Hackers: A Catalyst Culture
11-04-2011 mag 3 /

article/

Hackers: A Catalyst Culture

Abstract: 

In his paper 'Hackers: A Catalyst Culture' Rommert Zijlstra clarifies the difference between crackers and hackers. He explains the motivations and ethics that drive hackers and, most importantly, argues why hackers perform an essential service which propels technological progress. "Hackers are catalysts for technical innovation", claims Zijlstra.

Hackers. Often thought of as rebellious teen-geeks out to wreak havoc on corporate networks and the Internet, with the enjoyment of destroying databases, looking for recognition and infamy or with personal gain as motive. This public discourse is actually describing a 'cracker', quite the opposite of what a hacker is really all about. The biggest fundamental difference between hackers and crackers are their ethics. As I mentioned, the cracker uses his technological wit for criminal reasons. The hacker on the other hand is, according to Manuel Castells, about “technological creativity based on freedom, cooperation, reciprocity and information”. Based on this hacker ethic, hackers define other hackers as “those whom the hacker culture recognizes as such” (50).

So what exactly do hackers do? Apparently they are noteworthy, judging by media-coverage through the decades. So now and then an article appears regarding a security breach, computer virus or worm, and recently articles cover the fuss about ʻAnonymousʼ and its attacks on MasterCard and other payment providers because of the WikiLeaks debacle — though, technically speaking, those are crackers. On the other hand, on rare occasions, a computer magazine, tech-blog or newspaper reports about a hacker being offered a job. One example is the computer worm threatening Twitter in April 2009. Micheal Mooney, a high school student, wrote a worm which compromised over a hundred Twitter accounts. Although Mooney could have caused more damage to Twitter and the individuals who owned the compromised profiles, he choose not to. Later, Mooney was offered a job at a web application development company. The difference between crackers and hackers is ethics. Hackers define three kinds of ethics: White Hat is the moral hacker, the penetration tester, and mostly a security consultant; Black Hat is the other side of the spectrum, a Black Hat hacker writes computer viruses and worms and partakes in other malicious practices and lastly; Grey Hat is a mix of these two, the hacker uses malicious practices to discover security holes in software and, more often than not, reports the vulnerability.

Aside from the obvious and often debated attacks on network and application security, hackers provide some sort of service. Regardless of an attack being White, Black or Grey Hat, security holes are revealed and, hopefully, patched by the software engineers or network operators. Microsoft, for example, has a monthly ʻpatch Tuesdayʼ on which the company releases security updates for its operating system Windows. Funnily enough, this patch Tuesday has, in some cases, resulted in an ʻexploit Wednesdayʼ on which Windows' security vulnerabilities were found within less than 24 hours after patch Tuesday. Not only Microsoft, but practically every software firm, releases regular or sporadic updates to address some of the issues and/or vulnerabilities related to security. Although hackers provide this ʻserviceʼ, software companies and even the government consider it a crime.

The service of ʻtestingʼ software and network security is not the only way hackers — at least White and Grey Hat hackers — contribute to technology. A lot of hackers engage in open source projects; using and honing their skills and supporting their ethic. Linus Torvalds created the first iteration of Linux and was (and is) supported by hundreds, maybe thousands, of hackers in this joint effort of producing a free, functional, and safe operating system. A more familiar example is, perhaps, the video playing software VLC; developed and sustained by a big community of programmers and hackers. Other examples include most torrent-downloading software, browsers such as Firefox, and open source content management systems for websites (e.g. Wordpress or Drupal).

Last but not least the hacker ethic is not only kept to hackers themselves. It extends beyond the virtual boundaries of the open source movement and the practices of White/Grey Hat hackers. For example, Dutch hacker collective Hack-Tic, fronted by Rop Gonggrijp, provided another essential technological service for the public. In 1993 they founded the first internet provider (article in Dutch) accessible to the public in the Netherlands and due to its increasing popularity it was bought by the Dutch telecommunications company KPN in 1998 (Castells 150). Even now Rop Gonggrijp is an influential figure in the debate concerning technology and hacks in the Netherlands. The much debated OV-Chip card, used for paying public transportation fees, is a prime example. In 2008 German hackers already hacked the card to allow free travel. Gonggrijpsaid the chip technology used was “broken, not to be used again” (article in Dutch).

Hackers are an important force in the process of technological progress. They provide a service no-one else can provide: pointing out the serious security flaws in the day-to-day technology we, the consumers, use. It can be argued, of course, that without hackers such a service would not be needed. Then again, one of the presets in such a scenario would be that software and networks would never be abused. In any case, all the technical innovation of today needs hackers to keep it secure and innovative. Without the serious open-source and cracker threat, proprietary software developers would probably not be as innovative. Hackers are catalysts for technical innovation.

Works cited

Castells, Manuel. The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press, 2001.