Hacking, cracking and the like

Deadline approaching, exams impending. Research complete, column unfinished. Yes, it is I - back in the bytes! ;-)

Happy New Year to you all, I hope you had a wonderful holiday! With 1995 behind us, 1996 marks a brand new year, a time for new beginnings, and of course, my newest Youth Corner article! This month, as promised, I would like to grapple with the often controversial issue of "hacking," "cracking," and "phreaking," especially as it relates to teenagers. Before we begin, however, a few ground-rules must be set. Allow me to define some of the following terms as I see them:

  • HACKER: Contrary to popular belief, a "hacker" (I have been informed by readers) is not an individual who uses his or her knowledge of computers to learn privileged information or otherwise gain access to restricted digital areas. A "hacker" is, in fact, simply a person (statistically between the ages of twelve and twenty-one) who possesses a working knowledge of computer and network systems, and who enjoys using computers and often the Internet (or electronic bulletin-boards) to learn more on these topics, and to exploit the vast possibilities that many of these devices bring with them.

  • HACKING: Misunderstood frequently, "hacking" is often seen as an act of malevolence on the part of a "hacker" (see above). However, analogous to the term "hacker," "hacking" is actually the implementation of a "hacker's" learnedness on the subject of computer systems as a whole in an attempt to better a computer's performance or to optimize a certain computer program by analyzing the resource and source code of said program. For example, a "hack" of a computer program usually denotes that a program has been altered by a hacker in some fashion so that the program might run more efficiently or do an extra task that it was incapable of doing previously.

  • CRACKER: Dip, anyone? Now we're getting into the good stuff. A "cracker," as Webster's Dictionary defines it is:

    crack'er n. explosive firework; a thin dry cake.
    Yet for modern-day purposes, that dinky definition is rather inadequate. A "cracker" as I understand the word is a person who, like a "hacker" (see above, again ;-) has a working knowledge of computer and network systems, but uses this intelligence for arguably illicit purposes. The activities of "true crackers" would probably be deemed "illegal."

  • CRACKING: "Cracking" is, for all intense purposes, a malevolent act on the part of a "cracker" (see above). Such ventures could include breaking into a school's network server to change one's grades (yes, it is possible, although the server must be connected to an outside phone line and must be readily accessible by modem. A person's grades, as far as I know, can also be changed if it is possible for a student to gain administrative access to the network from within the school), getting someone else's username and password - either for a LAN (local-area-network), a BBS, or the Internet at large - and then posing as that individual online without their permission, or reading someone else's e-mail, erasing their private files, or ones in their public_html directory if they have a homepage (I don't know how to do this, and I wouldn't advise anyone to try it, even if they did know how to do this).

  • PHREAKING: "Phreaking" (free'king) is basically the "fraudulent use and exploitation of the phone system" (kids with nothing better to do trying to cheat MT&T and AT&T by getting free calls to nowhere from pay-phones). Since I have very little (okay, zilch ;-) experience with "phreaking" as it were, and seeing as it isn't directly related to hacking or any of the issues I wish to touch upon, I won't make mention of it again. I just thought I'd put it in here because, if you want to speak of "hacking" in extremely general terms, "phreaking" is a very big aspect of the latter.

    Now that we have that nonsense out of the way, you may proceed cautiously...

    When someone mentions the word "hacker," what is the first thing you think of? For me, it's "computers," naturally. But for others, words like "crack," "hack," "mischief," "cyberpunk," "ethics" or "law" come to mind. But wait a minute, what were those last two? "Law" and "ethics." That's right.

    Even with the remarkably gentle description of "hacker" I gave earlier, one even sometimes has to question the ethics of what a hacker does. True, by my definition they do not breach computer security systems or tamper with someone else's files, but often times they are found altering the resource code of a computer program, even if it's a commercial release. You see, in some parts of the world tampering with a commercial software title is against the law. What they are worried of, really, is that the "new and improved" version from the hacker in question will develop bugs and cause errors when it is run, and that instead of the blame being put on the hacker's shoulders, people will point the finger at the company that originally designed the package. Also, a common fear is that someone will take an existing program, alter it for their own use, and then decide to sell it, justifying this act by determining that since he or she "worked so hard" to perfect the adapted version, he or she should be able to sell it. Of course, the hacker in question would probably not have worked nearly as hard "adapting" the program as the person who originally programmed it.

    Now then, we have discussed the "true" meanings of several key points to consider, and have touched upon the ethics of "hacking" (if only with one, very trivial example). I must now delve into dangerous territory and question whether "all this stuff about hacking and the Internet is hurting the future generation" (to quote a recent news article for which I have forgotten the name).

    First of all, I wonder what the person meant by "all this stuff about hacking?" Sure, most "hackers" (quote-un-quote) are between the ages of twelve and twenty-one (so I've been told by the m'hass-media), but it is my belief that if they are really so common, they must keep a rather low profile.

    To question whether technology is "hurting the future generation" is almost another question altogether, but can easily be translated into "I'm an adult and don't like it when kids twenty years younger than myself can work one of these machines better than I can. Why can't they just read a good book?" To answer this question alone would be putting too much responsibility on my shoulders for an answer that would probably offend at least a few people (we wouldn't want to do that, would we? ;-), but it seems that no matter what the nay-sayers say (nay?), computers and the Internet have done a great service (not "disservice," mind you) to the youth of today - Hackers are living proof of this. Computer systems and the Internet, for "youngsters" who have an interest in this field, do not necessarily isolate them from physical interaction, but simply promote new ways of thinking, new ways of working, and ultimately, new ways of looking on life and the world they live in.

    Unfortunately, have you ever noticed that many parents gripe if their children use the Internet for six hours (even if it's the "freenet" and doesn't technically cost anything), but yet they would probably rejoice if that same time were spent reading a "good book ?" I contend, however, that since the communication mediums of the future will most certainly revolve around computers and the Internet, it is actually probably a very good idea to prepare today's youth for what they will be working with all the time in the future - this is exactly what teenagers are doing themselves by using computers and the Internet (no, I do not foresee the "end of the 'book'," nor do I wish to open that can of worms, thank you very much ;-)

    As I said, though, "hacking" is an example of how computers have helped today's youth prosper. It is unfortunate, however, that they may indeed have corrupted the morals of some teenagers in the process; yet by demonstrating their knowledge of computers, even by doing something illegal, "children" are showing the world (and the adults who rule over it), that they are not as dumb as they look. And that's all I have to say on this matter, for the meantime ;-)

    Yes, that concludes my article for this month. I still have to finish studying for my exams, so I better be going now. If you actually care, I'll let you know how I did in February. As for this month's article, it is no doubt very incomplete - but this seems to be a never-ending discussion/debate, doesn't it? Let me know what you thought of my column this month. Also, if you have any suggestions for future articles, I'd love to hear from you as well.

    If you would like to make a specific comment on the subject of this article or any other work of mine, please send e-mail to ac507@ccn·cs·dal·ca and I shall consider publishing it in my next article on the matter (which shouldn't be too far away ;-)

    As a (another?) parting note, if you care to visit my "new and improved, caffeine-free" homepage, the URL is http://www.ccn·cs·dal·ca/~ac507/HOMEPAGE.html (I really have to stop using this column as a forum for public self-promotion. Ah well, until next time! ;-)

    By Matthew A MacDonald


    Chebucto Connections YOUTH CORNER
    is edited by Matthew MacDonald
    who is happy to receive Questions, Comments or Suggestions.
    If your browser does not support mail, write to Matthew later at ac507@ccn·cs·dal·ca.

    Last Month: December 1995 Next Month: February 1996