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