The legendary Kevin Mitnick once said, “I was addicted to hacking, more for the intellectual challenge, the curiosity, the seduction of adventure; not for stealing, or causing damage or writing computer viruses.”
No matter how internet security has advanced technologically, the best hackers in the world have proven nothing is invulnerable. In this article, we’ll look at hacking, the techniques involved, why hackers are a threat, and the most famous names in the field.
Hacking and reasons for hacking
Hacking is any activity that exploits a computer system's weakness, like a desktop, laptop, cellphone, webcam, router, and tablet. It also happens across a network or networks of different computers.
Hacking has been around since the 1960s. However, interestingly, it didn’t originate from computers. Rather, MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club members would ‘hack’ their train sets to improve their functionality. So, why does hacking happen in the first place?
In many cases, the purpose of hacking is malicious. Here, a cyber criminal corrupts a computer network for financial gain. Other motivations include stealing data or gathering information about a set of users.
Here, a corporation steals trade secrets from another company to gain a competitive advantage. It may even go as far as entire countries’ national intelligence infiltrated by hackers.
Some hackers hack purely for fun or to gain respect.
However, not all hacking is illegal. Ethical hacking, a subset of this activity, is used by many companies where hackers identify vulnerabilities in their systems.
In this instance, hackers push an agenda for social change, free speech, human rights, or any other political concept.
Here, we’ve made a list of well-known methods that the top hackers use:
Phishing forms the foundation for many hacking techniques like keyloggers and cookie theft. Hackers are masters of social engineering. Hence, the core way of gaining unauthorized access to a computer or system is to masquerade yourself as a trusted entity to the victim.
In doing so, the target is tricked into revealing sensitive data or obviously allows malicious software to enter their device. Most phishing happens via email. In this case, internet hackers send an email from a seemingly reputable and harmless company or individual.
This message will either contain links, attachments, or both. When the target clicks on the link, the page may ask them to enter their login credentials. If they download an attachment, it would likely have malware that gets installed onto their device.
This malicious software can devastate, gaining complete control of the user’s files or having sneaky things like keyloggers. In extreme cases, it may even lead to ransomware. Other communication channels for phishing include ‘smishing’ (phishing via SMS) or ‘vishing’ (phishing via phone calls).
A packet sniffer or packet analyzer is a popularly-used piece of tech by the most dangerous hackers in the world. It is a tool designed for network technicians that intercepts traffic in wired/wireless public and public networks. For hackers, it allows them to monitor non-encrypted data where they can capture a range of sensitive information.
A keylogger is a spyware that records a keyboard’s keystrokes through log files. These can reveal interesting patterns about your computer, including account information and passwords, but there’s more.
This sneaky software can even access your browsing history, take screenshots of your keyboard and record your conversations. Methods that keyloggers make their way onto a computer are through phishing links (spam), pop-up ads, installing nasty software, or visiting insecure websites.
Denial of service attack
A denial of service (DoS) attack is bombarding a site or network with overwhelming data packets or requests to crash it.
The server cannot function smoothly, meaning its expected service is ‘denied’. A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is when multiple computers (botnets and zombie computers) flood a network. Hackers often perform a DoS or DDoS to make a statement or 'vandalize' a server. But in some cases, extortion may be the motivator.
Believe it or not, criminal hackers want your cookies. It’s a relatively new but effective hacking technique. Cookie or session hijacking happens when a cyber criminal steals your session cookie and imitates it on the same network.
As we know, internet cookies store a lot of information like passwords and browsing session history. When a hacker accesses the latter, they steal what’s called a session ID. With this, they can imitate this cookie into what appears like a familiar site to the target.
Hackers steal cookies from malicious links, dangerous websites, and insecure public Wi-Fi connections.
Types of hackers
There are three popular types of hackers. We refer to them in different hat colors based on their motivation. This originates from Western movies where the good guys often donned light-colored hats while the enemies wore black hats.
These are the dangerous hackers that hack with malicious intent by exploiting data for financial or personal gain.
These are the opposite of black hats. They hack to find flaws in a system for positive benefit. The hacking occurs with the owner or company’s consent and, hence, is not illegal.
These hackers sit in the ‘gray area’ between ‘good and evil’ or white and black hats. A gray hat will hack a system without someone’s permission (but without malicious intent, either). If they found issues, they would report them to the owner, often for a fee to fix them.
