Everyone loves a bad-guy-gone-good story, and these black hat hackers who went from lives of crime to corporate nine-to-fives epitomize that genre.
Let’s first make an important distinction: Hackers are not criminals. In fact, “hacker” is a term of high praise in the developer community. But when a hacker is dubbed a “black hat,” it means he or she has broken laws in the pursuit of hacking — perhaps even that he or she has done so for personal gain.
However, many black hat hackers have gone legit in their more mature years. While it’s not uncommon to see former cybercriminals switching teams to work as IT security consultants, many of the more high-profile black hat hackers also find themselves writing books, doing journalism and even getting public speaking gigs in the cybersecurity world.
So with that understanding, let’s turn our gaze upon these seven fascinating personalities who once hacked indiscriminately and are now employed respectably — some of them even by the companies they once hacked.
Towns created the first-ever iPhone worm, a rickrolling bit of code that only affected jailbroken iPhones. Mere weeks after the worm started spreading, Towns was hired by mogeneration, a company that develops iPhone apps, mostly for other clients such as TrueLocal, FoodWatch and Xumii.
Call of Duty Hacker
A 14-year-old Dublin schoolboy hacked into the Microsoft Xbox system this spring. In stark contrast to how Sony handled PlayStation hackers like geohot, Microsoft decided to work with the kid instead. The company hopes to teach the indubitably talented hacker to “use his skills for legitimate purposes.”
Hardware hacker Christopher Tarnovsky began his journey repairing satellites for the U.S. Army. He started dabbling in illegal hacking in the late 1990s. However, he didn’t get into serious legal trouble until he was hired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to hack a rival company’s satellite TV chip. These days, Tarnovsky runs a hardware security firm and sticks to gray hat hacking, like proving Infineon’s “unhackable” chip was anything but in 2010.
Moss is the founder of the Black Hat and DEF CON computer hacker conferences. In the days before the Internet was a big thing, he ran BBSes for hacking and phreaking and provided a hub for a huge, underground network of hackers of all stripes, from the curious to the criminal. In 2009, he was was sworn into the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council. And in April 2011, Moss was named chief security officer for ICANN, the agency that oversees the Internet’s domain names.
Mooney is best known for creating the Twitter bug Mikeyy, a worm designed to showcase Twitter’s security vulnerabilities. While the exploit was more gray than black hat, the worm could have gotten Mooney into serious legal trouble. However, Twitter didn’t press charges, and the 17-year-old Mooney was offered jobs by two software development firms. The teen accepted a position at web app shop exqSoft Solutions.
Owen Thor Walker
Also known as “akill,” Walker was charged as (and admitted to) being the ringleader of an international hacking group that caused nearly $26 million of damage. In 2008 he was hired by TelstraClear, the New Zealand subsidiary of Australian telecommunications company Telstra, to work with its security division, DMZGlobal.
Robert Tappan Morris
Morris is best known for creating the first Internet worm, the Morris Worm, in 1988. Later, he co-founded an online store, Viaweb, with Paul Graham, who would later found startup incubator Y Combinator. Viaweb was one of the first web-based computer applications. Now, Morris teaches computer science at MIT.
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