Hacking, you can’t visit a tech website or turn on the radio without hearing some reference to the latest scam, outage or robbery related back to ‘hackers’. Hacking has been tarred (sometimes rightly) with a pretty bad rep in the media, but how far are these high-flying criminals from the everyday PC user and the people that ‘hack’ for fun?
The amount of self-proclaimed hackers worldwide has grown vastly over the last 20 years with access to cheap PCs, open software and a networks of online peers to help with their endeavours. Hacking for many people is simply a fun hobby, a way of disseminating software and building it back up in a custom way, improving on what was there before.
Hacking is not (always) high rolling cybercrime, Anonymous website hijacks and DDOS ransoms. It’s often simply a way of learning about and improving programmes and software. However, there is still the element of illegality hanging over the entire field and a dark side to the art.
What is Hacking?
Oxford’s online dictionary gives two definitions for a hacker:
“A person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data” and “An enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user”.
Both pretty accurately explain a hacker, but the tone of the two definitions have very different connotations. Hacking by definition is illegal, however the term “hacking” should actually refer to activities that have good intentions, like probing security vulnerabilities for fun or exploration which can assist the greater development.
“Cracking” is the illegal and immoral side of hacking. ‘Crackers’ are the profit side of this coin. Their motivation is financial, political or personal gain and to cause damage.
Origins of Hacking
Hacking, although now almost directly relates to computing and networks, didn’t actually begin with PCs.
In the 1950s M.I.T. engineers first coined the term (and concept) of hacking. Developing initially from the model train club up to the mainframe computer rooms, the so-called “hacks” perpetrated by these MIT rookie hackers, were simply intended to be innocent technical experiments and learning activities.
Fast forward 20-30 years, outside of M.I.T, other, now more seasoned hackers, began using the term ‘hacking’ when in pursuit of more legally shady tasks.
Before the advent of the internet, phone hacking was the biggest target (and not the NOTW kind) of the fledgling hackers. The most popular example of Phreaking (telecommunication exploiting) is the hacking of long distance calling. Hackers would effectively recreate long distance dialling tones to trick the telecom system into believing it was legitimately making a call, giving the user free long distance.
As computers, networking and of course the Internet grew in popularity, data networks became the new target from hackers.
So there is a very brief history of hacking, now let’s speak to someone who’s actually involved in the hacker community (the good kind). Sam Smith studies Forensic Computing and Security at Bournemouth University with a particular interest in how to protect networked data.
We see the term “hacking” banded around quite a bit, varying from simple tasks like adapting software limitations and programming right the way up to quite serious criminal behaviour… First off, how would you describe ‘hacking’?
Hacking was initially the term for software manipulation, when writing code you can ‘hack’ around a problem a limitation in the software. At the start, ‘hacking’ with its illegal connotations was meant to be called ‘cracking’ the media seemed to like hacking better!
For me, hacking is exploits, it’s finding a way around the software that is meant to stop you.
What got you interested?
I’ve always been interested in information security, how do we protect data? At what point does that data become information? When does that information become dangerous? This is what fascinated me, the security side of it how to stop hacking. Through learning how to hack and how to go around security measures you are able to better protect that information you want to keep secure.
Would you class hacking as a hobby?
Hacking is most defiantly a hobby in my opinion as it is something that can be done for recreation. Gaining access or breaking a password gives the same feeling as finishing your PC build or seeing your project car start for the first time. It’s a sense of accomplishment and the acquisition of more knowledge and understanding that makes it much more interesting.
Why has the “Hacker Culture” grown so rapidly over the last 5-10 years?
One argument is that it’s the media, Hollywood movies glamorise it so people look into hacking. People also want to protect their digital footprint, in an age where everyone is scared of what GCHQ and the NSA know about them they want to know how to secure themselves online and for some it ends up being ‘Offensive Security’ that is, hacking. Hacking in the news, TalkTalk, Sony, Ashley Madison. It gets people thinking and so they start.
Also, we are moving rapidly towards a digital age where everything we do, say and now even think can be recorded online. This is fascinating data, the fact that after maybe a couple of hours hackers could easily look into where you live, went to school, previous jobs, social circles and even sometimes more and that is before breaking the law!
In short, its growing because people are scared, intrigued, or both. They want to know how to protect themselves or those around them or they want to know how to use a bug in some software they found to get further. From then on its curiosity-driven!
Hacking, inevitably, wanders the line between legal and sometimes ethical behaviour (even overclocking is technically breaking warranty)… Is this illegal flirtation at whatever level something that lures people in?
I feel like it is a bit! For most it’s the curiosity, it is shockingly easy sometimes to break into a system which is very cool but sometimes the lines do get blurred, as you say with overclocking. I think for the novice coming into the hobby they have this Hollywood view of what it’s like and about so are keen to try and hack Facebook or other social media accounts or the like (not advisable!).
From that, how do you draw the line when it comes to hacking?
Drawing the line is something very much driven by your moral compass, if you believe you’re doing what’s right then that may be where you draw that line. Others, like myself, would rather stay on the safe side of the law and try and remain objective. If I’m looking at something I have to think about whether I have the correct permissions to do what I’m thinking of doing. If I don’t that’s where it stops for me.
From a financial point of view, is there money to be made in hacking?
Is there money to be made? It comes back to where you draw the line. Sure, we can get into carding (stealing credit/debit card information) and selling zero-day attacks if you want the big money but as I’m sure you’re aware, that’s VERY illegal.
On the safe side of the law, there is money in it too. As we push more and more of our data to a digital platform we also need to protect it, which is where security professionals are vital.
Obviously programming knowledge is an advantage but do you need to be incredibly tech/PC minded to get into hacking?
You don’t need to be incredibly techy to hack, at the easiest level it’s possible just through ‘poking around’ but in order to really understand what’s going on and what you’re doing, to graduate from ‘script kiddy’ it’s good to understand how computers work, RAM, Busses and how the CPU works.