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4 Famous Hackers Who Got Caught

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Just recently we were reminded how delicate our online ecosystem really is when the mysterious group Anonymous took down big websites like Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal because they refused to support WikiLeaks. Anonymous is the latest in the fascinating history of hackers who have had their way with supposedly secure computer systems. The big difference – most of the other guys got caught.

1. KEVIN POULSEN

In 1988, at the age of 23, Kevin Poulsen, known online as Dark Dante, hacked into a federal computer network and started poking around in files for the investigation of Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos. It wasn't his first hack, but it was the first time the feds had noticed him. When he found out they were on to him, he went on the run. But like so many hackers, that didn't mean he went offline.

During the 17 months he was underground, Poulsen hacked FBI files, revealing wiretap details for mobsters, foreign politicians, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He and some hacker friends also took over the phone lines for an L.A. radio station, ensuring they were the winning caller in contests, netting themselves two Porsche sports cars, a couple Hawaiian vacations, and $20,000 in cash. When the TV show Unsolved Mysteries picked up on Poulsen's story and broadcast a segment about him, mysteriously, as soon as the screen displayed the toll-free number viewers could use to report tips on the case, all the show's phone lines went dead. Still, the episode proved to be his downfall, as Poulsen was apprehended shortly after when the employees of a supermarket recognized him from the show.

During their prosecution, the FBI called Poulsen "The Hannibal Lecter of Computer Crime," scaring the courts enough to warrant holding him without bail for five years in a federal prison while the government put their case together. However, when all was said and done, they could only charge him with lesser crimes like money laundering and wire fraud, dropping some of the more serious hacking charges altogether. He was sentenced to "time served" and released, but was barred from touching a computer for three years.

Since then, Poulsen has become a respected journalist, writing about computer security for Wired Magazine, as well as a few books on the subject, like Kingpin, which comes out in February. He has also used his hacking skills for the forces of good, famously finding 744 registered sex offenders who were using MySpace to troll for underage victims.

2. ALBERT GONZALEZ

Albert Gonzalez, known online as CumbaJohnny, was the mastermind behind shadowcrew.com, a black market website for hackers to sell stolen credit card numbers, Social Security Numbers, passports, and just about any other type of information imaginable. But when he got arrested for credit card fraud in 2003, he switched sides and became the key informant for the government in "Operation: Firewall," a massive program designed to take down hackers. Thanks to Gonzalez's assistance, 28 hackers, scattered across eight states and six foreign countries, were indicted on charges of selling around 1.7 million credit card numbers. For his assistance, Gonzalez was immune from all charges and was offered a job at the Secret Service.

With the Secret Service looking over his shoulder, Gonzalez developed a new online persona known as "soupnazi" to help snare hackers for the U.S. Government. But once he left the office for the day, soupnazi partnered with hacker Maksym Yastremski (aka Maksik), a Ukrainian whose sales of stolen credit card information were said to have reached $11 million between 2004 and 2006 alone.

To get credit card numbers for Maksik to sell, soupnazi and his hacker friends began "wardriving" – driving around town with a laptop hooked up to a powerful antenna, looking for wireless network signals they could breach. From the parking lots of major stores like TJMaxx, Target, Barnes & Noble, and many others, they installed "packet sniffers," software that can sit on the server undetected and grab data, like every credit or debit card transaction, from the store's vulnerable computer network. The sniffer then sent the credit card information over the internet to one of Yastremski's PCs in Turkey, allowing them to collect thousands of valid credit card numbers. Meanwhile, two European cohorts hacked Heartland Payment Systems, one of the largest credit card payment processing companies in the world, and stole card information from an astonishing 130 million transactions. With the two operations combined, Gonzalez and Yastremski were sitting on a virtual goldmine.

