Though most criminals try to fly under the radar, many hackers and cybercriminals have made names for themselves. Some have done so intentionally, while others only gained notoriety after being caught. Here’s a look at twelve of the most famous hackers and cybercriminals.
1. Kevin Mitnick
When it comes to famous hackers and cybercriminals, Kevin Mitnick is probably the most notorious. He started getting his footing in the early 1980s, hacking the North American Defense Command (NORAD) in 1982. That event garnered so much attention that it served as the inspiration for the movie War Games.
However, the NORAD hack isn’t what firmly cemented Kevin Mitnick’s reputation. Instead, that moment happened in 1989 when he hacked the network of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
After the DEC attack, Kevin Mitnick was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted. He spent some time in prison before receiving a conditional release. While on conditional release, he hacked the voicemail systems of Pacific Bell.
Due to the Pacific Bell hack, a warrant was issued. Kevin Mitnick fled, ultimately living in hiding for over two years before being caught and sentenced to more time in prison.
Since his release, Kevin Mitnick seems to straddle the line between white and black hat hacker. While he operates a cybersecurity consulting firm, he also reportedly runs Mitnick’s Absolute Zero Day Exploit Exchange, a place where he sells exploits to interested parties.
In the world of hacker groups, Anonymous is likely the most well-known. The international group began coming together in 2003, finding a home on 4chan message boards, where it started loosely coordinating hacks among group members.
By and large, Anonymous is fairly decentralized. While some cumulative efforts do occur, there seemingly isn’t a formal structure or hierarchy governing their actions. Instead, participation in any given attack is primarily based on a sense of social justice or a similar motivation.
One of the group’s most famous attacks was dubbed Project Chanology. During 2008, the group focused its hacktivist efforts on the Church of Scientology, using its efforts to protest the actions and practices of the organization.
While some members of Anonymous have been identified and charged with cybercrimes, dismantling the group seems near impossible. The decentralized nature of Anonymous and the lack of a true hierarchy essentially prevents its elimination.
3. Gary McKinnon
Gary McKinnon gained notoriety in the early 2000s not just for his skills but his targets. Over the course of several years, he broke into hundreds of government computers, including systems operated by the US Department of Defense, NASA, and multiple military branches.
At one point, Gary McKinnon took the Army’s Washington, DC, network offline, causing 2,000 computers to lose critical connectivity. That attack kept the network down for three days, causing some to label the event “the biggest military hack of all time.”
While Gary McKinnon, who operated under the name “Solo,” was highly skilled at gaining entry into systems, he wasn’t as adept at covering his tracks. In early 2002, he was identified and arrested at his home in the UK.
After his arrest, Gary McKinnon claimed the reason he hacked the system was to find information about UFOs. He believed the US government was hiding details about alien technologies, and he wanted to locate and release that data.
4. Adrian Lamo
Adrian Lamo entered the spotlight after a 2001 hack where he used a content management tool to alter an article by Reuters, inserting a fake quote from former Attorney General John Ashcroft. However, he also got attention for hacking systems and then sending notifications to both his victims and the press.
In 2002, Adrian Lamo crossed a line, hacking the intranet of the New York Times. Once in the system, he listed himself as one of the paper’s expert sources and started researching various high-profile public figures.
Adrian Lamo was identified after the New York Times attack and was ultimately arrested. During sentencing, he was given two years of probation and a sizeable fine.
5. Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev
When it comes to more modern hackers, Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev is one of the most notorious. He was identified as the person behind the GameOver Zeus, malware that is believed to have infected over one million computers and caused financial losses in excess of $100 million.
Part of what makes Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev infamous is the reward offered for information leading to his capture. The FBI is offering $3 million to anyone who has information that leads to an arrest and/or conviction. That’s the biggest bounty that’s ever been offered on a cybercriminal.
Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev is believed to be living in Russia, and some even say he is doing so openly. Since his criminal charges are based in the US, he may never face any consequences for his actions if he isn’t extradited.
6. Albert Gonzalez
Once the leader of a small group of “computer nerds” in high school, Albert Gonzalez soon took the next step. He became active on the Shadowcrew website, where he earned a reputation both as a hacker and moderator.
Albert Gonzalez caught widespread attention for payment account-related hacking and debit card fraud-based activities. He was arrested at age 22 for stealing data from millions of accounts, though he managed to avoid jail time by aggressing to assist the Secret Service with its operations, particularly when it came to the indictment of other Shadowcrew members.
