Top 5 Famous Computer Hackers: From Conficker to the First Computer Virus


April 1 is the day the Conficker computer worm was supposed to do something terrible to millions of computers running Microsoft Windows -- though engineers were at a loss to say just what that something was.

So what happened? If your computer lets you read this story, we can presume it's not a smoldering wreck.

But somewhere in cyberspace, some hacker, or hackers, created Conficker, and they're still out there. So are others.

What's a Hacker Anyway?

Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions of "hacker." One is very positive: "an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer." Another is darker: "a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system."

But you may be surprised to know what's happened to the most famed hackers of the past. We went looking for a way to measure the top cases -- perhaps in terms of dollar cost or computers infected -- and the consensus we found was that it's hard to do.

"Tagging a damage amount or number of machines compromised to a single virus (let alone a single person) is very difficult," said Nicholas Newman, who tracks computer crimes at the National White Collar Crime Center.

"Data can be transmitted across the globe in a matter of seconds, and computers are infected with malware just as quickly," he wrote in an e-mail to ABC News. "As a result, accurately counting the number of machines infected by a particular worm is impossible and can only be estimated."

Alfred Huger of Symantec, the online-security firm, largely agreed. "We don't track individuals," he said, "we follow software threats."

He named some particularly virulent cases of recent years: the Code Red worm of 2001 and the SQL slammer worm of 2003 (no perpetrators were caught), as well as the Blaster worm from 2003 (an 18-year-old from Minnesota, Jeffrey Parson, served 18 months for writing one variation of it).

He said Conficker is tops on his list in recent years: "It was dramatic in how quickly it moved. However, it didn't have any impact. Yet."

Top of the List: America's Best-Known Hackers

So here are some of the most famous -- or infamous -- hackers, compiled with the help of Symantec, the Justice Department, the National White Collar Crime Center, and several technology consultants. You may despise some of them; others, you may actually like. Please feel free to suggest others, or argue with our choices, in our comments section.

Fred Cohen

In 1983, Fred Cohen, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, wrote a short program, as an experiment, that could "infect" computers, make copies of itself, and spread from one machine to another. It was benign. It was hidden inside a larger, legitimate program, which was loaded into a computer on a floppy disk -- something few computers sold today can accommodate anymore.

Other computer scientists had warned that computer viruses were possible, but Cohen's was the first to be documented. A professor of his suggested the name "virus." Cohen now runs a computer security firm.

"You could write defenses 'til the cows come home," he told ABC News back in 1988, "and it's guaranteed that eventually that some virus will be able to get past those defenses."

Kevin Mitnick

It takes some diligence to get the Justice Department to call you "the most wanted computer criminal in United States history." Kevin Mitnick was diligent.

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