their actions.
Kevin Mitnick is one of the most famous hackers in history. In high school in the 1970s, he began hacking into computer systems of some of the biggest technology and telecom companies, including Motorola, Novell, and Sun Microsystems. His hacks were aimed at obtaining source code to study cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
In 1995, Mitnick was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in jail for hacking into the computer systems of Pacific Bell and other companies. After being released, he became a respected security consultant and public speaker and authored several books on hacking and cybersecurity.
In 2000, at just 16 years old, James (aka “c0mrade”) became the first juvenile jailed for cybercrime in the United States.
His claim to fame was hacking into the systems of several businesses, including BellSouth and Miami-Dade school system.
However, his biggest hack was into NASA and Department of Defense computers, which forced NASA to shut down their computer systems, costing over $41,000 to fix the damage.
James gained access by exploiting a vulnerability in the Windows NT operating system. He installed a backdoor into the system, allowing him to view files and data.
Lamo was known as the “Homeless Hacker” because he frequently used public libraries and Internet cafes to conduct his hacks. He infiltrated the networks of major organizations like the New York Times, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and MCI WorldCom.
His biggest claim to fame was hacking into the internal computer network of The New York Times in 2002. Lamo realized the NYT did not encrypt their internal network, making it easy for him to gain access and add his name to a database of experts.
To this date, a conspiracy about his death still exists.
This infamous British hacking duo went on a rampage in the 1990s, hacking into the computer systems of the US Air Force, Pentagon, NATO, and top government agencies. They even hacked into computers remotely controlling satellites owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Their most notorious hack was taking control of Griffiss Air Force base in New York in 1994. They changed passwords, which locked out personnel, before breaking into other computers at the base and around the country. The pair were eventually caught and prosecuted by the FBI in 1996.
Julian Assange is an Australian hacker and founder of WikiLeaks, which publishes secret information and classified media from anonymous sources.
2010 WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing an airstrike in Baghdad and leaked documents about the Afghan War.
Assange was known for hacking in the late 1980s under the pseudonym “Mendax.” He infiltrated systems belonging to the US Air Force, NASA, and Australia’s Overseas.
Telecommunications Commission, as well as Citibank. He used techniques like cracking passwords and penetration testing.
In 2002, Scottish hacker Gary McKinnon hacked into nearly 100 US Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense, and NASA computers through poorly secured Windows-based systems.
He was accused of deleting files which shut down their computer network for 24 hours.
McKinnon was searching for evidence of UFOs and a supposed cover-up by the government. The US tried extraditing him, but he remained on human rights grounds in the UK due to medical concerns. It was the largest military computer hack in history, with damages over $700,000.
As a teenager in 2000, Calce (aka Mafiaboy) gained notoriety by launching a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against high-profile websites, including CNN, Yahoo!, eBay, Dell, and Amazon.
The attacks overwhelmed servers and shut down websites. His most famous DDoS attack was targeting Yahoo!. Calce flooded Yahoo! servers with fake requests, which shut down the site for over an hour.
He was eventually caught and sentenced to 8 months in juvenile detention since he was a minor at the time.
LulzSec was a black hat hacking group that hacked into the networks of several major organizations in 2011 for their own entertainment. They gained notoriety by hacking PBS, Sony Pictures, and hacking into FBI affiliate Infragard Atlanta.
Their most high-profile hack was accessing user accounts from Sony Pictures in 2011 and leaking their names, passwords, home addresses, emails, and birthdates online. The Sony attack compromised over 1 million accounts and was a major embarrassment for Sony.
Better known by his moniker “Guccifer,” Lazar is a Romanian hacker known for hacking into the email accounts of multiple high-profile victims, including politicians and celebrities.
His biggest hack was accessing email accounts belonging to members of the Bush family.
In 2013, he hacked into George W. Bush’s sister Dorothy Bush Koch’s AOL account and leaked images Bush had painted of world leaders. Lazar was sentenced to 52 months in prison in 2014 for identity theft and unauthorized access to protected computers.
Anonymous is a loosely associated international network of activist hackers known for carrying out cyberattacks on government agencies, corporations, and organizations in the name of political activism.
The group originated from the imageboard website 4chan in 2003.
Some of their biggest hacks include taking down the websites of Visa, PayPal, MasterCard, and Amazon in 2010 following their blocking of donations to WikiLeaks.
They also hacked into the computers of a geophysics company in 2011 after the FBI contracted them to survey and plot out native lands for natural gas drilling.
Protecting Yourself from Hackers
While individual hackers can cause massive damage, you can take steps to protect yourself and make your devices and systems more secure:
- Keep your software updated with the latest security patches
- Use strong passwords and enable two-factor authentication
- Be wary of phishing scams and suspicious emails/links
- Use a reputable antivirus program and firewall
- Back up your data regularly
- Avoid using public WiFi for sensitive tasks like banking
- Use encryption for sensitive data
- Disable features/ports/services you don’t use
- Restrict admin privileges only to necessary users
- Employ cybersecurity personnel to monitor your systems and test for vulnerabilities
Top Antivirus Software
Some top-rated antivirus programs to help keep your devices malware-free include:
- Bitdefender Antivirus Plus
- Kaspersky Anti-Virus
- Norton 360 Deluxe
- McAfee Total Protection
- Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus
Installing and regularly updating antivirus software from a leading cybersecurity vendor is crucial for monitoring the latest threats and protecting your data.
This, along with smart browsing habits and cybersecurity awareness, can help minimize your chances of being victimized by even the most skilled hackers.
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In addition to individual criminal hackers, hacking has become a go-to technique for nation-states looking to gain geopolitical leverage by infiltrating foreign computer systems.
Countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have invested majorly in state-sponsored hacking units and cyber espionage.
China’s cyber spying unit 61398 hacked into US commercial and government computer networks for years, stealing intellectual property from dozens of US companies. Russian hackers were implicated in hacking into email servers at the Democratic National Committee.
North Korea was accused of hacking into Sony Pictures in 2014 to discourage them from releasing a film parodying Kim Jong Un.
Governments are also accused of stockpiling zero-day exploits and sophisticated malware to deploy against adversaries. The recent WikiLeaks Vault7 documents suggest the CIA has a substantial cyberwarfare capability, with thousands of documents detailing hacking tools and techniques used to gather intelligence and infiltrate devices.
As geopolitical tensions continue in an increasingly digital world, state-sponsored hacking will likely play an even greater role in armed conflicts and espionage.
Going forward, countries will need sophisticated cyber defenses to protect critical infrastructure and sensitive data against sophisticated nation-state attacks and cybercriminals looking to cause mayhem or make money. Powerful hacking tools once limited to the realm of hackers are now very much within reach of governments.
If you want to become a hacker, then this article is your guide to becoming one. It explains everything from start to finish on the technical skills you need.