Hackers, Crackers and Pirates; Oh My!

Hackers are in the news at the moment, and there is a great debate over who and what is or is not a pirate, so I thought I would take some time and give some detail and a little background and these people: who they are, what they’re doing, and why the heck they’re doing it.

To start off, lets explain the names. Hackers you have heard of, I’m sure. But what of “crackers” and the eponymous “pirate”?
Lets tackle hackers first, because they are the most well known.

A “hacker” is any person who “hacks” at programming code, much like Indiana Jones hacks his way through jungle vines. At least originally. Now, a hacker is any person the media or Fortune 500 company wishes to blame for all the ills in the world.
So, who really is a hacker? A hacker is a person who knows computers and networks inside out, they are enthusiastic hobbyists who go places they shouldnt be, and do things they shouldnt do.

Why? For the same reason a mountain climber climbs mountains. “Because its there.” “Because it hasnt been done before.” “Because I was told ‘it cant be done’, or ‘I shouldnt do it’.”

Is there a guiding principle hackers follow, or is it all vandalism, spam and credit card theft?
Yes, there is; and it has nothing to do with crime, theft or money.
It is called “the hacker ethic.” (linked to the Wikipedia page here)
But, like all codes of conduct, some follow this principle more closely than others.

In the last few years, as some people feel justice has become increasingly hard to come by, some hackers have become activists, aka “hacktivists.”

The best known of these is the group called Anonymous. You’ve may have heard of them when they are in the news. In the last few days, a spin-off group called “LulzSec” have been arrested by the FBI and various police agencies.
Where did Anonymous and LulzSec come from? In a very real way, they came from the Internet. From the image forum website known as 4chan, and its /b/ section, specifically.

Why did Anonymous and LulzSec attack the websites and companies that they did? When they were asked, mostly the answer was “for fun.” But not always. The attack on HBGary was retaliatory, because HBGary’s CEO said he could and would reveal the top members of Anonymous to the world.

Anonymous, the group, sometimes takes a dislike to people or organizations. Usually this is when someone high profile threatens them. Sometimes, its because they think the result will be funny(at least to them). And sometimes they feel it is to correct an injustice.
When Anonymous does attack, they can be destructive. Sometimes this is in the public interest; such as the cases of HBGary and the Church of Scientology.
And sometimes not, as in the case of the English women who was caught on video putting a cat into a garbage bin, and whose life was brought to such an utter standstill that she sought protective custody from the police.

So thats what hackers are; a collection of hobbyists, enthusiasts, explorers and activists.
But what hackers are not is criminals.
You might think “but where does all that spam come from if not hackers?”
Because it comes from actual criminals.
“But arent hackers criminals?”
No; for the same reason speeding drivers are not criminals, or for the same reason an office worker who takes a pen or a paper clip is not a criminal.

Thats not to say all hackers are misunderstood saints. They’re not. There are are good guy hacker and bad guy hackers, known as “white hats” and “black hats.”
Just like the old cowboy movies.
But even the bad guy hackers, the black hats, are not “criminals”, per se. Yes, they do stuff they shouldnt, but they dont go in for the credit card stealing and data breaching and ID theft stuff.

Because it isnt “fun.”

Even when LulzSec broke into StratFor and looted credit card numbers, they didnt take any of the money for themselves. They thought it was “fun” to donate other peoples money to charities and non-profit organizations right at Christmas time when the money would be most needed.

Obviously, this was double-plus un-good. But not criminal in the sense of stealing all of that money for themselves.

So, painting all hackers as criminal, in the same vein as burglars, murderers, rapists, drug-dealers and Wall Street bankers, would be wrong, because not all hackers do the wrong things. Without white hat hackers, real computer criminals would never be brought to justice.

This has been your primer on who and what hackers are. Tune in for Part Two, where I explain crackers and pirates.