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10 Hackers who Changed the World in Weird Ways

Updated on December 1, 2014
Ghaaz B profile image

I just like to research and learn, and organise my findings in an easy to digest format, such as a hub!

Defining a Hacker

Being a hacker is akin to being a mathematician; it really just comes down to solving problems. Now if those problems are say, in computer/network security, and you happen to be one of the first people to solve them, you're in an interesting position aren't you? You may choose to exploit them for personal gains, or inform the network/system administration of the issue so they can fix it. This is the difference between 'black hat hacking' (for nefarious reasons) and 'white hat hacking' (for security reasons).

It doesn't even have to involve computers at all though; hacking can be defined loosely as any type of clever, innovative or playful problem solving. You can call it social engineering, for those who do 'good', or cracking, for those who specifically target and hack security systems, but for the rest of us who are just trying to be clever, you can call it hacking.


Internet Politics
Internet Politics | Source

Is Hacking Wrong?

It all comes down to the ethics and intent of the hacker, really, which is entirely separate from the act of hacking itself. Take for example, these 10 Hackers Who Drastically Changed the World: For Better or Worse? You Decide.

For now, lets look at a list of 10 hackers that changed the world in weird, funny or interesting ways, and I'll let you be the judge!

#1 John Draper (Long Distance)

John Draper is the king of what they called "phone phreaking" back in the 1970s, when the biggest computer systems to hack belonged to phone companies. While playing with a plastic whistle from a cereal box, Draper and a friend noticed that it sounded a lot like the tone of AT&T's routing switches for phone calls. Out of that simple discovery came the infamous "blue boxes" which Draper designed and sold from his home; the boxes allowed you to make as many long distance calls as you liked, free of charge. Without this odd innovation, who's to say that we wouldn't still be paying $3.77 per minute for a call overseas? Draper went on to link up with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who brought his friend Steve Jobs along), and he taught the two everything he knew about phone phreaking, which lead to the first business collaboration of Wozniak and Jobs. Draper served 5 years probation once he was finally caught, but he kinda changed the world.

Bob Gudgel, Jay Dee Pritchard, and John “Captain Crunch” Draper with a bluebox. Duvall, Washington, 1971. Photo courtesy Bob Gudgel.
Bob Gudgel, Jay Dee Pritchard, and John “Captain Crunch” Draper with a bluebox. Duvall, Washington, 1971. Photo courtesy Bob Gudgel. | Source

#2 Aaron Swartz (keepgrabbing.py)

Pioneer programmer of the internet and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was a pretty clever guy. He did a lot for the community, and he was somewhat of a revolutionary. Some allegations tie him to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, while others insist he was involved in many Anonymous operations. Whatever the case, we know he definitely did some hacking of his own. Armed with a program he coded in python (one of many computer languages), Swartz gained access to a database of academic articles owned by a company called JSTORE, who was distributing the articles online for a profit. The program, keepgrabbing.py, just downloaded the articles one after another-- Swartz gained access to their database through MIT's network, who had access to the articles for its staff and students. When he was finally cut off from downloading files through MIT's network (JSTORE eventually just blocked MIT's access to the articles after a long game of cat and mouse, looking for Aaron with no success), he just entered the JSTORE building and physically hacked their system with an old laptop. He got caught, and the government aimed to make an example out of him to deter other 'internet criminals' by giving him up to 35 years in prison. Unfortunately, Aaron Swartz committed suicide, and that's how we lost one of the revolutionaries of our generation.

Gary Thuerk, father of spam. Feb. 17, 2011
Gary Thuerk, father of spam. Feb. 17, 2011 | Source

#3 Gary Thuerk (Spam)

This guy.. invented spam. Not the offensive brand of precooked meat-in-a-can products you may be familiar with if you're from the early 20th century, but the offensive prewritten junk-in-an-email product of this generation. He doesn't like to call it spam though; he prefers the term "E-marketing", and claims there's a difference. While it's true that Gary's spam (a targeted Email sent to a specific mailing list, 600 users with one click) wasn't exactly the spam we know and hate today, he is still the one who had the brilliant idea. He was the first to see a huge opportunity in online marketing and he grabbed it, what a weird way to hack the world.

:-D
:-D | Source

#4 Scott Fahlman :-)

You guessed it :-), Scott Fahlman is the 'inventor' of the emoticon! Also being an MIT guy, it's not surprising that Fahlman has a knack for hacking the system. He was on one of the earliest message boards, Canregie Mellon's, when he noticed that it was a little difficult to distinguish joke posts from serious ones; he proposed using :-) and :-( as a solution (smiles for jokes, frowns for serious). Fahlman is also a very distinguished computer scientist and professor at Carnegie Mellon, and his contributions to the early infrastructure of the web are still in use today. But I think it's fair to say that the emoticon is the real mark he left on all of us :-)

Robert Morris leaving the courts after his final hearing on Jan 22, 1990, in Syracuse, NY.
Robert Morris leaving the courts after his final hearing on Jan 22, 1990, in Syracuse, NY.

