Common Myths on Hacking in Light of New Reality TV Show

(Ping! Zine Web Hosting Magazine) – Syfy’s Hackers promises to features ripped-from-the-headlines tales “of real-life hackers who turned entire industries upside down.”  Hackers are often romanticized as counterculture heroes, liberating the secrets of the elite and using high-tech tools to shake up the world. The term Hackers brings up thought of Anonymous and WikiLeaks. The reality, however, is the mind of the hacker is often a criminal mind and very few hackers are motivated by noble purposes.

Most hackers are motivated primarily by profit.  They aren’t revealing government secrets or going after enemies of social justice. What they are doing is stealing your credit card by hacking into Target’s website. TV shows that perpetuate hacking myths obscure some of the harsh realities of computer crimes that the public deserves to know.

Myth: Hacking is a Victimless Crime:

The global cost of cybercrime totals as much as $100 billion annually according to recent studies from McAfee.

Companies that fail to secure their networks are responsible for financial costs to consumers and may be fined by the PCI Council. The PCI Council is a coalition of Visa, American Express, JCB, MasterCard and Discover that oversees the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI SDD). When retailers violate PCI SDD standards protecting cardholder data, they face fines between $50 and $90 for each cardholder whose data was compromised.

These costs, of course, are passed on to customers and shareholders in terms of higher prices for goods and lower prices for stock. The bottom line: hacking costs, not helps, the collective… and Hackers are criminals who probably don’t deserve their own celebratory TV series.

Myth: Most hackers are hobby hackers

The first hackers were MIT students experimenting with computer mainframes. Throughout the 1980’s, hackers were often intellectually curious “nerds.” Even viruses and malware were usually intended for mischievous fun. Movies and TV shows today still portray hackers as “Hacvticits” or as young kids out looking for LULZ.

The reality is, there’s been a big shift in who is doing the hacking. The transition was described in The Corporatization of Cybercrime.  Online communities allow hackers to sell compromised accounts, personal information and stolen credit card numbers. Hacking has become another form of organized crime and every member of the cybercriminal organization has a role to play in the vast criminal empire.

18 U.S. Code section 1030(b) makes it illegal to conspire to commit hacking. Anyone who has any part in a hacking ring (for profit or otherwise) could face federal criminal charges. This is a big risk to take for hobby hackers, who don’t get the payouts that professional criminals do.

Myth: Hacking is a minor crime

Syfy’s new show promises to feature law enforcement’s hunt for the hackers, but many people are unaware of just how serious a crime hacking is.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 was intended to punish intruders into banking systems and Department of Defense Computers. Now, tough-on-cybercrime lawmakers apply the Act to Internet activists like Aaron Swartz who download files from an academic database and ended up facing 50 years of prison time, leading him to commit suicide.

Almost any unauthorized use of a computer, including violating the terms of service on a website, can be prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act…. which means federal prosecution and a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for simple things like accessing a computer and obtaining information. The CFAA allows also allows victims to file civil actions against for violations for injunctions, equitable relief and compensatory damages.

When every act of hacking can lead to federal prosecution, no hack is a minor one.

Myth: Hackers need advanced criminal knowledge and use high-tech tools to hack into computer systems.

Syfy says that Hackers will show what happens to a hacked computer network. American cybercrime lawyer Arkady Bukh advises that often nothing exciting happens. Most people think of hackers accessing back channels and furiously typing code. However, one of the most common types of hacks doesn’t require any more knowledge than setting up a Facebook page. This type of hack is called DDoSiNg.

DDoSiNg involves sending a lot of Internet packets to an IP address all at one time, flooding the web server with junk data. The address cannot handle all of the unnecessary requests and the server crashes.  This technique has been used to bring down the websites of MasterCard, PayPal, and the US Sentencing Commission.

Someone who wants to participate in a DDos attack can download free software, enter a URL and choose a method of attack by hitting a button. Within 60 seconds, the attack begins. The target website is often taken down quickly and, within a few weeks, months or years, the perpetrator may find the FBI knocking at his door to charge him with conspiracy to intentionally damage protected computers.

Shows that glamorize Hackers may be entertaining to watch, but they can also prompt people to make bad decisions without a full understanding of the severity of cybercrime penalties. Hopefully, Syfy’s Hackers will present a responsible picture of the realities of hacking and not become just another form of entertainment perpetuating falsehoods about hacker culture.