Tuesday, June 06, 2006


A couple articles I've seen today make me wonder what it is certain authorities think is so horrible about hacking. Seems like when they catch one--a seemingly rare event--they want to "make an example" of him. Kevin Mitnick is probably the best-known example; he served 5 years in prison, but what did he actually do, and of what was he convicted? From what I've read, not that much. Real-life network hackers aren't like hackers in hollywood movies; for the most part they're just regular people who are far too curious for their own good.

Today I saw this article about Gary McKinnon.
The US government alleges that between February 2001 and March 2002, Mr McKinnon repeatedly hacked into dozens of computers used by the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Department of Defense.

While Mr McKinnon has admitted that he spent years wandering round military computer networks, he denies that his hacking was ever motivated by anything other than curiosity.
I'm inclined to believe him, since I have a little bit of that spirit myself. Actually, the term "hacker" used to refer specifically to a self-motivated programmer, before hollywood and others appropriated the term to mean "one who breaks into computer networks". Indeed, the word is still used in that sense today in the free software and Linux worlds, and I think the two kinds of hackers are similar kinds of people. But don't confuse hackers with crackers, who are malicious hackers.

And that's the issue I want to bring up: was McKinnon a hacker or a cracker? The law might not make a distinction, but to me it's very important to consider an individual's intentions. If all McKinnon did was snoop around military networks out of curiosity, and never did anything with the knowledge so gained, can he be considered any worse than any of the crackers, spammers, and scammers infesting the internet these days?

Tentatively, this sounds like a minor crime at worst. It seems to me that the real story here is not some guy that pokes his nose where it doesn't belong; rather we should be disturbed that a single individual was able not only to hack into and explore the Army's, Navy's, Air Force's and DoD's networks, but that he was not caught for "years". This is the biggest and by far the most expensive military in the world--and they can't keep people out of their networks? Yeesh.

I saw another hacking story today. Three of the more traditional hackers (programmers) are trying to help people circumvent the great firewall of China.
"Hacking is an important philosophy we need to recover in our society," says Deibert, now the father of four young children, "because so many systems of control are embedded in technology, most of which we're unaware of."The more we take the screws off and understand how things work, the more we'll have citizens in control of their lives and the technological society they live in."
Kudos. I don't see how they could do much against China's censorship regime, but I certainly wish them luck.

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