Exposition on the “Hacker Ethic”

April 9, 2016 | Views: 6109

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The modern understanding of computer science is a constantly mutating beast. The individuals who’ve been driving the Information Age’s technological innovation are known as “hackers.” Most people understand a hacker as someone who breaks into computers and commits data-theft. This is a gross misconception that I intend to ebb and erode away, slowly, like waves over a rock.

 

Back in the 1990s, “hacker” became a very scary word you’d often find in the US news. World governments, having only just begun to understand the implications of a unified planet that was interconnected in the spiderweb of wires that was the internet, were struggling to keep up with the sharp minds of individuals who made it their life-mission to study, understand, manipulate and master the art of computer science.

In 1960, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students of computer science referred to those among them who could manipulate code and programs to do incredible, unfathomable things “hackers.” They could read code like a children’s book, understand it, create, modify and manipulate it to do whatever they wanted or something for which it was not intended.

Their goal was simply this: “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” The first Hackers at MIT were the geeks before people knew what geeks were. They dedicated their studies to creating new things and helping people to understand what could be done with computers.

They created a fundamental change in how the world would forever communicate, share information, teach, learn and deliver news. They changed how companies, and indeed the world, would function. They did it with one simple belief: “Information should be free.”

Incidentally, The C Programming Language became the standard of operating system and application development in 1972. It remains a standard today, thanks to people like Dennis Ritchie and the first hackers of the world.

 


 

Fast-forward twenty-one years. WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy and John Wood hits the theaters. The word “hacker” becomes part of the lexicon (almost overnight) with a wildly different definition.

 

hack·er (‘hakər/) noun

1: A person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data

Public knowledge of hackers, injected by the Hollywood entertainment giant, was based entirely around crime and criminal behavior. To summarize the plot of the movie, Matthew Broderick is a high-school delinquent who’s knowledgeable in computers and hacking. He uses a technique known as “war-dialing” to sweep through phone numbers in order to search for connected modems to hack into. His goal: to search for games to play on the internet.

He mistakenly hacks into “Norad,” the nuclear missile Silo in Seattle, WA. He thinks he’s  breaking into a game company’s server to steal some free games. He runs one called “Global Thermonuclear War” which runs a strategic missile defense system artificial intelligence that proceeds to attempt to launch nuclear missiles at Russia to “win the game.”

The hilariously inaccurate movie proceeds to show Broderick’s character feverishly attempting to avert this disaster and correct his mistake while attempting to evade the U.S. government. He performs some clever phone-phreaking, like playing back a recording of a touch-tone keypad door-lock system to escape. He also creates a logic-bomb by forcing the Missile Defense AI to attempt to play a game of tic-tac-toe against itself to cause it to swallow all of its own resources. Like I said…hilarious.

Nevertheless, most people had absolutely no clue how computers worked at the time. Thanks to WarGames, a panic started over the potential dangers of computer crimes leading to a nuclear war with Russia. This was already a palpable enough fear given the current status of the Cold War.

 

The Media War on Hackers

The very next year Legion of Doom, one of the first renowned hacker groups, was founded. It became recognized in the underground as the preeminent think-tank for phone phreaking, computer systems access and intrusion. One member, The Mentor, is arrested in 1985 and writes The Conscience of a Hacker, which, over time, became better known as The Hacker Manifesto.

The hacker sub-culture becomes publicly recognized when a “hacker war” began between Legion of Doom and a rival group, Masters of Destruction. What are actually crank-calls and childish pranks traded between a few dissatisfied members of the two groups becomes a national televised news event. It gets the world’s attention in a big way.

In 1990, Operation: Sundevil, the largest SWAT raid on criminal hackers in history is launched. It results in the arrest and incarceration of dozens of hackers. Less than ten result in convictions. The purpose of the raid was a symbolic victory – a statement by the government to say they could arrest anyone at any time who was a threat to national security (including teenage pranksters who misused their computers).

Progressively, throughout history, as hacking became more recognized in the media, the more hated and feared the title “hacker” became.

1995, Kevin Mitnick, a fugitive hacker, is arrested after a 2 1/2 year pursuit for breaking into the Bell Pacific phone company and granting himself unrestricted cellphone service and for claiming damages that never actually happened. He was imprisoned, pre-trial, without cause or conviction for 5 years. He spends 8 months in solitary confinement due to a court-order from a judge who feared Mitnick would be able to “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone.”

 

Enter the 21st Century: The Information Age

Following all the Y2K fears about computers and the internet breaking down indefinitely because they wouldn’t be able to handle the clocks turning over to the year 2000, there was an immediate surge in interest and necessity for computer professionals. By the time the year 2000 had rolled around, computers pervaded the entirety of American, and indeed the world, society.

