Top 10 Hackers of All Time: The Real List
I've done the top ten hackers who drastically changed the world, the top ten hackers who changed the world in weird ways, and the top ten most badass hackers; none of those lists were like this one. Those lists included problem solvers and life hackers such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, game changing hackers and social engineers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Aaron Swartz, and small-time script kiddies or accidental hackers, such as Ray Tomlinson and Gary Thuerk, but this list contains only computer hackers. it's based on programming/network hacking skills and accomplishments alone, starting with #1 (I just like to do things that way).
#1 Mendax (Julian Assange, Wikileaks)
Julian Assange has been running game on the internet as Mendax since its earliest days; he's an OG. From dumpster-diving for modem numbers and security codes straight to accessing NASA's servers and the U.S. Defence Agency's database-- all as a teenager in Australia. He got hold of some pretty heavy military documents that might have claimed that the U.S. knowingly bombed a protected civilian base in Iraq. There are also allegations against Julian that, around the same time, he engineered or participated in the infamous WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers), which targeted NASA and other U.S. agencies days before a launch which aimed to bring plutonium into space; not to mention the rumours that he could access NASA's system and move satellites. This part is all speculation really, but it's only the beginning.
As the internet evolved, Julian evolved with it. Going underground for several years, it's likely that Mendax has been behind many of the Anonymous operations (including the pre-2010 IRC groups), and had much to do with the internet's involvement in the Arab Spring. As one of the first people to found an ethical hacking group, The International Subversives, it's not unreasonable to assume that he has been involved in many ethical/hacking groups since. If you think it's too much to imagine that he's really been involved in all of this, you just don't know this guy yet.
Though he never got the chance to act on his early findings in the U.S. Military databases (the intel was time-sensitive and he was arrested shortly after obtaining it), he never lost sight of his goal. He wanted to use hacking to do good, and he saw the best way to do that as obtaining classified military or political information and releasing it to the public with the aim of exposing corruption and illegal activity. As the internet gained popularity, more people got involved.
Assange went on to help found Wikileaks, which does exactly what he always wanted to do. Wikileaks has released some of the most important and incriminating information the world has ever seen. For a detailed timeline of the most significant Wikileaks actions and releases, check out this hub: The Wikileaks Timeline
Now at 43, Assange resides inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London under political asylum, facing extradition to Sweden based on bogus sexual assault allegations, and under investigation in the US for his involvement with Wikileaks. Assange really needs our support, lets not see another Alan Turing, Jonathan James or Aaron Swartz.
#2 Kevin Mitnick
And here you have the equally skilled, possibly more dangerous but arguably less accomplished antithesis to Julian Assange. Mitnick and Assange began with similar intentions: the sheer thrill of the hack and the small benefits it might yield backs in the 80's. But while Assange's good nature lead him to Wikileaks-style hacking, Mitnick continued down the path of hacking for money and lulz. One of his early hacks was obtaining a holepunch and then dumpster-diving for unused bus transfers to gain free access to the bus system all around LA.
As he got into computer hacking, around the age of 16, he gained access to a part of the Digital Equipment Corporation's system called the Ark, which contained the very expensive code of some of their OS software under development. He copied the entire code and tried to get away with it, but was caught and charged in 1988. Towards the end of his sentence (a 1 year prison term with 3 years supervised release and no computers), Mitnick couldn't stay away from computers and began hacking again. His actions were detected, but he fled before authorities could arrest him.
The U.S. Department of Justice claims that, during his 2-and-a-half years on the run, Mitnick hacked into at least 25 different networks and "copied valuable proprietary software from some of the country's largest cellular telephone and computer companies". Using cloned cellphones to hide his identity and location, Mitnick intercepted emails and phone calls, accessed passwords and private information of anyone he wanted, and altered networks with low security as he saw fit-- often just for fun.
The FBI apprehended Mitnick in 1995, and a long drawn-out court case ensued (during which Mitnick served 4-and-a-half years of his 5 year sentence). Upton Mitnick's release in 2000, he became a rehabilitated member of society and began a security company, which does very well today.
#3 Gary McKinnon
While I believe that this guy is truly a little nutty-- claiming that his intentions for hacking into ALL of the US Military and NASA databases was in search of hidden evidence about extra-terrestrial beings and US contact with aliens-- the fact still remains that he did hack into ALL of the US Military and NASA databases, and in 2002 at that.
After the golden ages of the 80's-90's, hacking into highly-classified and and secure networks became incredibly difficult, to say the least. I mean, we're talking about the era when Mitnick had already moved to the security side, and many other underground blackhats had gone whitehat for the corporate money; all the old tricks were common knowledge. Still, McKinnon appeared on an US Army network computer in 2002 with the simple, anonymous message that read: "Your security system is crap".
McKinnon had his look around, accessing the entire network of NASA with ease and playing a clever game of cat-and-mouse with detectives, but eventually his identity was discovered and the US tried to extradite him on those old, dated computer fraud charges, but McKinnon's British government stepped in and disallowed it on the grounds that McKinnon was the victim of a social/cognitive disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, which appears to be true. McKinnon makes strange claims about what he found on NASA's database as well. If you care to know more about that, go ahead and Google it-- I'm simply concerned with his hacking skills and accomplishments.
#4 Lex Luthor (and the Legion of Doom)
This single subheading could be an entire book. I'm talking primarily about the most popular hacking groups of the 80's and 90's, with the Legion of Doom at the forefront, but also the sister group Legion of Hackers and affiliated group Masters of Deception, as well as a few others active at the time.
It was the year of George Orwell, 1984, when our protagonist, known only as Lex Luthor, was accepted into the hacking group Knights of Shadow. It would be a temporary stay as Luthor quickly realized he had some concerns with the group's policies, and Luthor would go on to found the Legion of Doom in May of that year.
