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Hacking Hackers and the Hacks they Hack

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Wow, it’s true. If you type a word often enough, it starts to lose its meaning. But before I start to use the word hack as a koan in a meditation session, I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick news roundup of some hacking stories. Not all hacks are created equal the use of the words hack, hackers and hacking can sometimes be misleading.

First, there’s the turmoil in the United Kingdom over scandals at News Corp. The story centers on phone hacking — but what does that actually mean? In my opinion, calling it hacking is misleading. What happened was that reporters or private investigators working for reporters illegally accessed voicemails belonging to other people. Those people may have included politicians, celebrities, athletes and crime victims, among others. It’s actually pretty simple — to access your voicemail from a remote phone, you need to enter a PIN. In the past, most carriers would assign a generic PIN to customers. Since customers usually access voicemail on their own phones, they never needed to use or change the PIN. That meant anyone else could access the voicemail remotely and just use the default PIN to get in.

It’s illegal to access someone else’s voicemail that way in the UK but it’s not really hacking. If someone walked up to your computer and accessed it because you hadn’t changed the default password — or you had disabled passwords entirely — you wouldn’t call it hacking. But the word does serve as useful shorthand. The best way to protect yourself against a similar attack is to change any default PINs to something unique.

There’s also news about News Corp. reporters allegedly bribing police to get cell phone tracking data in order to locate and follow people. Again, that’s not actually hacking, though it might fall under the category of social engineering. It’s definitely bad news. The scandal at News Corp. is ongoing and we’re not really sure how much fallout there will be.

Meanwhile, Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was arrested in Boston under charges that he stole around four million documents from MIT and JSTOR. Massachusetts District Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz has filed the charges, which could see Swartz slapped with a million-dollar fine and up to 35 years in prison. According to Ortiz, Swartz broke into a secured area of MIT and accessed the documents from a wiring closet. This is definitely closer to my idea of hacking than the News Corp. story, though usually I imagine hackers trying to access secret corporate documents or military files, not scientific journals.

Across the United States, law enforcement officers have arrested 14 people the FBI claims are connected to the group Anonymous. The arrests follow raids on the suspects’ homes. It looks like these suspects aren’t directly connected to LulzSec, the anti-security hacker group that seemed to split off — and later rejoin — Anonymous. Instead, these members may have used their computers to participate in direct denial of service (DDoS) attacks against targets like credit card companies during various Anonymous operations.

Speaking of LulzSec, the group recently claimed responsibility for a hack of British tabloid The Sun’s web site. Readers visiting the site were redirected to a fake article that said Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp., had died. The attack appears to be in response to the scandal over at Murdoch’s company. I think a web site redirect falls into hacking territory. And the story really brings us full circle, which as a writer I appreciate.

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