All developed countries in the world had adopted Microsoft’s Windows operating systems, and Linux had become established as the standard free and open-source operating system kernel – on which CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu, RedHat and SUSE built their software empires.

Information circulates the globe in excess of trillions of bytes per minute. Who drive this? Hackers, of course.

Since Linus Torvald created the Linux kernel, dozens of operating systems built on on this system have come out of the wood-work. Each one totes and hails themselves for their unique functionality and the possibilities their open-source design has brought to the world. It’s hackers that create these new and exciting applications that drive the global internet economy.

 

The Hacker Ethos

Hacker Ethics have evolved a lot since the days at MIT. But, hackers’ mission has remained much the same: finding, sharing, and creating information and knowledge. I can tell you this much: it has nothing to do with breaking into computer systems for profit.

According to Steven Levy, author of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution:

  • Sharing – Freedom of Information
  • Openness – Reveal source code so that it can be learned from and improved upon
  • Decentralization – The internet belongs to the people
  • Free access to computers – Access to information ensures freedom of speech and responsibility of governments
  • World Improvement – Nothing should ever be wasted, and everything can be simplified or automated

 

The tenets of the Hacker Ethos may seem very idyllic in a corporate, money-focused society. Yes, the open source community continues to thrive despite the fact that its members create most of their software with no expectation of reward or return, other than seeing it improve the lives and jobs of others. Everyone who follows the Hacker Ethic can proudly assert that they, in some way, shape or form, contribute their knowledge and skills to the improvement of humanity through the simplification or education of computers.

Although many could debate the implications, and the pro’s versus the con’s of such a philosophy, there is no denying the tangible great lengths that improve the lives of many people. The Hacker Ethic, despite all the controversial misconceptions, ensures that information remains in the hands of the individual; not rationed out at the behest of government, law and corporate authorities.

For example, many people consider Internet Piracy highly dangerous and an anarchistic response to corporate licensing and distribution of software, books, music and films. Yet, laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act, would give the government authority to monitor and shut down any website without warning or cause, merely on the suspicion that the site was being used for the distribution of malicious or pirated software, books, films, etc. The public answered viciously.

The internet is a wonderful creation of science and an opportunity for the world to express and reach out to its inhabitants like never before.

It’s only in the most oppressive nations where the internet is censored and restricted, all for the purpose of control. A world with a free internet without control is not as scary as an internet filled with only content that its owners want us to see. Because of this, The Hacker Ethic exists to protect this freedom of speech and the expectation of privacy, not to abuse it.

 

Hacker Education

Hackers come from all walks of life. They often had to learn the same way – through sheer toil and self-education, They sought things out the hard way and collect their knowledge one piece at a time over many years.

This is not so anymore. Hackers now have the benefit of being able to operate under certified authorities and approved by law enforcement to learn what others would consider to be dangerous skills. The term “Ethical Hacker” is still catching on, but the practice of it is going strong.

Companies, law enforcement, private security firms, financial and educational institutions all regularly hire and employ hackers to manage their security and develop exciting new software to improve their lives and the lives of their customers.

Companies like Google embrace the Hacker Ethic and support the idea that everyone should be able to be able to learn anything they want on a whim, They’re among the most secure as they provision penetration testers and security analysts to test their network regularly.

Hackers who know how to intrude on information and computer systems, but do so ethically and responsibly, are spearheading the charge for a safer, more secure internet for everyone. Years ago, finding information on how to learn these skills was very sparse. It often had to be obtained through unconfirmed, and at times, illicit sources. No longer.

The internet is a very large, wonderful place. It boasts millions of gigabytes of information on any subject, including hacking. Those who have embraced the Hacker Ethic in the biggest way offer up their knowledge by sharing it freely with the world – at no cost to the customer.

One beautiful example of such a contributor is Cybrary. They’re amongst a very small number of IT Education organizations that have shared their vast library of knowledge of information systems and, of course, hacking, completely free of charge. They operate entirely through the information and monetary donations of their members.

Another is SkillSet, an IT certification training authority that helps educate their member base without any payment required. I personally refer to them as the “Lynda.com of IT Security,” boasting a very high success rate for their students in multiple certifications including CEH, CHFI, CISSP, CISA, CompTIA Network+ & Security+, Cisco’s CCNA, and CCENT.

I owe my successful acquisition of my CEH certification to both of these outstanding organizations who support what it means to hold the title of Hacker.

Finally, CodeCademy teaches multiple programming languages and offers projects to teach students web development, scripting and beginner level programming with very well-structured modules. It also offers a vast library of projects to get the student started. Again, it’s all for free.

