The whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks has been under great pressure to stop publishing secret diplomatic cables. In response, computer hackers from around the world have mobilised and are targeting corporations including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard after these companies dropped their support to WikiLeaks. But who are these hackers? And should we be impressed by their technological wizardry or scorn them as geeky but troublesome teenagers who should be subject to the full force of the law? Leila Sattary enters the mysterious world of computer hackers
I grew up during the dawn of the internet age and I even dimly remember browsing the web and playing with code prior to the existence Facebook, or Wikipedia, or online shopping. Those were primitive but carefree days – before the mass use and reliance on the internet. Times have moved on, and the only place I get called 1337 (a hacker term for ‘elite’) these days is when playing Call of Duty rather than writing code. The internet has changed the way we communicate – large corporations and governments use the internet to transfer their secret information and individuals share their personal information, including bank details, across the web. Data security and privacy online have become vitally important creating a new challenge for the hackers that both protect and infiltrate secure information.
In popular culture, the term ‘hacker’ is used to describe someone who lurks behind a computer screen, breaking into secure computer systems. However, the word was originally used to describe those who enjoyed computer code and intellectually exploring software to the extent that they would ‘hack away’ at the keyboard for hours on end. There was no malicious connotation to the term hacker then. Moral hackers or ‘white hats’ try to distinguish themselves from those who break the law by terming them ‘crackers’ or ‘black hats’.
All hackers, despite their intents, are driven by the same thing – the challenge of breaking into supposedly secure information. White hats are often those hackers that work for corporations or governments and attempt, with permission, to breach their own systems to test for vulnerabilities. Some white hats are self-styled vigilantes of internet justice who seek out flaws in websites that carelessly expose personal information. Hackers who err on the dark side use their skills for criminal intent and personal financial gain. Many hackers, good and evil, see their work as somewhat of an art-form.
If you are thinking this sounds like something out of a fantasy game…what else did you expect?
In reality, most hackers are really ‘script kiddies’ who use easily downloadable malicious programmes and edit and release them, without necessarily understanding their potential impact. Script kiddies can often do a lot of damage but are usually caught due to their inherent lack of knowledge and inability to make themselves untraceable.
Today, many hacker attacks, like those who defend WikiLeaks, are politically motivated. These ‘hacktivists’ lie somewhere in the grey area between black and white hat hackers. They are hacking for moral reasons to support their causes, in this case, the freedom of the internet. However, instead of stealing bank details, the hacktivists are targeting websites with DDoS attacks to bring unsupportive companies to a standstill to raise awareness of their cause.
On the surface, with their own jargon, secret web forums and the risk of being caught by the authorities, hackers sound unbelievably cool. They also have developed a way of protesting that potentially has a bigger impact than marching on the streets. If you bring a corporate website like Mastercard down then someone is likely to listen to your cause, even if it is just the media. Despite the appealing thought of a geek with power, I must remind myself that many hackers are likely teenage, spotty and socially inept.
Are hacktivists righteous in bringing down corporate websites to raise awareness of their cause? Well, who am I – a n00b – to say, but perhaps it is no different than bringing central London to a standstill with physical protest? If caught, I agree the hackers should be dealt with by the law, which will be easy on them if there is no identify theft or personal damages. In the end, I suppose the thrill of being a hacker is the risk of being caught.
DDoS – Distributed Denial of Service – flooding a target website with data sent by unknowingly infected computers worldwide to bring the target website to a standstill and unable to service its customers. These attacks can be hard to defend against as they look like normal internet traffic.
Trojan Horses – viruses that attach to a programme that the user installs. The virus records passwords and gives the hacker full remote control of the computer.
Viruses and Worms – self-replicating programmes that attach themselves to other programmes (viruses) or computers (worms). Both will attempt to shut down networks by flooding them with masses of data.