Are You Cyberpunk Enough Now to Unplug from the Mainstream?
*Note: This article was originally published by the author on December 14, 2018.
Hacking, oh yes, where were we? Is that even still a thing? Dim the lights and queue the cliche War Games, Hackers, Swordfish, and Matrix movies. “Do you want to play a game?” “Why yes, yes I do Alex. I’ll take the adventures of Hacky McHackface for $600.” There is not a single day that goes by anymore where there is not some article posted about hacking, malware, software vulnerabilities discovered and exploited in the wild, or some data breach that was a result of hacking. I should know, I voraciously read dozens of articles every week about hacking. Hacking is everywhere, it’s non-stop, in your face, 24/7/366 days on a Leap Year. You can’t escape the media coverage hacking receives unless you pull a Bin Laden and go live completely off-grid in an underground cave somewhere. What is it about underground basements and hackers anyway? Let’s examine some of the folklore around hackers and hacking.
The movies I mentioned are some of the stuff that has inspired generations of hackers. But is all of this Hollywood CGI really what hacking is all about? Uh, no. Real hacking is usually nothing like you see on TV or in the movies. There aren’t computer screens with never-before-seen graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in crazy display formats and colors with 1’s and 0’s streaming down like rainfall. Nowadays it seems like every movie has to have a token hacker. Someone who is so technically savvy that they can break into any computer system within seconds with seemingly any piece of junk computer. The stereotypical geeky-looking dude or chick in a black hoodie, right? Some dyed hair and maybe some tattoos or piercings? I imagine every hacker will recognize the original “Hacker’s Manifesto” published by “The Mentor” a.k.a. Loyd Blankenship back in 1986.
==Phrack Inc.==Volume One, Issue 7, Phile 3 of 10=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-The following was written shortly after my arrest…\/\The Conscience of a Hacker/\/by+++The Mentor+++Written on January 8, 1986=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Another one got caught today, it’s all over the papers. “TeenagerArrested in Computer Crime Scandal”, “Hacker Arrested after Bank Tampering”…Damn kids. They’re all alike.But did you, in your three-piece psychology and 1950’s technobrain, ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker? Did you ever wonder what made him tick, what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?I am a hacker, enter my world…Mine is a world that begins with school… I’m smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me…Damn underachiever. They’re all alike.I’m in junior high or high school. I’ve listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. “No, Ms. Smith, I didn’t show my work. I did it in my head…”Damn kid. Probably copied it. They’re all alike.I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it’s because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn’t like me…Or feels threatened by me…Or thinks I’m a smart ass…Or doesn’t like teaching and shouldn’t be here…Damn kid. All he does is play games. They’re all alike.And then it happened… a door opened to a world… rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict’s veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought… a board is found.”This is it… this is where I belong…”I know everyone here… even if I’ve never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again… I know you all…Damn kid. Tying up the phone line again. They’re all alike…You bet your ass we’re all alike… we’ve been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak… the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We’ve been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.
This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color,without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.+++The Mentor+++____________________________________________________
There is a lot to digest there in that short, one-page article titled “\/\The Conscience of a Hacker/\/.” It’s not surprising that this article is still popular and significant to new generations of hackers over three decades later and will likely continue to be. But where does hacking go from there? To understand how things got to be where they currently are in 2019 with non-stop data breaches look forward into the future, we first must understand the past. So, this is my hacker’s manifesto for the 21st century — as we used to say in the Corps about rifles, ‘there are many like it, but this one is mine.’
Classical Definition of Hacking
Perhaps you’re a hacker? Maybe that’s what attracted you to read this article? Maybe you were thinking there might be some nugget of wisdom or knowledge this dude has that you can use that will make you a better hacker, that will put yourself above and beyond all those other newbs. There isn’t. Stop reading now if that’s what you came for. That’s not what this article is about. What it is about is the attitude and mindset of hacking, it’s about what hacking truly means to me. I am just one guy, but we are each entitled to have our own definition. Your definition won’t necessarily match my definition because we are all products of our own environments and upbringings, meaning that the life experiences that led you to become a hacker are not going to be the same as mine. That is of trivial importance though.
Geek. Nerd. Loser. Gamer. Booksmart individual. Gifted. Talented with computers… Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard all of these antiquated terms before. Yawn…
I never much fancied myself a ‘hacker’ per se, when I was younger. It wasn’t until I had spent the better part of my adult life learning how computers work, what makes them tick, the programming code that they run, their hardware intricacies, how to configure them to run optimally, their multitudes of vulnerabilities, and how you can ‘harden’ them for protection that somewhere along the way I began to realize that “hacking” was my calling. In fact, there is so much to learn about computers that I like to say, “School is never out for the professional.” I am still learning new things after over 30 years of tinkering and messing around with computers, software applications, RAM, motherboards, BIOS chips, PCI slots, SATA cables, Raspberry Pi’s, all types of electronics, gaming consoles, toaster ovens, TVs, CRT monitors, motorized tools. Sometimes I feel like I singlehandedly kept Radio Shack in business longer than it probably should’ve been and helped Best Buy and Fry’s become the titans of electronics they are today.
