From the Actrix Online Informer March 2012
by Rob Zorn
Something that's starting to appear in the news more frequently is hacking. You might often hear of a website or company being hacked, or someone being arrested for hacking, but little is said about hacking itself.
So what is hacking? How is it done? Who does it? Why? These are just some of the questions we're hoping to answer this month.
What is hacking?
There are so many different forms of hacking that coming up with a definition is quite a challenge. If you were to sum it all up, you might define hacking as the identification and exploitation of weaknesses in computer security systems.
The term hacker was first used to describe a programmer – someone who hacked out computer code. Hackers were visionaries who could see new ways to use computers, creating programs that no one else could conceive. They were the pioneers of the computer industry, building everything from small applications to operating systems. They saw the potential of what computers could do and created ways to achieve that potential.
Nowadays, using a computer and the internet, hackers are able to break through security systems, firewalls and network barriers to access information that would otherwise be inaccessible. The main resource of the hacker is computer code. Everything to do with computers and the internet is written in code, a series of commands and definitions that state what a program is and what it is going to do when faced with different situations. To change what you want a program to do, you have to change the code. However, the code itself is hidden by numerous security features, each of which has its own hidden codes too.
A hacker writes his own code, which interacts with the security features protecting the existing code for a program or website, and disables it or identifies a weakness. After breaking down the security, a hacker is free to do anything from stealing the code, deleting the code (thus deleting the program or website), or manipulating the code to change the program or website.
Types of Hacking
There are generally two types of people who hack, referred to as black hat and white hat hackers.
Black hat hackers are malicious hackers who infiltrate systems with ill intent. These hackers steal information, vandalise websites and generally cause mischief. White hat hackers are "ethical" hackers who specialise in hacking security systems for the purpose of making them stronger. Many companies actually employ white hat hackers to test the limits of their own security systems to see if they can be improved. Unfortunately the line between the two is very thin, and many hackers who claim to have had no malicious intent have got themselves in trouble for going too far.
Hackers use a number of tricks to achieve their missions, from programming viruses to infect and destroy security systems, to password hacks which run millions of combinations of letters, numbers and symbols to discover someone's password. One particularly handy tool in the hacker's toolbox is keystroke technology, which lets a hacker view a record of every action made on a computer. This effectively allows the hacker to steal credit card numbers, passwords, private emails, and even someone's identity.
Regardless of the tools used or one's intentions, hacking is generally classed as a crime. Viewing private information that belongs to someone else is an invasion of privacy, and many hackers have found themselves behind bars for their indiscretions.
You might not have known it, but Steve Wozniak and the late Steve Jobs, co-founders of Apple, began their foray into the technological world as hackers. They built little boxes that would plug into phone lines and allow themselves to make long distance calls for free.
But hacking was around long before the two Steves. One of the first recorded incidents of hacking was done by Nevil Maskelyne, a magician and inventor who disrupted the first public demonstration of secure wireless telegraphy technology to send his own insulting message in Morse code.
Perhaps one of the more famous hackers was Jonathan James, otherwise known as "c0mrade". At the age of 16 he became the first juvenile hacker to get sent to prison. His crimes included hacking numerous government and military computers and the United States Department of Defence. James also hacked into NASA computers, stealing software worth approximately $1.7 million. James explained in court that he had just been trying to supplement his studies on programming, but argued, "The code itself was crappy . . . certainly not worth $1.7 million like they claimed."
At present, a group called Anonymous is stealing the hacking headlines. The group collaborates online to carry out sophisticated hacking missions. The group is quick to identify itself as a collection of "hacktivists". The group uses their collective hacking skills to participate in political activism, mainly pertaining to internet matters.
Anonymous claims to campaign for an open internet free from censorship and copyright. When the founder of file-sharing website The Pirate Bay were arrested, Anonymous threatened action. Within just over an hour of charges being laid, the Ministry of Justice website was hacked and taken down. When an appeal against the chargers was denied, Anonymous attacked again, stealing all the personal information from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), an organisation responsible for safeguarding recording artists' rights.
If a 16 year-old teenager can hack into NASA from his bedroom, it's scary to consider how dangerous talented hackers can be. It might sound like a fun challenge to learn to hack successfully, but don't go breaking your way into any military computers. The government might not see the funny side.
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