With an influx of cash, Gonzalez bought a brand new BMW, and blew thousands of dollars every weekend with his hacker friends on drinks, drugs, women, and swanky hotel suites. That year, he also threw himself a $75,000 birthday party. By this time, Gonzalez was no longer working for the Secret Service, who suspected he was up to no good but couldn't find any evidence. Gonzalez had taught the feds much of what they knew about hacking, so he also knew how to cover his tracks. Their suspicions were confirmed when Ukrainian authorities caught up with Gonzalez's partner, Yastremski. After searching through the files on Yastremski's seized computers, investigators found records of over 600 instant message conversations about acquiring stolen card numbers for sale. The IM name Yastremski was talking to was registered to the email address soupnazi@efnet.ru.

Gonzalez and 10 others were indicted in federal court in August 2008. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to all charges and, in March 2010, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It's been estimated that the companies hit by soupnazi and his crew have spent more than $400 million to cover the damages done by these 11 men and their 11 computers.

3. KEVIN MITNICK

Using the alias "Condor," Kevin Mitnick's first big hack was a Department of Defense computer, which he gained access to when he was only 16 years old. His most famous crime in his younger days was stealing $1 million worth of software from computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). So when the FBI began investigating him in connection with a hack of the California Department of Motor Vehicles in 1992, he was determined not to get caught again and made a run for it. While a fugitive from the law, Mitnick continued to use a laptop and cell phone to break into computer networks and telephone systems across the country, stealing software, files, access codes, and anything else he could get his hands on, including some 20,000 credit card numbers.

For some hackers, like Mitnick, hacking isn't about the money; it's about being better than the other guy. Mitnick was barely challenged by the FBI on his tail, but on Christmas Day 1994, he found the perfect nemesis when he broke into the home computer of network security expert Tsutomu Shimomura (at left). Shimomura took the breach personally and began a year-long crusade to bring Mitnick down. Like a true cat and mouse game, the two were pretty well matched – for every move Mitnick made, Shimomura had a counter move. For example, thanks to internet monitoring stations set up by Shimomura, he was able to track the online movements of Mitnick. But that didn't matter, because Mitnick used his knowledge of telephone and computer networking systems to disguise his real-world location. In the end, though, the resources of the FBI and the skills of Shimomura were too much for one man. After evading capture for over two years, the FBI tracked Mitnick to an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was arrested on February 15, 1995.

Thanks to a plea agreement, Mitnick spent five and a half years in prison. However, eight months of that time was in solitary confinement after federal prosecutors convinced the judge of the ridiculous notion that Mitnick could launch nuclear warheads by simply whistling the proper tones into a telephone receiver. Since his release, Mitnick has become a well known speaker at hacking and security conferences, as well as the head of his own company, Mitnick Security Consulting.

4. JEANSON JAMES ANCHETA

Just because you're using the mouse and typing on the keyboard doesn't mean you have complete control over your computer. If you're connected to the internet, your PC could be a "zombie," an unwilling member of a "botnet." A botnet is a large network of computers that have been infected with the same virus that will force them to perform some function for the "bot herder," the person who created and controls this illegal network of PCs. Usually, the herder will have your PC send out a few spam emails without your knowledge, or it could become part of an army of computers repeatedly contacting a website, forcing the site to shut down, in what is known as a "Denial-of-Service" (DoS) attack. Because DoS attacks are automated, they can often go on as long as the hacker controlling it would like, opening up the perfect opportunity for extortion (Pay up or the DoS will continue).

For 20-year-old high school dropout Jeanson James Ancheta, creating botnets became easy thanks to software he discovered online. As he continually expanded his army, he set up a website where he rented his zombies to spammers or hackers, complete with price ranges and recommendations for the number of zombies needed to complete the dirty job at hand. At one time during the course of his 14 month crime spree, it's estimated that Ancheta had over 500,000 computers at his disposal, some of which were owned by the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. Business was good, as Ancheta was able to buy a used BMW, spent about $600 a week on clothes and car parts, and had around $60,000 in cash at his disposal.

But the fun ended when Ancheta became the first person to be indicted for creating a botnet after getting caught as part of the FBI's "Operation: Bot Roast," a nationwide push to bring down bot herders. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to four felony charges and was sentenced to 57 months in prison, forced to give up his car and the $60,000 in cash, and to pay restitution of $15,000 for infecting federally owned computers.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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