Monday, August 04, 2008

The death of Hackers

Most true hackers follow a natural progression. They start out bored in school, not because it's hard or they're lazy, because it's not challenging. So they look for new challenges, usually in electronics because of they are based on logic. After they begin to understand how the computer works, they start seeing if they can make it do tasks by itself, they learn to code. When they begin to understand program architecture, they become interested in the architecture of other code, they speculate on how programs they use work. They discover (on their own or through other sources) that if you give some programs tweaked or improper input, you can make the program do different things, including things it's not supposed to do.

That's really the essence of hacking. Making something do something it shouldn't do, just to see if you can. Why part out a VCR, learn to write serial interfaces, and do some minor PIC programing so you can have an automatic pet feeder, when you can just buy one from a store? Curiosity. You know what it is, you understand what it does, and you have most of the knowledge to make something that accomplishes the same task, why not see if you can make one yourself? You've never made something like that before, but you only need to learn a few more skills, and you'll be able to do it, then you can use those skills for other things.

Curiosity makes you see something and wonder if you could make a better one. Curiosity makes you see existing hardware or software with potential for new functionality, and try to add that functionality. Curiosity makes you stay up all night reading reference books and white papers on obscure topics you'll never use again just because they're interesting. Curiosity makes you toss an apostrophe in a web field to see what error it gives. Curiosity makes you learn javascript because your entry was sanitized. Curiosity leads you to learn that by modifying the raw POST data you can bypass java restrictions.

Curiosity is the mother of innovation.
Curiosity is what defines a hacker.

One would think hackers would be viewed as assets to our society, and country. They're the people who grow up to found new technologies, and advance our technical understanding. But based on the (over)reactions and statements released by the "Cyber Crime" division of many government TLA departments of departments, this seems closer to reality than it should... Funny I should make that association, because the electronic crime group I'm a member of, which is run by see-krit service and populated by various agents from various government agencies, offers a free showing of Die Hard 4 at the next meeting. I'm sure they'll preface it with "This is fiction, and is not an indication of something that could actually happen." Yeah... I'm sure they will...

Contrary to what those who know little but speak much would like you to think, hackers are not (all) angry, anarchistic, teenagers out to disprove mommy and daddy. They're regular people who apply clever solutions to complex problems. I'm inclined to agree with O'Reilly's definition of "hack."

Hack: A clever solution to an interesting problem.

This includes a little bit of mischief. Usually, because early hackers don't have a complete testing environment with all forms of systems and software. I won't say that these young hackers are doing nothing wrong, because in legal terms, they are, but I also won't say what they do is any more destructive than a kid sneaking a candy from the bin at the store.

These baby steps, and missteps eventually culminate in the evolution of a true hacker. Someone who does not think the way school-taught programmers think. Someone who sees problems from angles others are not taught to see. Someone who founds new technologies, and creates The Next Big Thing. I've had many experiences with these cookie-cutter outsourced programmers, and what I always find lack is exactly what is most important; creativity.

Except that hackers seem to be dying out now.

Our technical creativity is being outsourced more and more, with depressing results. Our paradigm shifts are decades old, and rotting on the vine. Our shining new worlds few and far between.


Because hackers are terrorists.

They control a media that our world depends heavily upon, yet fails to understand. They are feared for it.

Like early man feared the gods, the notion that a lone hacker could hack the planet, and crash our economy, triggering the second great depression looms in the minds of regular people, and infinitely more frighteningly; the minds of our government.

I've personally viewed presentations at aforementioned government attended meetings that warn "attacks" such as an innocuous port scan, should be regarded as an attempt to disrupt service, and the economy. Certainly I allow them some dramatic flair, but it seemed clear to me that many of these government officials returned to their offices and turned on logging for such an event.

The idea that a lone hacker, or group of hackers will do any more than temporarily interrupt availability to a website is incredibly unlikely. The idea that systems will be damaged so badly that recovery will be impossible is simply false when you consider the infinite funds of any government or financial institution.

Indeed, the idea that hackers have the power to destroy the country and should be regarded as terrorists is so wrongheaded, it actually invokes memories of the Salem witch hunts.

But that doesn't stop hackers, mostly kids, from being tossed in jail, ordered not to touch computers, or put on lists for the rest of their lives. Nor does it stop professional hackers from being regarded with the same distrust centuries of people gave to those who understood what they did not. Not while government "specialists" get to send out press releases of foiled "cyber crimes," and extricate more funding from taxpayers to buy the latest and greatest wizbang toys for their playgrounds. These "specialists" know how little most people know about their profession, and make a name for themselves by cracking down on kids who have no idea what they're doing, and filling the collective public mind with visions of fantastic Die Hard 4 "Fire Sales."

With the continued fervor over domestic terrorists, and the constant expansion of that term, it seems unlikely this will stop any time soon.

Our innovation will continue to suffer in fields we should be leading, and we will lag behind the world while we chase our tail until the surprising and enlightening day we actually catch it.

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