Until Season 2 of Mr. Robot Comes Around, An Inside Look at Real-World Elliot Aldersons
We can’t believe the first season of Mr. Robot is already ending! It’s been a fun ride watching Elliot Alderson combat the obstacles of using his hacking capabilities for good, and we’ve especially appreciated the accuracy with which the hacker’s world is finally portrayed. Mr. Robot’s producers really deserve some kudos for not shying away from the technical aspects that make up the real world of hacking and opting instead for ill-informed mumbo jumbo like what we’ve seen in other hacking-related TV shows (ahem, NCIS…).
Though we may have to say goodbye to Elliot Alderson for a while, there are plenty of real-world hackers that might keep us entertained until season 2 with some of the stunts they’ve pulled. Here are three of our favorites:
It almost sounds like a plot for a TV show. An extremely talented hacker has an intense interest in UFOs and suspicions about what the U.S. government might be hiding about them. He decides that the best way to put his suspicions to rest and uncover the truth is to hack into the NASA and the U.S. Military’s computer systems. And he succeeds!
This isn’t make believe, it’s the story of Gary McKinnon. McKinnon, who also goes by SOLO, managed to shut down 2,000 U.S. Military computers for a full 24 hours in his search for evidence of aliens. In no time, he went from being an unknown to attracting attention from news and media outlets across the globe as well as hacker groups, famous musicians and politicians. The legal proceedings following McKinnon’s hack also seemed like something out of Hollywood, involving a ten-year battle to keep McKinnon from being extradited to the U.S. This battle came to a happy ending for this talented hacker when, in 2012, Home Secretary Theresa May withdrew her extradition order to the United States.
The Homeless Hacker
There are a lot of interesting aspects to the story of Adrian Lamo, the homeless hacker who, in the early 2000s, was known for wandering the United States via Greyhound when he wasn’t busy hacking into major corporations and carrying out some of the biggest breaches the world had seen. At the mere age of 20 he managed to hack into Yahoo! News (check out this video where Lamo himself talks about the changes he made to some stories). And it wasn’t long after that before he hacked into The New York Times and finally got himself in trouble with the law.
What’s different about Lamo? For starters, he was open about his actions and even reached out to the owners of the breached websites to let them know he’d managed to break into their sites and to help them patch security holes. He was also the one to inform Army Counterintelligence about Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea Manning), who was leaking sensitive U.S. government documents. Do we sense some Alderson-esque morality at play? What’s also interesting is the more personal side of Lamo’s story: his diagnosis of Asperger’s disease finally came after years of struggle with depression and misdiagnoses. This is the same disease with which Gary McKinnon was diagnosed at the age of 42. To learn more about Adrian Lamo, check out this interesting interview he did for CNET.
From convicted computer hacker to senior editor at a major technology publication—there’s no story like Kevin Poulsen’s.
As a black hat hacker, Poulsen is best known for having taken over every single one of the telephone lines for the Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM in order to win a Porsche (talk about a creative way to manipulate phone-in contests!). After the FBI began pursuing him, Poulsen went underground and was even featured on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries TV show. But police finally arrested him, and Poulsen was sentenced to five years in prison. Another hit? He was banned from using computers and the Internet for a full three years after his release.
What’s a hacker who can’t touch a computer to do? Become a journalist, of course. Today, Poulsen is a senior editor at Wired. He’s worked hard over the years to distance himself from his criminal past, and, since serving jail time, has been involved in work that helped lead to the arrest of a child molester. He also broke the initial story of Chelsea Manning’s arrest, and wrote a book about the cybercrime underground.
UPDATE! A special shout out to our readers from Reddit, flooger88 and Mr_Muffin_man, for their suggestions on other talented hackers who should be featured here. Read on for our newest additions!
If you do a Google Images search for Kevin Mitnick, you may be surprised at what you’ll find. The man who appears in the pictures looks more like someone you’d expect to see at the front of a high school science class or giving a talk at some geeky tech conference. But the bespectacled Mitnick has a much bigger past that involves five years in prison (four of which were without trial) and eight months in solitary confinement. Ouch.
Why the harsh sentence? In this interview, Mitnick explains that the government thought he’d be able to launch nuclear weapons by whistling into a telephone. No joke. Still, while Mitnick claims he became a hacker “more for the exploration, for the seduction of adventure and pursuit of knowledge,” his curiosity took him too far. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to four counts of wire fraud, two counts of computer fraud and one count of illegally intercepting a wire communication. But the Kevin Mitnick of today isn’t who he was back then. From pre-teen hacker to convicted felon, he now uses his skills for good as a computer security consultant. Check out this interesting interview with Kevin here.
Known by some as the original Snowden, Jeremy Hammond is a hacktivist who’s currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for his part in hacking the corporate intelligence agency Startfor, or Strategic Forecasting. Hammond leaked 5 million of the agency’s private emails to WikiLeaks, revealing to the world that Stratfor takes part in activities like spying on behalf of private corporations. Hammond, who has a lengthy arrest history largely involving behavior during various protests, is a whistleblower much like Edward Snowden. And yet most people have never even heard of him.
There are a few reasons for this, and a number of them can get quite sticky. For example, this interesting article exploring Hammond’s case points out that it’s “safer” for journalists to report about a person who leaked information from the government – “the traditional opponent of influential investigative journalists” – than it is to write about a hacker who revealed that corporate spies are working with local law enforcement.
Jeremy Hammond is clearly a gifted hacker (it took a whopping six months for Stratfor to get their servers up and running again after his hack attack) who is fueled by his intense beliefs as a political activist. Check out the Free Jeremy site for updates on his case.
Of course, not all hackers are driven by good morals. Some simply hack to exercise a skill they enjoy using. Others, like Max Butler, want to rule the underground universe.
Butler, who’s also known as Max Ray Vision or Iceman, is currently serving the longest sentence—13 years—ever given for hacking in the U.S. He stole nearly 2 million credit card numbers from banks and other businesses, and those stolen credit cards were used to rack up $86 million in fraudulent charges.
His story is admittedly an interesting one, though, albeit quite sad (so far). At one point, he was actually working as an informant for the FBI. But the job didn’t sit well with him, and, while breaking into federal sites in order to help them fix an error back in 1998, he left a backdoor for himself into government websites. These actions led to an 18-month sentence after which Butler had an opportunity to reinvent himself. But he didn’t take it. A mere three years after his release, he was on his way back behind bars for his underground carding site, CardersMarket. Check out this in-depth story about Butler’s journey, written by (guess who?) Kevin Poulsen. And let’s wait and see what Butler decides to do with his life next; his current prison sentence is supposed to end in 2019.
Are there any hackers out there that you admire? Tell us about them in the comments below!
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