Tuesday, 23 May 2006

What the Hack?

Computer hackers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are just curious to see what they can do and don’t cause any harm, others look for flaws in software design and work out ways to exploit them. Some seek power, others seek thrills, some steal money and others steal secrets. We see them in movies all the time. But the term hacker can mean many things, and they’re not all negative.

At their best, hackers may be people who know various programming languages and interfaces so well that they can write software expertly and quickly. These hackers can be brilliant at their tasks, writing detailed programs with little guidance in very quick time.

At their most interesting however, hackers can exploit computer security systems and gain unauthorized access through their own skills, tactics and knowledge. I’m sure that many listeners have been victims of this type of hacker, having perhaps had a Trojan horse, which is a program designed to look like legitimate software, but actually does something malicious, downloaded onto their computer.

A notorious, or famous depending on your point of view, computer hacker is Jonathon James, who obtained access to the source code on the International Space Station that controlled critical life sustaining functions such as oxygen filtering. He also intercepted communications between U.S. Department of Defense officials at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency who were discussing nuclear strategy, and obtained usernames and passwords of Defense Department officials. And he did this all at the age of 15!

Gary McKinnon is another infamous hacker, who is accused of the "biggest military computer hack of all time". The unemployed computer systems administrator is accused of hacking into 97 US government computers, including networks owned by NASA, the US Army, US Navy, Department of Defense, the US Air Force, and The Pentagon. The costs of tracking and correcting the problems he allegedly caused are estimated to be around $US 700 000.

Another, rather ingenious, hacker is Noah Burn of South Carolina in the US. Burn exploited a software flaw in the game EverQuest II so that his character within the game, a barbarian called Methical, could sell lots of desirable goods, and therefore make lots of virtual money. Now this might sound like it’s not worth the effort – after all, all this extra money is just virtual money, and you can’t spend it in the real world. However, with online gaming becoming more and more prevalent, a real life market has been set up on auction sites such as e-bay, whereby you can buy virtual goods for real life money – that is, you can buy the goods and have your character possess them, without having to earn them within the game. In this way, Burn made roughly $US 100 000 in the real world due to a minor glitch in his virtual world.

Indeed, this real life market for online commodities has taken off to such an extent that some players have been collecting real life money for destroying the property of other characters, or even the characters themselves. One such online character is Istvaan Shoaatsu, who is a mercenary destroying other characters for a profit within the game Eve Online. And whilst Shoaatsu may profit in the real world from these activities, those whom he destroys lose their own virtual money, which has taken time to earn and has a real life worth. Indeed, violence from the online world has spilled over into reality. Qui Chengwei from Shanghai, having loaned his valuable sword to a friend Zhu Caoyuan within the game Legends of Mir, actually murdered Zhu in real life when he discovered that Zhu had sold his sword on to another buyer.

This highlights an area where our laws are just not ready, as we have never had to develop laws for such situations. Another area where this is the case is in the situation of bio-hackers, who are similar to computer hackers, but instead of tinkering with computers and software, they experiment with DNA and other aspects of genetics. It is thought that in the future, computers themselves will contain biological devices. But until then, the risk of bioterrorism and biohackers with evil intent is high. Imagine if you could isolate the DNA of dangerous viruses and create even more deadly bugs? Tom Knight of the Massachusettes Institute of Technology thinks we have absolutely no choice but to try and do this better and faster than the bad guys, and work out ways of lessening the possible damage caused.

See Tim Guest’s book Second Lives, which will be published in 2007, for more information about online/offline adventures.

Listen to this show here

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