 

Conclusion

Hacker Ethics are a very broad topic. Ethical hacking is an even more precise one that deserves a full book to be adequately understood. It is a beautiful art, just as there is beauty in electronics and computers, which take years to develop and master. The world is slowly coming to understand that hackers and criminals are no longer (and never were) synonymous with each other. We aren’t quite there yet.

It’s only through the continued sharing and publishing of information that we’ll ever be able to help society embrace hacking as an activity to be aspired to, and an idealism worth pursuing–a better world brought at the hands of programmers and electrical engineers.

That’s why I wrote The Hacker Ethos. What started as a beginner-level educational project to teach the bare-bones basics of ethical hacking and penetration testing quickly turned into a full 400+ page book on, not only the concepts, tools, skills and knowledge of ethical hacking, but also the philosophy of it.

The world is constantly changing, not always for the better, but I firmly believe that computers can always be used to make things better, faster, simpler and drive education and understanding beyond the imagined boundaries of our minds…

…all thanks to a few geeks at MIT, the first hackers, and the ethical revolution they started.

 

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4 Comments
  1. “… a few geeks at MIT…” You mean the Tech Model Railroad Club of course. And how could you mention Operation Sundevil and omit Bruce Sterling’s _The Hacker Crackdown_?
    But foremost you’ve left out a very important concept — Do no damage. Call it a Hippocratic oath for the digital age.

    Your so called Hacker Ethic boils down to four different ways of describing or exhibiting sharing combined to attain a goal of efficiency. Not wasting nor misusing resources is pretty much the definition of efficiency.
    I’m not sure I agree with your chosen history. Mitnick was driven by self-preservation not some ideal of making the world a better or safer place. Nor has IT innovation been driven by hacking. Hackers certainly extend, now as in the past, devices up to and all too often way past their intended use. But it’s inventors and investors that make these devices and interconnected systems widely available.
    I can appreciate the effort to distinguish btwn hackers and crackers. The two are only casually related even if they are treated identically by commercial media.

    • Please bear in mind, as I said in the article, Hacker Ethics is an extremely diverse topic. I couldn’t possibly hope to cover everything I have to say about it in a single article. I appreciate your feedback, and I’ll do my best to be more careful about selecting details to write about.

      And while I am inclined to agree that you are right that we should follow the ethic of “Do no harm.” I believe this was sufficiently understood as it was implied in the goal of “World Improvement.” It was stated last, but certainly no less important than the others.

      Would you not agree that our thriving open-source development community accomplishes this to great effect?

      I believe we differ because of our fundamental understanding of what a hacker is. I do not define a hacker as someone who simply meddles in Computer Security. Not so. Hackers are anyone and everyone with the skill and knowledge of how to manipulate and create computers and the code that drives them. Makers, breakers, and coders are one in the same. Part of the problem I am trying to address in this article is the misconception that hackers are restricted to the art of breaking into computer systems. This is wrong. Hackers are manipulators of code and computers. That is the purpose of my article here.

      Again, thank you for your feedback. I will have to make an effort to be more precise in my contributions in the future. 🙂

      • For whatever reason(s) I’m not making my meaning clear. There can be quite a difference between ‘do no harm’ and ‘do no damage.’ Harm is in the eye of the beholder, as is “improving the world.” Damage can and should be seen objectively. Cracking or bypassing password based authentication is harmful when unintended visitors come a knocking. But when VP of Sales can’t remember his authentication credentials and the system in place doesn’t give even a sysadmin access to those credentials, then what is a Data Center to do? Perhaps our good friend Change NT PassWord (aka chntpw [perhaps a short entry in OP3N coming soon, I could use the cybytes :)]) might come to the rescue or cause the breach whichever the case may be. It all depends on who is looking eh? But deleting config files thru an SQLi (Sequel Query Language injection)to “teach that dag-burn stuck up webmaster a lesson” is neither moral nor legal despite all the “hacker street cred” it appears to harbor.
        Please don’t take my critique in the wrong light. I’m very happy to see such a discussion taking place. It may not show but I mostly agree with you’ve written so far. Especially the parts that infer that we each have our own opinion of what constitutes hacking and what such activities should strive for. That is to say, what goals are laudable and which should be shamed when it comes to hacking IT infrastructure. It may not all be about the computers and the code on them, but let’s look again at the history. Until some folks started doing some things that were possible and often wholly unexpected with computers and computing infrastructure (aka networks) the term hacking hadn’t a snowball’s chance in Miami of being popularized. Let us keep making our efforts work toward making the label Hacker a badge of honor and not a misused pejorative.

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