Hackers' Best Days Are Behind Them

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April 17, 2000, Issue: 809 Section: BACK TALK - Hackers' Best Days Are Behind Them TIM WILSON

Flip on your favorite classic movie channel. See that smoke rising? It's not a short circuit-those are cigarettes being smoked by the actors. James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe-they were like chimneys. In those days, cigarettes were cool, a sign of adulthood and rebellion against authority.

Now flip over to CNN. Cigarettes are banned from just about any indoor venue. Tobacco companies are being sued within an inch of their lives. Thirty years later, cigarettes don't seem so cool.

Which brings us to the topic of casual computer hacking.

In the 1980s, home hackers looked cool. Using a PC and a phreaked phone line, they tested the boundaries of computer security, breaking into supposedly secure systems and sharing their exploits with online friends. The movie "War Games" even celebrated these curious and crafty pioneers.

In those early days, hackers set forth rules and codes to separate themselves from "crackers," the criminals who steal, destroy or damage the data they access. True hackers, they said, only explore the sites they penetrate, never leaving behind anything more than a signature to let others know they were there.

According to the hacker's code of the time, information should be available to everyone. Those curious and resourceful enough to penetrate the gates to secure data should be rewarded, not punished. After all, hackers perform a beneficial service by exposing flaws in security systems-without causing any real damage.

Fast-forward to the present. Don't those rules seem as anachronistic as the cigarettes on the silver screen? Even those who might once have believed in them must be wondering now.

Today, the Internet generation is worried about the erosion of privacy. The number of people who believe that all information should be freely accessible to resourceful hackers is roughly equivalent to the number of people who believe all doors should be open to those resourceful enough to pick locks.

The idea of posting broken codes or other penetration methods to a small group of "honest" hackers has become laughable. True, many penetration testing services find security glitches and publish them to the companies whose systems may be vulnerable. But when casual hackers post such detailed procedures on the Web-no matter how chivalric their intentions-they are aiding and abetting criminals, plain and simple.

The idea that hackers must be exceptionally bright or experienced also is largely outmoded. Many hackers now use simple, Web-downloadable scripts to gain system access. What does that prove about the hacker's skills or intelligence?

It's true laws against computer hacking have become stiffer since the '80s, and it's possible those laws deter some home hackers. But as with cigarette smoking, the most important change is not in the law, but in the way society views the practice.

It's just not cool anymore.

Got a pet peeve, industry view or humorous observation about our industry? E-mail it to us at stopbits@cmp.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 18, 2000


How ridiculous. This kind of drivel is what happens when you mix journalism with zero investigative effort. (Can you say, "DUH"?) Clearly this guy doesn't even have a first level understanding of what he is talking about.

People like this are dangerous. We saw them in Y2K, and we see them now. I guess they've just transmutted over. There's nothing scarier than a totally misinformed sense of false security.

I've just spent 4 days at an international cyber security conference, and I am here to tell you, this guy's got his head up his toaster. I wouldn't even care, except as members of the same cyber-community, we all must be informed about the pitfalls for the sake of everybody else.

Thanks for finding this Martin. I appreciate all your fabulous posting.

-- Jen Bunker (jen@bunkergroup.com), April 18, 2000.

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