Gray hat hackers see their work as contributing positively to cybersecurity. It’s also a way to showcase their skills and gain respect or appreciation.
Why are hackers dangerous?
Anyone who isn’t skilled in computers should be wary of hackers. When done successfully, hacking is dangerous for individuals and companies. Black hats can:
Seize usernames and passwords
Drain money from your cards or bank accounts
Open several accounts in your name
Mess up your credit
Make purchases in your name
Sell your data to others for a profit
Delete or ruin files on your computer
Threaten to delete files or share secret information unless a ransom is paid
Use your personal data for identity theft or impersonating your name in different crimes
Who is the most dangerous hacker in the world?
Kevin Mitnick has endearing popularity in the industry. At one point, he was the most wanted cyber criminal in the US. However, other names that come up in this conversation include the likes of Gary McKinnon, and Albert Gonzalez, all of whom we’ll cover in more detail.
10 most famous hackers in the world
Here, we’ll look at the most famous hackers and how they got caught. Many hackers gained their popularity as black hats. However, this list will look at a few white and grey hats and how they cemented their legacy.
Mitnick was a controversial figure in hacking history. The American went from stealing computer manuals in 1982 to being convicted for several crimes in the 90s.
Mitnick first hacked a computer network in his late teens, a computer system called Ark that was in the operating software for the Digital Equipment Corporation. For this offense, he was prison-sentenced for a year.
After his supervised release, Mitnick went on a hacking spree for several years, swindling millions of dollars from corporations like Motorola and IBM. Mitnick soon became a fugitive and a wanted man by the FBI.
He managed to hide by using cloned cell phones. However, the FBI eventually discovered the then 31-year-old American in February 1995. Here, a research scientist named Tsutomo Shimomura tracked him to a nearby cell tower.
Mitnick spent almost five years in captivity before being released in January 2000. Fortunately, his black hat days were over. He has now become an expert consultant, author, and public speaker.
Albert ‘SoupNazi’ Gonzalez is one of the world’s bеst known hackers and black hats. The American computer criminal is currently in prison until December 2025 after being arrested in May 2010.
Before being caught, Gonzalez masterminded one of the largest card thefts in history between 2005 and 2008.
Along with his accomplices, Gonzalez reportedly stole over 40 million payment card and ATM numbers from retailers like TJX Cos In, Barnes & Noble, Dave & Buster’s, and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc.
Gonzalez used advanced hacking techniques such as SQL injection and packet sniffers for his crime. However, it all came crashing down in May 2008 when he was arrested. Here, authorities caught him when he kept returning to the point of sale location from which he originally hacked Dave & Buster’s.
The now 56-year-old Scottish systems administrator conducted what many consider the largest military hack ever. Between February 2001 and March 2002, McKinnon hacked into several computer systems belonging to NASA, the US Army, the Air Force, and the Department of Defense.
McKinnon hacked because he believed that the US government hid evidence on UFOs (unidentified flying objects) and free energy suppression, which he wanted to expose publicly.
The British National Hi-Tech Crime Unit ended up catching him. After ten years of a legal battle, the US authorities could not deport the Scotsman, meaning he was never convicted.
‘Anonymous’ is not an individual but rather an international group or movement of hacktivists. Their goal is to bring awareness to global issues and what the organization sees as corruption. During protests over the years, Anonymous members were seen wearing Guy Fawkes masks to hide their identity.
The collective of hacking people started in 2003 on 4chan imageboards. Anonymous is known for numerous cyberattacks against the Church of Scientology and government institutions. They are even known for DDoS attacks on large corporations like Amazon, Visa, and PayPal.
The group has a storied timeline of events starting from the Hal Turner website raid in December 2006. Their most recent involvements include cyber operations during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Adrian Lamo is a late American hacker and threat analyst. He was known as the ‘Homeless Hacker’ because of his itinerant and couch-surfing lifestyle. While Lamo was detained during his life, he was chiefly a gray hat.
His modus operandi was to break into computer systems to find flaws (as he most notably did with Worldcom in 2001). If these weren’t fixed, he would let the media know.
