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Modifying computer hardware and software with an objective other than the original purpose of the creator constitutes computer hacking. In computer networking, hacking also means manipulating network connections.
Most computer hackers are self-taught, but they possess expert-level skills in a number of programming languages. Although a considerable number of hackers are driven by ulterior motives, many use their skills to solve problems. Some corporations hire hackers to join their technical staff.
Their job is to find vulnerabilities in the company’s security system for patch-up before hackers with ulterior motives discover the flaws and exploit them (Computer Hacking, n.d.). Hacking skills can, therefore, be employed to prevent computer related crimes such as identity theft.
Although hacking cam be used for good, the term is nowadays associated with malicious attacks on the web and other networks.
Hackers use scripts which are used to manipulate data in a network connection to gain desired information. There are many ready scripts available online that can be used by inexperienced hackers. Experienced hackers can modify the scripts to come up with new methods of attacking network connections.
While hacking can be wrong in many instances, it is still helpful. The big question is whether doing what can be considered wrong by parties such as corporations is still ethical when the very actions help other people, especially the consumers.
History of hacking
Early hackers as we understand them today can be traced to 1960s. They were primarily computer experts only interested in modifying programs to make them work better. In the majority of cases, the modifications developed by them were better than existing systems. UNIX operating system was a hack product by Dennis Ritchie and Keith Thomson (Computer Hacking and Ethics, n.d.).
In 1970, a new type of hacker called “phreakers” emerged who targeted telephone systems exclusively. They exploited the switching network of the telephone system to make long distance calls for free.
1980s was the turning point in the history of hacking. Introduction of personal computers led to the increase in the number of hackers as well as hacker targets were widened. Use of modems expanded hackers reach to include a lot of people.
During this time, hacker’s philosophy changed from benign exploration to the pursuit for personal gain. This emerging breed of hackers consisted of young people who were not satisfied with the old hacker philosophy of freedom and technology.
Beginning 1990s, a new type of hackers, who were different from earlier hackers, emerged and was bent on using their knowledge to achieve criminal ends (The Ethics of Hacking | Jonathan Zdziarski’s Domain, n.d.).
They were involved in acts such as pirating and distributing proprietary software, virus, games, etc. Hackers even formed online gangs whose mission was to stealing sensitive and other classified information.
This new development led to passage of laws that related to hacking. One such law was passed in 1986. The law criminalized tampering with a computer with the intention to acquire other people’s personal information.
Hacking and cracking
To most people, what they know as hacking is in fact cracking. Cracking is used to describe attacks on a computer network for selfish or malicious goals. Hacking applies to network manipulation for useful purposes. The two terms are, however, used interchangeably by many people outside the world of academia.
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Common hacking techniques
Hackers exploit weaknesses in a system which includes the following:
- Poor configuration of web servers
- Poor security controls
- Bugs in software
- Default password
- Poor choice password
Other than use of scripts in hackings, unauthorized access of computer remotely can be done using computer worms and denial of service (DoS) attacks (Computer Hacking and Ethics, n.d.). Poor configuration and security control enable hackers to connect using unsecured WAPs.
Complexity of software systems makes it impossible for developers to predict or simulate how the software would behave if the source code was slightly modified. A gifted hacker can get interesting results by interfering with source code.
Reasons for ethical hacking
Hacking has in recent years become a big problem. Big corporations and government facilities have borne the brunt of these attacks. All these cases, the motive of attackers was to steal information for personal gain. Ethical hacking has developed as a method of defense against hacking.
Ethical hackers are security specialists who use hacking skills to discover vulnerabilities for patching before they are exposed and exploited by unethical hackers (Mathew, 2003). Many big corporations, government facilities, and educational institutions hold important information which if compromised, would lead to either loss of money, reputation, or important security information.
As a result, considering the stakes, organizations are willing to go the whole hog to protect their data. As more and more corporations adopt IT as an integral part of their operation, ethical hacking will become even more important (Computer Hacking and Ethics, n.d.). Besides, it is projected that cyber attacks will continue to increase in the near future.
Corporations nowadays have to contend with scrutiny emanating from regulatory procedures and fear for scandals, such as the Enron debacle (Harper, 2011). As a result, protecting information assets is considered important and most corporations take proactive steps to institute protective measures. Maintaining confidentiality is, therefore, of paramount importance.
In a world where attacks can occur anytime, the skills of an ethical hacker can be very useful.
The Ethics of hacking
In the early years of telephony, companies such as AT&T were making huge profits by overcharging consumers for calls and related equipments. Through legislation, if was, for instance, illegal to plug in an equipment not made by AT&T. This gave the company monopoly and perpetuated its dominance into the market.
