Fortune looks into six of the most infamous hackers of the 80s and 90s. You won't believe what they're doing now.
The traditional hacker of yore, commonly thought of as a pimply adolescent with Cheetos-colored fingers, is all grown up now. But in the Clinton-era glory days, the hacker was seen as a technological terror, plying a trade few understood.
Most of the infamous hackers of Internet past are all adults now, with mortgages, car payments and jobs — some very good ones, too. They’ve passed the torch to people like Julian Assange and the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, whose combined efforts have seen them target everyone from the Church of Scientology to the U.S. military to PayPal.
Fortune decided to find out what happened to some of the most infamous hackers of the 1980s and 1990s. They made hacking famous in a hazy and distant past, when you couldn’t connect to the Internet without robust a dial tone, and when AOL discs were actually something that people were excited to find in their mailboxes.
You may be surprised at what these 6 are doing now.
Mark Abene was a kid from Queens, New York who became famous as the hacker known as “Phiber Optik.” In 1992, he went to Federal prison after pleading guilty to hacking into the computer systems of Southwestern Bell, a subsidiary of AT&T. Despite this, Ernst & Young snapped him up when he was a free man in 1996 and made him an Information Systems Audit and Assurance Services consultant. His criminal past may have been a drawback, but his expertise was undeniable.
In 2009, he told CNET that this and other experiences in the late 1990s inspired him and his business partners to focus on information security work. “We ultimately all went into private practice after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s,” he said. “I’ve been doing independent information security consulting for some rather large clients ever since.” Abene’s most recent position was as CEO of TraceVector, Inc., a network security company based in San Jose, California.
“Wardriving” is hacker shorthand for the practice of driving around in search of a Wi-Fi network that you can access. In 2003, Adam Botbyl became the first person ever convicted of wardriving after hacking into the wireless network of a Lowe’s department store in Southfield, Michigan, and he received a nine-year prison sentence in December 2004,
According to William Webb’s book, You’ve Been Hacked: 15 Hackers You Hope Your Computer Never Meets, Botbyl was released in January 2008. Since 2010, he has owned Revolutionary Systems, a telecommunications and technology consultancy, and he also runs a blog that only fans of extreme jargon should attempt to penetrate. So if a string of text that says “./configure –sysconfdir=/etc –prefix=/usr –localstatedir=/” means something to you, by all means check it out.
Nobody can accuse Samy Kamkar of lacking ambition. In 2005 he released the “Samy” worm, a hyper-infectious virus that affected one million users on the social networking site MySpace. He earned probation, with community service and no jail time.
In 2011 he joined the board of directors of Brave New Software, a nonprofit organization that creates technology that allows users living in despotic regimes to use the Internet in secrecy. In 2013 he announced via his website that he had created Skyjack, a drone designed to wirelessly take command of other drones within Wi-Fi distance, “creating an army of zombie drones under your control.” What could go wrong?
In 1995, Kevin Mitnick was a wanted man. According to the U.S. Justice Department, he was fleeing charges that he had “electronically attacked numerous corporate and communications carriers,” and the Raleigh-Durham Task Force ultimately nabbed him. He pleaded guilty to 14 counts of wire fraud and eight counts of possession of unauthorized access devices and sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison.
Today, he’s the man behind Mitnick Security, a computer security company described by its own website as “the best in the world for finding holes before the real bad guys do.” As convicted felons go, he’s also quite media-friendly, having appeared on “The Colbert Report” in 2011 to promote his book, “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker.”
Robert Tappan Morris
In 1988, Cornell University graduate student Robert Tappan Morris released a worm into the very young Internet, doing so from the M.I.T. campus in order to throw authorities off of his scent. When he was caught, he was charged with violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, gaining him the dubious distinction of becoming the first person ever convicted for it.
He was sentenced to three years’ probation and 400 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, but his criminal past didn’t hold him back. He went on to co-found Viaweb, an Internet company that Yahoo! bought in 1998 for $45 million, and the next year he earned his doctorate from Harvard.
Finally, M.I.T. apparently forgave him for releasing the original worm from within its hallowed walls, because he joined the school’s faculty and gained tenure in 2006, where he remains today.
In a 1993 article with the spectacularly wrong title of “The Last Hacker,” The Los Angeles Times described the crime of one Kevin Poulsen, who had hacked into a local radio station’s telephone lines in order to make himself the lucky 102nd caller and, perhaps more importantly, the winner of a Porsche. But he didn’t stop there.
In April 1995, after racking up another car, two trips to Hawaii and $50,000, he was given what was then the harshest sentence ever handed down to a hacker – 51 months in federal prison. After his sentence was over, he did what every creative writing student is advised to do – write what you know. He became a contributing editor at Wired, the go-to publication for all things tech, and he contributes articles to the publication on an ongoing basis.
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.