How the Hackers Help the Rest of Us
Prangle, Brian, The Birmingham Post (England)
Hear the word "hacker" and most of us think in stereotype shorthand of a dangerous character - usually male, teenaged and socially inept, who spends his time in a twilight networked world, sneaking into secret computer files and behaving like a vandal.
While there are many who fit this image and there are plenty of criminals willing to exploit their knowledge, there are just as many reformed hackers using their skills to protect major installations.
There is a thriving technical underground global community which loves to break software and systems. It is well-organised and seeks to share its knowledge as widely as possible.
And curiously, the IT industry and law enforcement agencies maintain a nervous symbiotic relationship with it.
Take Defcon, an annual US hacking jamboree, now in its seventh year, which attracts a bizarre mixture of hackers, crackers, virus writers and self-proclaimed security experts who mingle with media, security professionals, law enforcement officers, and "script kiddies" who get a kick from defacing Web pages.
Security groups of all stripes use the occasion to release software and show off gadgets. Defcon takes itself seriously enough to ape academic conferences with a "Call for Papers", inviting seminar topics.
Among this year's topics are: technological circumvention of Internet censorship, embedded systems hacking; steganography (the black art of encoding information into individual pixels in a graphic; in effect hiding information in pictures); cyber forensic analysis; insecurities in networking devices; and many more.
There is a healthy debate about morality and ethics: there is a strong grass roots campaign to eradicate child pornography from the Web using a variety of hacking techniques, but at the same time a strong anti-censorship lobby which seeks to prevent unsavoury political regimes from denying access to information.
Defcon attracts some serious academic input, despite its underground cult status. And it publishes everything: their website has a thorough archive. …