Nowadays, it may not be possible for corporations to maintain huge profits through draconian laws. Abnormal profits can still be maintained through use of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Using DRM, companies can lock out features to stifle competition. Hacking such devices helps in accessing locked features and keep manufacturers in check.
In 1960s, AT&T used legislation to prevent third parties from plugging in equipment other than their own into the phone jacks. Had the company used technology instead, people would have, in all probability, hacked phone jacks to allow third party connections.
Looking back, such kind of hacking could have enabled people to make calls at a cheaper price, but back then, their actions could have been unacceptable to AT&T, as they would be losing revenue. In such a scenario, the ethical question is this: between the hacker and the company overcharging consumers, who is wrong and who is right? The hacker would have helped customers from exploitation, but such actions appear immoral.
The Digital Millennium Act allows consumers to:
- Unlock their phones
- Fix vulnerabilities
- Undertake technical research
This has solved the ethical dilemma about whether hacking to solve a technical problem exposing the user to danger is morally right. The government allows corporations to lock devices but also to unlock as long as the intention is good.
Companies normally lock mobile devices to a certain network and sell the same at subsidized cost. This way, companies sell more units and also earn revenues from service contracts.
Ethical hacking is close to investigative journalism. An ethical hacker posses technical skills to alter the function of a system, but has the discipline to so for morally right reasons. This hacker does more than just seek for the truth; he also takes action to correct wrongs or vulnerabilities.
The ethical challenge is to differentiate between theft of services and corporate greed. A good example of corporate greed is where a phone manufacturer may, for example, disable a function and later charge customers to reactivate it.
Considering increase in corporate greed, ethics of hacking demands that limitations that the manufacturer of a device may impose be completely justified. If that is not the case, a hacker perhaps has the right to re-enable such features that were disabled with the intention of exploiting the customer.
The important question a hacker has to consider before hacking is whether a corporation is gaining by providing certain functionality or by restricting it. If this question cannot be answered, it is impossible to determine who is stealing from whom.
Hackers are important because what they do expose technical details that others can use to make similar or better products. In doing so, they are helping maintain healthy competition which capitalism depends to remain healthy. As earlier noted, hacking can of course help improve devices.
When apple iphone was released in 2007, it was an instant hit on the market. The hacking community started to work on it to expand the functionality of the device so that third party applications can install and run. After a short period of time, hacker community developed a compiler and many applications to run on iphones.
The ability of iphone to be modified to accept third party applications has boosted sales iphone further. Later developments by Apple to play catch-up with the application developer community have been belated.
What hackers did with iphone helped consumers and led to development much free software. Apple also benefitted because sales of their phones increased. In the case of apple, the act of hacking benefitted all parties.
Hackers using the first iphones released in 2007 were able to identify glaring security vulnerabilities and immediately fixed them. The company was able to develop future versions that were more secure compared to the first iphone released in 2007.
Although hacking in the case of Iphone made everybody happy, the question still remains whether doing so was ethical. End-user-agreements forbid acts aimed at tampering with the software of the device the customer is purchasing. Going by that agreement, hacking is therefore unethical. However, a more pertinent question that also arises is who owns the device. Is it the owner of the phone or the buyer?
The two types of hackers (White & Black)
Black-hat hackers gain authorized access to a system to either steal data or do other illegal acts. White-hat hackers, on the other hand, use their hacking skills usefully (Himma, 2007). They find security loopholes so that they can be patched up before they can be exploited for evil purposes.
Hacking to steal information or deface websites in criminal. However, hacking has other useful purposes. Many hackers lack the skills to damage network systems in a major way. Engaging an ethical hacker can help seal holes to stop low level attacks.
But hacking is more complex than that. It’s used to develop third party applications for phones such as iphones. Ethics of hacking concerns itself with hacking that apparently benefits consumers, but manufacturers do not seem to harm manufacturers.
Computer Hacking. (n.d.). College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Web.
Computer Hacking and Ethics. (n.d.). Computer Science Division | EECS at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/~bh/hackers.html
Harper, A. (2011). Gray hat hacking: the ethical hacker’s handbook (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Himma, K. E. (2007). Internet security: hacking, counterhacking, and society. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Mathew, T. (2003). Ethical hacking: student courseware. S.l.: OSB Publisher.
The Ethics of Hacking | Jonathan Zdziarski’s Domain. (n.d.). Jonathan Zdziarski’s Domain | Scientist and occasional hacker. Author and occasional theologian. I invent stuff and wail on bass guitar. Twitter: @JZdziarski. Retrieved from http://www.zdziarski.com/blog/?p=33