Monday, June 13, 2011

Who are the hackers?

Sony Playstation accounts.  Lockheed Martin's network.  Citibank credit card numbers.  And now the IMF (International Monetary Fund).  All hacked in the last few months.  Which may lead you to ask, "What's up with all the hacking?"

Most of us don't think about hacking until we realize our credit card is with Citibank, or a virus has slowed our computer to a crawling, disease-ridden wreck.  Hacking is a such a faceless activity that it feels more like catching the flu--just something involving bad luck and blind chance.  But hacking isn't random, it's a targeted activity created by some very bright people.

So who are the hackers, and why are they hacking?

In the past, we had hackers who were essentially electronic explorers.  They may have trespassed into areas where they didn't have official access, but they would look around and maybe leave a message to the company to upgrade its security.  Some were thieves using technology to steal, but many were curious, intelligent people with a drive to learn and explore.  That has changed.

Modern hacking is far different.  We can separate most hacking and hackers into two broad categories, economic and socio-political.  Economic hacking is all about money.  Stealing credit cards numbers is simply theft by electronic means.  In industrial espionage, companies use hacking to steal data from rivals and disrupt their activities.  Pirate downloads of music, games, movies and books all mean the creative folks who made these things don't get paid.

The socio-political category is wider, and murkier.  This area spans from a disgruntled employee hacking a company they were fired from, to countries hacking other countries for military and technological advantages.  Terrorists spurred by political and religious beliefs hack government, military, and corporate sites to advance their particular agendas.  And now we are seeing a rise in 'hacktivism,' where hackers target institutions and individuals they disagree with. 

Gone are the days of phone phreaks and benign explorers.  Hacking is about politics and money now.

(For a lively and interesting discussion of spammers (and security in general), check out Bruce Schneier's blog here and scroll down to "Spam as a business.")

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