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Society relies heavily on technology for many things, but our use of technology opens us up to become victims of cybercrimes, like computer hacking. Hackers can be divided into three main categories: novice, intermediate, and elite. Hacking has been in the information technology (IT) field for a while. The first hackers appeared in the nineteen sixties and hackers have continued to make progress since then. People hack for a variety of reasons including ego, fun, knowledge, and profit. The first major hacking program, SATAN, caused controversy in 1995, and numerous hacking programs exist today. The future of hacking looks bright because people will only continue to rely even heavier on technology and as the IT field expands, so will the hacking community.
The Past, Present and Future of Computer Hacking
Our society is increasingly relying on the internet and computers in order to complete numerous tasks. People can grocery shop, earn degrees, receive bank statements and pay bills from their laptop or PC. The possibilities are endless when it comes to simplifying life with the help of the world wide web, but at the same time possibilities are endless hackers to complicate your life with cybercrimes. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hacker as both “an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer” and “a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system” (Merriam-Webster Inc.,1997, 337). These two definitions mirror the two sides of hacking – cracking and hacking – that exist in the cyber world. The term cracker was developed by hackers in 1985 in response to the misuse of the word hacker. A White Hat hacker is someone who breaks into systems in order to expose weaknesses while a Black Hat cracker is a criminal who breaks security on a system for illegal purposes (Schell & Martin 2004, 1).
Hackers can be broken up into three main levels of classification: novice, intermediate, and elite. Novice hackers only possess minimal technical skills and make up the largest segment of hackers. Being that they make up the largest group, novice hackers have many sublevels. In his book Inside Internet Security: What Hackers Don’t Want You to Know, Jeff Crume defines a script kiddie as “a derogatory slang term for novice hackers who, lacking significant technical skills and imagination, rely entirely on attack tools (i.
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Intermediate hackers are smaller in number and have a better understanding of what they are doing than novice hackers do. They also have more computer and technical skills than novices, but they lack the experience and reputation of elite hackers but can cause substantial damage to systems. Elite hackers are the smallest and most skilled group of hackers. Elite hackers understand complex systems and the inner workings of major systems. They are capable of breaking into most systems and their creative work is usually used by novice and intermediate hackers.
Most hackers and cyber criminals tend to be male. In their book Cybercrime, Bernadette Schell and Clemens Martin discuss a 2001 survey of women in information technology fields conducted by the firm Deloitte & Touche. The survey showed that “…three of every five women in IT would choose another profession if they could” and that the women said they were “perceived to be less knowledgeable and qualified than the men that they worked with” (Schell & Martin 2004, 155).
The first hackers appeared in the 1960s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Tech Model Railroad Club, which still functions as a railroad club today. Originally the term ‘hack’ was used to describe what club members did to electric tracks and switches to make them run quicker or better (Lilley 2002, 16). In 1978 Randy Suess and Ward Christiansen created the first online bulletin board system where hackers could exchange tips, information, and stolen passwords and credit card numbers. There are currently over 40,000 bulletins worldwide (Lilley 2002, 16). The United States Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986. The Act recognized “the unauthorized access of federal interest computer with the intention to commit fraudulent theft” and the altering of information to inflict “malicious damage” as felony offences (Lilley 2002, 16). During the Gulf War two teenaged Dutch hackers copied information from the Defense Department systems. Although the US General Accounting Office said that the information was unclassified, it was still sensitive and the teenagers tried to sell the information to the Iraqis.
One might ask what the reward is in hacking if any. Some hackers do what they do for knowledge and ego, while others do it for fun and profit. Learning to ‘crack the codes’ of different and more complex websites provides hackers with more knowledge and tricks that can help them make names for themselves as ‘elite hackers’ in the hacking community. Many hackers pick large groups or government entities for attacks “aimed at making a big splash” (Crume 2000, 29). The more high-profile the target, the bigger the ego boost when they are successful at disrupting their system.
Kevin Mitnick was sent to prison for five years in 1995 as a result of hacking, and prior to his release he discussed internet adventures. Some of his victims included Motorola, Qualcomm, Nokia, NEC and Novell. When asked why he broke in so many times he replied “I just wanted to get access to their [Novell’s] network because it was a huge company…Because I was an explorer. And to what end? There was no end. It was a hobby in itself” (Crume 2000, 27). To Mitnick the ego boost that came with hacking into these huge companies outweighed the lack of financial incentive for his hackings. This lack of financial incentive also helped to Mitnick to justify his actions with the thought that since he did not make any monetary profit he was not causing any real harm.
