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Dated: Aug. 13, 2004

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Network Security

By Najmi

Hackers have been blamed for more than $236 million in damage in the past year alone, according to the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute (CSI). Fighting back, four major computer companies - Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Lucent Technologies and Network Associates - banded together last week to form a consortium called the Security Research Alliance to improve network security.

Many hackers have decided that if they're going to learn computer security by breaking into servers, those servers might as well belong to people they don't like China, Indonesia, India and Mexico, among others, have all had sites attacked by "hacktivists." Understanding that the title "Hacker" among those who really understand the Internet is a noble and honorable title, standing for a software engineer who builds, and improves the network, the first hacker, Vinton Cerf, the man who invented the Internet agreed to help us with a public service announcement. In the PSA, Vint asks hackers for help in protecting, not attacking the Internet and let's them know that their services and skills are needed in the many programs Cyberangels runs, as well as in policy development for the Internet Society.

Hackers board

Greg Newby, a professor of information science at the University of North Carolina, argues that many hacktivists also have a bred-in-the-bone inclination toward social justice. Filled with folks who wear the "misfit" label with not-so-subtle pride, the underground is a come-as-you-are club. "Hackers have always been blind to things like color and race and accent," he says. "There might be some prejudice against people who don't type fast, or have a slow connection, but we're blind to what is very important to the other people in the world."

"If computers are the key to the future, then hackers control the key," says Newby, who has been programming for nearly two decades. "So we're potentially a great force for making change. But we're not going to do well if we can't get a little organized."

To some extent, varying views on those questions stem from the tension inherent between members of two generations. The older hackers - many of who hold jobs and have families, and are known as the ''elites'' - fear trouble on the horizon. Meanwhile, some of the youngsters - called ''script kiddies,'' a term to describe cyberpunks who borrow other people's programs to seek on-line thrills - have no such reservations.

But at the very least, the emergence of Hacktivism has created a tentative esprit de corps among some hackers and nonprofit political groups, who until recently inhabited vastly different worlds. Consider what happened in October: A 25-year-old computer science student who goes by the name Bronc Buster hacked into China's official human rights Web site on the day it was launched.

He scrawled the words ''Boycott China,'' along with a screed riddled with obscenities, across the page and added links to such legitimate activist organizations as Amnesty International and the New York-based group Human Rights in China.

More and more hackers, particularly the older generation who got their kicks breaking into computer systems in the '70s and '80s, are becoming more politically motivated. ''It's a natural evolution,'' said Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of the hacking magazine 2600 and a member of the coalition that condemned the recent '' Cyberwar '' call. ''People believe in something, and they do anything they can to get the word out.''

John Vransevich, founder of AntiOnline, a Web site dedicated to computer security, first published the site as a 19-year-old college student enamored with the world of hacking. Now, his fledgling computer-security company has venture capital backing and bright new offices, even as Vransevich's view of hackers has dimmed. "I've seen 16-year-olds breaking into Web sites for the hell of it, people breaking into 10,000 domains and deleting the content on them … it's amazing," Vransevich says. "And each time this comes up, I'm asking myself why someone would do something like that."

Matthew Harrigan, an ex-hacker and the founder and chief technology officer of MicroCosm Computer Resources, a San Francisco-based computer security firm. Agrees that a handful of the young people coming onto the hacker scene tend to be less disciplined and more destructive than past generations: "We weren't out there breaking into Internet sites, sending e-mail bombs, unleashing Trojans on people."

The rivalry between certain youngsters and older hackers has become so pronounced; Ruffin describes it in the terms of young gunslingers going after wild-West legends. "Today younger 'hackers' are out to make their mark and knock down a lot of the 'name' hackers," Ruffin says, "which is understandable from a generational point of view."

Hackers have always been the core of the Internet. But the media has attributed destructive actions to the hacker community, and it no longer means what it used to. Let's help make "hacker" a noble term again. Help protect the Internet, put your talents to positive use and help fight terrorism in any form, productively. Let's use the power of the Internet and it's positive forces against the negative ones.

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