What happens to a hacker once the law catches up with them? One would expect the worst, because geeks do not fare well in penitentiaries that can’t be erased with the simple touch of a reset button. But this expectation could not be farther from the truth. Often times, cybercrime artists go on to launch successful careers in tech, publishing, and business despite having caused a headache for those with a career fighting crime. They become high-paid authors who collect royalties on their time at large, or may even work with law enforcement to catch other cyber criminals. They say crime doesn’t pay, but in the world of hacking, mischief may lead you out of trouble and into a bright, shiny career track.
Robert T. Morris
In 1988, Robert Morris started what he called a “benign experiment that got out of control.” An ABC News story from April 2009 attributes Morris with creating the first ever computer worm, a type of virus, while in graduate studies at Cornell University. The computer worm resulted in a $10,000 fine and three years’ community service. Morris went on to start a software company bought out by Yahoo! for $45 million in 1998.
Kevin Mitnick is one of the more famous cyber criminals of recent history. In the mid-90s, Mitnick embarked on what’s been described as a coast-to-coast hacking spree, racking up hundreds of phone phreaking, systems hacking and other violations. According to USA Today, the FBI considered Mitnick to be a “computer terrorist.” Since being released in 2003, Mitnick has found work as a computer security consultant.
Phone hacking was Kevin Poulson’s calling card. Going by the handle, Dark Dante, in the 1980s, Poulson was a specialist at phreaking, or the manipulation of telephone frequencies. In 1990, he orchestrated a phone system hack of KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, manipulating a live contest so that he could win a Porsche 944 S2. As of May 2012, Poulson is a senior editor at Wired.com, one of the most reputable online technology publications.
Although Morris wrote the first advanced worm virus, Fred Cohen is attributed with constructing the first ever virus program capable of infecting a computer, replicating itself and sending copies to other computers. He did this in 1983 while studying for his Ph.D at the University of Southern California. His knowledge of computer security allowed him to head his own computer security firm.
Steve Wozniak is guilty of phone hacking to place free long-distance calls and making money by distributing that technology to fellow students at the University of California at Berkeley. He dropped out soon after. He then went on to launch a small bite-sized company, called Apple with Steve Jobs, and in 2000 was nominated to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Adrian Lamo was known as the “homeless hacker” for his use of Internet connections at Kinko’s, coffeehouses and other businesses to perform his hacking stunts. His list of hacked organizations include Yahoo!, Citigroup, Bank of America and the New York Times, this last feat netting him a $65,000 fine. Having completed court-ordered probation in 2007, Lamo is now a public speaker and journalist.
While studying at Oxford University, Tim Berners-Lee was caught hacking into university systems and banned from using any of their computer services. Today, Berners-Lee is the man most commonly associated with creating the original structure for the World Wide Web, the basis for the entire Internet.
Cyber crime is one area of criminal activity that should require an advanced degree in computer science. In the real world, it is a degree-substitute. Some people frame bachelor’s of this or that on their walls. Hackers frame their mugshots.