In this paper I have discussed about hackers, who hackers really are. It discusses when the term was originally coined and who was it originally used to refer to. As time passed, and various technological developments were made, hackers changed from information-hungry nerds to cyber-criminals. Then I discuss how the connotation associated with hackers has changed and how it does not apply to all hackers. The hackers who are harmful to the society are the members of new subcultures and are different from the original hackers. Hackers require understanding since there are hackers who have teamed up with security agency to help the society. This paper tries to cover the good and bad affects caused by hacking and how only time can tell whether it will act entirely as destructive or constructive forces or if both forces will co-exist.
Ever since the invention of the computers there have been people who have been deeply involved with this new technology. From it’s earliest beginnings, there have been people who want to have technological proficiency and want to display this. These people who spent hours and hours of their time playing around with computers to get better at them were called “hackers”. This term was originally coined at MIT, in the 1960’s which was used to refer to a computer virtuoso. And that is still the meaning enshrined in the 1994 edition on the New Hacker’s Dictionary, which defines such a person as someone “who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities; one who programs enthusiastically, even obsessively.” (Hackers: Taking a bite
out of Crime).
But beginning in the early 1970’s as soon as modems and computer networks came into being the word “hackers” began to be used to refer to people who used their knowledge to get off-limits information. Tanja S. Rosteck, of Concordia University, Montreal, mentioned in her honors’ seminar on Hackers, that with the change in the role played by technology in our society has changed the “public image of the “typical” hacker has been transformed from harmless nerd to malicious techno-criminal.” She goes on to add that “fueled by media sensationalism and corporate zealousness, their activities have been criminalized and hackers are now being legally persecuted on a scale disproportional to actual threat they pose.”
Hackers began to creep into big organizations and play around with the data that was now available to them. They usually did this just to see how for they could go before anybody noticed them. In the beginning, these hackers were able to penetrate deep into the systems of the companies because the data administrators were unaware of this new breed of information hungry, technologically proficient computer users. Breaking into a system was usually very easy for them. All that was needed was to guess a poorly chosen password and lo and behold, the doors were open to huge amounts of information. They then took advantage of this by rewriting system software, creating dummy accounts, and leaving behind “logic bombs” or “trojan horses”, hidden programs that would execute automatically under certain conditions.
But as soon as some of the hackers realized the extent of the power that was available to them, and the amount of damage that a hacker could do to an organization, some of the members of the hacker community came up with rules and guidelines which were to be followed to be a true hacker. An article over the web reported that there is at least one hacker, the Knightmare, a 22-year-old software developer, who is using written words to spread the code of conduct of hackers. In his recent book he says that a hacker must “Never harm, alter or damage any computer software, system, or person in any way. If damage has been done, do what is necessary to correct that damage, and to prevent it from occurring in the future. Do not let yourself or others profit unfairly from a hack. Inform computer managers about lapses in their security. Teach when you are asked to teach, share when you have knowledge to spread. This isn’t necessary, it is politeness. Be aware of your potential vulnerability in all computing environments, including the secret to ones you will enter as a hacker. Act discreetly. Persevere but don’t be stupid and don’t take greedy risks.” In his book he also adds that “a true hacker has the ability to steal money, information, software, and hardware and to commit sabotage and espionage, but chooses to do none of these things.”(Hackers: Taking a Byte Out of Computer Crime).
Over the last decade or so there have been other literary works that have been published and distributed describing the ethics that a true hacker must follow. And others describing what it really takes to be a hacker. And still others describing the various types of hackers and their differences. In 1984 a publication of Steven Levy, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution”, he examined the evolution of the Hacker ethic, a sextet of credos that emerged from the activities of the “pioneer” hackers of the late 1950’s. These were:
1) Always yield the Hands-On Imperative! Access to computers and anything else which might teach you about the way of the world works – should be unlimited and total.
2) All information should be free.
3) Mistrust Authority – Promote Decentralization.
4) Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age race, or position.
5) You can create art and beauty on a computer.
6) Computers can change your life for the better.
So publications like these described the ethics of the emerging Hacker Culture. And although the methods used by the hacking community have changed somewhat over time, the principal motivations and ethics have remained the same.
But as I mentioned above, through the years the connotations associated with a hacker have changed form that of a nerd trying to obtain technical proficiency to a malicious techno-criminal. And this has come due to the various incidents that have occurred over the years.
“Around 6 p.m. EST on Wednesday, November 2, 1988, a computer worm was discovered in a system in Pennsylvania. Soon the worm was spreading itself across the Internet, which connects many research and university systems. By 10 p.m., the worm had managed to infect the Bay Area Research Network (BARnet), which is one of the fastest and most sophisticated in the nation.” This bug was “set free” by Robert T. Morris, Jr., a Cornell computer science graduate student. Upon the discovery that Morris was the guilty person, he was suspended from Cornell by a university board of inquiry (Johnson, 103-4).
In another incident, on January 15, 1990, AT&T’s long-distance telephone switching system crashed. The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single switching-station in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until fully half of AT’s network had gone haywire and the remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow. The police and telco security had informants in the computer underground. And from their sources they came to know that the telephone system had not merely crashed, but had been crashed by hackers.(Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling).
