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10 Hackers who Drastically Changed the World: for Better or Worse?
Is hacking a good or a bad thing?
Hacking is Wrong?
Yes, literally. While hacking is as amoral as science or mathematics, and therefore couldn't possibly be morally wrong, it is indeed literally wrong. Hacking, in the broadest sense of the word, is to attempt to interact with a system (any system) in a clever, innovative, and challenging way that the system was not intended to be interacted with, or the wrong way. However, whether you choose to use those interactions for moral or immoral reasons is up to you. You can call it problem solving, social engineering, or anything else you like. I call it hacking.
There have been many hackers who have changed the world in weird or funny ways, but I'm going to give you my list of 10 hackers that drastically changed the world in very serious ways and let you decide if it was for better or worse!
#1 Julian Assange (Wikileaks)
Assange is pretty much the world's hacker. His humble roots in the early Australian underground hacking scene as Mendax give him hella geekcred (a word I might have just invented), and his professional resume is staggering as well. From possibly being involved in the most famous hack of all time, the WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers) worm which caused hysterical panic at NASA and across the US, to more legitimate uses of technical ability such as helping Australian law enforcement track down and prosecute internet sex offenders. He is rumoured to be responsible for hacking into NASA and literally moving satellites in space (in the 80's), but these allegations are unconfirmed. However, we know for sure that he has hacked into the NASA website and database, as well as just about every other US government agency's website and database that you could think of. One thing that's worth noting, Assange has never admitted to or even been accused of hacking any system for personal gain or what he would consider to be malicious intent; he has never used your credit card or bank information, even if it was staring him in the face.
Believe me, the list of incredible and interesting things Assange has done goes on and on, but most notable of all is of course his involvement with Wikileaks. Making available to the public thousands, maybe millions of classified documents is extremely controversial, hell it's a downright crime. But what if that crime exposes thousands, maybe millions of other crimes? Often more harmful crimes. No killings have been known to have resulted directly from Wikileaks publications, but so many are being brought to justice. The style in which he operates the site and the information they've been able to acquire and publish is what makes this action, and the Mendax behind it, number #1 on my list.
- Mendax (from Horace's splendide mendax: "nobly untruthful")
- Around 1987, Mendax and two others—known only as "Trax" and "Prime Suspect"—formed an ethical hacking group they called the 'International Subversives'.
- There is a fantastic movie on Netflix called "Underground", it tells of Julian's young life.
- Assange has been maliciously attacked by many governments of the world, which is sort of to be expected when you wage an information war against them. However, we should keep in mind that Assange is not, and never has been, an enemy of the people. To use the words of many US officials when discussing internet policy, "you should only be worried if you have something to hide".
#2 Mark Zuckerburg (Facebook)
If you're on the internet right now reading this blog, you know who Mark Zuckerberg is; or at the very least, what Facebook is. Literally the face of social media, it's hard to argue that Facebook hasn't been a drastic, measurable force for change in the world; however, despite the fact that an entire Hollywood movie depicts the story, we often tend to forget that Zuckerberg's creation was born of not-so-honourable intentions. In his first year at Harvard, he hacked into the school's database and collected photos and information on every student on campus, using the data to set up a facebook predecessor which asked the simple question: Hot or Not?
Zuckerberg caught some heat for this, but it also gave him a reputation on campus as a clever hacker and programmer with a knack for starting trends. He was contacted by 3 fellow students regarding their idea for a Harvard social network; they needed him to do all the programming. Zuckerberg worked on their code, but he quickly realized that he could write his own code and start a similar website. He had a much broader vision for the social network and wanted to remain in control; he wanted to create Facebook. He did, and he changed the world.
- Though his acknowledgement of the IMs was for print, and therefore not recorded, we can be pretty sure it went something not unlike this famously awkward 2 minutes of his life.
#3 Bill Gates (Microsoft)
It's a bit of a stretch to call Bill Gates a hacker; after all, we're talking about the man who publicly chastised the entire tech community back in the 80's for 'stealing' their software (around this time, pretty much all software was free and open source). He was a brilliant programmer though, one who saw an opportunity in the system and took advantage by combining strong business principles with his technical abilities. Bill created the world's first software company, and to this day it remains the most successful one of all time-- that's not likely to change.
Has Bill changed the world? I think so. We're talking about the richest man in the world who refers to poverty as "the modern day version of slavery", and dedicates most of his time now to spending his money as meaningfully as possible. This is a man who has brought real social change with his products and business, but even more important is the historical change brought by the philanthropy he has done and continues to do across the world. The Gates Foundation, Bill's philanthropy network, focuses on literally every major issue in the world today, from climate change to wealth disparity. This is a truly inspirational way for the most successful (and richest) man alive.
- An alarming number of people believe that Bill Gates is not just involved in, but actually the mastermind behind a global eugenics (population control/reduction) operation implemented by his vaccine programs across the developing world.
- These absurd allegations are systematically deconstructed, disputed, and ultimately ridiculed in a video blog by yours truly.
- Bill's Wife, Melinda, deserves an honourable mention for her contributions to their philanthropy work.
