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When people think of hackers, they often picture a hooded criminal tapping away at their keyboard in the darkness of their basement. But, the reality is that hacking has become a big business – and not all of it is malicious.
While black-hat hackers still exist, today hacking has transcended its wholly negative connotations and become an integral part of cybersecurity practices.
Large organisations and governments rely on teams of skilled hackers to bolster their cybersecurity defences and uncover potential vulnerabilities within their digital infrastructure.
These professionals, known as ethical hackers or 'white-hat' hackers, work to identify weaknesses before malicious actors can exploit them. Ethical hacking has evolved into a legitimate and crucial aspect of the technology landscape, and organisations are continuously looking for the biggest and best hackers to protect their organisations from cybercrime.
In this list, we’re counting down ten of these ethical hackers, exploring how each of them worked their way to stand among the best and most famous hackers in the world.
Marc Rodgers has been hacking since the 80s – both as an ethical hacker and cybersecurity expert. With a hacking career spanning over 20 years, he has hacked a wide range of high-profile devices and systems, including Apple's TouchID and the Tesla Model S, ultimately making the systems more secure for both the companies and their users. Rodgers is also well-known for his work on television, including technical support for USA Network's ‘Mr. Robot’, helping create hacks for the show, and regularly featuring on the BBC series ‘The Real Hustle’ as an on-screen expert of technical scams.
Today, Rodgers is known for his role in the US Ransomware Taskforce and as the co-founder of DEF CON, the world's largest hacking conference. He is also the founder of the CTI League, a collective of professionals, government agencies, and law enforcement who work together to protect the medical sector and other life-saving organisations from cyber attacks.
Dr Charlie Miler
A former National Security Agency hacker, and the first to hack both iPhone and Android phones, Dr Charlie Miller gained international attention after he and research partner Chris Valasek hacked a 2014 Jeep Cherokee and took control of the vehicle from more than 10 miles away. He also notoriously found vulnerabilities in Apple products, including the iPhone and MacBook Air and the App Store, prompting Apple to reassess its security strategy. This quickly caught the attention of the security community and Dr Miller was invited to speak at security conferences and events all over the world and was featured in several media outlets.
Today, Dr Miller has become a highly respected figure in the security community. He joined the SANS Institute earlier this year teaching courses on ethical hacking and security research to people around the world. His legacy has made him one of the most famous hackers within the cybersecurity community.
HD Moore has earned widespread recognition as the creator of Metasploit – a vulnerability scanning software that has revolutionised the world of hacking. In the early 2000s, Moore began developing the Metasploit Project – a tool which allows security researchers and testers to exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems. Today, Metasploit has become one of the most popular testing frameworks in the world. It has provided security experts with a standardised and powerful toolkit for streamlining the process of identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities.
Beyond Metasploit, Moore's research and expertise extend to areas such as vulnerability research, network security, and incident response. Moore is a vocal advocate for security awareness and education. He believes that everyone should be aware of the risks of cybercrime, and has worked to raise awareness of these risks through his work on the Metasploit Project and his speaking engagements. Today, Moore sits as Chairman and is the Founding CTO at runZero.
As the creator of the Linux kernel – the operating system at the core of the Linux operating system – Linus Torvalds is among the most famous hackers in the world. The Linux kernel was originally taken from the UNIX OS, but it quickly evolved into a much more powerful and versatile operating system. Torvalds released the Linux kernel under the GNU General Public License, which allowed anyone to freely use, modify, and redistribute it. The Linux kernel quickly gained popularity among hackers and computer enthusiasts.
Today, Linux is used by millions of people around the world. It is the operating system of choice for many servers, supercomputers, and embedded devices. Linux is also increasingly being used on personal computers, laptops, and tablets. The collaborative nature of Linux, which Torvalds pioneered, emphasises the power of distributed collaboration and the collective intelligence of the global developer community. It has become helped shape the future of open-source software. All with a simple hack of an outdated operating system.
Greg Hoglund was one of the first people to research and write about buffer overflows, a type of software vulnerability that can be exploited by hackers to gain unauthorised access to computer systems. In the late 1990s, he founded HBGary, a security consulting firm specialising in testing and incident response. HBGary has worked with a variety of clients, including Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and law enforcement organisations.
In 2011, HBGary was involved in a controversy surrounding the hacking of the hacktivist group Anonymous. The incident began when HBGary’s CEO Aaron Barr claimed to have identified key members of Anonymous and intended to reveal their identities. In response, Anonymous launched a retaliatory attack on HBGary Federal's systems. The hackers gained access to the company's servers and stole emails, documents, and other data. Hoglund was accused of working with the FBI to infiltrate Anonymous but denied the allegations, stating that he was simply trying to help the FBI understand Anonymous. The situation raised questions about the relationship between security researchers and law enforcement agencies, changing the face of ethical hacking for the years to come.
