Google has released a map of distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) that took place around the world this year, and there were a lot (especially from China) in 2013. Since this has been such a busy year for hackers, we’ve put together the list below of the most notorious e-criminals of the year. Some got caught up in the law while others continue to evade it; some had political reasons, others just wanted to chase that paper. What unites them is their disregard–for better or worse–of laws and regulations and their unimpeachable skills at getting computers to bend to their will.
Disclaimer: “hacking” has a meaning beyond just cracking computer systems, and usually on this site we write paeans to the best of them. But for the purposes of this list, we’re talking about people who use computers to break the law—and break the law using computers.
The year 2013 began with the tragic news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide. Swartz was being prosecuted for using a Python script to bulk download articles from the academic database, JSTOR. Although Swartz legally had access to JSTOR, he was charged under several counts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for exceeding his authorized use. JSTOR, for its part, said it was not going to press civil charges, but federal prosecutors indicted Swartz anyway. Looking at up to 35 years in prison, Swartz took his own life on January 11th. Thanks to the tenacious investigations of Kevin Poulsen at Wired, we now know about the files that the Secret Service kept on Swartz as well as the video surveillance footage that incriminated him. In a sane society, Swartz would not be considered an outlaw. But he was, and as a result we lost one of the brightest luminaries of the Internet age.
Jeremy Hammond, an Anonymous-affiliated hacktivst, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and three years of supervised release. He was prosecuted, also under the CFAA, for hacking into the servers of private intelligence firm Stratfor and revealing that it was spying on members of grassroots social movements around the world. I reported from the courtroom on the day of Hammond’s sentencing. Controversially, the sentence was given by Judge Loretta Preska, whose husband reportedly worked for a Stratfor client and had his email account compromised as part of the hack.
Not all hacktivists are motivated by the same ideals or politics of transparency. A hacker known as the Jester, who is a former military contractor for Special Operations Command, took aim at Edward Snowden and Julian Assange this summer. In doing so, he has taken responsibility for denial of service attacks on websites affiliated with the Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and Venezuelan governments, which have all considered offering asylum to Snowden. He has also flirted with the idea of forcing Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and onto British soil by remotely setting off the building’s fire alarms. Given his close alignment with the U.S. government, he’s more akin to a vigilante than an outlaw.
Following the implementation of new online censorship laws in Singapore, a hacker calling himself the Messiah vowed in a YouTube video (since taken down) to attack websites of the Singaporean government. His opening salvo was to deface the website of a town council, and he moved on from there to hack the prime minister’s website. In mid-November a 35-year-old man named James Raj was arrested on suspicion of being the Messiah.
The Syrian Electronic Army is a loose network of hackers supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. The SEA uses the familiar tactics of denial of service and defacement to attack opponents of the Assad regime, as well as good old-fashioned phishing. Some of the group’s high-profile attacks this year include hacking the Twitter accounts of the Associated Press and the Onion. Amid the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Syria, the group hacked the Marine Corp’s website and posted a message urging American soldiers to refuse their orders if deployed to Syria.
Just across Syria’s northern border is Red Hack, a leftist anti-government hacker network in Turkey. This year the group released information leaked to them by a soldier relating to a car bomb in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı that killed 51 people. During the Gezi Park protests in Turkey this summer, the group carried out a number of DDoS attacks as part of Anonymous’s #OpTurkey.
And of course, not all hackers have political motivations. Some are just straight up in it for the money. The most recent big hacker news to break is that some 40 million shoppers at Target have had their credit cards stolen in a skimming attack on the cards’ magnetic stripes. We don’t know who is behind the Target hack (and may never will). But we do know that they’ve likely landed a boatload of cash.