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Hackers: cyber saviours or snake-oil salesmen?

Should we buy into these cultural harbingers?

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Surrounded by sycophantic applause and loud guffaws at weak jokes, a strange, nervous twitch started to develop. Similar to entering the Blue Oyster bar*, the Hackers Forum was not the kind of place an old-style, cynical hack is welcome. Up on stage at London's Olympia is "one of the strongest line-ups of hacking experts ever assembled in the UK". In the audience, a mixture of geeks, hacker wannabes and security firm employees. Hackers have moved from being cyber-terrorists and malicious intruders to modern saviours, knights of the e-table. As long as he doesn't approve of the actual attacks, a hacker is a cult hero. Hackers are the little men fighting back, two fingers up to multi-national corporations - vive la revolution! And being British, we buy into this underdog culture. They're raising the security barrier, showing how huge firms just throw money at the net without understanding it, they bring down porn sites when the authorities are helpless to intervene. As one speaker quips: "We should be making 'Thank a hacker' bumper stickers" (much laughter). We're all very cosy. Typical "questions" are: "I'd just like to say that I think your program is amazing"; "Why don't people understand what you're trying to do?". All that's missing is some US-style whooping. When someone interrupted the party to ask how they justify their hacking software - free and used by hundreds of bored teenagers everywhere - he is arrogantly interrupted: "They're called 'script kiddies'." "I don't give a 4xxx what you call them, I want to know how you justify your actions" - that, at least, was what he wanted to say but he'd never have made it out of the door alive. The reality is, no matter what they say, media-friendly hackers and those evil-nasty hackers wot do the damage are the same breed. They learn the same skills in the same places, even if they are not driven by exactly the same passions. That one goes in front of an audience and says it is for the hacked company's own benefit is irrelevant. In its way, hacking is the equivalent of graffiti artists in the 80s. At first, graffiti was a manifestation of bored youth, then a cult activity. Condemned, it reached the media, which then turned such artists into celebrities and sparked off a million other graffiti sprayers. It became an art form and virtual social acceptance was assured. This is where we are with hacking. With any luck, it will go the same way as graffiti - the main players will fade, its impact will be put into perspective and it will become nothing more than an irritation. That said, it was difficult to hide a smirk when the workings of two of the latest and greatest pieces of anti-hacking software (as explained to The Reg by the companies' VPs at a trade show) were torn to pieces by a hacker - within seconds. ® * Blue Oyster bar - Leather-based gay bar from the Police Academy series. A running gag was that people would enter a non-descript backdoor to hide and then find themselves among a mass of gay bikers who proceeded to dance the Tango with them.

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