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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Hackers: Friends or foes?
Stephen Evans
By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

What motivates hackers? Are they upright citizens with a Spiderman-style zeal to protect the world's great companies from their own weaknesses?

Or are they sad mischief-makers bent on destroying global capitalism before it destroys freedom and squashes their own individual geekiness?

The answer is neither, though both traits were on display at the gathering of hackers at the Pennsylvania Hotel in Manhattan over the weekend.

Free phone calls

Participants of the Hope (Hackers On Planet Earth) meeting were divided between those who seemed to like an intellectual challenge and wished no harm to the target of that challenge, and those who see mischief as the great motivator.

Computer and CD-rom
Microsoft's software is often under attack
One hacker, "Rich the Rebel" as he's called, explained how he had recorded a sound that deceived the telephone system into thinking 25 cent pieces had been pushed into coin boxes, so permitting free phone calls. "Wasn't that theft," I asked. "Er, well, er, yes it was."

One of the organisers of the conference, "Pork-Chop", was adamant that hacking was not about destruction: "We already have a word for defacing websites. We already have a word for spreading viruses. It's 'criminal'."

Hacking was about understanding a system and then identifying weaknesses, he insisted. [In the hacking community, hackers with malicious intent are often referred to as "crackers".]

"A hacker is someone who finds a system - not a computer system, necessarily, any system, maybe a social system or a political system - and figures it out to maybe change it for the better."

Pork-Chop said that hackers would identify weaknesses in Microsoft's systems, for example, and the company would be told about them.

"You have to test their systems. You're using Windows and if Windows is not secure, people need to know. If Microsoft doesn't acknowledge after a certain period of time, you have to let everyone else know."

"Creepy thing"

So, hacking as defined by some hackers is simply about identifying gaps in a system, about learning how to pick a lock or identifying ways in which security systems at airports are vulnerable, in order to plug those gaps. It is an intellectual game.

Steve Balmer, Microsoft chief executive
Should Microsoft's chief Steve Balmer greet hackers as friends?

And who could doubt the worth of that? It is what you do with the information that counts.

If a bunch of enthusiasts spot that an bomb can be smuggled through the most elaborate system of machines and screens at an airport terminal, then who is to decry it?

But what about those who think differently?

Why should we trust the people who set themselves up to protect us from ourselves? Hackers may say they have our or Microsoft's best interests at heart, but who elected those particular individuals as the guardians of all our interests?

That is the argument that the Justice Department is trying to make. Its website says that stiff punishment was given to a hacker who used the Internet to disrupt phones at an airport. As the website puts it: "Hacking can get you in a whole lot more trouble than you think and is a completely creepy thing to do".

"Very creative"

So, who are the hackers and are they useful to society, whatever exactly that means?

Bernadette Schell, the Dean of Business and Information Technology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has studied them. She talked to hundreds and questioned them in detail about their attitudes to themselves and others.

"It's predominantly a male community, quite an exceptional population, very creative, very untrusting of others," she said.

"There seemed to be a history in early childhood of interpersonal difficulty either at school or at home, and that had a long-term impact on how they were feeling about others in term of relationships. Essentially what they did was escape into the computer and that's where they found solace.

"And they continued into adulthood to communicate with others through the net rather than face to face."

So they behave in ways that seem peculiar to many, but does that make them dangerous?

Sometimes it does but more often it does not, particularly as they mature, Ms Schell suggested.

"There was more risk of hiring people under age 30 because they hadn't quite become self-aware about what they were doing wrong.

"There wasn't insight about the ethical side and how the ethics could actually positively aid society.

"But by the time they were 30, there was a transformation. In fact, most of them were interested in a career. It took them till [that age] to become emotionally mature.

"Just a small minority would be dangerous, but the vast majority would be of extreme positive use to society."


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