Hackers Hall of Fame

Each year in the UK 2.5 million cyber crimes are committed. And with more and more people entrusting their money and personal details to the online world, there’s little chance of that number dropping.

It poses a new frontier for governments and police authorities. A Wild West where keyboards, networks, and servers are the weapons of choice, with home grown hackers forcing entry to government sites, personal information, and even bank accounts. A Wild West with its very own famed cowboys - hacker heroes who have become almost folklore within their community.

Here we look at some of history’s most famous hackers, their work, and their legacy.

During the late 50s and early 60s, the term ‘hacker’ was used to indicate someone with a superior knowledge and ability with computers. These hackers dealt with primitive machines that made even the most basic of commands an extremely complex task, helping propel them into the annals of computer history.

The term ‘hacker’ originated with model train enthusiasts. These enthusiasts would spend time learning how to alter how their train sets ran and worked by ‘hacking’ them. Amongst them were members of MIT, the well established, world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This team of train loving, tech curious boffins applied this same interest to the then new computer systems that were being introduced into the corners of laboratories across the campus. They were a passionate bunch who looked to modify, adjust, and customise the then primitive computer programmes, not for personal gain, but to improve the user experience for others.

The most well known and enduring ‘hack’ of this period came in the 1960s from a Dennis Ritchie & Keith Thompson. Their work culminated in the creation of the C Programming Language, a language still widely used today in operating systems and application software.

The 60s were a time of exploration for hackers and computer scientists. The period was a testing ground from which modern computers would eventually spring and from this very foundation some of the world’s most famed hackers took their inspiration. 

Name: John Draper

Nationality: American

Alias: Captain Crunch

Crime: Wire Fraud

Hackers are often associated with complex screens of code, a vast knowledge of computer software, and a knack for finding loopholes. John Draper had a basic understanding of the first two, but an uncanny knack for the third.

The son of a United States Air Force engineer, Draper followed his father’s path and joined the Air Force in 1964. During that time he helped fellow service men make free phone calls home by duping local telephone switchboards, a skill most likely learned from his childhood building home radio stations. During the next few years, Draper moved from one station to another until he was honourably discharged from the Air Force as an airman first class in 1968. After this he moved into the now world famous Silicon Valley, holding down work in a number of jobs, before eventually enrolling at De Anza College where he studied part time.

While driving around in his Volkswagen Microbus testing a pirate radio transmitter he had cobbled together, Draper broadcast a number that listeners could call to provide feedback to the station’s reception.

One call back from a young man named ‘Denny’ changed Draper’s life forever.

Denny Teresi was an active member of the phone phreaking community, a culture that would study, experiment, and explore telecommunications systems. Learning of Draper’s understanding and ability with electronics, they wanted him to build a multi-frequency tone generator – a tool that would trick the AT&T phone system that was controlled by tones.

This group told Draper that a toy whistle, that was available in packaged boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal at that time, was exactly the same frequency used by AT&T to indicate that a trunk line was ready to take a call. In essence, the whistle would fool the equipment into thinking that an official telephone company operator was using the line, allowing calls to anywhere, completely free of charge.

Using this toy whistle, Draper was inspired to create blue boxes – electronic devices that were able of recreating other tones used by the AT&T company. Blue boxes quickly became widespread, and were eventually used to harass government offices, make mischief, and disrupt businesses. It was at this time that the FBI decided to make an example of the Phreak movement and arrested John Draper, who had become somewhat a figurehead within the community, in 1974.

He was convicted of wire fraud and served his sentence in California’s Lompoc Federal Prison. 

Name: Robert Tappan Morris

Nationality: American

Alias: N/A

Crime: Morris Worm

Hackers often use viruses and the internet to make their way into as many computers as possible, holding files or documents to ransom. This method of hacking began in 1988 with Robert Tappan Morris, a graduate of Cornell University.

Born in 1965, Morris was the son of renowned computer scientist Robert Morris Snr, who worked at Bell Labs. Morris Snr went on to become the chief scientist at the National Computer Security Centre, a division of the NSA.  Ironic considering that his son went on to gain notoriety for infecting hundreds, if not thousands, of machines.

The Robert Morris that has made our hall of fame, was then, well equipped for a career in computer science.

He attended Harvard and then moved onto graduate school at Cornell where Morris Jnr would cement his place in hacker history, creating the first computer worm.

Although he was studying at Cornell, he released the worm from MIT hoping that many would believe that’s where its creator studied.  Morris claims that the worm was never written to cause any damage, but to gauge the size of the fledgling web.

There was an error, however.

What was intended as a learning exercise quickly became dangerous. The problem lay in the spreading mechanism. It should have been designed to determine whether it would invade a new computer based on whether the worm was already present. But this would have made it far too easy to repel. People could just organise a process on their system that would answer ‘yes’ when the request was made, ensuring that the Morris worm stayed clear. 

To counteract this issue Morris created the worm to copy itself even where the response was ‘yes’ one out of seven times. This caused the worm to spread rapidly, infecting many machines multiple times.