Individual hackers and businesses alike can use hacking to have fun and make money. For example, in 2000 a hacker going by the name of ‘Maxim’ threatened to post to a public Web site the credit card numbers of customers from Internet-based CD music seller CD Universe, unless he was paid $100,000. He proved his point by releasing 25,000 numbers when CD Universe refused to pay (Crume 2000, 35). Even if the released credit card numbers were never used by anyone, Maxim invaded the privacy of 25,000 customers to prove that he could, and also managed to damage the reputation of CD Universe as a business. The release of this information certainly made consumers think twice about purchasing CDs online from this source and quite possibly other online stores. This incident cost CD Universe in the form loss of sales and customers, money to respond to the problem, fix it, and help prevent its reoccurrence.
Unethical companies can hire hackers to steal information and customers from competitor companies. They can use the hackers to do the groundwork and bear the punishment if caught while protecting themselves behind the scenes. Since most hackers do not work a standard 9 to 5 business day, they can attack late at night after the business day is over, also when systems are most vulnerable, further eliminating legitimate companies as culprits. Having inside information on a rival company can help with staying ahead of the competition and maximizing profit, two major reasons for hacking into the competition’s system to see their business plans.
The Information Technology (IT) field dealt with its first major controversy in 1995. Wietse Venema and Dan Farmer developed a program that could run on one machine and target another. Once the tool was unleashed on a computer it would try over and over again until it had success at a port of entry (Crume 2000, 153). Venema and Farmer named the program Security Administrator Tool for Analyzing Networks, and it was known as SATAN. They argued that the program could be used by IT support staff to identify and correct and weaknesses in systems. Many people opposed the program and argued that if the program was released it would increase hacker activity. By the end of the hysteria and debate, the spread of SATAN was unavoidable.
Since SATAN was never further developed or maintained, other cracking tools were allowed to flourish. L0phtCrack is a program used for password cracking. Password cracking is a tedious and time consuming, and L0phtCrack is an easy-to-use program that can be run on a Windows operating system. This program is upsetting to the hacking community and by being so simple “…L0phtCrack has ‘lowered the bar’ on password cracking. Anyone with a PC and access to a network can be a cracker. No special knowledge of cryptography, network security, or system administration is needed” (Crume 2000, 154). Like the SATAN program, L0phtCrack is a good tool for network administrators to test the difficulty of their passwords, but in the hands of crackers it can be used for crimes.
Another kind of hacking software, called a Trojan horse, is very common. It is called a Trojan horse because its victims unknowingly start the attack. Trojan horses can be slipped through the “back door” by a hacker in the form of something harmless like an e-mail attachment or pop up window. Once installed any obvious traces of the program are erased and the hackers are notified of the IP address of the new target. Once they have permeated the machine they can rename, copy and delete files, spy on owners through microphones an webcams, and execute commands on the user’s computer remotely. This could be detrimental to a company if a CEO’s machine in compromised and to a country if government computers are compromised.
As advances are made in technology, people will become more and more dependent upon it. Soon forms and important records will be converted from paper copies to computerized databases accessible to the owners of the information. Identity theft is still on the rise and does not appear to be going away anytime soon. Crume says that “…it’s becoming easier and easier to get away with” (Crume 200, 223). While it may seem natural that as technology advances, the risk management associated with the advances will become easier, but this is not an accurate assumption. The IT sector is constantly changing. For example, in its first days the internet was used for information exchange among researches and government agencies, now it is used for everything from shopping, vacation plans, and bill payment. As the IT sector continues to advance, so will the attempts of hackers and crackers. The best way method of protection against hacking and cybercrime in general is knowledge and protection.
Crume, J. (2000). Inside Internet Security: What Hackers Don’t Want You to Know. Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited.
Lilley, P. (2002) Hacked, Attacked & Abused Digital Crime Exposed. London: Kogan Page Limited.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. (1997). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster.
Schell, B.H., Martin, C. (2004). Cybercrime A Reference Handbook. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.