- Bill gates is the only person to have thoroughly enjoyed getting an earful from Steve Jobs. (hearsay)
- At the time of this writing (2014-11-20), Gates is #1 on Forbes' Richest People List by a whopping $3B.
#4 Alan Turing (Computers, kinda)
Alan Turing is generally regarded as the father of modern computation. He's the one who noticed that there might be a better way to compute vast databases of information without needing to employ hundreds of workers (usually women) to sit and do math all day. Turing was a genius of Einsteinian proportions; he literally just created the idea of computers and computer programs in his head, in the 1930s, before anything much like a computer existed.
His invention, which he called simply The Turing Machine, was 100% responsible for cracking the Nazi encryption system known as enigma, saving more British lives in WW2 than any other person, by a long shot. So he basically hacked the Nazis and was quite possibly responsible for winning the war; that's a pretty drastic world changer.
- Turing was openly gay (at a time when it was literally illegal in Britain). He expressed this as early as his young boarding-school days.
- Despite being a war hero, a national hero, and a hero for the human race as a whole, Turing was punished for his sexual preference by the British government and forced into chemical castration.
- In 1954, following severe bouts of depression from the chemical castration and its effects, Turing committed suicide via cyanide.
- SciShow, literally one of the best vlogs in human history (I'm not being paid to say that) offers a perfect 3 and a half minute summary of Turing's life and contributions.
#5 Aaron Swartz (Kill SOPA)
Aaron Swartz was definitely the internet's own boy, and the Alan Turing of our century so far. Writing cold hard code for RSS feeds before his 14th birthday, Swartz was an internet prodigy and genius. In addition to his impressive technical skills and understanding, he heralded a profound interest and knack for politics; remember SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act)? It threatened the very foundation of freedom of information sharing, which the internet is built upon, and it had all the financial and political backing to simply breeze through congress. Aaron used social media and real foot-to-pavement protesting against it; Aaron, along with his close associates, began the campaign that killed SOPA.
His resume is incredibly long considering he died at the age of 26; it includes directly contributing to the national debate about online copyright laws and helping to implement new laws and systems (still in his early teen years) as well as co-founding Reddit, the front page of the internet. The list goes on to speculate that Aaron might have been involved with Wikileaks and other controversial groups/movements, and he was a regular on many internet talk shows discussing any and all issues relating to the web.
- Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26.
- He was involved in a federal persecution which sought to make an example out of him in order to deter other activists, or, probably more specifically, hacktivists.
- Many who were close to him insist that he was never a depressed or suicidal person, but that the prospect of 35+ years in prison for crimes that most consider to be nominal is what drove him to end his life.
- His crimes consisted of downloading a large amount of academic articles from an insecure database-- nobody knows for certain what he intended to do with them, but almost everybody agrees he wasn't planning to sell them.
- Swartz had done mass-download projects before in which he analysed the data with computer programs and uncovered troubling links between climate change research results and climate change research funding (the conclusion was a real mystery-- why did all the anti climate change papers have massive funding behind them?)
- A full documentary on the life of Aaron Swartz can be found all over the internet, including Youtube, under the title "Aaron Swartz: The Internet's Own Boy" or similar. It's very much worth the watch.
#6 Satoshi Nakamoto (Bitcoin)
In 1998, a man named Wei Dai introduced an idea to the cypherpunks mailing list; it was cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is a type of money (it is indeed money, and not currency) that controls its own creation and transactions through cryptography rather than a central authority. It's a real revolution, honestly.
Anyway. It took nearly 11 years before somebody finally published a first proof of concept and specifications to implement the technology; that was our Nakamoto. Not much is known about the man, except that he lives in California and is probably an incredibly competent coder and of the hacking mindset. He published his concept for Bitcoin in 2009 and left the project in 2010. So there's not much more to say about him, except that he (as you will see soon enough) changed the world.
- Nakamoto's anonymity has caused a lot of speculation about the origins and security of Bitcoin. There is no need to worry; the Bitcoin network is built on an insanely nerdy cryptology concept which renders it entirely impervious to attacks.
- The reason Nakamoto left is because he was no longer needed. All the software is open source (meaning everyone in the world can see the source code and make adjustments), and anybody can even make their own entirely new software to interact with the Bitcoin network.
- In 2014, the Canadian Senate held a comity with one of Bitcoin's most prominent advocates, Andreas M. Antonopoulos. He explains to them exactly how and why Bitcoin is going to be as big a revolution as the internet, predicting that it will be completely mainstream within about 10 years. Watch the full 2 hour meeting and you'll know everything that an entire country like Canada needs to know about Bitcoin.
- You can find all other information at the official Bitcoin FAQs
#7 Steve Jobs (Apple)
Steve Jobs wasn't your typical, calculating, computer-code-writing hacker in the traditional sense. He wasn't so heavy on the technical side, but he was extremely into ideas and innovation, and that's really what hacking is about. There is much to be said about his personality, the way he lived his life, and the philosophies that drove him to be so successful, but we'll stick to his actions.
