Barnaby Jack, the late hacker and computer security expert, both terrified and fascinated the world when he showed how you could wirelessly hack into someone’s insulin pump or pacemaker and deliver them their last breath of life.
In 2010, he also demonstrated on stage how to hack into ATMs and literally make them spit out fake currency.
Barnaby could have used this power to become a career criminal but instead he decided to show the world his research, believing that sometimes you have to demo a threat to spark a solution.
His case is testimony to the power of hackers as both protectors and disruptors of the virtual world.
On the one hand hackers work to expose risks, lies or weak points in security systems in order to instigate troubleshooting of such problems, as Barnaby did.
Then there are the Edward Snowdens and other whistle-blowers of the world, prepared to risk their own freedom and lives for broader ideals like freedom of information. Those who monitor the secret intelligence operations of major corporations and governments, which may be insidiously undermining human rights, and expose secrets seen to be in the public interest.
While many hackers seek to protect freedom of information, many are also disruptive, breaching people’s privacy and causing everything from prolific viruses, computer malfunctions to nefarious identity theft.
Anonymous is one leading brand of global hacktivism that works both as a protector and disruptor. It is a loosely associated international network of activist and hacktivist entities, with a decentralised command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives.
Generally, Anonymous oppose Internet censorship and control with their actions targeting culpable governments, organisations and corporations. They were involved with both the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring and also target groups with homophobic or exploitative intent.
They have countered cyber-attacks on the websites of religious extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, exposed child pornography users and defaced Government websites with exceedingly oppressive homosexuality laws.
Hackers like Anonymous are often brandished and labelled as anti-heroes, disrupting efforts of more legitimate channels to protect privacy and prevent crime.
Yet, in a world where increasingly more private data is placed on the Internet, hackers sits in the curious position of being both demonised by the powers-that-be and demanded by them.
Information is a critical currency of power, one which governments attempt to control by setting up surveillance and intelligence programs. For this they both require and hire hackers.
Last month at a cyber security policy event, Michael Rogers, director of the USA’s National Security Agency stated the NSA should be allowed access to read encrypted data to track criminals and foreign spies. This task would require hackers.
In response, Alex Stamos, Chief Information Security Officer for Yahoo questioned the legitimacy of backdoors in this way.
“If we’re going to build defects/backdoors or golden master keys for the U.S. government, do you believe we should do so … for the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Saudi Arabian government, the Israeli government, the French government?” he said.
Part of the reason behind NSA’s request may come from the continual development of data leaking sites like “Darkleaks” an anonymous black market that lets people sell secret documents online, making life easier for both whistleblowers and blackmailers. According to its developers, individuals may use the service to auction off ‘trade secrets’, ‘military intelligence’ and ‘proof of tax evasion’ amongst other items.
This is just one of a series of platforms for leaking sensitive information which have emerged in the past few years. Others including Wikileaks, the Guardian’s SecureDrop software and projects like GlobaLeaks, all seeking to create decentralized, protected forums for the release of information.
Such platforms may indeed harbor criminals and spies, but they also level the playing field, providing safe release of information for whistleblowers who may otherwise face unjust persecution from overreaching governments or data-hungry corporates.
While it is imperative that security experts and systems designers have a comprehensive understanding of system vulnerabilities the question beckons: what is the best method for communicating systematic vulnerabilities?
Many a progressive company and government have engaged “hackers” to identify system weaknesses, but just as many have pursued litigious action against those attempting to penetrate their security.
This uncertainty puts hackers in a difficult position and where the latter stance is prevalent, ensures a divide between official channels and the progressive undercurrent driving technological change from an underground base.
Whatever the view is on hacking, it is here and here to stay.
Hackers may or may not be virtuous or beneficial just as many governments or corporations may or may not be virtuous or beneficial.
Inherently, and by definition, what hackers will continue to do is search for the vulnerable and questionable aspects in our information heavy, virtual world and either expose them, change them or exploit them; for better or for worse.