The outcome was disastrous.

Multiple infections would cause computers to slow down and eventually lead to them being completely unusable. Clifford Stoll who was tasked with fighting the worm estimated that two thousand computers were infected within as little as fifteen hours. The machines that were invaded were rendered completely useless until disinfected, a job that could take up to two days at a time. The U.S Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of damages at $100,000 – $10,000,000 and indicted Morris under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – the first time the act was used.

He was sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a fine to the tune of $10,050 plus the costs of supervision. His sentence was completed in 1994, six years after releasing the worm.

His Fathers advice for computer security? “...do not own a computer; do not power it on; and do not use it” 

Name: Kevin Poulsen

Nationality: American

Alias: Dark Dante

Crime: Black Hat Hacking

There are several types of hacking, the main two of which are black hat hacking and white hat hacking. The latter relates to non-malicious hacks that are designed to test a security system for weaknesses and for vulnerability assessments. It’s a lucrative job, with many reformed black hat hackers taking positions in big security firms and even governments to help protect them against unwanted attacks.

Black hat hacking, as you can imagine, is the opposite; a hacker who aims to violate security systems for their own personal gain.

Kevin Poulsen is a black hat hacker turned good.

The year was 1990 and Los Angeles was caught up in competition frenzy. KIIS-FM were giving away eight Porsches, one every Friday for the next eight weeks. Residents couldn’t walk 100 metres without seeing a billboard or advertisement promoting the competition. And every Friday, the population of LA sat glued to their radio to find out if they’d won.

Builders, business men, college students, stay at home mums - they all crammed the phone lines to be caller 102 – the winning number.

The city was a buzz, but 24-year-old high school dropout Kevin Poulsen had an inkling he’d win.

In fact, he knew it.

On the morning of June 1st, 1990, it was competition time. Poulsen seized control of the 25 phone lines ran by the station ensuring he could hold off all calls but his own. Poulsen punched the 102nd call into his phone, identified himself as a Mr Michael B. Peters and bagged a Porsche 944 S2.

This came after years of Poulsen’s prodding and poking around in government sites and finding his way into websites and security systems he wasn’t supposed to be in.

It wasn’t long before the FBI started taking an interest in Poulsen. He went underground.

On October 10th 1990 an NBC Show aired about Poulsen encouraging anyone who knew of his whereabouts to call in. At 5:10pm they received a phone call. No one was on the other end of the line. And then all of their phones went dead.

It has never been confirmed whether Poulsen played a hand in the phone lines going down, but the mystery further aided his position as a world famous hack master.

April 11th 1991 he was caught after 17 months on the run. In his car, they discovered a treasure trove of devices including tech gadgets that would have put Bond to shame. After his release, Poulsen reinvented himself as a journalist. He has since broken a number of security-related stories, including the arrest of U.S service member Chelsea Manning. 

Name: Ross Ulbricht

Nationality: American

Alias: Dread Pirate Roberts

Crime: Hacking, Money Laundering

Hackers don’t always just make their way into other people’s computer systems, but sometimes create their very own empire. Dread Pirate Roberts is probably the most famous to do so, creating the drug trafficking website Silk Road.

Ulbricht had a pretty normal upbringing, doing most of the normal things middle American kids do. He served as a boy scout, had plenty of friends, and was well liked by his teachers. After high school, Ross attended the University of Texas on a full academic scholarship, graduating in 2006 with a degree in physics. But by the time he graduated, Ulbricht had lost interest in his major and with his day to day life in general.

Unsatisfied with regular employment, Ross wanted to turn his hand to entrepreneurialism and eventually partnered with an old pal to create an online book selling site, Good Wagon Books. The company didn’t pan out, leaving Ulbricht feeling more and more disinterested and unsatisfied with the life around him.

Towards the end of Good Wagon Books’ lifespan, Ulbricht had started a side project. He had been thinking of creating a store on the black market for some time and thought that using both Tor (a free piece of software that enables anonymous communication) and Bitcoin together would help him evade law enforcement. These two tools would allow Ulbricht to create his online marketplace with considerable anonymity.

In February 2011 Ulbricht launched the site, naming it Silk Road. 

To retain his anonymity Ross went under the alias, Dread Pirate Roberts – a name now cemented in hacker history. By 2013 the site had garnered more and more attention and featured around 10,000 products for sale from different vendors. 70% of those products were drugs, but the site sold other items such as fake identities, books, cigarettes, and jewellery. By this point, Silk Road was earning figures in the millions and had attracted the attention of the FBI, amongst other authorities who had been relentlessly hunting the leader of Silk Road for years.

They eventually caught up with Dread Pirate Roberts, who was tiring of his life behind a veil – not being able to cement friendships or reveal his true identity.

In mid-2013 the Dread Pirate Roberts alias was connected to Ulbricht, which led to his arrest in October of that year. He is currently serving a life imprisonment without the chance of parole.

Silk Road, however, continues, with many other picking up the Dread Pirate Roberts moniker and launching Silk Road V2 and now, V3.

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