Motivated by the thrill of the challenge and more malicious purposes, a new form of criminal activity came of age in the 1980s, one which deployed technological expertise to violate and exploit computer systems.
The security hackers who began to enter the headlines, such as Kevin Mitnick who at one point was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, aimed to breach networks and computer systems in order to access protected information.
Sometimes called ‘black hat’ hackers in contrast to ‘white hat’ hackers who tinker without malign intentions, as if they stand on opposite sides of the law in an American Western, criminal hackers emerged amidst a hacker subculture of hobbyists and software developers which had been developing since the 1960s.
Here are 7 notable hackers who made history, some notorious for their criminality, others famous for their contributions to computer science.
1. Bob Thomas
In the computer science communities of the 1960s, ‘hacking’ was used to describe expedient code written by programmers to patch together software, but it would later extend to the use of viruses to gain access to private computer systems. However, the earliest viruses and worms were experimental in intent.
In 1971, the Creeper program was designed by Bob Thomas to test the idea of the self-replicating program. The idea of “self-replicating automata” had previously been spelled out by mathematician John von Neumann as early as 1949. Unlike the epidemic which spells android disaster in the 1973 Michael Crichton movie Westworld, Creeper spread via the ARPANET to a remote system to output the message: “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!”
2. John Draper
Hacking developed amid the context of ‘phone phreaking’ in the 1960s and 1970s. John Draper was among those who wrestled with and reverse-engineered the North American telephone system, then the largest computer network to which the public had access, in order to make free long-distance calls.
By using a specific tool, “phreaks” could replicate the tones used within the network to route telephone calls. Draper’s use of the toy whistle supplied with Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal, which was capable of generating a 2600 Hz tone, provided his moniker “Captain Crunch”.
In a 1984 issue of InfoWorld, Draper suggested hacking meant “taking things apart, figuring out how they work… I’m just hacking on my own programs right now.”
3. Robert Tappan Morris
In 1988, American computer scientist Robert Tappan Morris introduced a computer worm to the Internet for perhaps the first time. This variety of malware replicates itself in order to spread to other computers. The persistence of the ‘Morris worm’ was its undoing as it created disruptive system loads that brought it to the attention of administrators.
The worm infected 6,000 systems and earned Morris the first conviction under the novel Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, as well as a year suspension from Cornell University graduate school.
4. Kevin Mitnick
Five years in prison followed the arrest of Kevin Mitnick on 15 February, 1995 on federal offences covering computer hacking and wire fraud over the previous two-and-a-half years, which had already landed him a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Mitnick had broken into voicemail computers, copied software, stolen passwords and intercepted emails, while he used cloned cellular phones to hide his location. According to Mitnick, he spent eight months of his sentence in solitary confinement because law enforcement officials were convinced that he could tamper with nuclear missiles by whistling into a pay phone.
5. Chen Ing-hau
The payload of CIH, or the “Chernobyl” or “Spacefiller” computer virus, was delivered on 26 April, 1999, rendering host computers inoperable and leaving $1 billion in commercial damages in its wake. It was developed by Chen Ing-hau, a student at Tatung University in Taiwan, the previous year. CIH wrote its code inside gaps in existing code, making it harder to detect. The event led to new computer crime legislation in Taiwan.
6. Kane Gamble
Kane Gamble was 15 years old when he first targeted chiefs of the US intelligence community from his home on a Leicestershire housing estate. Between 2015 and 2016, Gamble was able to access reportedly “extremely sensitive” documents on military and intelligence operations, while he harassed the families of senior US officials.
His behaviour extended to resetting the passwords of FBI deputy director Mark Giuliano and leaving an intimidating voicemail message for the wife of CIA chief John Brennan. He reportedly bragged: “This has to be the biggest hack ever.”
7. Linus Torvalds
In 1991, the 21-year-old Finnish computer student Linus Torvalds wrote the basis for Linux, an open-source operating system which has since become the most widely used computer operating system in the world. Torvalds had been hacking since his teens, when he programmed a Commodore VIC-20 home computer.
With Linux, Torvalds introduced a free operating system which championed distributed development. It was an idealistic project which nevertheless earned the trust of business and became a key reference point for the open source social movement.
In a 1997 interview with Torvalds, Wired magazine described the goal of hacking as, ultimately, to “create neat routines, tight chunks of code, or cool apps that earn the respect of their peers. Linus went much further, laying down the foundation that underlies the cool routines, code, and applications, and achieving perhaps the ultimate hack.”