Thanks to a few prominent attacks, the word "hacker" has likely shown up in your news feed pretty often in the last year. And it's likely to pop up a lot more.
Hackers can target bank information, PIN numbers, passwords—like they did with Target and other retail giants—but they also can stroke mayhem by shutting down a widely-used site or service. There's others types of sensitive information that can also be targeted: last year Hollywood celebrities had their iCloud accounts hacked, and their nude photos were released to the public. Additionally, Sony's emails and other documents were leaked, allegedly by hackers from North Korea. These types of attacks were done by "Black hat" hackers. Why the nickname? Because not all hackers are in it for the destruction. "Black hat" hackers hack to exploit data, "White hat" hackers hack to make systems more secure (and make money legally), and "Grey hat" hackers fall somewhere in between. The ones that make the 5 o'clock news are likely going to be black hat.
Here are 15 of the most dangerously skilled hackers to have taunted governments, brought down websites, and made millions for themselves—before finally getting caught.
Jeanson James Ancheta
Owen Thor Walker
Alias: Dark Dante
Kevin Poulsen was the first American to be banned from the Internet and computers after being released from prison. In the late '80s and early '90s, Poulsen hacked into phone lines. He became famous when he hacked into the lines of L.A. radio station KIIS FM so that he would be the 102nd caller—winning him a Porsche. When the FBI went looking for him, he went on the run (and when he appeared on the show Unsolved Mysteries, the phone lines for the television station crashed by, you know, coincidence). When he was caught, he served five years in prison and was banned for three years from using the Internet or computers.
He's now a writer for Wired, and wrote an article about sex offenders on MySpace that got one person arrested. Tweet him here.
Alias: The Condor, The Darkside Hacker
Kevin Mitnick didn't refer to what he was doing as hacking—instead, he liked to call it "social engineering."
He started "social engineering" when he was 15, when he learned how to bypass the punch card system for Los Angeles city buses by finding tickets in a dumpster and getting a bus driver to tell him where he could buy his own ticket punch. Later he graduated to the big time by breaking into the networks of Pacific Bell, Nokia, IBM, Motorola, and a few other companies.
When he was arrested in 1995, his skills were so threatening to the judge ruling over his case that he was placed in solitary confinement because it was thought he could start a nuclear war by whistling codes into a payphone. After serving 12 months in prison and going on three years of supervised release, he continued hacking, and went on the run for almost three years using cloned cell phones to hide his location. He was sentenced to prison for four years in 1999, and was the most-wanted computer criminal in the country at the time.
Now he's a security consultant (aka: White hat) and is the author of two books. You can tweet him here.
To ring in the new millennium, Michael Calce launched denial-of-services attacks against Amazon, CNN, eBay, Yahoo!, and Dell. Back then, Yahoo! was the world's leading search engine before Google, and Calce's attack—which he dubbed Project Rivolta—caused it to go down for about an hour. President Bill Clinton convened a cybersecurity task force and the country was on the hunt for "Mafiaboy." He was caught a short time later after he bragged about the attacks in a chat room. In 2001, he was sentenced to eight months of open custody, restricted use of the Internet, and a small fine. A little lenient for such a big attack, no? Well, yeah it was, because Calce was still in high school at the time. "The sense of power I felt was overwhelming," he wrote. "It was also addictive."
Today he's a White hat hacker for large companies.
Matthew Bevan and Richard Pryce
Syrian Electronic Army
The Syrian Electronic Army is a unique group. They sprung up in 2011, and backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (it's thought they could be supported by the Syrian government). While the group isn't very sophisticated, they've attacked a large number of high-profile organizations and hundreds of websites. They primarily use spamming, malware, phishing, and denial of service attacks. Their first two years of existence saw just a handful of attacks, but in 2013 and 2014 the group launched dozens each year.
Highlights include their hacking of President Barack Obama's Twitter account:
And the AP:
Of course, they even have their own Twitter account.
By far the best hacking group to have gotten its style cues from a comic book character, Anonymous is comprised of "hacktivists" who get involved in political and international events. The group originated on 4chan around 2003, when members posting under the alias "anonymous" started the joke that there was a single person with the name Anonymous who's been talking to himself the whole time. The collective was associated with pranks and trolling until 2008, when they launched a coordinated attack on the Church of Scientology under the name "Project Chanology." They've since gotten involved with the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Charlie Hebdo, by leaking documents or taking down the websites. They launched an attack on the KKK in November, which saw them releasing identities and taking down their social media accounts.
Members of Anonymous have fractured off from the main group, forming other collectives like LulzSec. In 2008 Anonymous and LulzSec teamed together for AntiSec, after Arizona passed the immigration enforcement bill SB 1070. (LulzSec disbanded after its leader, Hector Mansegur, ratted out on other members when he was arrested by the FBI.)