The first brash move that Jobs made, which might be considered life hacking, was to purchase a version of the popular game Pong and then sell it to Atari at a much higher price; he also forgot to mention that he didn't actually build the game, and they gave him a job as a technician. Jobs went on to begin his infamous attempt to circumvent the phone companies with cheaper, better products made in his garage. Finally, he founded Apple, and that's when the real story begins.
How many people have seen the commercials in which Apple depicts IBM as the 'Big Brother' from 1984? Sure, you can easily argue that Apple has now become the 'Big Brother' character with its dominating success, but back then it wasn't the case. Jobs had a vision for Apple to not just be successful, but to change the world; I think it's fair to say that he has done so.
- Jobs was considered by many to be a 'hippy'. A lot of people speculate that his astounding success was a result of this lifestyle and philosophy.
- Jobs was fighting a rare form of pancreatic cancer pretty much since the release of the first iPhone. Believing that holistic methods, such as a vegan diet and taking special care of his body, could cure him of the disease, he delayed surgery. This was a fatal mistake, as during his time of holistic healing the cancer spread and by the time he agreed to the surgery, it was too late. Jobs died on October 5, 2011.
- Jobs' first real big idea that ultimately lead him to success was merely an innovation of an already existing product-- the computer mouse. During a trip to Xerox, the famous Silicon Valley think tank, Jobs noticed that high-end business computers used a mouse for navigation, but the technology was far too expensive to be sold to the general public. He commissioned one of his engineers to produce an inexpensive mouse with one condition: it had to be able to function perfectly on any surface, including his denim-sporting knee.
#8 Sean Parker (Napster)
Sean Parker is your classic internet hacker from the same type of atmosphere as Julian Assange or Aaron Swartz. At 16, Parker was arrested by the F.B.I for hacking into a Fortune 500 Company's website; he got a slap on the wrist. Around this time he met Shawn Fanning, and the two would go on to co-found the world's first music file sharing site, Napster.
Napster has been called the fastest growing business of all time, having exploded into the internet in 1999 and reaching 80 million registered users within a few short years. It's also considered the predecessor of iTunes, and nobody disputes that it changed the way the world gets it's music forever.
- Napster was brought down after losing many different legal battles, but Sean Parker went on to make plenty of money (like, around 3 billion according to Forbes.
- Some of the legal battles were pretty brutal. One entity that was heavily involved in bringing down Napster was Metallica. Whomp whomp.
#9 Kevin Mitnick (Security)
Mitnick is another absolutely 'classic' hacker.From his young days of dumpster diving at age 15 (to find information or useful papers, such as modem phone number or unused bus transfers) to a more advanced career of breaking into DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and downloading all of their software-- at 16! After being sentenced to an extended period of supervision, Mitnick again broke into a giant corporation, this time Pacific Bell. Mitnick fled when a warrant for his arrest was issued, and literally became a fugitive.
While on the run (and using cloned cell phones and advanced hacking techniques to remain hidden), Mitnick allegedly broke into dozens more large systems, and did a whole lot of damage to various phone companies. He was once the most wanted computer criminal alive, and he wrote a book about it, Ghost in the Wires: my adventures as the world's most wanted hacker. He has also offered several other books, most notable The Art of Deception.
Witnick changed the world by making people understand how important security is, especially online. He now works as one of the top computer security consultants in the world, and anybody who is lucky enough to retain him will tell you that he is probably still the best in the business.
Anonymous can be traced back to early 4chan days. 4chan is a website that allows users to post anonymously, and it acquired quite the reputation for trolling and certain types of internet mischief. When a user of 4chan was confronted by a white supremacist radio talk show host, many users of the website rallied and launched an all-out internet attack. They DDoS'd (distributed denial of service attack) his website and sent an endless stream of crank calls (different from prank calls in that they're entirely hostile) to his radio show. They ordered a ton of building supplies, hookers and pizza to his house, ultimately destroying his ability to fund his radio show. Later, they hacked into his private servers and discovered he was working with the FBI, which pretty much ruined his reputation in the white supremacist circle. Too bad for him.
Anonymous went on to have significant clashes with the Church of Scientology, Sony, and many different world governments, including the US. It's important to note that, through all of these different altercations, it's pretty likely that each 'Anonymous' group was comprised of mostly different people banding together under the name for brief periods at a time. Anonymous has no central leadership; anyone can join, and anyone can start an operation. Take for example these polish lawmakers who dawned the mask as a clever way to show their contempt of a banking/internet bill.
I've decided to list Anonymous as my number 10 since, while they're not exactly a hacker, they have certainly changed the world. In fact, many of the most influential internet anomalies, such as cryptocurrencies and the many Tor/Freenet hidden services which helped with the Arab Spring, have been designed and orchestrated by anonymous hackers. In this sense, I'm using Anonymous in the way it was intended to be used; to single it out as 'the group of Guy Fawks mask-wearing kids from 4chan' is to miss the entire point.
**If this list didn't satisfy you, try the Top 10 hackers of all time, where I rate the top 10 hackers of all time by technical skill and accomplishments.