Way back in the pioneer days of computing in the 1950s, the term “hack” was used to describe tinkering with machines. In fact, to give credit properly where it is due, the M.I.T. Tech Model Railroad Club is where the term “hacking” came to life. Later on, the term stuck to computer programming and tinkerers who “hacked” code and computer hardware. This definition is the original definition of hacking and it is the version that some hackers prefer even today. Fast-forward to today…
Dare To Peek Inside the Mind of a Hacker
I wear the title ‘Hacker’ as a badge of honor. Some people can’t understand that. Why would anyone want to admit that they are a hacker? To me, a hacker is not necessarily a criminal. Some are, sure. Some aren’t criminals at all though. In fact, I firmly believe that ‘it takes a hacker to beat a hacker!’ A wise person judges someone by their accumulated actions, not by what someone says they are. Some hackers do bad deeds (black hats), some do good things (white hats), and many do a little of both (grey hats). Maybe you prefer Star Wars analogies — like the Force being wielded by the Dark Side (evil) versus the Jedi (good).
You don’t need to have been arrested and sent to prison to be a legitimate hacker. The comedian Jeff Foxworthy used to have a comedy bit about how “You Might Be a Redneck If..,” well you could say the same about hackers. You might be a hacker if you enjoy finding creative ways around problems or just enjoy figuring out how to solve difficult problems. Maybe you’re into math or computer programming (sorry, coding, or “DevOps” as it is generally referred to now). The only thing you need to be a hacker is the desire to think a certain way. Adopt an adversarial mindset — think like the enemy to anticipate their actions. Then, if you decide to pursue a career in information security (a.k.a., cybersecurity) use that knowledge and style of thinking to protect systems that you’re responsible for.
Forget the Hollywood stereotypes of what it means to be a hacker. Hackers are not necessarily like that at all. Some hackers I’ve met are eccentric, but not all of them. If that’s you, cool. Hey, just be yourself with your own unique personality. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, that is another aspect of hacking that I really enjoy. The community of hackers is accepting and very willing to help you learn and hone your skills. Many hackers have day jobs and/or families. They are everyday, ordinary people just like you and me. For them, hacking might only be a hobby. For others, hacking is their profession and livelihood. Some hackers make their living as cybercriminals, while others make a living trying to prevent their nefarious counterparts from succeeding. The point is that if you’re interested in hacking, then there are endless resources and people out there who will help you learn the tradecraft and you can earn a decent living once you become proficient enough. You have to want to learn as much as you can. That unquenchable thirst for knowledge can be overwhelming. Computers, programming, information security, are vast fields of study with many subdomains included. But as the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Small chunks, you can’t expect to become an expert overnight.
The Thrill of the Exploit
Hacking 101- there are so many tutorials online now that are freely available for anyone interested in learning about hacking. Never before in the history of mankind has there ever been more information at your fingertips than now with the Internet. The cybersecurity industry is a lucrative career path if you can keep yourself out of legal trouble with a clean record. Remember, unless you obtain permission, then breaking into a computer system is illegal and could cost you significantly. A felony will preclude you from many top-paying jobs in the industry and from obtaining a government security clearance, so make your decisions wisely.
There are many Capture The Flag (CTFs) competitions nowadays that are popular and there are lots of opportunities to hunt bugs in software code or on websites that pay a little depending on the vulnerability severity. There is also a metric @$$ ton of security conferences you can go to and meet other hackers just like you at virtually everywhere now in almost every city! Of course, BlackHat, and DEF CON, or “Hacker Summer Camp” as the weeklong event is colloquially termed and which is the granddaddy of them all. I know hackers who save all year for their personal “Con” budget so that they can afford to attend their favorite conferences.
Hacking 2.0 — Strap in Baby, It’s Gonna Be a Wild Ride!
With the world superpowers unable to agree on internationally binding laws governing cyberspace, hackers are going to continue to exploit the jurisdictional gaps around the world. Nation-state-sponsored Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups will continue to grow more sophisticated and it continues to get increasingly more challenging to protect systems from the various types of cyber threats. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks leveraging massive quantities of compromised Internet of Things (IoT) devices are another huge threat to contend with. Polymorphic viruses, fileless malware, malware coupled with digital steganography, machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the list goes on and on.
This career path will not get any easier, the stress only compounds year after year. You have to be able to take it in stride and keep it at manageable levels through whatever means you have. Career burnout is a trendy topic in this career field for a good reason. Don’t plan on getting a lot of sleep either. There are also plenty of domestic cybercriminals who operate within their own backyards, and they continue to get more and more brazen with their exploits and tactics. The takeaway from all of this is to say that hacking and InfoSec aren’t going away anytime soon. So, pull up a chair and have a seat. Stay awhile. There is a certain degree of job security in knowing that. There’s so much more to learn and cyber warfare continues to get more and more interesting like with Industrial Control System (ICS). See you around interwebs, hacker!