Computer Hacking

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Written by David M. Stone, University Laboratory High School, Urbana, IL


Introduction

Unlike most computer crime / misuse areas which are clear cut in terms of actions and legalities (e.g. softwarepiracy), computer hacking is more difficult to define. Computer hacking always involves some degree of infringement on the privacy of others or damage to computer-based property such as files, web pages or software. The impact of computer hacking varies from simply being simply invasive and annoying to illegal. There is an aura of mystery that surrounds hacking,and a prestige that accompanies being part of a relatively "elite" group of individuals who possess technological savvy and are willing to take the risks required to become a true "hacker". An interesting alternative view of how hackers positively impact areas such as software development and hacker ideology is presented in Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive.

Even attempting to define the term "hacker" is difficult. Perhaps the premiere WWW resource in introducing individuals to hacking is the The New Hacker's Dictionary (http://www.logophilia.com/jargon/jargon_toc.html), a resource which encompasses everything from hacker slang, jargon, hacker folklore, writing style and speech to general appearance, dress, education and personality characteristics. According to TheNew Hacker's Dictionary, a hacker can be defined as:

  1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
  2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
  3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
  4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
  5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it.
  6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
  7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
  8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence 'password hacker', 'network hacker'. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

Even within hacker society, the definitions range from societally very positive (dare I say characteristic of gifted and talented individuals) to criminal. In his book, "Fighting Computer Crime: A New Framework for Protecting Information" (1998), Donn B. Parker lists two basic principles hacker live by:

  1. The belief that information sharing is a powerful good and that it is the ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources whenever possible.
  2. The belief that system cracking for fun and exploitation is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism or breach of confidentiality.

Parker differentiates between benign and malicious hackers based on whether damage is performed, though in reality all hacking involves intrusion and a disregard for the efforts, works and property of others.


Issues

A number of issues arise in considering hacking from the educator perspective. First, we need to consider the fact that the public perception of hackers is mixed, and that "hacking" and "being considered a hacker" can be quite appealing to students who are going through developmental periods in which they are defining themselves, as well as challenging authority and rules. There is often a Robin Hood mentality to early actions, though it is unclear exactly who "the poor" are, and how they are "beingcompensated". Second, the anonymity of actions which hackers perform against others often enhances the severity of actions. For example, an adolescent who would never consider picking someone's pocket or physically damaging someone else's property or home, might be quite willing to steal people's credit card numbers or destroy poorly protected business or government files, since files and credit card numbers are not tangible entities, and the damage is done anonymously.

The media often presents these individuals in a glamorous light. Adolescents may fantasize about their degree of technological skills and, lacking the social skills required to be accepted well by others, move online in search of those who profess to have technological skills the students desire. A simple search using the term "hacker" with any search engine results in hundreds of links to illegal serial numbers, ways to downloadand pirate commercial software, etc. Showing this information off to others may result in the students being considered a "hacker" by their less technologically savvy friends, further reinforcing antisocial behavior. In some cases, individuals move on to programming and destruction of other individuals programs through the writing of computer viruses and Trojan horses, programs which include computer instructions to execute a hacker's attack. If individuals can successfully enter computers via a network, they may be able to impersonate an individual with high level security clearance access to files, modifying or deleting them or introducing computer viruses or Trojan horses. As hackers become more sophisticated,they may begin using sniffers to steal large amounts of confidential information, become involved in burglary of technical manuals, larceny or espionage.


Ways to Minimize Potential for Hacking

There are a number of ways for schools to minimize potential for hacking.

  1. Schools need to clearly establish acceptable use policies and delineate appropriate and inappropriate actions to both students and staff.
  2. Students and staff need to instructed regarding hacking, the mentality associated with it, the consequences of various hacking actions and possible consequences of interacting and forming online relationships with anonymous individuals who claim to be proficient in invading others' privacy.
  3. The use of filters may be considered in reducing access to unauthorized software serial numbers and hacking-related materials, newsgroups, chatrooms and hacking organizations.
  4. Teachers need to be aware of student activities in the computer labs and pay special attention to things they hear in terms of hacking behavior.

Many schools have taken intiative in having teachers work with technology-oriented students who exhibit many of the characteristics which may eventually lead to hacking-type behaviors. Recent web-based activities and competitions, including ThinkQuest, Web to the Edge and ExploraVision, are outstanding opportunities for these and other technologically oriented students to utilize their interests, energies and abilities in a postive way.


Annotated Web Sites

The New Hacker's Dictionary (http://www.logophilia.com/jargon/jargon_toc.html)
A resource which introduces the reader to everything from hacker slang, jargon, hacker folklore, writing style and speech style to general appearance, dress, education and personality characteristics. If you are going to examine a single resource regarding hacking, this should be it!

Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive (http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_2/gisle/)
Fascinating VERY ALTERNATIVE discussion of history of the hacker community and hacker ideology.

ConcerningHackers Who Break into Computer Systems (http://www-swiss.ai.mit.edu/6095/articles/denning_defense_hackers.txt)
Interesting discussion of hackers, hacker ethics and how hacking relates to issues and practices of an information society.

Active Matrix's Hideaway (http://www.hideaway.net/)
Written by a "true hacker", one who seeks knowledge rather than robbery and destruction, this alternative site presents a view of hacking as an art and science.

Hacking Documents (http://www.houghton.demon.co.uk/hacking/document/index.htm)
This is the source many use for initial ventures into hacking. It consists of 1) The Guide to Mostly Harmless Hacking, 2) Beginner's Documents, and 3) Other Various Documents. There is also a link called Hacking Archives. Quite user friendly, it becomes clear how kids could easily be lured into this site and its activities.

Defcon 7 (http://www.thecodex.com)
Voted one of the top hackers sites by PC Magazine (is it any wonder our kids have little difficulty finding these sites?), this site consists of hundreds of links which walk individuals step-by-step through the myriad of different hackers activities.

AstaLaVista H/C Search Engine(http://astalavista.box.sk)
Here's something new - a search engine designed for hackers. Includes links to all types of software, serial numbers, sniffers, etc.


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Developed 3/7/99. Last modified 5/9/99.