What do you think of when I say the word “Computer Hacker”? You probably think of some sort of criminal bent on gaining access into your bank accounts or remote control over your computer. Granted, hackers have gotten a bad reputation from the media, who sometimes report break-ins of databases, computers, and other virtual resources. However, this does not mean that every hacker has a desire to do harm. In fact, hackers are hardly the bad guys. The word hacker has been so warped and distorted by the media that people now believe that hackers are all criminals and intend to do harm. The truth is, hackers are people and therefore many of them have morals that disallow them to purposely cause harm. I believe that regardless of the stereotypical view of hackers in today’s society, the majority of them help the world of computers rather than damage it. Action should be taken against the people who make the internet unsafe, not the people who make the internet safer.
According to an article in Whatis.com, hackers primarily come in different shades or colors. The article goes on to say that these colors are significant in determining what kind of hacker he/she is. The lighter the color, the less harm a hacker intends. For example, a hacker with good intent and moral standing is called a white hat hacker. Another point made in the article was that the word “hat” after the color of the hacker is meant to be symbolic of old Western movies where the hero always wore a white hat and “bad guys” wore the black hats (Whatis.com). Black hat hackers, as you may have guessed, are the hackers who do intend harm. They deface websites, steal data, and exploit security flaws for personal gain. Black hats are sometimes called “crackers” as well because they crack programs and passwords to gain entry into a location where they are unauthorized to be (morebusiness.com). There are also hackers who are referred to as gray hat hackers. These are the hackers who have ethics, know what’s right but sometimes act in a negative way when they find a security hole. A gray hat may find a security hole in a website that allows him/her to edit the index page, which is generally the front page of a website, and he/she may exploit it and deface it (usually they only do things that can be easily repaired). Shortly after, he/she may alert the webmaster of the issue with the site (Parker). Gray hats would not do anything more serious than that. The only real bad guys are the crackers/black hats who may gain control over someone’s personal computer only to flood it with spyware. GCIA worker Don Parker says, “What the media attention has resulted in, is an often times distorted reality. The media has given all of this negative attention to hackers, the good guys! Now they are looked at with contempt.”
People were first introduced to hacking when the movie “War Games” came out in 1983. The same year, six teenagers were arrested for breaking into about sixty computers, some of which were government owned and operated machines (pcworld.com). This was probably the time that hackers began to become hated by people because at the time, they didn’t know the potential that there was for hacking to be used for good. Hacking back then was the same as cracking is now. Only about three years later, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which made it a crime to hack into computers. In 1987, the government organized its first group of computer experts called “Red Teams” to hack its own servers. Since then, even large companies like IBM have maintained its own group of hackers to test their own security since 1990 (searchsecurity.techtarget.com).
Even though computer hacking of today’s time is generally frowned upon, there are still plenty of people who make an honest living out of it. Just as there is an alternate name for black hat hackers, there is an alternate name for the white hat hackers. White hats today are called IT technicians. IT is short for Information Technology. Their job is keep the internet, as well as businesses, safe from crackers. Some companies pay skilled ITs to attempt to hack their servers and computers to test their security. This is called penetration testing and is basically just ethical hacking. If the hacker is successful in gaining entry into the company’s database or find any exploits, he/she will alert the company of the problem and inform them on how to go about fixing the problem.
Webopedia (http://www.webopedia.com) defines a hacker as “A slang term for a computer enthusiast, i.e., a person who enjoys learning programming languages and computer systems and can often be considered an expert on the subject(s).” The definition goes on to mention of the press warping the term to refer to someone who gains access to a computer system in order to steal or destroy data. Delving even further into the article, it goes on to mention that hackers themselves call these criminals crackers.
I’ve already mentioned that an IT’s work is called penetration testing or ethical hacking. However, ethical hacking doesn’t just refer to hacking under contract. Many white hat hackers out there hack into websites or web servers simply for the fun and challenge of doing it. Even if they aren’t affiliated with the company or person who owns the website, the said white hat immediately alerts the webmaster about the security issue upon discovery. This is much like a considerate person finding someone else’s lost valuable lying in the street and then contacting the owner to return it (Parker). Both the white hat’s actions as well as the considerate person actions are ethical in nature.
Organizations such as HackThisSite.org (HTS to most of its members) promote ethical hacking. They offer a training ground for any hacker that wishes to learn more in a safe, legal environment. People of the HTS community share tips and experiences as well as articles promoting the benign use of computer skill. HTS administrator, Silent-Shadow, writes in one article “People that hack for malicious intent violate everything that HTS stands for. HTS is here so that people can learn to find security holes in websites so that they can notify a webmaster of the security issue.” HTS is a living, breathing example of a white hat hacker community.
Crackers and hackers compete for control over servers even now. “As crazy as it seems, there is a war going on out there for the internet,” (qtd. in Kerstein) says Dr. Tom Porter, Ph.D, “Getting into systems is good or bad depending on your vantage point.” (qtd. in Kerstein) Tom Porter works for the World Cup IT community. He reports that the IT community has gotten much better at security the past few years. According to him, IT members are always one step ahead of crackers and malicious hackers (Kerstein). The technology and tools that are offered today can help battle almost any kind of cracking attempt.
Some hackers and IT workers use collections of phony files and information called honey pots (also called goat files) to lure a cracker (Wang). A honey pot has three main purposes. It lures the cracker away from real, private data that he/she may possibly destroy. Then it alerts the system administrator of the cracker’s actions the moments he/she begins to tamper with the phony data. Hopefully, the phony data will keep the cracker occupied until the authorities track him/her down to their physical location (Wang).
Until the headlines stop reading “Hacker attacks webserver” and start reading “Cracker attacks webserver”, people will continue to be confused on who the real bad people in the virtual world are. Something must be done to stop all of the crackers for ruining the internet experience for everybody, and I think that the only thing that can stop them is the counter movements of the ethical white hat hackers. Without the white hats, the internet would be a lot more unsafe to surf and would probably call for severe governmental action.
“Business Hacking: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” E-Security. 23 Nov. 2002. 21 Feb. 2007. <http://www.ameinfo.com/20227.html>.
“Ethical Hacker.” Whatis. 21 Feb. 2007. <http://www.whatis.com/ethical%20hacker>.
“Hacking, Cracking, and Relaxing.” Morebusiness. 21 Feb. 2007.
“Hacking’s History.” PcWorld. 21 Feb. 2007. <http://www.pcworld.about.com/news/Apr102001id45764.htm>.
Kerstein, Paul. “Interview: An Ethical Hacker Protects the World Cup Network.” Web Exclusives. 21 Feb. 2007. <http://www2.csoonline.com/exclusives/column.html?CID=22499>.
Parker, Don. “The Different Shades of Hackers.” WindowSecurity. 29 Dec. 2005. 21 Feb. 2007. <http://www.windowsecurity.com/articles/Different-Shades- Hackers.html>.
Wang, Wallace. “Steal This Computer Book 2.” No Starch Press. 11 Mar.
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