Hackers: the immunological system of information society?

There are good and bad ones, but they both play a crucial role in a computerized world. One researcher at the Council reflects on that issue.

New technologies allowed emerging groups to fight social justice in another dimension. The battlefield is the Web.

Before being one of Apple founders, Stephen Wozniak was a hacker. He took advantage of failures in telephone systems to make free calls. Adrian Lamo, American, broke down the Microsoft and Yahoo systems to tell them later how he had done it. Currently, Lamo is a journalist and is known to have denounced Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked to WikiLeaks the video that showed part of the American army killing a photographer of the Reuters news agency and other civilians in Afghanistan. But, what is a hacker exactly?

Ezequiel Álvarez, CONICET assistant researcher at the Instituto de Física de Buenos Aires (IFIBA, CONICET-UBA) [Physics Institute of Buenos Aires], explains that “they are people whose advanced knowledge on computers allows them to master programming languages, manipulate the hardware and software of computers in different ways and influence telecommunications’ world.” There are good and bad ones, as in all professions, but what is true is that their actions affect people in unthinkable ways. Hackers, in some way, could be identified as the immunological system of the information society: sometimes they make it ill but other times they find hidden threats and force responsible people to solve them.

Four years ago, for instance, one security computer researcher found a way to make ATMs hand out money (his name was Barnaby Jack, and his technique is known as Jackspotting). “He could have become a criminal but he decided to show his discovery to overcome the lack of system”, Álvarez says.

In 2014, another person of the area called Kyle Lovett found a great black hole in the design of some wireless routers that many people used in houses or offices. Lovett discovered that anyone could remotely connect to that device from internet and have access to documents hosted in the hard disk of the PC, without even specifying a password. “The researcher sent a report to the company but they ignored it”, Álvarez comments. So his plan B was to actually enter those hard disks, but not to steal information but to place on the screens the following message: “anyone in the world can have access to your router and your documents, this is what you can do to fix it. We hoped to have helped you”. Finally, the company had to go through and modify all their products.

The question is the following: would it be possible to consider that the activity of hackers promotes innovation and protects citizens from the attacks they practically do not know? “The answer is yes. As they accessed people’s files this way, they broke legal policies but they also forced companies to fix their products. To let people know the weaknesses of the systems is a practice known as ‘full disclosure’ within the hackers’ community. Although it is controversial, it makes us think how they affect the evolution of the technologies we use everyday”, the researcher explains.

Facebook is a social network currently used by millions of people. What would happen if suddenly somebody found a way to undermine its security and pry into users’ profiles without restrictions? Two years ago, Palestinian computer programmer Khalil Shreateh discovered a serious failure in the privacy of this social network and tried to inform the company about it but the report was omitted. Frustrated, Khalil logged in the account of its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, and posted on his wall. After this, he managed to attract the attention of the company and the problem was solved. Companies have reward policies when computer specialists find these failures but in this case, it was denied to the Palestinian programmer. Khailil was not alone, there was a group of hackers throughout the world who praised him and collected 13 thousand dollars as a reward, thus opening an important debate in industry about a way to create incentives to make hackers do the right thing.

New rules, new actors, new games

New technologies led to have emerging groups who fight social justice in another dimension: their battlefield is the Web, their bombs can be the Trojans, and the consequences range from huge losses of money for companies to exposed corrupt politicians.

One of the most emblematic cases is the one of the organization known as Anonymus, which until a few years ago used to be a subculture of internet devoted to issues that some may regard as non-relevant. Nevertheless in 2008 the world became aware of its existence because they did not allow the censorship of a great diversity of videos spread on the Web. They led protests that encouraged computer specialists, and those who were not as well, to go on a demonstration against different kinds of abuses.

In Egypt, January 2011, President Hosni Mubarak attempted a desperate move to quell the growing revolution in the streets of Cairo: he sent his personal troops to the places where internet services were provided and make them physically destroy the switch of the connection of the whole country. This was an unacceptable measure for hackers so they took it as something personal. One of those groups called Telecomix was already active on that field and helped the Egyptians to avoid the censorship of the Web through smart solutions such as the Morse Code: it was peak season for low technology, something that could not be blocked by the government.

So, when the network completely collapsed, Telecomix brought out the big guns: they found European service suppliers who still kept the old structure of analogical access, used 20 years ago, opened and granted users access to300 of those lines to be used and provided users with a slow but free network.

“To go against these people means, in part, to be in favor of the regulation of knowledge and of the stagnation in the technological system. In fact, there are people willing to risk their own freedom in times when governments and companies look for ways of controlling the Web”, the researcher concludes.

By Jimena Naser
English Version: Cintia B. González