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Friday, 15 November, 2002, 12:14 GMT
Why we need hackers
Bill Thompson, BBC
We need to understand hackers and perhaps even sympathise with them as they can do the net much good, argues technology pundit Bill Thompson.

An unemployed programmer from Britain has been accused of breaking into a large number of US military computers, crashing some of them and depriving two thousand workers of their e-mail for three whole days.

This is being taken so seriously that the US courts are now attempting to extradite 36-year old Gary McKinnon on charges that could put him in prison for 10 years.

If he did indeed break into the systems concerned - and there has been no evidence put forward to show that he has, and no trial is imminent - then it is deeply embarrassing for the Americans.

It would seem that the effort put into securing computer systems since the September 11 attacks, the vast amount of money and effort gone into improving homeland security and the increased emphasis on the risks of an electronic Pearl Harbour have all been insufficient to stop one lonely hacker.

Vulnerable

I have, at various times and for various reasons, used computer systems which I was not authorised to do so

Whether or not Mr McKinnon has done any of the things of which he stands accused, the success of politically-motivated groups like USG and FBH in breaking into corporate web servers and putting slogans on home pages, and the continuing evidence of the increased number of successful break-ins, make it clear that networked computers remain vulnerable.

We must therefore expect further intrusions.

Many will have dubious motives - attacking the West, blackmailing victims, or plain theft are the most obvious.

Others will be motivated by a desire to explore the forbidden, to enjoy the thrill of accessing someone else's computer, with the sense of power and secret knowledge that it brings.

The two are, I believe, completely different and should not be lumped into one category.

Good hackers

Aerial view of the Pentagon
UK hacker accused of breaking into the Pentagon
Mr McKinnon is variously accused of breaking into military systems, causing damage estimated at $900,000, and damaging the US military's operational effectiveness.

Nobody can condone deliberate acts of computer vandalism, or excuse mistakes made by those who were only looking but inadvertently deleted critical files. I would not want to excuse or justify this.

Yet there are hackers who do deserve a more sympathetic approach, even though many people, especially those whose computers are affected, would instantly reject the very idea.

Yet surely we need to appreciate that some people really are not out to cause trouble when they explore those parts of the net marked Keep Out. Not only that, but their efforts might even help us build better networks.

Hackers are obviously useful when it comes to keeping security teams and software developers on their toes, because having an online intruder is deeply embarrassing even if they do no damage.

But hackers also preserve the spirit of intellectual excitement and exploration that made the internet great and continues to drive its growth.

Web power

I have a confession to make. I have, at various times and for various reasons, used computer systems which I was not authorised to do so.

Sometimes this has been because I have been inside a large organisation and have found myself sitting at a networked PC with access to the whole system, and I simply have not been able to resist the temptation.

Hand on mouse
Curiosity can be irresistible for hackers
On a couple of occasions I've been online, come across a login screen and used a username and password that did not belong to me.

I have even found the occasional website that would, if I had chosen to, have allowed me to rewrite its home page.

Once, and this was a long time ago, I found myself, an employee of The Guardian, able to edit the home page of another national newspaper. I resisted the temptation.

I do not think these things make me a bad person. I think that the experience gave me a much better understanding of how the net works.

I also got a real buzz from it, and that sense of excitement has remained with me as I learned more about the net.

I never did any harm to the systems I looked at, but I did get a better perspective on what net security entails and of the dangers of leaving systems open to intruders.

Creative

What I was doing was hacking in both senses of the word. I was using someone else's system without permission, and I was also exploring.

We need to realise that computer criminals are different from those who want to explore but do not want to break what they find on the other side of the fence

The word hacker can be used solely to mean someone who was a dedicated, inventive and enthusiastic explorer of the capabilities of computer systems, as immortalised in Pekka Himanen's book The Hacker Ethic.

The GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache web server and BIND, the program that holds the domain name system together, were all written by hackers.

Sadly cracker, the preferred term for those who, either playfully or maliciously, break into poorly-secured systems, never really caught on and I fear it will never achieve popular recognition.

Perhaps we need a new term for those who break in to our computers with malicious intent. I would suggest e-burglar but I am tired of the e prefix and sure most net users are too.

Whatever we call them, we need to realise that computer criminals are different from those who want to explore but do not want to break what they find on the other side of the fence, those for whom transgression is not a choice but a necessity.

It would be a shame if everyone who poked around a computer they were not supposed to be looking at was demonised. The net would poorer without them, as would we.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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13 Nov 02 | Americas
13 Nov 02 | Americas
09 Nov 02 | Technology
07 Nov 02 | Technology
04 Nov 02 | Scotland
14 Oct 02 | Technology
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