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Heather Brooke’s well-written article in The Guardian covered some of the issues about hackers and the way society generally perceives them. Although she was basically trying to sell her book, it was the result of some proper first-hand investigative journalism. We hear increasingly more about hackers now, partly because society is more dependent than ever on certain technologies, and there’s a growing number of people with political awareness, a range of intentions, and the skills to exploit this. I also think, because of this change, it will become more essential in the near future to make the distinction between genuine hackers, ‘crackers‘ (or criminal hackers) and ‘script kiddies‘. They are three entirely different groups doing three entirely different things.

Quite regularly, the politicians have the most outlandish ideas about Internet ‘kill switches’, ‘cyberwars’, and ‘cyber terrorists’ being a bigger threat to SCADA than the more mundane risks. The facts are the UK’s Home Secretary had little choice other than call a meeting with executives from FaceBook and Twitter when considering the censorship of social networks, and there are ways around practically anything governments do to control the Internet. Many of us believe we’ll have an even more decentralised and free Internet by the end of this decade, which is how it should be.

Brooke’s article included a quote from Rop Gonggrijp’s Chaos Communications Congress 2010 speech:
‘Most of today’s politicians realise that nobody in their ministries, or any of their expensive consultants, can tell them what is going on any more. They have a steering wheel in their hands without a clue what – if anything – it is connected to. Our leaders are reassuring us that the ship will certainly survive the growing storm. But on closer inspection they are either quietly pocketing the silverware or discreetly making their way to the lifeboats.’

Inside the Hackerspace
A more subtle change I’ve noticed in society is the increase in people forming co-operatives. That could be a consequence of the recession, but I believe it’s a step forward if a lot of consumerism is replaced by learning and creativity. The hackerspace (often called a ‘hackspace’) is essentially a co-operative workshop where things are created and experimented with, and the motivation is intellectual. A common misconception is that hackerspaces are dark rooms from which people conspire to break into networks, but I’ve yet to come across that outside the workplace, and anyone looking for that would be sorely disappointed. To quote the hackspace in Nottingham as an example of what a typical one is actually like:
‘The hackspace is run on a non-profit basis to serve your creative interests as a member. Whether those are craft, electronics, woodwork, metalwork, knitting, programming, bike maintenance, prototyping, gadget modification, or even robotics, we have the kind of tools you don’t generally have room for at home, and the hackspace is constantly growing.’

The hackspace I’m involved with aims to be something like the one in Nottingham and the many others around the country, and there’s a fair amount of stuff that doesn’t revolve around computers. In fact, at our last meeting, project ideas ranged from a clock with vacuum tubes to an open source self-replicating fabricator system (the RepRap). Because hackerspaces are co-operatives, the responsibility for running them is shared by all members. Almost all of them, like ours, are completely open to anyone who’s interested.

And there are also hackerspaces that are much larger, well-financed, and with hundreds of members. Brookes had the pleasure of visiting the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, which has a slightly different culture as it’s one of the few that specialises in testing and improving security, and it matured over the years to the point of becoming more or less part of the establishment. More about the CCC can be read about in Barefoot into Cyberspace by Becky Hogge.

Outside the Hackerspace
Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, hackerspaces and ‘genuine’ hacking have almost nothing to do with the activities of Anonymous and LulzSec, and where I disagree with Brookes is the idea that politics is intrinsic to hacker groups. It has more to do with the psychology and ethics of the individual, and like any other social group, this varies from person to person. There are good and bad plumbers, good and bad doctors, and good and bad hackers.
Of course, Anonymous is more than likely being led by hackers driven by a hatred of censorship and the pressing need to defend civil liberties, and they have the support of countless script kiddies who are unaware of how the software works, and consequently got caught after using the LOIC. Unfortunately the script kiddies often have a more basic motive.

It’s worth noting that politics has always attracted the most infantile in society, and the type of person who, for whatever reason, feels the need to have some power over others. We’ve all come across such people in all walks of life. Most gravitate towards management positions for the sake of it, some gravitate towards the leadership of whatever political faction, and others seek power through the use of ready-made ‘hacking tools’ capable of bringing down networks with a few clicks before the novelty one day wears off. Actually, some politicians, rather like overaged ‘script kiddies’, seem more interested in having ‘cyberweapons’ or ‘a range of capabilities’ (yes, we’ve all got them) than actually having the knowledge to create them, which more or less proves my point. This was very much the mentality and motivation behind most criminal ‘hacking’ during the 1990s before it became profitable.