Hackers, Good And Evil

Hackers, Good And Evil

“Governments form the industrial world; I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome here. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders, your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not obey to us. They are all base on matter and there is no matter here.”

John Perry Barlow – Electronic Frontier Foundation

Cyberspace Declaration of Independence

A war is being fought in the Internet twenty-four hours a day. A team of defenders spread throughout the world, are ready to stop and neutralize every attack. It is the Global Thread Operation Center where all attacks are being monitored; any of which could be the signal for a stronger hit that could generate absolute chaos. The room looks like a set from a futuristic movie. Four huge screens in the front of the room display the process data that is taking place. Several rows of desks and panels fill the room. More than twenty people are moving around, answering and making phone calls, talking to each other, and examining computer screens. They are ready, and waiting. Suddenly, everyone’s attention is focused on a specific screen, where a problem has been detected. One of the major highways of Internet traffic has slowed down considerably due to an assumed hacker assault. What is scary about this attack is that it seems to be moving through the time zones towards the Americas, most likely the United States. So far, it has in some way affected every major network attached to one of the pipelines. If the attack effectively reaches the U.S., it could negatively affect hundreds of companies, businesses, the stock market and millions of people; this would cause a devastating strike on the infrastructure of the Internet itself. The head leader of the team makes a quick check with another station in Asia and as they speak the Internet traffic recovers from the incident as fast as it occurred. The team lightens up and feels good that they were able to catch it on time. This kind of anomaly is what the team most fears, an electronic Pearl Harbor (Hackers: TLC).

Over the past twenty years, our world has evolved into a more complex society and simultaneously people have been evolving as well (Himanen vii). There is an overall, new culture, new technology and different languages that conforms a digital community holding all kinds of people: pirates and thieves, delinquents and law enforcers, dreamers, heroes and villains. Even though they operate all over the world, their true home is cyberspace. “These diverse breed of people are known as hackers”(TLC).

Unfortunately, the press uses the term hacker incorrectly when describing illicit access on computers with malicious or criminal purpose. The Atlantic Magazine, Feb. 17, 2002 par. 1 “It has been widely noted that last week’s attack by hackers against the Internet sites Yahoo, Amazon…” and it continues, “the fact that hackers were able […] to cripple these major sites…” How can such important magazine permit such barbaric mistake? Many other important publications and periodicals follows the same mistake. “ Stopping hackers from malicious breaking into computer networks is often a game of cat and mouse”, “Every attack on a computer by a hacker leaves traces” said Paul Eng from ABC News.com.

Since the start of the computer era, the term hacker has been used to describe its pioneers, defining their motivation to explore in detail how computer systems and networks function. In the early sixties, small groups of Stanford and MIT’s programmers started to call themselves hackers. Interested only in analyzing systems and writing programming code, they never got involved in any criminal activities, malicious intents or in breaking the rule of privacy and property. On the contrary, they followed the hacker ethic, which tells that “the search for information and expertise is vital and sharing this knowledge is the hacker’s duty to the community” (“RedHat,” par. 4).

Steven Levy was one of the first writers that got involved with hackers. In his book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” Levy recorded the original hacker ethic:

qAccess to computers should be unlimited and total.

qAlways yield to the Hands-On Imperative.

qMistrust authority — promote decentralization.

qHackers should be judged by their hacking.

qYou can create art and beauty on a computer.

qComputers can change your life for the better.

These seven statements are very clear and precise and many hackers still practice the art of hacking based on this ethic code. Hackers simply enjoy challenges, like for example that of circumventing security controls on computer systems (RedHat par.4). By the mid-eighties when some members of this community began to commit dishonest hacking of systems and networks to inflict damage or obtain personal gain, hackers decided to name them crackers in order to differentiate themselves. Over the years, different levels of distinctions (“black, white, and gray hat”) where applied to describe the individuals who find and exploit vulnerabilities in computers. Whatever you call them, the fact is that hackers are among us. They are people just like you and me, heroes or villains. Like any group of people, some will be good and some will be bad.

Ian Murphy, also known as Captain Zap, performed one of the first cracker attacks. At a very young age, he targeted the charging system of AT&T telephone Company because the rates were too high. At that time, computerized systems did not have much security. For Captain Zap was easy to get access, it was a game. By changing the clock system around the country, Zap was able to turn discounted night rates into daytime rates. Therefore millions of ATT subscribers started to save money without even knowing about it. Just when the first set of bills started to go out, the company found out. This is considered one of the greatest hacks, and Captain Zap became part of the hall of fame of hackers. Zap himself says that above all he decided to become this “techno freak” because he seemed to know a lot about it and also because there were no laws to it. Today hackers like Captain Zap are considered as hackers who wear the black hat (TLC).

The hackers, “wearing” the black hat (the crackers,) are those who are not interested in the academic value of breaking into computer systems, instead they used their abilities to steal sensitive private information for their own gain, causing damage and crisis to many organizations and the public. Crackers gave birth to the phrase “cyber-crime” generating serious damage to business and companies, to the social structure in general. Their actions range from credit card fraud, identity theft, to spreading computer viruses. Still, the black hats category can be broken down further. There are the Script Kiddies or Cyber-punks. These kids like Cold Fire and Mafia Boy get bored at school and are very skillful with computers and technology. They tend to use their skills for evil and end up getting caught because they brag about their exploits in order to make a name in the community. Another group is the level of Professional criminals. Private companies, and even the government usually hire crackers since they make the perfect spy (Hacker 101). Lastly there are those who have great abilities writing programming software code and used it to create those malicious programs called viruses. The Melissa virus is an example of how critical damage crackers cause, with an estimated damage of $80 Million dollars in one million computers across the world. In a response to such acts, tougher laws on cyber crime have been created.

