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If there is one word in the English language that summons up feelings of great fear in the digital age, it is “hacking”. The prevalence of computers combined with the extremities of the media have us seeing hackers behind every website we come across. We are worried that even at this moment, people are trying to break into our home computers, our bank’s computers, our government’s computers, our school computers. We feel at risk of monetary and identity theft, the erasing of our lives as individuals, the usurpation of our personalities. All because of the people we know as hackers.

Obviously, everyone understands that the term hacker refers to people who break and perhaps recreate computer coding. While today the term is seen almost exclusively in a negative light, the fact is that hacking has not always been, and still is not, indicative of illegal activity.

In fact, many people who consider themselves hackers today have no involvement with, and even frown upon, the activities of those who made the word famous in the first place. A community of people calling themselves hackers existed well before the fame of the few who used their skills for nefarious ends. These original hackers defined what the term in its most literally sense meant; they were people well versed in computers, who excelled in taking apart and recreating programming language. They did not use their skills to steal, but were more known for creating open source software and other useful programs.

This benign community of hackers still exists today, but their term for themselves has been largely cast into a negative light. After all, it is of more interest to most people to learn about the darker side of computer expertise, even if we are scared of the consequences of their actions.

We want to take a balanced approach the phenomenon of the hacker, and take a look at those who have become famous for both white hat and black hat hacking. Here, then, is a list of some of the most famous and infamous hackers of the modern age.

Kevin Mitnick

It makes sense to start the list at number one, and there has never been a black hat hacker as famous in the United States as Kevin Mitnick.

Born in Los Angeles in 1963, Mitnick began his manipulative career with the relatively unsophisticated art of tricking people into divulging information. At 11, the young Mitnick had an LA bus driver tell him where he could buy his own ticket punch. Mitnick then used the punch and unused transfer tickets he found to ride anywhere on the system, for free.

Mitnick was introduced to computer systems and cascading style sheets in high school, and found a natural affinity for them. As with most hackers, it appears Mitnick was unable to resist the challenges of breaking code down, which led to his corruption of the security systems for some major corporations.

Mintnick’s fame spread, and along with it came great exaggerations of his feats. He was the most wanted hacker in the United States, said to have the ability to whistle into a pay phone and cause a nuclear war. A look at his actual convictions, and even his alleged activities, certainly do not reveal a hardened, thieving computer expert. His crimes were corporate focused rather than individual focused, some the most “heinous” being using cloned cell phones.

Mitnick has served two different prison sentences, including one in which he spent eight months in solitary confinement. After release, he has become a sought after security consultant and is still the subject of much controversy (largely stemming from the unknown legality of the FBI and its team members in his arrest and prosecution). read more

Eric Corley

The prolific Eric Corley, also known as Emmanuel Goldstein, is next on our list. An unapologetic supporter of Mitnick, Corley firmly believes Kevin to have been the victim of an unjust legal battle funded in part by large corporations.

Corley is not known for any black hat hacking, although his skills are indisputably vast. He publishes magazines and journals for the hacker community, makes films and has a radio program. Perhaps most famous as a defendant in the film industry’s attempt to crush DVD decoding, Corley was found guilty in a highly controversial ruling. Yet another hacker who seems to be inordinately pursued by the government, he was also arrested for filming a Republican convention, but cleared of all charges. read more

Gary McKinnon

The dubious distinction of greatest military hacker of all time belongs to Gary McKinnon. Over two years, McKinnon hacked into 97 NASA and military computers belonging to the USA, from his home in Scotland. His activities rendered the computers of several bases useless for a period of one day, and the US government states they cost over $700,000 to repair. McKinnon is fighting extradition to the US from London, and states that he didn’t hack into secured machines and the dollar amount is greatly exaggerated. read more

Without exception, black hat crackers and white hat hackers have a fascination with computers and computer systems. While it may not be true of all black hat practitioners, the most famous all seem to cross the line only through curiosity and a sense of playing a game, rather than actual criminal purposes.