Jonathan James: a Story of Hacking


Photo Source: “The Fifteen Greatest Hacking Exploits”


With the advancement of technology and the introduction of Web 2.0 came the presence of cyber hackers. One of these hackers was a boy named Jonathan James who at only fifteen years old hacked the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and a number of other national organizations. All of his hacking was carried out  from the comfort of his home from June to October 1999, under the pseudonym “cOmrade”. James’ hack granted him access to thousands of emails, passwords, and other sensitive information, including the source code that controlled critical survival elements on the International Space Station. In total, the information he stole was estimated to be worth $1.7 million and caused the Department of Defense and NASA to shut down some of their computers and rework much of their existing software and security measures. For NASA specifically, the hack caused $41,000 in losses and damage, as they were forced to shut down their system for 21 days. In a flourish of irony, James stated that “The code itself sucked… it was not worth the $1.7 million they said [it was]”.

Photo Source: Kevin Poulsen

In 2000 james was arrested and sentenced to six months house arrest without access to recreational computer use. However, during this period, he committed a violation of his probation and was then sentenced to six months in prison, officially making him the youngest person to be convicted of violating cybercrime laws. Interestingly, had these same crimes been committed by and adult, Assistant United States Attorney Richard Boscovich predicted that he would have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to ten years in prison.

After serving his time, James sat down for an interview with PC Mag, where he admitted that his actions were inspired by the 1980 novel The Cuckoo’s Egg about a search for a computer hacker in the 1980’s. As for the methods used to locate James, it is estimated that his location was tracked through computer calls with a technology similar to telephone Caller ID.

Photo Source: “Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll”

James name resurfaced in 2007 when a department store named TJX was hacked and customers’ private information was released. Despite a lack of convincing data, authorities looked to James as the culprit. In 2008, perhaps in response to the seemingly false accusation, James took his own life, leaving a note stating “I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control”.

This instance of computer hacking is just one in a web of countless more. These hacks range from large scale attacks on government agencies (such as this one), to company hacks (such as the 2014 SONY hack), to small scale personal computer hacks. As technology and defense mechanisms advance, so too do the methods through which people gain illegal access to digital materials. Additionally, the world is progressing more and more towards a digital base, putting increasingly more aspects of life into the digital realm. Thus, the allure of cyber crime has only grown, especially given the security of being able to perform such illegal acts from the comfort and anonymity of one’s own home. Thus, Web 2.0 has brought a more expansive digital presence into our lives, but it has also ushered in the age of cyber crime and the ever present danger of hacking.


Consulted Sources:

“Top ten Most Notorious (Infamous) Hackers of all Time”

“Story of Jonathan James who Hacked NASA and Pentagon in Age of 15”

“Jonathan James”

“The Fifteen Greatest Hacking Exploits”

“Youth Sentenced in Government Hacking Case”


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