The above examples are just a couple of the many incidents that have occurred over the years. And as, over the years, computer-related crime has also grown more sophisticated, more varied, it has also become more costly to American society. Hackers strive to corrupt corporate intranets, confiscate credit card numbers, and befoul Internet services. And this has happened in spite of the of the hackers’ code of ethics. So law has become one of the primary way in which the society has responded to problems created by
hacking. Robert Morris, the hacker who unleashed a worm in the Cornell system, was prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (Johnson, 119). Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is just one of the many laws that has passed to deal with computer crime.
In spite of the examples cited above, a lot of people think that hackers are not a menace to the society but have contributed to it in important ways. Over the years computer-related crime has become more sophisticated. Due to an increase in computer-related crime and it’s cost to societies around the world, administrators have realized the potential of hackers as saviors. Excessive crime has made information-security experts and law-enforcement agencies to enlist hackers in the battle for safety and order in the digital realm. Both system administrators and hackers acknowledge that the unchecked growth of computer crime could lead to a bleak future in which the average user’s access to computing resources is so tightly monitored that the freedom to explore, communicate, and innovate on the electronic frontier is sacrificed.
So, many active or former interlopers, fed up with their criminal cousins for giving all hackers a bad name, have started to apply their skills as software developers, security consultants, and pamphleteers for responsible hacking. James V. Christy II, director of computer crime investigations for the Office of Special Investigations at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Christy involved a hacker to help him figure out all the problems that were present in the Air Force systems. He told this Washington-area hacker, who had pleaded guilty to breaking into Pentagon computer systemto help him out . Christy sat the hacker in the office and had him go in and attack as many Air Force systems as he could get into. This young hacker was wired so that everything that he came across was recorded. This was very helpful for Christy, since this expedition made him aware of all the security problems that were present in the Air Force system and he could use this to inform the administrators of the respective departments that they needed to secure their systems. Christy also discovered that the break-in for which the young hacker had been convicted had not been fixed and it took him only 15 seconds to get back into it. (Hackers: Taking a bite out of Crime).
This is not an isolated incident where a hacker has teamed up with a security agency to help bring crime to a minimum. There are many other instances of this kind. In fact, there are a lot of arguments presented that support hackers. Johnson, in her book, says that “beak-ins illustrate security problems to thosewho can do something about them; those who expose flaws are doing a service for the community”. She also adds that there are people that believe that “hackers are doing no harm and changingnothing; they are learning about how the computer systems operate”, and that “hackers break into systems to watch for instances of data abuse and to help keep Big Brother at bay”. (Johnson, 112).
Even though athe above statements might seem that it is for hackers who help the society to intrude into computers. But, this leads to other problems. It becomes very difficult to establish that computer intrusion done without motive of personal gain, or for exposing the flaws in a system are acceptable. This is because of the fact that some other rights of people are violated. Johnson explains this in her book, Computer Ethics, by describing a case where “a hacker finds a flaw in the security of a databas of information about women who have had abortions. The hacker contacts the agency that maintains the database and tries to get the agency to make the database more secure. He is unsuccessful. Out of frustration, the hacker discusses this on the bulletin board and thus tells others about the weakness in the system. A few of those who hear this decide to see if they, too, can get access. One person gets access and uses the information to find women who can be blackmailed – many women do not want their families or friends to know that they have had an abortion. Of supposs the newspaper reporter “listens” in on the bulletin board and decides to write a piece so that the agency will do something about the weakness in the system. The reporter writes a story about the situation and to make the piece powerful, she includes some of the data that she was able to access.” This
case clearly shows that although the hacker originally had good intentions in the end more harm was done than good. Significant harm was done with quite noble intentions. And Johnson believes that “when it comes to hacking, we may as well want to assign different penalties for unauthorized access” without considering the intentions behind it because it could lead to disastrous results (Johnson, 112).
In this paper I have tried look at hackers from both the pro and the con side. And as the arguments suggest, hackers do not only act as a destructive force. They have also contributed to its betterment. Hackers are of both kinds, those who are motivated to hack for money, power, revenge, do industrial espionage, and sabotage competitors, and there are those who are motivated to hack so that they can obtain knowledge. But as I just mentioned previously it does not really matter what the intentions are if the affects are harmful. The hacker culture desperately needs some understanding. If there are hackers who get into systems to bring them down and con companies out of money, there are others who get into a system to demonstrate the flaws in it’s security so that they can be improved.
What needs to be seen how the advancements in technology will increase the effectiveness of hackers as both destructive forces as well as constructive forces. What will be seen in the future is whether the corporate industry can accept to the knowledge and expertise of hackers; if a higher level of technology can be realized if these two factions were to work together.
Blake, Roger. Hackers in The Mist.
Hackers: Taking a Byte Out of Computer Crime.
Johnson, Deborah G., (1994). Computer Ethics, Second Edition.
Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
Rosteck, Tanya S. (1995) Computer Hackers: Rebels With a Cause.
Sterling, Bruce. Law and Disorder of the Electronic Frontier.