Hackers and Hacking

Hackers and Hacking

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Starting in the late 1950s, in computer facilities at MIT, Stanford, and other research universities people began to encounter persons who had both unusual programming skill and an obsession with the inner workings of the machine. While ordinary users viewed the computer simply as a tool for solving particular problems, this peculiar breed of programmers reveled in extending the capabilities of the system and creating tools such as program editors that would make it easier to create even more powerful programs. The movement from mainframes that could run only one program at a time to machines that could simultaneously serve many users created a kind of environmental niche in which these self-described hackers could flourish.

Indeed, while administrators sometimes complained that hackers took up too much of the available computer time, they often depended on them to fix the bugs that infested the first versions of time-sharing operating systems. Hackers also tended to work in the wee hours of the night while normal users slept. Early hackers had a number of distinctive characteristics and tended to share a common philosophy, even if it was not always well articulated:
• Computers should be freely accessible, without arbitrary limits on their use (the “hands-on imperative”).
• “Information wants to be free” so that it can reach its full potential. Conversely, government or corporate authorities that want to restrict information access should be resisted or circumvented.
• The only thing that matters is the quality of the “hack”—the cleverness and utility of the code and what it lets computers do that they could not do before.
• As a corollary to the above, the reputation of a hacker depends on his (it was nearly always a male) work— not on age, experience, academic attainment, or anything else.
• Ultimately, programming was a search for truth and beauty and even a redemptive quality—coupled with the belief that technology can change the world.
Hackers were relatively tolerated by universities and sometimes prized for their skills by computer companies needing to develop sophisticated software. However, as the computer industry grew, it became more concerned with staking out, protecting, and exploiting intellectual property. To the hacker, however, intellectual property was a barrier to the unfettered exploration and exploitation of the computer. Hackers tended to freely copy and distribute not only their own work but also commercial systems software and utilities.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the microcomputer created a mass consumer software market, and a new generation of hackers struggled to get the most out of machines that had a tiny amount of memory and only rudimentary graphics and sound capabilities. Some became successful game programmers. At the same time a new term entered the lexicon, software piracy (see software privacy and counterfeiting). Pirate hackers cracked the copy protection on games H and other commercial software so the disks could be copied freely and exchanged at computer fairs, club meetings, and on illicit bulletin boards (where they were known as “warez”). (See copy protection and intellectual property and computing.) The growing use of on-line services and networks in the 1980s and 1990s brought new opportunities to exploit computer skills to vandalize systems or steal valuable information such as credit card numbers. The popular media used the term hacker indiscriminately to refer to clever programmers, software pirates, and people who stole information or spread viruses across the Internet. The wide availability of scripts for password cracking, Web site attacks, and virus creation means that destructive crackers often have little real knowledge of computer systems and do not share the attitudes and philosophy of the true hackers who sought to exploit systems rather than destroy them.

During the 1980s, a new genre of science fiction called cyberpunk became popular. It portrayed a fractured, dystopian future where elite hackers could “jack into” computers, experiencing cyberspace directly in their mind, as in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Count Zero. In such tales the hacker became the high-tech analog of the cowboy or samurai, a virtual gunslinger who fought for high stakes on the newest frontier. Meanwhile, lurid stories about such notorious realworld hackers brought the dark side of hacking into popular consciousness. By the turn of the new century, the popular face of hacking was again changing. Some of the most effective techniques for intruding into systems and for stealing sensitive information (see computer crime and identity theft) have always been psychological rather than technical. What started as one-on-one “social engineering” (such as posing as a computer technician to get a user’s password) has been “industrialized” in the form of e-mails that frighten or entice recipients into supplying credit card or bank information. Criminal hackers have also linked up with more-traditional criminal organizations, creating rings that can efficiently turn stolen information into cash. In response to public fears about hackers’ capabilities, federal and local law enforcement agencies have stepped up their efforts to find and prosecute people who crack or vandalize systems or Web sites. Antiterrorism experts now worry that well-financed, orchestrated hacker attacks could be used by rogue nations or terrorist groups to paralyze the American economy and perhaps even disrupt vital infrastructure such as power distribution and air traffic control. In this atmosphere the older, more positive image of the hacker seems to be fading—although the free-wheeling creativity of hacking at its best continues to be manifested in cooperative software development.

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