A Who's Who Of Hackers

Hackers / Man at computer, Binary code, with the word hackers AP / CBS

This story was written by CNET's Jonathan Skillings.


Now that we've passed through the still waters of Conficker's supposed April 1 activation date, the speculation continues about what the worm might yet hold for the future, and who's behind it.

ABC News online used the opportunity to take a look at some of the most infamous hackers--in the news site's words, "people who unleashed computer chaos--for better or worse"--and what they're up to today.

It focuses on just five most-wanted-character types from the U.S. computing scene. In order, the first four--all logical choices--are Fred Cohen (credited with the first-ever virus, a benign, experimental one), Kevin Mitnick, Robert Morris, and Kevin Poulsen.

Then the list takes an odd turn for No. 5--Napster creator Shawn Fanning. Shawn Fanning? Famous, yes. Disruptive, yes. But hacker? Here's how ABC News rationalized the choice, which comes across as a sort of in-your-face gesture to ill-intentioned (or at least mischievous) hackers with grandiose ambitions: "Shawn Fanning, by most people's definition, is hardly a hacker, but he did more to change the way computers are used than most hackers, for good or evil, can ever hope."

But bad-guy hackers, of course, have been responsible for a huge amount of lost productivity and financial misdeeds over the years. Really, we're the ones who should be hoping that they don't get any more successful (along with keeping our operating systems and antivirus software up to date, resisting those suspicious e-mail come-ons, and using passwords stronger than, well, "password" or "1234".)

I'd also like to try to round out the list of big-time hackers, going beyond those cited above. Here are a few that come immediately to mind for a more complete rogues' gallery. Please chime in with your own thoughts in the comments section below this story.

Gary McKinnon: A U.K. resident, McKinnon has become a cause celebre as he fights possible extradition to the U.S., where prosecutors say he's responsible for "the biggest military hack of all time."

David Smith: In 2002, Smith was sentenced to 20 months in prison for creating the Melissa virus, which three years earlier caused widespread disruption as the first mass-mailing computer infection.

GhostNet: Canadian researchers over the weekend described this "far-reaching" network that has extended into nearly 1,300 computers in more than 100 countries. Working separately, researchers in the U.K. say the network is part and parcel of a "targeted surveillance attack" by the Chinese government that has "potentially fatal consequences for those exposed."

National governments: China has fallen under suspicion as the possible instigator of the GhostNet and of Conficker and the Nimda virus, along with other Internet malfeasance. Russia has been blamed for cyberwarfare against the former Soviet Union lands of Estonia and Georgia.

The Paris Hilton hacker: Hacking hits the tabloids! Data from the T-Mobile Sidekick
cell phone of socialite/reality TV star Paris Hilton gets unleashed on the Web, including racy pictures and celebrity friends' phone numbers. In September 2005, a Massachusetts teen was sentenced for breaching T-Mobile USA's internal systems.

And just as I was about to hit the Publish button, a colleague pointed out a separate list on the ITsecurity.com site: "Top 10 Most Famous Hackers of All Time"--black hats and white hats. Enjoy.

By Jonathan Skillings
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