Tricksters and Gangsters: An overview of and hackers then and now

A new generation of hackers have evolved not from the academic world but from the criminal underbelly of society.

By Felix Morrison

Hackers are perceived as the perpetrators of the most virulent technological attacks in a constant hunt for our financial information. Hackers spread fear and wreak havoc to systems all around the world.

Ransomware, email hacks, personal information and photo leaks have made hackers modern day highwaymen as they disrupt our daily life, shape worldwide policy and events in never before seen ways.

Hacking started with a light hearted spirit and noble beginning, with different pranks played by engineering students on the campuses of universities like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. But their stunts were clever mischief, tinkering with machines and mixing shenanigans and brilliance.

A new generation of hackers have evolved not from the academic world but from the criminal underbelly of society. The first generation were young introverted antisocial nerds drawn to technology with an innocent motive. These hacks seemed to be attempts to see how far they could go, sometimes driven by curiosity, sometimes driven by mutual competition between fellow hackers, and most of the time receiving no personal benefit other than the satisfaction of having an unique skill.

By contrast the new generation are hardened criminals amplified by the prowess of technology, extending their tendrils all around the world. The mainstream media portrays hackers as criminals, working to subvert any system holding financial or personal information for commercial gain.

In a series of articles we will analyze the life and work of what we call career hackers, famous individuals both from the old and new generation, and try to draw a comparison between their methods, motives and philosophy.

From punch cards to FBI’s Most Wanted

Let’s start with the most famous hacker of all, Kevin Mitnick a relentless rebel that could simply not stop hacking, driven by an obsession to crack systems, people and everything he could get his hands on.

Mitnick pioneered many techniques of what we know today as social engineering and phone phreaking. Mitnick achieved all of this without resorting to software or codes. Mitnick never programmed, created or used any software, or ever made money hacking; Mitnick never used a credit card, pin number or anything for profit. 

Mitnick merely realized a wicked talent and in utilizing the same, for the hell of it, he shed light on flaws and loopholes in cyber security.

Born in California in 1963, Mitnick’s hacking career would start at age 12 when he subverted the card punch system of the Van Nuys city bus system. Mitnick engineered a driver to direct him to the transport company supply store, where he bought his own ticket hole puncher for a school project thus giving him access to infinite free rides.

This would become the first insight of his true power and skill, not programming or writing software, but simply working the system.

Mitnick perfected his technique with multiple companies, studying their internal structure and inside jargon thus allowing access to protected information.

This was the true power and skill of Kevin Mitnick and it would be a crucial direction in his future.

Downfall and Resurrection

After myriad attacks to different telephone and communications companies, the authorities began to take notice.

Mitnick lived on the run for two years under fake identities, inciting the wrath of the FBI after outsmarting them countless times.

Eventually, Mitnick was caught and sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to wire and computer fraud. Mitnick was placed in solitary confinement for a long period of his incarceration and forbidden to use any telephones as the prosecutors were somehow able to convince the judge that Mitnick could “start a nuclear war by whistling into a phone.”

Telephone systems on this era were able to be manipulated by tones and sounds. Remember the sounds landlines made when you pressed each number?

Mitnick’s life would take a turn for the better after his release in 2000. He reinvented himself as a journalist, security consultant and public speaker. Mitnick has written multiple books where he details not only his adventures, but many other hacker’s crimes and achievements. In Mitnick’s books you can grasp a solid understanding into how society works and how he was able to socially engineer his way into the highest strata of tech companies.

This reveals how fragile the fabric of our everyday interactions are and how easy they can be exploited.


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