Long Live Ye Hackers!October 25, 2009
Yes, long live hackers. The good kind. The semi-sweet variety. All kinds.
The kind of hacker that makes plain the security concerns of the day. The kind that turns nonaggressive corporate behavior over technical worries into aggressive corporate behavior over technical worries. The kind that turns laziness at the executive level on its head. The kind that reveals to the public things despite the unspoken rule for silence prior to stubbornly absent fixes. They make this Web-enabled world a fantastically better place. Which I don’t think gets said anywhere near often enough.
Long live the crafty ones. The brilliant ones. The ones who dig deep. And even the ones who don’t dig very deep at all, and resultantly make headlines for the very ease with which they traversed places where they were not welcome.
The gamut of examples runs long. Recent events have seen social network data compromised, as many of us have learned in months past. The renowned iPhone was jailbroken, time and time again, to eventual launch of an application storefront that remains annoyingly totalitarian to many users. Suffice it to say that jailbreaking continues. There was also that scandalous moment when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s webmail account was accessed without its registrant’s approval. And let’s not forget that desktop and mobile browsers aplenty have been taken hostage too many times to even count. Thank goodness for it all.
Just this week, The New York Times reported that the Android-packing T-Mobile G1 was found to have its Web browser open to manipulation and taken to a malicious site. Google didn’t like having it spoken about before a fix could be made and delivered. But the public service announcement by Charlie Miller of Independent Security Evaluators about the existence of a hole has been made. And I’m all for its propagation. Google says it’s any damage would be limited as a result of application “sandboxing.” That’s fine. To steal the phrase ever present on its front page, the news is still fit to print.
Hackers are not always wearing their white hats to work, of course. Sometimes their ballcaps are grey. Sometimes they’re black. And some do certainly wreak havoc on the world. Millions, even billions of dollars worth of damage.
But moral and ethical matters aside, the rainbow of actors that exist out in hackerdom have really done the techno-savvy – and even the non-tech-savvy among us – an invaluable service. Particularly those whose livelihood depends on pointing out the errors and bugs subsisting within popular and essential technologies. Speaking solely for myself (and here I temporarily shelve my intrigue for stories all but made for spy movies and thriller novels), and perhaps anyone else among you who wishes to do the same, I bid great thanks to the likes of Dan Kaminsky and Kevin Mitnick for doing what they do, whether it is for fun or for play.
Some among you might question how I could possibly put the words ‘fun,’ ‘hacking,’ ‘security,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘technology’ all into one piece. An appreciative piece, to boot. My answer to those responses is to say that if it weren’t for all this rogue activity, all this digital breaking and entering (without the breaking, of course, since it is insecure from the start), we’d be worse off. Quite a bit worse off, no doubt.
Now, I will agree with anyone who feels that hackers, especially those who mean no harm to the public at large, put many innocent Web users at risk through some of their pre-fix disclosures. And out-and-out malicious agents who plot to steal PayPal funds from unsuspecting eBayers, or bank account data from other institutions in the banking sphere, should have to spend time in iron and steel cages for years on end. Because criminal they are.
Yet, to take a glass-half-full approach to these often disturbing situations, they’ve triggered a public education spree, which, while far from ever being thought “complete” or “over,” has effectively delivered a sort of Surgeon General’s Warning for the webmail-using masses. This is a great thing.
So, once more I feel compelled to say: long live hackers.