He first got media attention in February 2002 after breaking into The New York Times’ intranet, adding his name to the database of sources. The newspaper company filed an arrest warrant for Lamo. But it wasn’t until September 2003 that the American was caught in hiding by the FBI. Other known cases involving this hacker include reporting a US soldier to Army lawbreaking investigators and leaking thousands of US government papers to WikiLeaks.
Aaron Swartz is a late American computer programmer who wore other hats like an entrepreneur, political organizer, and hacktivist. He was instrumental in several developments in his lifetime, like the RSS web feed, the Markdown text markup language, and co-founding Reddit.
Swartz is primarily known for one major hacking activity, when he was arrested in January 2011 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police. Here, the then-24 year-old broke into the MIT network and downloaded tons of academic journals from the digital library JSTOR.
Swartz believed that this repository restricted the work of others from being freely available. The American had several criminal charges against his name. However, he was never imprisoned as he committed suicide in January 2013.
James is another late American in the gray hat list of hackers. ‘c0mrade’ (his alias) was the first juvenile in the United States detained for a cybercrime.
By the time he was 16 in 2000, James was sentenced to six months of house arrest. This resulted from his intrusion into the United States Department of Defense’s computers. Along with NASA and the Pinecrest Police Department, this organization raided his house in the first month of the new millennium.
James was in the limelight again in January 2008 after being allegedly linked to Albert Gonzalez’s hacking crew members. Unfortunately, James, like Swartz, committed suicide a few months later at 24.
Graham Ivan Clark
Clark’s claim to fame in the hacking world is fascinating. We didn’t know much about the young American until 15 July 2020. Along with two other hackers, Clark executed a massive account hijacking scheme on Twitter.
He was only 17 when he hacked the platform and posted from 130 high-profile accounts belonging to Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Apple, Uber, and countless others. Each tweet told users to send bitcoin to a wallet and that the deposit would double upon its return as a generous gesture.
The scheme reportedly netted Clark and his crew about $180 000. Word quickly spread, and two weeks later, the three individuals were arrested. In March 2021, Clark got three years in a juvenile prison.
Like all skilled anonymous hackers, Poulsen used an alias: Dark Dante. Along with Ronald Austin, the two became obsessed with telephone systems and wiretapping.
Their first notable mission occurred in 1983 when they hacked The Pentagon’s ARPANET, a network of telephone lines linked across different universities. Although the police caught the pair, Poulsen was let off with a warning because he was a minor.
However, Poulsen began hacking again a few years later and was on the run at one point. He even accessed the phone lines of a Los Angeles radio station. Here, Poulsen would properly position himself in the queue as the lucky caller to win a prize like a Porsche car or cash.
He was featured on a mystery documentary show, Unsolved Mysteries, and was eventually discovered and arrested in April 1991. Poulsen was imprisoned in June 1994 and released just over two years later.
Fortunately, he has kept his name, by and large, clean as he ventured into journalism.
Robert Tappan Morris
Morris’ rise to fame only includes his creation of the Morris worm in 1998, widely considered the first of its kind on the internet. During this creation, Morris was a 22-year-old graduate student at Cornell University.
The American never intended for the worm to be malicious. Rather, like any white hat, he wished for it to highlight weaknesses. However, the coding behind it somehow led to it becoming damaging, spreading widely to many other computers.
This event resulted in Morris being prosecuted and sentenced in 1990 to three probation years and a $10 050 fine. After his release, he sold a start-up software company to Yahoo, furthered his studies, and co-founded the Y Combinator, among other things.
How to protect yourself from hacks?
Here are some quick-fire general tips to safeguard yourself from hacks:
Don’t share personal and account-related information anywhere online. In the instances when sharing sensitive information is unavoidable, use a secure tool like Duckist.com
Use antivirus software and regularly update your operating system
Use strong passwords and never use one password for all your accounts
Only use location tracking on your devices when necessary
Habitually clear your cache and cookies
Only download applications from reliable sources
Reduce your digital footprint with internet services (like social media)
Use two-factor authentication
Never use public Wi-Fi without a vpn
Only visit secure websites
Never open links and attachments from shady sources
Ensure your data is regularly backed up
The internet is home to the most dangerous hackers who can wreak havoc on the average Joe, large corporations, and government agencies. Nothing is off-limits for these guys. So, to prevent them from breaking into your system, make sure you’re protected from all corners.