Virtual obsession

Oct. 8, 2009, midnight | By Lily Alexander | 14 years, 8 months ago

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

A message pops up on the computer screen. "Hi, I've trimmed the computer down somewhat. Happy hacking!” The computer, which had once held a slew of files, is now completely empty. The witty message is all that remains of Mark's presence.

Mark's message is a prime example of hacking. According to Christopher Johnson, project manager for the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) National Vulnerability Database, the development of computer hacking emerged out of attacks against phone systems in the 1960s and 1970s. The term "hacker" originally referred to someone who was computer savvy and skillful at both coding and scripting. But, as some users began using computers for malicious purposes, the usage and connotation of the word shifted, signifying someone who broke through computer security controls, Johnson says. Within the computer community, however, many have clung to the original definition of a hacker, says Blair Information Technology (IT) specialist Peter Hammond. "In the geek community, a hacker is someone who is good with computers. It could be good, bad or noncommittal." Blazers who hack as a hobby fit both definitions of hackers, but all of them share one thing in common: their desire to assert control over the technology that now dominates modern life.

Crackin' up

After another student hacked into the school computer that he administers, Mark, a junior, was in a bad mood and eager for retaliation. As a prank, Mark created a program so that whenever the hacker would log on, all he would see would be a blank computer screen with the "trimmed-down-your-computer" message.

Breaking into a system without authorized access in this manner is illegal and, according to Johnson, has acquired the title "cracking" within the computer community. The term is interchangeable with the more negative definition of hacking. The repercussions for cracking depend on the degree of the crime and include everything from monetary fines to felony charges and time in jail, Johnson says. He explains that the term "cracker" was originally invented to distinguish between those who break into computer systems and those who are simply knowledgeable about how computers operate and are proficient at programming.

Connor, a sophomore, also fits the description of a "cracker." But Connor says that his motivation for cracking is need, rather than fun or mischief. Instead of creating an account or paying fees to access information on certain Web sites, particularly file hosting sites like RapidShare and news portals, Connor cracks into the Web site so that he can bypass the requirements and obtain direct access to the information. Once Connor acquires the site's information, he posts it on blogs and forums that he frequents so that others can also benefit from it. He justifies his actions by asserting that information should not be so restricted in the first place. "I don't think that Web sites should be maliciously trying to control their information," Connor says.

But even after accessing a site's information, Connor continues to return to the site to marvel at his handiwork and witness the commotion that he has created. In one specific instance, a small Web site he had broken into began a Web hunt to find the hacker. He chuckles as he describes the chaos that ensued. Seldom does a 15-year-old hold such power over a group of adults, but it's clear that as a hacker, Connor has far more power than peers of his age generally wield, especially over adults. "I return to the scene of the crime that I've broken into," he says. "I watch them scream and rant; they are very powerless."

An addiction

Once Connor began cracking into Web sites, the free privileges and entertainment that they provided were too hard to give up. Now, he cracks into such sites approximately every month. Mark, who first became fascinated by computers in fourth grade, has developed an addiction similar to Connor's. He began by playing video games at a young age just to crash the computer, which led him to start trying to crack into the Web sites of small universities and businesses (although he was typically unsuccessful). Twenty computer languages learned and many hacks later, Mark says that hacking has become an obsession. "The only other addiction I have is water," Mark says.

Senior Eric Van Albert's hacking addiction takes a different form altogether. Van Albert performs hardware hacking – a legal form of hacking that consists of the modification of commercial products to better fit certain needs. Through the Blair Robotics Team, which he joined as a freshman, he learned and mastered the skills to hack. With his newfound knowledge, he began to alter many of the technological gadgets in his house to fit his needs. Recently, for example, Van Albert worked to add an internal speaker and mouse/keyboard port to his calculator. Such projects, Van Albert says, make his life easier because he can assert control over commercial products and make them behave as he wants.

Puzzling it out

Whether legal or illegal, hacking has undeniable benefits. One of the most useful skills is the ability to protect one's own computers against other hackers. Although Mark was more interested in trying to hack into other students' files and partitions in middle school, he says he has been more recently focused on security testing through hacking. Mark has done security testing – finding holes in a computer's security system and correcting them – for his own computer, several Blair servers and his friends' servers. He says the challenge of security testing is discovering the computer's flaws and how to fix them. "It's kind of like a crossword puzzle," Mark says. "You start hacking into another computer and you don't know anything about it. You have to puzzle out what its vulnerabilities are. It requires creativity."

Tim Finin, a professor in the computer science and electrical engineering department at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that part of the thrill of hacking for high schoolers is being able to see if they have the skills to break into computer systems. "A young person might be attracted by the challenge of trying to circumvent a system that's intended to keep them out," says Finin.

Hacker culture

In the Blair hacker community, the more systems that you can circumvent, the greater your reputation. The level of hacking skill is paramount, says Mark. "When you interact with other hackers, only one thing is important: how skilled you are. Nobody cares how nice you are or how fast your computer is or what level of education you have," Mark says. "If you're a good hacker, that's the end of it." But Mark says that other people must assign a hacker's merit and that calling oneself a hacker is considered taboo.

Rarely do mentors help a person develop the skills to be a hacker, Mark says; it must be a self-driven endeavor. "You have to learn by yourself; it's the best way to learn," he explains. "The best way to teach it is to give them a computer and not open your mouth."

But despite the individualism, Van Albert says that hacker communities are a place where all types of hackers can share their ideas with others who understand them. "In the world at large, since most hacking is done on computers, it's really easy to share and converse with people…I think that's what has facilitated the collaborative environment," Van Albert says. Mark reaffirms this, saying that hackers will gravitate toward one another due to their similar interests. "If you put 3,000 kids in a building and 20 are hackers, within a few days a community of hackers will exist." In the end, it's the shared desire and ability to control computers that ties the hacker community together. "It's the difference between using a computer and totally owning and having power over the computer," Mark says.

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Lily Alexander. Loves El Salvador, James Franco, "Freaks and Geeks" (best show EVER), Mint chip ice cream, softball and field hockey. She is OBSESSED with gmail and adores "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights" (and aspires to dance with Diego Luna). More »

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