However, while Albert Gonzalez was operating as an informant, he didn’t walk away from his black hat past. Instead, he gathered up a group of hackers and continued stealing payment card account information, targeting a variety of high-profile retailers.
Albert Gonzalez’s 2005 attack of TJX – the company that operates TJ Maxx in the US – led to millions of dollars of losses. After being identified and arrested, he faced trial and receiving a 20-year sentence in 2010.
A recently emerged hacking group, DarkSide began making waves in 2020. It quickly became notorious for its ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), causing many to view DarkSide as one of the most dangerous modern groups operating.
However, it wasn’t until the Colonial Pipeline hack in 2021 that DarkSide gained full public awareness. The attack shut down a significant part of the gasoline supply chain for the East Coast, leading to widespread panic-buying and skyrocketing prices.
DarkSide tries to market itself as “trustworthy,” saying that it focuses on high-profile companies and lives up to its promises once payment is received. However, that didn’t save it from significant public scrutiny.
By May 2021, DarkSide claimed to shut down its operations after significant pressure from the US government. It eliminated its public online presence, but it isn’t clear whether the group genuinely stopped operating or is simply hiding from public view.
8. Johnathan James
Johnathan James got started fairly early in life, hacking into government and corporate networks – and doing time in prison – all before his 18th birthday. One of his most noteworthy hacks involved NASA. He managed to acquire enough source code to determine how the International Space Station operated. The breach led to a three-week shutdown of the NASA networks.
Johnathan James’s story is ultimately a tragic one. After several companies were attacked in 2007, he was accused of being involved. Johnathan James denied he had anything to do with the attacks and feared he would be convicted of crimes he says he didn’t commit. In 2008, he took his own life.
9. Kevin Poulsen
Kevin Poulsen earned his reputation after using his skills to hack the phone system of a radio station, allowing him to make himself a winner of a call-in contest and securing a new car as a prize. However, that isn’t what put him on the radar of authorities.
What thrust Kevin Poulsen into the spotlight was his attacks on federal systems. After gaining entry, he stole wiretap information, putting him on the FBI’s radar.
Kevin Poulsen was eventually identified, arrested, and convicted. After doing time, he was released from prison in the mid-1990s. Since then, he seems to have reformed his ways, even spending time as a contributor for Wired.
10. Graham Ivan Clark
Another more modern hacker, 17-year-old Graham Ivan Clark oversaw a group of hackers that was behind the massive Twitter-Bitcoin hack that occurred during the summer of 2020. Graham Ivan Clark gained access to Twitter accounts operated by a variety of well-known people and companies, including Joe Biden, Kanye West, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Apple, and more.
After gaining access to the accounts, hackers sent out tweets that were part of a cryptocurrency scam. In exchange for sending Bitcoin to a wallet, it promised to send back twice that amount in Bitcoin in return.
In the end, total losses crossed over $100,000. After Graham Ivan Clark was identified and arrested, he pleaded out, receiving a three-year prison sentence instead of the minimum ten-year sentence he may have received otherwise.
11. Julian Assange
While Julian Assange’s notoriety focuses more heavily on his operation of WikiLeaks – a site where information (often stolen) could be posted anonymously – he also operated as a hacker himself. He worked under the name “Mendax” and became part of a hacking group called the International Subversives.
Some believe he may have been a part of an attack on NASA in 1989, though that’s never been proven officially. However, he was connected to a Nortel hack in 1991. After his home phone was tapped, he was charged with 31 counts of hacking and similar crimes.
Julian Assange received a fairly lenient sentence, partially because his attacks weren’t broadly malicious. Additionally, he aided local Australian authorities, lending his skills to help them identify those responsible for publishing child pornography.
In 2006, Julian Assange – along with others – founded WikiLeaks, a site that became notorious for publishing classified information from anonymous sources. During that time, it isn’t clear whether any materials that made their way onto WikiLeaks were acquired directly by Julian Assange, though many of the higher-profile incidents were associated with sources.
12. Robert Tappan Morris
Unlike some people on this list, Robert Tappan Morris wasn’t necessarily trying to cause harm. Instead, he created a computer worm – the first one ever designed – in 1988 to try to gauge the size of the internet. The issue is, the worm had a flaw that allowed it to infect a computer several times. With each infection, the system slowed. In the end, thousands of computers were rendered unusable.
In 1989, Robert Tappan Morris was charged and convicted, ending up with three years of probation, community service hours, and a sizeable fine. However, he was able to pivot, eventually becoming a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tenured professor.