Monday, 19 December 2016

Grey Hats

It is a fact often observed that things often tend to come in twos. And as one may have also noted, a strong predilection toward the binary is a key element of human psychology. Alas, as the sharper among you will have already ascertained, there is little room for nuance to be found in such infantile simplifications. The chaps known as “hackers” are scarcely any different. Since first coming to public attention, soon after the advent of the mass-market personal computer, the image of the hacker has been a less than complimentary one, often ranking narrowly above the the cut-throat in terms of general disgust. Propagated by the press and the paranoid certainties of particular members of government, those who set out on explorations of digital quarters, were generally seen as criminals and bounders who posed a threat to the security of the nation.

A sad misapprehension remedied by the term “white hat” being introduced to refer to those with hacker type talents who use their gifts toward an advantageous end. This includes such noble activities as securing systems against other, more nefarious parties. Just as it took another machine to break the Enigma code leading the great victory over the would-be tyrant, it is persons possessing the abilities and habits of the hacker, who have proved most effective in preventing uninvited guests.

Such a “black hat” versus “white hat” dichotomy entirely misses an important element that applies in nearly all cases. While the majority of those engaged in hacker-like activities including, I might add, those defined as “white hats”, are acting against written laws, this does not mean that said actions are immoral or indeed, render any substantive harm. A case-in-point being that the team of programmers in Canada working tirelessly to dismantle the interminable strangle-hold over free expression online in China, are recognized by most in the Democratic West as doing a good thing. This despite the fact that they are flagrantly and gleefully violating Chinese law.

Despite their somewhat shadowy nature and tactics bordering on the vigilante, a similar case could be made in the instance of the group calling themselves Anonymous, who still seem to honestly have the greater good at heart. They are far closer to traditional ‘hacktivists’ the nefarious gang of hooligans sullying the corporate realm back in the heyday of “industrial hacking”.

During 1990s it was not at all unusual for otherwise legitimate and respectable members of corporate enterprise to employ teams of recidivist system breachers to assist in destroying the competition.
A far more useful distinction is that of 'Hacking' versus 'Cracking'. 'Cracking' describes an act of willful system breach for the purposes of larceny, sabotage and subterfuge, whilst 'Hacking', conversely, refers to exploring systems some of which may require a system breach, with no ulterior motive involved. Save perhaps for the bragging rights stemming from the considerable challenge of being able to so do. Such distinction is of paramount importance as it accounts for something lost in all other similar attempts: Motivation.

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