Quixote, Beagle Boy: A few thoughts on true hacker qualities

Remember Mafiaboy, the 13-year-old Montreal kid who took out some of the corporate world’s biggest Web sites a couple of years ago? Not long ago, I found him penning a column for a national news service.

I smiled to myself when I read comments from him regarding his past misdeeds, as he seemed to be suggesting he didn’t get the credit he deserved for the havoc he caused through his “denial-of-service” (DoS) attacks (which also got him a well-earned eight months in detention for his exploits). He casually tosses around the term “hacker”, but it’s just not that cut and dry.

Often, you hear the media tag a person as a hacker only because that individual uses the tricks of that trade. That’s a rather simplistic point of view. For example, just because you use a baseball bat to break into my car does not make you a Blue Jay. It simply makes you a thug who knows how to swing.

Those in the know have for years tried to fight the hysteria and misinformation from many media outlets about the hacking culture. It’s a losing battle when you consider that every troubled 13-year-old with too much time on their hands relishes being referred to as a hacker, when, in fact, they are really no different than a vandal who smashes your car window or steals your PIN to access your account.

Writing virus scripts, launching attacks on Web sites or stealing personal information for the purpose of fraud does not make one a hacker.

So, what do we call these “lil’ criminals”? The word, according to almost every credible source on the subject, is “cracker”. Just doesn’t have the same ring that hacker does, eh? No wonder they long for the more romanticized term of hacker. Cracker sounds like the cyber equivalent of Disney’s “Beagle Boys” gang.

But, if the mischievous wee criminals who pester the Web with malicious code are not hackers, then what exactly is a hacker? In reality, a true hacker is someone with an insatiable curiosity for how systems work, and who can get in and out of them quite easily. Consider them the same way you would someone exploring some underground cave system (a “spelunker”, for those of you in the know).

Since the early ‘70s gave rise to hacker legends, such as John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper, the true members of this calling have had one overriding trait: curiosity. By comparison, you would have to change that famous monkey’s name to “Apathetic” George. Yet, true hackers really don’t want to compromise a system. They only want to explore and understand it.

However, the difference between trespassing and “touring” someone’s system is really up to the owner of that property. That is part of the risk they take as hackers. And, while you may hear me romanticize the occasional one, you most certainly won’t hear me defend anyone who has been caught poking around in someone else’s network.

Even so, in an era where knowledge is power and a relatively few large, faceless corporations seem hell-bent on controlling that power at all costs, I’m not so sure I have that much of a problem with a few Don Quixotes riding around cyberspace tilting at corporate windmills.

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Ducharme is editor of PCWorld.ca. Contact him at editor@pcworld.ca.

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