#5 Robert Morris (Worms)

In 1988, Robert Morris designed a program while working at Cornell University that he said was supposed to crawl the entire internet (not quite as large as it is today) and gauge the overall size and extent of it. Due to a small semantic error in the code (intentional? we'll never know) the program was instead released across the whole web and began infecting every system it reached. Worms are standalone malware computer programs that work by rapidly replicating and entering systems through security breaches; they're different from viruses in this respect since they don't need to be attached to a program or file. Despite claiming that the worm was unintentional, Morris was sentenced to 3 years of probation, 400 community service hours, and a hefty fine. He was the first person ever, in 1990, to be convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Apple Computer Co-Founder Steve Wozniak speaking to the Tri-Valley Mac Users Group on June 21, 2007.
Apple Computer Co-Founder Steve Wozniak speaking to the Tri-Valley Mac Users Group on June 21, 2007. | Source

#6 Steve Wozniak (Apple 1&2)

Co-founder of Apple, long time friend and business partner of Steve Jobs, and the man who single handedly designed and built the Apple I and Apple II, Steve Wozniak. Most people might know him because of Apple's recent surge in popularity (recent being 10 years or so), but he really made history in 1975, when he turned on his first working prototype of the Apple I. The Apple I made history in a few ways, such as being the first computer to transmit data to a television, but the way it really changed the world was by going on to be the brand of computers that brought the technology into the homes of basically everyone. Wozniak (or 'Woz'), was also an active phone phreaker back in the day, learning most of his moves from Draper (above).

#7 Ray Tomlinson (Email/@ Symbol)

Ray Tomlinson is a highly celebrated alumni of MIT, so you know he's got the hacker mindset. In 1971, Tomlinson wrote the first software that allowed computers to transmit messages to each other; in short, he invented Email. At the same time, he invented the @ symbol to separate the username from the host, hence yourname@hostname.com. It's pretty easy now to take Email for granted, but back then, this was a major invention. Over 100 billion emails are sent per day. While most of these are spam, it's still a very mainstream form of communication. Email has obviously changed the world, and we have Ray Tomlinson to thank!

#8 U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (Tor)

To be more specific, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory employees Paul Syverson, Michael Reed and David Goldschlag. Perhaps without realizing it, these men performed one of the coolest and most important hacks of all time. Nobody would have had the funding to research, design and build Tor (previously known as 'the Onion Router'), and internet anonymity would be much more difficult today. Tor allows you to connect to the network through your IP, but then visit sites from a random IP within the network (only people who agree to host can get their IP used) and maintain anonymity. This is particularly useful for people in countries where their government censors their information or block their internet access. Thanks U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, you really changed the world with that hack!

#9 Jonathan James (Security)

Jonathan James became a name in the hacker community when he was incarcerated for cybercrime in 2000- the first youth in the US (James was 15 at the time of his arrest). James was charged with having broken into several big name corporate websites, but his biggest hack was getting into the computers of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the United States Department of Defense. He obtained some important software about NASA's living conditions in space, but reason he changed the world was by showing the US that a 15 year old could gain access to their systems. James was released after serving his sentence and tried to live a normal life, but got caught up in a more serious hacking investigation/trial, that of infamous credit card thief and hacking group ringleader Albert Gonzalez. James swore he had nothing to do with Gonzalez, and left a message in his suicide note stating that he had "lost faith in the justice system", and that he had "nothing to do with TJX" (the company taking legal action again Gonzalez, James and the rest),

#10 LulzSec (Security)

Keeping to the security theme, LulzSec (Lulz Security) was a group of hackers who appear to have originated out of the soup that is Anonymous and 4chan. They basically did whatever they wanted, using any method of hacking, from basic password guessing to more advanced scripts and software, to cause mayhem for both fun and purpose. Sometimes, they would do random things, but sometimes they would target enemies of free speech and those who would try to censor the internet. It was basically a group who was sick of having their jokes taken away (hence 'Lulz' Security) by censorship or anything else. They went on an infamous '50 days of lulz', and then stopped abruptly. A few of the original 6 members got caught, and a few didn't.

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    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      What can one say. Interesting to see what the famous hackers did, and sadly, the more evil kinds will be with us forever, what ever they have to do! Lower grade and crude (we have been employed by Microsoft!)

    • Emilia Riera profile image

      Emilia Riera 3 years ago from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

      Fun. Just read "Cyberattack" and references were made to Anonymous...now I know what the author was talking about.

    • CuAllaidh profile image

      Jeff Johnston 3 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Now this is a list of hackers :D nice

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 3 years ago

      I look forward to your polls. :) you know where I will cast my ballot!

      Yes, they met millions, but they didn't eat dinner with millions.

    • Ghaaz B profile image
      Author

      Ghaaz B 3 years ago from The internet

      Not at all sir! If you say it's true, I have no reason to believe it isn't. They're public figures, after all-- I'm sure they've both met millions of people!

      You're too right again though. That's a great idea for a poll! I'll add it in shortly. Thanks for the input!

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 3 years ago

      :) your haha makes me feel that you don't believe that I have met Steve and Steve. (Well, I have).

      However, why don't you edit your hubs so readers can vote about whom of the hackers who changed the world the most.

    • Ghaaz B profile image
      Author

      Ghaaz B 3 years ago from The internet

      Wow, you've met the Woz!! haha very nice.

      I don't necessarily do my lists in order of greatest to least great, but it's a good suggestion that I might try to pick an order. It's hard though :)

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 3 years ago

      Well, I am pleased to see that you give credit to Steve Wozniak aka "The Woz" and "The Wonderful Wizard of Woz".

      But I believe that he deserves a higher ranking than #6 (not only because of his hacking, but he is also one of the finest persons that I have ever met).

    working