Former “414’s” Hacker Shares Tips to Stay Safe Online

Rural Mutual speaks with a retired computer hacker who was once caught by the FBI and eventually became a computer systems engineer and cybersecurity expert. In the early 1980s, Tim Winslow was a member of The 414’s, a group of Milwaukee teens who hacked into dozens of high-profile computer systems, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the most prominent nuclear weapons research facilities in the world. As a result of their schemes, the group helped establish the nation’s first cybersecurity laws

“We were kids just learning about and playing games on these systems; we didn’t want to harm anything – but it ended up having some very real consequences,” said Winslow. 

Photo credit: Winslow family

Rural Mutual: What made you turn what was a traumatic experience in your youth into a career? 

“My teenage love of computers took a serious turn one morning in 1983 when two FBI agents showed up on my parents’ doorstep and started questioning me about our online activities. While the experience was unlike anything I could have imagined, I’m glad that it led to the development of cybersecurity laws that are still in place today. During this time, my passion for computers continued and led me to want to learn more about how to use technology for good in the world.”  

Editor’s note: Because there were no cybersecurity laws at the time, the 414’s adult-aged members, including Tim, were charged with misdemeanor. Charges were eventually expunged. 

Rural Mutual: What is a common misperception about hackers that you’d like to clear up? 

“There are ‘black hat’ hackers – those who use their skills for illegal activities – and ‘white hat’ hackers – those whose skills help identify weaknesses in systems to make them stronger. But for the average person scrolling online, it’s not always easy to tell the good from the bad hackers. They may appear to be the most charming people in the world while they are, in fact, working against you to steal your data and access your accounts. It’s important not to trust anyone you’ve recently met online, especially when they start asking for personal information. Sometimes they will even use your friends and family as unwitting accomplices.” 

Rural Mutual: What are some of the easy-to-fix mistakes that individuals and companies are still making today? 

“Breaking into computers years ago was so easy because all you really needed was an area code and a system number. Passwords were unbelievably simple to decode, as people would use simple words like “system” or “admin.” Forty years later, people are still making the same mistakes by using names and familiar words as part of their passwords. I recommend the ‘rule of 12’ for the ultimate secure password: Use a mix of at least 12 random numbers, letters and special characters. Always do the unexpected to fool hackers.” 

Rural Mutual: Who are the biggest targets for identify theft? 

“The obvious answer is usually seniors, because they are more vulnerable and not as digitally savvy as younger generations, and that’s valid. But the truth is that we are seeing a growing amount of fraud among all age groups, including college students who are more apt to fall for schemes that offer free money or products. There’s a real need for education among all these groups to combat what has become a billion-dollar industry of online fraud.” 

Rural Mutual: What are some basic things that people can do to protect themselves online? 

“It feels like there’s an endless amount of great information online on how to combat identity theft, but people aren’t paying enough attention. The best thing for individuals to do is to start paying closer attention to how they are engaging with others online and evaluating whether to share and what to share. I’d like to see more people brushing up on the latest scams so they know what to look for and even taking a class. There are plenty of free ones offered online and at local community centers.” 

To learn more about identify theft, take Rural Mutual’s “Are You Smarter Than a Thief?” quiz. You’ll get expert tips on how to protect your personal data and register to win a free MacBook Air laptop with built-in security features.