Hackers are a strange aspect of both the underworld and the professional world. For one, they seem slightly intangible and conceptual, operating in the cyber world, and are often stereotyped and simplified in fiction or seen as virtual folk heroes, akin perhaps to pirates. But the reality is stranger. In this account, we hack into the database of the worst hackers in the world and download a caseload of the very real problems they have wrought.
10. Jonathan James
The story of Jonathan Joseph James is a shocking and tragic one. James had the dishonorable distinction of being the first juvenile offender in American history to be sentenced on cybercrime charges. Nothing good came of his nefarious career, as he was found dead at age 24 at his home in Florida as a result of suicide by gunshot. James got started on computers at age 6, getting so obsessed by his early teens that his parents confiscated his electronics, only returning the computers when he left home and refused to return unless they gave them back. As a teenager, James got into computer systems belonging to BellSouth and a school system before getting into deeper waters, which put federal agents on his trail.
James had put a backdoor entrance in a server at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA — which formed a division of the United States Department of Defense — and hacked into the system, accessing more than 3,000 messages for (or sent by) military employees, plus account information for employees. Things got terrifying when it was revealed that this mere youth got hold of software that was nothing less than the International Space Station’s source code tasked with life support system control. NASA describes the software as that responsible for “the International Space Station’s physical environment, including control of the temperature and humidity within the living space.” The cost to address this problem was $41,000. In 2000, at age 16, James was arrested for these epic hacks. James’s punishments included being placed on probation until his 18th birthday. In 2007, James was afraid he would be blamed for a huge hack of TJX department store, and this led to his 2008 suicide.
9. Loyd Blankenship
Author of “The Hacker Manifesto” (originally titled “Conscience of a Hacker”), Loyd Blankenship was somewhat eerily known as “The Mentor” before being identified. Blankenship served an unsettling role in the history of hacking by defining and justifying the hacker in popular imagination, defiantly taking an unapologetic invasion stance on the battlefield of computer innovation versus cybercrime. His words speak for themselves, as follows: “This is our world now. The world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We explore, and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge, and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias, and you call us criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”
Tough words to swallow indeed, but a spur to those who innovate to fight cybercrime. And what became of Blankenship? He was hired by Steve Jackson Games, which was raided by the US Secret Service, leading to a legal case. Separate from all of these happenings, he remains a writer on the subject of computers.
8. Hamza Bendeladj
Hamza Bendeladj is a hacker extraordinaire, grand donor of money not his own, and a banker’s worst nightmare. A hacker with skills and ideology, the Algerian national co-created Trojan horse SpyEye and proceeded to steal a shocking $400 million from 17 different banks in the United States. After pilfering the extraordinary quantity of funds, Bendeladj went on his mission and reportedly donated entirety of the cash to Africa and Palestine. Of course, the story does not end there.
The SpyEye software was offered up for sale, purchased by other hackers and made part of a “botnet,” expanding the radius of damage. On April 23, 2016, Hamza Bendeladj was sentenced to 15 years in jail for his stunts. Also called the “smiling hacker,” the cybercriminal has been viewed as a hero by some, but recognized as a troublemaker on a grand scale by those with a more accurate view of his acts. His work has been “credited” with helping to cause around $1 billion in financial losses worldwide.
7. Owen Walker
A notorious New Zealander turned youth hacker, Owen “AKILL” Walker started writing computer code at age 13, for entertainment alone. Without formal education, everything he did was learned by trial and error. Walker launched cyberattacks around the world from his home base in Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island, where he lived with his family. Walker made $32,000 from hacking, and much more for the group with which he was working. After an admission by Walker to the hacking stunts and a subsequent court case, charges were not laid but an $11,000 bill for damages and costs was paid out. Botnet technology was utilized by Walker, who rented servers in Malaysia to do the dirty work.
After the resolution of the legal matters, Walker cashed in on his notoriety, though not without great controversy. The former “AKILL” who had worked on six significant world cyberattacks including the 2007 shutdown of the University of Pennsylvania IT system was eventually hired by TelstraClear, a communications company in New Zealand for whom he conducted presentations and made appearances in advertisements as a security consultant. And the bill for the damages caused by Walker? The hacker group of which he was ringleader cost hacking victims a cool $26 million. Was justice served? You decide.
6. Jeanson James Ancheta
In January 2006, a hacker from Downey, California who attacked personal targets and even US military installations was sentenced following federal investigations that led to his doorstop. Just 20-years-old at the time, Jeanson James Ancheta used botnets to gain control over a shocking number of computers — hundreds of thousands of computers, in fact. The man also infected machines located on US military locations. The eerie form of hacking that Ancheta had unleashed involved gaining profits by using everyday people’s computers en masse to carry out spam attacks and release mass popup advertisements.