With the appearance of cyber crime, a new profession for hackers came alive. These hackers have their “white hats” on, and they are also known as ethical hackers (TLC). A “white hat” hacker only attacks systems when authorized by the owner. His purpose is to test and examine the systems and networks performance, to determine how vulnerable it is to intrusion. Very good examples of white hat hackers are academic researchers and professional security consultants (RedHat). Many of the ethical hackers wore the “black hat” before, but they have switched since the “white hats” they get paid, and better yet they are allowed to hack. It is the best reward any hacker can receive.

The white hats first start fighting the bad guys at the Internet Security Services Global Threat Center. Just in one hour, they observe more than 400 pre-attacks, 1500 Denial-of-Service attacks (overload or flood of site’s servers) (TechTV, “What Is”) and last year alone they seized approximately 83 million hacker attacks all over the world. The team has to analyze every attack and figure out if it will hit any of the companies they protect and it does, how dangerous can it be? For the last 20 years the battle between the good guys and the bad guys has become greater and the techniques, software and types of attack by the black hats have evolved (TLC).

To keep up, hundreds of the white hats every year register for special classes. These classes are setup to train the system administrators and many others, to think like the bad guy, to outsmart him/her. One of the notorious “hacking schools” is in Los Angeles California called Xtreme Hacking but Florida doesn’t get behind when it opened up the Intense School in Fort Lauderdale (Garcia, “You too”). Many of the students at these classes worry about their jobs and keeping the intruder out of their systems with vital private information. Students learn how to hack with new methods and also how to protect against these learned new ways. They need to think like the bad guy in order to succeed. After seven days of hacking, there are more white hats ready for possible threats.

A major threat for white hats and the nation itself is that of Info-War and the possibility of ever occurring is real. The year is 1990; U.S government computers were in the scope of hackers that served other nations. A very secret military program was underway, the stealth bomber and it was the target chosen by hackers. Though the existence of the aircraft was known, very little was talked about it. There were no images of it or any specific characteristics; curiosity was the force that began a series of attacks against the projects’ computers. Days later these were discovered and generated panic since it wasn’t known where it was coming from. Due to a process of masking connections used by hackers, where the intruder access several machines across the world, taking control over them and that way hitting the desired target. When an attack is detected and analyzed, only the last IP address, (Internet Protocol) of the chain of computers, is seen so it is very difficult to track it back to where it came from. Later on it was found that this act was cause by teenagers playing with their computers in England (TLC).

Still there are others who also form the hacking community. Last but not least, there are the gray hat hackers, those who have the skills and intents of white hat hackers, in most situations, but use their knowledge for less than noble purposes on occasions. They are white hat hackers who wear occasionally a black hat. Those who intend to stay apart as independent researchers originally created this last level of color. As the other types of hackers discussed before, they gray hat hackers follow another set of hacker ethics. For them, it is acceptable to break into systems as long as the hacker does not commit theft or breach confidentiality. Authorities consider these acts less threatening and merely compared them with graffiti artist on the streets (TLC).

But again the public is given a bad perspective of what the original hacker community is all about. It is important for them to understand the role hackers play in our society, a benign one, and because of those black hats like Mafia Boy and Cold Fire, hackers become the excuse for bad laws, censorship and repression. The future of cyberspace and its rights might be in danger because of this.

Thanks to John Perry Barlow, hackers now count with a force that backs them up. Barlow is the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that fights for cyber-rights. “We are dealing with the battle between the future and the past, between the powers that were and the powers that have yet to be” Barlow says (TLC). He also believes that “the internet represents a change in history as great as the industrial revolution” and from this philosophy he came about with the creation of a Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace, fearing from the government and lawmakers that want to take over it. In a few words he summarizes:

“Governments form the industrial world; I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome here. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders, your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not obey to us. They are all base on matter and there is no matter here” (EFF)

The EFF leads a new hacker battle as John defends one of the most spread and common hacks of the moment, related with the music and the movie industry. With the release of movies in DVD format, movies were capable of being played in computers and now the Entertainment industry was involved in this technological battle. In order to prevent illegal copies of such films, the industry distributes the DVDs with a high Copyright protection but still people find the way to crack them. Matthew Pavlovich was recently involved in a sue hold by “Hollywood.” Matthew is the creator of a certain program that allows people to copy the movies in the computer. Since he is an “open source” programmer, others have used his code base in order to crack the encryption files that conform the movies. Originally, the program called DeCSS was created by Pavlovich to allow Linux users to play the movies as well and to remove the many other restrictions that “Hollywood” force us to have. Thanks the hard work of the EFF lawyers and staff, the U.S Supreme court dropped the lawsuit in Matthews favor (TehcTV, US). Every day there are many cases like this where the big companies just worry about suing many other people.

Nowadays, there is a conflict in cyberspace between its outlaws and angels. The amount of hackers defending their good harmless ethics will increase at the same time many others choose to practice dark activities. It is important for the cyberspace community to protect the cyber rights and fight those who put in danger its liberties. As a result former hacker Anna Marie Moore has re-written “the new generation of hacker” ethics: Hacking is an art of poetry and beauty, Cracking is a criminal act; Know the history of the field and what you represent as part of it; do not dishonor that history; Understand in application the original hacker ethic; To live without regrets means doing nothing of which you might later be ashamed; Do not be afraid to have morals and principles in which you believe; Allow those morals to guide your decision-making. If others decide for you, for your stand, ignore them; Do not be stupid; Do not follow those who have lost their vision; everything in life has either a benefit or a consequence. Both are always possible, based on decisions you may make within a split second of time. Chose wisely (Moore). The future of cyberspace is also in hands of the public who needs to accurately differentiate both sides.



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