Loyd Blankenship, also known by his hacker alias The Mentor, is most famous for writing the Hacker Manifesto. The manifesto, which argues that hackers are not criminals but rather explorers and inventors, has become a seminal document in the hacker community, and it has been cited by many hackers as an inspiration and a defence of legal hacking. Blankenship argued that hacking is a valuable tool for social change, claiming that hacking can help build defences against attacks. But the Hacker Manifesto has been controversial since its publication. Some people believe that it promotes illegal activity, while others believe that it is a valuable statement of hacker philosophy.
Blankenship's contribution goes beyond the manifesto. As a member of the hacking group Legion of Doom, he was part of the early hacking scene that laid the foundation for modern cybersecurity practices. His involvement in the hacking community during its nascent stages helped shape the evolving culture and ethics associated with hacking.
Known by his hacker handle "Phiber Optik," Mark Abene, has become one of the most notorious phone hackers of all time. Abene first caught fame as a member of the hacking group Masters of Deception (MoD) – a group with a knack for hacking telecommunication systems and breaking into phone networks. Their feats included exploring the esoteric world of phone phreaking, which involved manipulating phone systems for exploration rather than malicious intent. It all came to an end in July 1992, however, when Abene, along with 4 members of the MoD, was charged for charged with conspiracy to commit computer fraud after accessing computers of entities such as AT&T, Bank of America and the National Security Agency (NSA). Many people inside and outside of the hacker world felt that Abene was made an example of, and was not judged according to earlier court standards.
After his release from probation, Abene became a security consultant. He worked for several companies, including IBM and the New York City Police Department. He also founded his own security consulting firm, SecurityMetrics. Abene is now a respected figure in the security community. He is known for his expertise in computer security and his ability to communicate complex security concepts in a clear and concise way.
Kevin Mitnick is one of the most famous black-hat hackers turned ethical hackers in history. Mitnick's early years were marked by his extraordinary talent for hacking and manipulation of computer systems. He was fascinated by computers and how they worked, and he quickly learned how to exploit their vulnerabilities. In the early 1990s, Mitnick began hacking into major corporations, including Motorola, Nokia, and IBM. These hacks caught the attention of international law enforcement, landing him a place on the FBI's most-wanted list. But Mitnick's hacking spree eventually caught up with him, and he was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to five years in prison.
After his release from prison, Mitnick became an ethical hacker, using his skills to help organisations identify and fix security vulnerabilities. He also wrote several books about hacking and security, and he became a frequent speaker at security conferences. Today, Mitnick is a consultant and public speaker and runs Mitnick Security Consulting LLC to advise companies on cybersecurity.
In 1995, back when Kevin Mitnick was a black-hat hacker, he decided to hack into the computer of cybersecurity expert Tsutomu Shimonura. Let’s just say this didn’t end well for Mitnick. Shimomura decided to take his revenge by using his own hacking skills to help the FBI track and locate Mitnick, successfully getting him arrested. This collaboration highlighted the possibility of hackers working alongside law enforcement, marking a pivotal moment in the history of ethical hacking.
But Shimomura's legacy as one of the best hackers in the world extends far beyond his role in Mitnick’s downfall. His expertise in network security, cryptography, and system architecture made him a sought-after consultant, speaker, and educator. He is also an advocate for responsible hacking, emphasizing the importance of using one's skills for the greater good and adhering to ethical guidelines. This ethical foundation became a cornerstone of his legacy, inspiring aspiring hackers to channel their abilities towards the good rather than the illegal.
Robert Tappen Morris
In 1988, while still a student at Harvard, Robert Morris created the world’s first Morris worm, a type of malware designed to spread through the Internet and collect information about computer systems. The Morris worm quickly spread out of control and caused widespread damage to computer systems. It’s estimated that the worm infected over 6,000 computers around the US, even researching military computers and nearly crashing NASA’s systems. After being arrested and charged Morris became the first individual to be tried under the new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a fine of $10,000.
Morris has become a controversial figure in the cybersecurity community. Many believe that Morris only had the goal of copying his malware to the school computers so they would appear slower, and then the school would have to fix or update them. Others that knew him claimed he created it just to see how large the networks spread, how far the internet could take his worm. But there’s no doubt that the Morris worm was a wake-up call for security professionals, making Morris one of the most famous hackers in the world. Some experts have even gone as far as to say that the worm gave birth to the security industry as we know it.
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