Really think about it.
Are you having trouble crafting a definition? Could you explain it to somebody else? My guess is probably not. Everybody, meaning the news, your friends, your parents, even your grandparents are all worried about somebody “hacking their system” or “breaking their firewall” but very few of these people actually know any concrete information about what hacking is or what its effects are. To fill in this information gap, I hope to share with you some of my knowledge and explain the real dangers of the modern internet age.
From my experience and research I have come to understand hacking as “an intrusion into or hijacking of another’s computer or system” and hacker is an individual that partakes in this kind of action. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. A computer technician may have to “hack” your computer login information because you forgot your password and corporations even hire would-be hackers to test the strength of their own security systems! The kind of scary things we hear on the news about people’s personal information being stolen is more commonly called “cracking”. Cracking is basically hacking with a malicious or foul intent.
So what makes cracking’s purpose different? Two things. The motivation and the result. Where hacking can be done with positive intentions (to get you back into your computer) and result in a productive outcome (you’re back in!), cracking will never be like this. Cracking is all about trying to get something that will benefit the cracker in some way, whether it be money, your information, or even control of your computer, and it will almost always (if they’re successful) result in your financial loss, personal suffering/frustration, and endless computer problems.
But don’t give up yet! You can avoid most risk fairly easily because, fortunately for us, cracking is nothing like anything the movies or news likes to portray. There is no awkward outcast typing frantically away in a battle against your firewall in order to get all your money. This is pure Hollywood fantasy. The cracker has to write a program, test it to make sure it works, and then set some sort of a trap to get that program onto your computer. It takes a lot of effort to write a really “good” virus. Also, cracking is mostly about deception. It is the classic bait and switch. They catch you looking one way and then trick you into doing something that benefits them. This usually means getting you to download a file or click a link accidentally that then installs a hidden program on your computer. This kind of program is called malware which is a term you’re probably familiar with. I’ve written a short list of the most common types of malware you might come across on the internet so that you can better understand what is really out there.
Virus: A computer virus is a small piece of software that attaches itself to another program on your computer. The technical term is “piggybacking”. A virus will attach itself, meaning it essentially writes itself into the programming, to some program that you use frequently (or infrequently) depending on the purpose of the virus. Every time this program, let’s say Minesweeper, runs, so does the virus. When Minesweeper is running, the virus is free to attach itself to more programs and wreak havoc by deleting your hard drive, where all your information is stored, shutting off other programs, creating endless popup ads, or any similar destructive function. This “classic” type of malware is spread by careless clicking and downloading on the internet or by opening emails sent by an unknown person. They aren’t necessarily self-replicating, but ones contracted by email sometimes send out mass messages to entire address books in order to spread itself further.
Trojan Horse: A Trojan horse is another kind of malware that takes a lesson from the history books. It masquerades as one thing, perhaps a game, and when it is executed (ie double-clicked) it carries out its designed purpose, like erasing all your programs. These can be just as destructive as viruses, but they usually are not as widespread because they aren’t as easy to contract. The cracker has to convince you to download it before it can have any effect. Also, they cannot self-replicate because it is an entire program rather than just a piece of software that piggybacks along.
Worms: These are nasty buggers. They do exactly what they sound like they do. Worms are small pieces of software that are designed for a specific security hole in a system. They *metaphorically* burrow into a system and breed. They scan other computers on the same network (think how all the computers at your work or school are connected) and search for the same security hole. If there is a vulnerability found, it copies itself to the next computer. This happens so on and so forth until a patch, meaning a cure, is found. These are what usually make the news. They are particularly devastating for companies and colleges because of the large amount of interconnected computers with essentially the same software. The uniformity is the downfall because the same weakness is in all the computers. Before any of this can happen, however, the worm has to uploaded, possibly by way of USB drive, into a computer network by hand. Once inserted, the worm can spread over the internet, through landlines, and even through wifi.
Keylogger: This is a potentially catastrophic piece of malware. A keylogger, in its most basic form, records every key inputted on the keyboard for however long it is activated. After the information is recorded, all the cracker has to do is access the keylogger to read everything you typed during that period. This can be tricky in some cases, but usually is not that difficult if your computer is connected to the internet. This can be put onto your computer by a virus that doesn’t have any noticeable effects so as not to arouse suspicion or can be uploaded by USB. USB keyloggers are particularly devious because when the USB is removed there may not be any record of the keylogger being there. These can be used to obtain password, financial, and personal information, all of which are things you’d like to keep private!
If you enjoyed or benefitted from this at all, please leave a comment and tell me what you think!