Hacking has always been inherently a young person’s game. The first usage of the word “hacker” was to describe pranksters meddling with the phones at MIT. Many hackers have cited boredom, a desire for change, or the thrill of going somewhere one is not supposed to go as their motivation for hacking, all of which could apply to scores of common activities on college campuses. While today’s hacking scene is dominated by large hacking groups like Anonymous and Masters of Deception, many of the greatest hacks ever have been pulled off by college, high school, and even middle school kids who rose to infamy armed only with a computer and the willingness to cross the bounds of legality.
- Sven Jaschan:
In the words of one tech expert, “His name will always be associated with some of the biggest viruses in the history of the Internet.” The viruses: the Sasser and NetSky worms that infected millions of computers and have caused millions of dollars of damage since their release in 2004. The man behind the viruses proved to be not even a man at all, legally. Seventeen-year-old hacker Sven Jaschan, a student at a computer science school in Germany, claimed to have created the viruses to become a hero by developing a program that would eradicate the rampaging Mydoom and Bagle bugs. Instead he found himself the subject of a $250,000 bountycourtesy of Microsoft, for which some of his classmates turned him in.
- Jonathan James:
In 2000, at the age of 16, James, or “C0mrade” as he was known in the hacker community, infamously became the first juvenile federally sentenced for hacking. The targets of his notorious hack jobs were a wing of the U.S. Department of Defense called the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, NASA, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. (By hacking the latter James gained the ability to control the A/C in the International Space Station.) All of these were pulled off “for fun” while James was still a student at Palmetto Senior High in Miami. Unfortunately, the fun ran out when James was tied into a massive identity theft investigation. Though insisting he was innocent, James took his own life, saying he had “no faith in the justice system.”
- Michael Calce:
Yahoo. CNN. Ebay. Amazon. Dell.com. One by one in a matter of days, these huge websites crashed at the hands of 15-year-old Canadian high school student Michael Calce, aka “MafiaBoy.” Armed with a denial-of-service program he called “Rivolta” that overloaded servers he targeted, the young hacker wreaked $7.5 million in damages, according to court filings. Calce was caught when he fell victim to a common ailment of teenage boys: bragging. The cops were turned on to him when he began boasting in chat rooms about being responsible for the attacks. On Sept. 12, 2001, MafiaBoy was sentenced to a group facility for eight months on 56 counts of cybercrime.
- Kevin Mitnick:
Before performing hacks that prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to declare him “the most wanted computer criminal in United States history,” Kevin Mitnick had already made a name for himself as a hacker in his school days, first at Monroe High School in LA and later at USC. On a dare, Mitnick connived an opening into the computer system of Digital Equipment Corporation, which some fellow hackers then used to steal proprietary source code from the company before ratting on him. While still on probation for that crime, Mitnick broke into the premises of Pacific Bell and had to go on the run from police in the aftermath, during which time he hacked dozens of systems, including those of IBM, Nokia, Motorola, and Fujitsu.
- Tim Berners-Lee:
“Scandalous” is a synonym for “infamous,” and for this legendary computer scientist, knight of the British Empire, and inventor of the World Wide Web to have been a hacker in his school days is certainly a juicy factoid. During his time at Oxford in the mid-’70s, Sir Tim was banned from using university computers after he and a friend were caught hacking their way into restricted digital areas. Luckily by that time he already knew how to make his own computer out of a soldering iron, an old TV, and some spare parts. And also luckily for him, he will always be revered as the father of the Internet.
- Neal Patrick and the 414s:
In the early ’80s, hacking was still a relatively foreign concept to most Americans. Few recognized the enormous power hackers could hijack with a few strokes on a keyboard, which explains why a young group of hackers known as the 414s (after a Milwaukee area code) were virtual celebrities after they hacked into the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and elsewhere. While today hacking a lab where classified nuclear research is conducted could earn you a one-way ticket to Guantanamo, the 17-year-old ringleader and high school student Neal Patrick was on the cover of Newsweek. The group members got light sentences but prompted Congress to take a stronger role in cybercrime.
- Robert T. Morris:
The first ever Internet worm, the Morris Worm derived its name from Cornell grad student Robert Tappan Morris. In 1988, Morris released the worm through MIT’s system to cover his tracks, which would seem to contradict his claims that he meant no harm with it. But that’s exactly what resulted: the worm spread out of control, infecting more than 6,000 computers connected to the ARPANET, the academic forerunner to the World Wide Web. The damages reached as high as an estimated $10 million, and Morris earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Morris got community service but was apparently not considered too infamous to be offered his current job as a professor at MIT.
- George Hotz:
To some, George Hotz (aka “geohot,” aka “million75,” aka “mil”) is a public menace, a threat to electronic businesses everywhere. To many, Hotz is a hero. The high-schooler shot to fame/infamy in 2007 at the tender age of 17 by giving the world its first hacked, or “jailbroken” iPhone. He traded it for a new sports car and three new iPhones, and the video of the hacking received millions of hits. Apple has had to grudgingly come to terms with jailbreaking, seeing as the courts have declared it legal, but Sony Corp. is definitely not OK with such tampering. When Hotz hacked his PlayStation 3 and published the how-to on the web, the company launched a vicious lawsuit against him. In turn, the hacker group Anonymous launched an attack on Sony, stealing millions of users’ personal info.
- Donncha O’Cearbhaill:
According to the FBI, this 19-year-old freshman at Trinity College Dublin is one of the top five most wanted hackers in the world. Well, he was; now that he’s been arrested he’s not really “wanted” anymore. The Feds contend the young man is a VIP member of the Anonymous and LulzSec hacking groups that have already been mentioned and whose targets have included the FBI, the U.S. Senate, and Sony (in the Hotz backlash). It seems “Palladium” (O’Cearbhaill) took the liberty of listening in on a conference call between the FBI and several international police forces who were discussing their investigations of the hacking groups. He could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted for that hack alone.
- Nicholas Allegra:
Just as George Hotz moved on from the Apple hacking game, Brown University student Nicholas Allegra is also hanging up his jersey. “Comex,” as he is known to millions of rooted iPhone fans, created the simple-to-use Apple iOS jailbreaking program JailbreakMe in 2007 and has since released two newer versions of it. However, Comex seems to have gone over to the dark side,accepting an internship with the very company whose products he became famous exploiting. Still, Allegra’s hacking skills are so advanced (one author puts him five years ahead of the authors of the infamous Stuxnet worm that corrupted Iran’s nuclear facilities) and so many people availed themselves of his talents, he will forever live in hacking infamy.