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Hackers, Crackers, and Attackers

We'll admit it. We are hackers. But don't break out the handcuffs yet. We don't run around breaking into machines, reading other people's e-mail, and erasing hard disks. In fact, we stay firmly on this side of the law (well, we would in a world where driving really fast is always legal).

The term hacker originally had a positive meaning. It sprang from the computer science culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the late 1960s, where it was used as a badge of honor to refer to people who were exceptionally good at solving tricky problems through programming, often as if by magic. For most people in the UNIX development community, the term's preferred definition retains that meaning, or is just used to refer to someone who is an excellent and enthusiastic programmer. Often, hackers like to tinker with things, and figure out how they work.

Software engineers commonly use the term hacker in a way that carries a slightly negative connotation. To them, a hacker is still the programming world's equivalent of MacGyver—someone who can solve hard programming problems given a ball of

fishing line, a matchbook, and two sticks of chewing gum. The problem for software engineers is not that hackers (by their definition) are malicious; it is that they believe cobbling together an ad hoc solution is at best barely acceptable. They feel careful thought should be given to software design before coding begins. They therefore feel that hackers are developers who tend to "wing it," instead of using sound engineering principles. (Of course, we never do that! Wait! Did we say that we're hackers?) Far more negative is the definition of hacker that normal people use (including the press). To most people, a hacker is someone who maliciously tries to break software. If someone breaks in to your machine, many people would call that person a hacker. Needless to say, this definition is one that the many programmers who consider themselves "hackers" resent.

Do we call locksmiths burglars just because they could break into our house if they wanted to do so? Of course not. But that's not to say that locksmiths can't be burglars. And, of course, there are hackers who are malicious, do break into other people's machines, and do erase disk drives. These people are a very small minority compared with the number of expert programmers who consider themselves "hackers." In the mid 1980s, people who considered themselves hackers, but hated the negative connotations the term carried in most peoples' minds (mainly because of media coverage of security problems), coined the term cracker. A cracker is someone who breaks software for nefarious ends.

Unfortunately, this term hasn't caught on much outside of hacker circles. The press doesn't use it, probably because it is already quite comfortable with "hacker." And it sure didn't help that they called the movie Hackers instead of Crackers. Nonetheless, we think it is insulting to lump all hackers together under a negative light. But we don't like the term cracker either. To us, it sounds dorky, bringing images of Saltines to mind. So when we use the term hacker, that should give you warm fuzzy feelings. When we use the term malicious hacker, attacker, or bad guy, it is okay to scowl. If we say "malicious hacker," we're generally implying that the person at hand is skilled. If we say anything else, they may or may not be.

Who Is the Bad Guy?

We've said that some hackers are malicious. Many of those who break software protection mechanisms so that pirate copies can be easily distributed are malicious. Removing such protection mechanisms takes a fair bit of skill, which is probably just cause to label that particular person a hacker as well. However, most bad guys are not hackers; they're just kids trying to break into other people's machines.

Some hackers who are interested in security may take a piece of software and try to break it just out of sheer curiosity. If they do break it, they won't do anything malicious;

they will instead notify the author of the software, so that the problem can be fixed. If they don't tell the author in a reasonable way, then they can safely be labeled malicious. Fortunately, most people who find serious security flaws don't use their finds to do bad things.

At this point, you are probably wondering who the malicious attackers and bad guys really are! After all, it takes someone with serious programming experience to break software. This may be true in finding a new exploit, but not in exploiting it. Generally, bad guys are people with little or no programming ability capable of downloading, building, and running programs other people write (hackers often call this sort of bad guy a script kiddie). These kinds of bad guys go to a hacker site, such as (the largely defunct) http://www.rootshell.com, download a program that can be used to break into a machine, and get the program to run. It doesn't take all that much skill (other than hitting return a few times). Most of the people we see engage in this sort of activity tend to be teenage boys going through a rebellious period. Despite the fact that such people tend to be relatively unskilled, they are still very dangerous.

So, you might ask yourself, who wrote the programs that these script kiddies used to break stuff? Hackers? And if so, then isn't that highly unethical? Yes, hackers tend to write most such programs. Some of those hackers do indeed have malicious intent, and are truly bad people. However, many of these programs are made public by hackers who believe in the principle of full disclosure. The basic idea behind this principle is that everyone will be encouraged to write more secure software if all security vulnerabilities in software are made public. It encourages vendors to acknowledge and fix their software and can expose people to the existence of problems before fixes exist.

Of course, there are plenty of arguments against full disclosure too. Although full disclosure may encourage vendors to fix their problems quickly, there is almost always a long delay before all users of a vendor's software upgrade their software. Giving so much information to potential attackers makes it much easier for them to exploit those people. In the year 2000, Marcus Ranum sparked considerable debate on this issue, arguing that full disclosure does more harm than good. Suffice it to say, people without malicious intent sometimes do release working attack code on a regular basis, knowing that there is a potential for their code to be misused. These people believe the benefits of full disclosure outweigh the risks. We provide third-party information on these debates on the book's Web site.

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