Hacking Unplugged

3 min read

Most of the digital world lives in fear of the dreaded dark-side hackers , Jolt Cola-fueled software scalawags who have succumbed to the dark side of The Force. However, I come not to bury these reprobate hackers but to praise their inventiveness with language. Eric Raymond, the compiler of The Jargon File of hacker slang, has said that although "linguistic invention in most subcultures of the modern West is a halting and largely unconscious process, hackers, by contrast, regard slang formation and use as a game to be played for conscious pleasure." Indeed, some of the best and most useful neologisms of recent vintage were coined in the same dank basements and goatish-smelling bedrooms that witnessed the creation of the myriad digital pathogens that have plagued us in the 2000s.

Before getting to my main theme, let me clear up a thing or two about the word hacker . Raymond uses the word in its positive sense of a software or hardware enthusiast who enjoys exploring the limits of code or machine. However, there's a second, equally valid, sense that refers to someone who breaks into or disrupts computer systems or networks. Purists prefer the term cracker for these digital miscreants and mischief-makers. However, the term "hacker"--which has been in the language since at least the early 1960s--has always had malicious connotations attached to it.

For example, the 20 November 1963 issue of The Tech, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's student paper, complained that "many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, [who] have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation." In the mind's eye of the media and the reading public, a hacker is a bad person, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. This is perhaps why we're now seeing labels such as white-hat hacker , ethical hacker , and samurai being applied to those who use their computing skills for good rather than evil. But I digress.

The wireless world, in particular, is a prolific source of hacks and the new terms that describe them. One such term is wardriving , a hacking technique that involves driving through a neighborhood with a wireless-enabled notebook computer and mapping hotspots --houses and businesses that have wireless access points. (This is also called drive-by hacking .) Wardriving is a play on the older term wardialing : using a software program that automatically calls thousands of telephone numbers to look for any with a modem attached. This term comes from the 1983 movie War Games, now a classic in hacking circles. In the movie, a young hacker uses wardialing to look for games and bulletin board systems. However, he inadvertently ends up with a direct connection to a high-level military computer that gives him control over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Chaos, of course, ensues.

A variation on the wardriving theme is warwalking , which, as the name implies, involves a more pedestrian search for insecure wireless networks. (This is also called, not surprisingly, walk-by hacking .) The usual activity of the warwalker is warchalking , marking a special symbol on a sidewalk or other surface that indicates a nearby wireless network, especially one that offers Internet access. Warchalkers are also called wibos --wireless hobos--because the idea of marking hotspots was inspired by the practice used by actual hobos during the Depression of the 1930s of marking houses and establishments that offered food or work.

These whackers (wireless hackers) defend their practices by claiming that they don't take advantage of their unauthorized access to perform criminal activities. That's clearly not always the case, however, since it's known that some of them indulge in warspamming , using an insecure network's Simple Mail Transfer Protocol gateway to send out a load of spam. Then there's the Toronto man who was caught driving the wrong way down a one-way street, naked from the waist down, while wardriving for child pornography. Police charged him with, among other things, theft of telecommunications .

On a less sinister level, there's the relatively new practice of bluejacking : temporarily hijacking another person's cellphone by sending it an anonymous text message using the Bluetooth wireless networking system. Bluejackers tend to be merry pranksters. For example, an Associated Press reporter told of seeing a group of tourists strolling through Stockholm, Sweden, and admiring handicrafts in a storefront when one of their cellphones beeped and displayed an anonymous message: "Try the blue sweaters. They keep you warm in the winter." It's not exactly white-hat hacking, but at least it's a long way from the Dark Side.

Technically Speaking is a commentary on new words that arise in technical culture and communications. Readers are invited to respond toIEEE Spectrum techspkg@ieee.org .

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