By law, Ancheta could have faced 50 years of imprisonment, but ended up having to spend 60 months in prison, having his BMW confiscated, and giving up over $58,000 of hacking profits, while paying $15,000 in restitution to the United States Federal Government as compensation for the infection of military computer installations. The penalties stemmed from his May 9, 2006 plea of guilt to four felonies for violation of United States Code Section 1030, Fraud and Related Activity in Connection with Computers.
5. Dennis M. Moran
American hacker Dennis M. Moran specialized in denial of service attacks, proving that one determined and informed individual armed with a laptop and bad intentions could unleash a shockingly disproportionate wave of global virtual destruction. Moran was born in 1982 in Massachusetts, and went by the alias Coolio as he shattered senses of security at the corporate level and then threatened national security in the United States.
In 2000, Moran was accused of engaging in denial of service attacks prior to his arrest for damage to security websites and illicit access of United States Army and United States Air Force computers that were spread out across four military bases. The guilty plea by Moran included damaging DARE and RSA Security websites, along with the clandestine armed forces computer hacks.
4. Kristina Vladimirovna Svechinskaya
While an exceptionally nerdy guy with a sociopathic streak, strange manifesto or activist’s vendetta may be a common stereotype of a hacker, a mysterious young Russian woman vies for a prime spot in the ranks of highly destructive hackers worldwide. Kristina Vladimirovna Svechinskaya was just 21-years-old when she hacked into thousands of bank accounts with a Zeus Trojan Horse attack as well as opening multiple bogus bank accounts as part of a hacking gang collaborative.
As a result, she and her fellow miscreants stole $3 million from bank accounts in the United States. Often known as an attractive and charismatic face in the shadowy world of hacking, Svechinskaya could have received 40 years in prison for her fraud and false passport use charges.
3. Karl Koch
His activities and death shrouded in secrecy, German Cold War-era hacker Karl Werner Lothar Koch was born in 1965 in Hanover and lived a short life, dying at age 23 in 1989. He went by the alias “Hagbard,” a name inspired by Hagbard Celine, going on to hack United States military computers and then give the information to the Russian KGB — for a price. The somewhat strange-minded Herr Koch called his computer by a distasteful acronym, which he stated stood for “First Universal Cybernetic-Kinetic Ultra-Micro Programmer,” which was a computer created by Hagbard in The Illuminatus! trilogy.
Koch, along with co-hacker “Pengo” (Hans Heinrich Hübner) confessed to the act of espionage and hacking under amnesty laws, which prevented their arrest and prosecution. Strangely, this all came to a nasty end when Koch was found burned to death in the woods close to Celle. While officially a suicide, it is believed by many that Koch was murdered to prevent more confessions. Koch’s shoes were not found, while the fire around his body was very orderly in its burn pattern, forming a small circle. This is often thought to indicate foul play.
2. James Kosta
An early starter in the world of hacking, James Kosta racked up an extraordinary number of charges related to his hacks of highly sensitive corporate and government computers, including IBM and General Electric as a 14-year-old. He had been earning a steady income while in high school through his IT business that led to founding a school computer club. When his parents told him he had to shut down his business and concentrate on school grades, he took legal action and applied for emancipation, which was soon granted. Kosta then took a bad turn, getting involved with a group of hackers that set the bar high for initiations and rites of passage.
A total of 45 counts of technical burglary made the young Kosta eligible for 45 years of imprisonment, but he was released on conditions by a judge who saw potential for rehabilitation. One condition was that he serve in the armed forces as soon as he was of age, so he joined the Navy at 18. By 20, Kosta was hired by the CIA as an intelligence analyst, fighting warlords and terrorists. This youth entrepreneur, juvenile offender and super hacker-turned-government-agent soon took the next step to greatness at age 24, when he sold a company for several million dollars. You might know of him as the founder of 3G Studios, Inc.
1. Impact Team
Not an individual hacker but a group of like-minded individuals doing a peculiar brand of “virtual vigilante” style action, Impact Team was responsible for exposing personal secrets that could break up marriages. Well, it is fair to say that the marriages were already pretty broken. In 2015, Impact Team hacked into the notorious extra-marital affair-themed dating website Ashley Madison. The hackers claimed the theft of over around 10 gigabytes of user data, including names, addresses and credit card records of Ashley Madison users, along with details about their expressed fantasies.
Impact Team explained in a manifesto their opposition to the services provided by Ashley Madison, along with Established Men, both owned by Avid Life Media, was the motivation behind the hack and subsequent blackmailing. A company shut down was demanded as the means by which the release of private data could be negotiated. Neither site was shut down and soon the hackers of Ashley Madison released the personal information of clients, allowing spouses, employers and more to know about their attempts to have an affair.