One of the members of Luthor's LOD, Loyd Blankenship, or The Mentor, would go on to write the infamous Hacker's Manifesto a few years later. The group was good enough that no seriously incriminating hacks were ever attributed to them, but as a leading body in the phreaking and hacking communities who disseminated mountains of information about how and why to hack, we can be sure they were masterfully skilled in the art.
*A hacker named Leonard Rose was convicted under several computer fraud charges in 1991, and was accused of being the mastermind behind LOD, but this was never confirmed, and speculation still exists today.
**Another hacker named Mark Abene, or Phiber Optik, was a known member of LOD and MOD who went on to perform some infamous large-scale corporate hacks, including some AT&T phreaking.
#5 Karl Koch (and the Chaos Computer Club)
German hacker Karl Koch was highly skilled, but this listing entails one of the groups he was closely associated with, the CCC (Chaos Computer Club), as well as other hackers involved in the cold-war computer-espionage incident. Koch and a few others were incentivized by the Russian KGB to steal US Military documents and deliver them to the Russians, but these actions weren't necessarily related to his involvement with the CCC.
However, the CCC does say this about itself: "We are a galactic community of life forms, independent of age, sex, race or societal orientation, which strives across borders for freedom of information....". The CCC believes in publicizing information, but that doesn't mean they would condone stealing it from the US and selling it to Russia. That being said, the CCC was known throughout the hacker community to be one of the top dogs, and accessing any US server or database during that time would have been well within their skillset.
#6 Rafael "RaFa" Núñez (and World of Hell)
Nunez, or RaFa, was involved in one of the most notorious hacking sprees of all time, the 2001 World of Hell reign. Other WoH hackers Robert "cowhead2000" Junior and Thomas "dawgyg" DeVosse were arrest a few years before Nunez, but be he appears to have been behind most of the technical hacking. In 2002, after the first WoH arrest was made (Robert Junior), a book was published titled "The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of a Teenage Hacker", which mostly followed RaFa's actions.
WoH claimed responsibility for a number of attacks against high-profile targets such as the Defence Information Systems Agency, PFIZER, Rolex, Microsoft, and many more. They always found clever entry points and then left friendly-ish messages on the defaced websites with hints about their security weaknesses.
*It's likely that WoH was connected to or possibly included some former members of globalHell, a hacking group that disbanded in 1999. Founder of globalHell Chad Davis is worth an honourable mention for his accessing and defacement of the Whitehouse's website, as well as over 100 other websites.
#7 Vladimir Levin (and the Citibank hackers)
Vlad gets his name on the on the list, possibly because he was the only one dumb enough to execute this hack, but the real skill and accomplishment here is in the unknown Russian group who did the footwork. For 10 years the public thought Levin had hacked Citibank alone, with accomplices around the world participating merely by withdrawing the money he transferred, but then a different story came out.
It turns out that Levin bought access to Citibank's network for the equivalent of $100 US. He then transferred over $10 million to his accomplice's accounts, who were instantly caught and led authorities to Levin. The people who sold Levin the info were never caught, and they're the real reason Levin appears on this list.
A former member of the Citibank hackers (known in the media as the St. Petersburg hackers) released a message in 2005, 10 years after the conviction of Levin, stating that he and his group had gained access to Citibank months before the hack. He claimed the group had been having fun with the Citibank servers, downloading and even running games without being noticed by any administrators. They knew that any attempt to steal any money would obviously lead to their arrest, and they stopped accessing the system after they got bored. One of the members sold the access info (they left a backdoor) to Levin, and Levin made the mistake of using it.
#8 Nahshon Even-Chaim (and the Realm)
An Australian based hacker group in the late 80's, swimming in young Assange's soup, known as the Realm, was one of the best of all time. Headed by Phoenix (Even-Chaim), the group would spend weeks gaining access to high-profile servers in the US, including many government and corporate ones (Citibank being an interesting target), for more than just fun-- it was an addiction.
Top members of the Realm, Electron (Richard Jones) and Nom (David Woodcock), would meet on message boards or contact each other by phone to exchange information and access codes they'd managed to steal. They would spend all night hacking then talking then hacking some more. This lead to the first Australian court case against cyber-criminals, in which they used wire tapping and key-logging to obtain evidence against the hackers.
#9 Raphael Gray
In 1999, from his hometown in Wales, Gray bought a thousand dollar laptop and began hacking credit card info globally the same day. Dubbed "the Bill Gates Hacker" not only for his incredible success in accessing potentially billions of dollars, but because he allegedly sent a box of Viagra to Bill Gates' home, and published Gates' personal number online.
Gray was a little too arrogant and obnoxious for even other hackers, and one such ex-hacker by the name of Chris Davis was able to track him down and hand him over to the FBI. In addition to releasing thousands of credit card numbers to the public, and randomly trolling Bill Gates, Gray made several statements about the state of network security at the time which, like many hackers before him, he found to be both funny and fun.
#10 Kristina Svechinskaya (and Anonymous hackers)
Kristina Svechinskaya is hardly a hacker; she was merely a money mule for real hackers. The number 10 spot here goes to the anonymous Russian hackers behind the scenes of her case, who skimmed an alleged $3 million and never got caught, and to all anonymous hackers who have done crazy things without getting caught.
It's difficult to make a list of the 10 best people at something when being the best at that thing really involves a lot of anonymity. But for all the anonymous programmers and hackers out there, not so much the script-kiddies and trolls, but the real engineers, who have done what you do for years without getting caught, this one's for you. You might even deserve the first spot, Anonymous, if you rise up in the spirit of Aaron Swartz and begin a new era of hacking-- just try to do some good (not like the recent SONY hack.... but, AGAIN?)