Hackers, Crackers, War Drivers and Script Kiddies: The Online Underworld

The internet is a microcosm of the greater world at large, although for some people it is the opposite way round, with the online world being a far more extensive place than that of their physical lives. Almost everything you find in the real world appears in one form or other on the net, to the point where it is possible to take part in almost all activities whilst sitting in front of a computer. Many people who do this are addicted to the continuous stream of information and interactivity that the net makes available. They chat endlessly in IRC chat rooms, share their every thought on weblogs, and play for hours in the many gaming worlds that have appeared over the last few years. Continuously occupied with what looks, from the outside, a harmless waste of time, the majority of net addicts are just getting on with life. It is so compelling and uses so little physical energy that your average net addict can survive on four or five hours sleep, often caught during the day. For some reason the internet comes more alive at night.

It is at night when the darker recesses of the internet are at their most active. The most deeply addicted of the net heads turn their attentions to the internet itself. Fuelled by strong coffee and highly inquisitive minds these people seek to understand the very workings of the world in which they spend so much time. Through greater understanding comes innovation, new and better ways of using the internet. These are the hackers. They are the people responsible for many of the most important developments in recent years, the people who work tirelessly on open source software like Linux, the Apache web server and PHP scripting language. The hackers place themselves at the top of the internet hierarchy. They are more than mere users.

Below the hackers are the crackers, although they, and everyone except “real” hackers, call themselves hackers too. Crackers learn a lot about the internet, and then use it for snooping around. The world looks at hackers/crackers and sees destructive criminals, for cybercrime requires a deep understanding of how the internet works, and no one knows that better than these folk. Crackers break into computer systems connected to the internet. They divide themselves into two camps, the black hats and the white hats. The white hats are just explorers, seeing where they can go, whilst the black hats are looking for valuable information, or systems they can take over or “own” for their own purposes. The activities of both are illegal in many countries, whether motivated by malicious intent or curiosity. Most crackers will swap hats depending on their mood.

The growth in wireless networking around the world (even in Arusha!) has spawned new activities for hackers and crackers. One of these is war-driving. Using a wireless enabled laptop hooked up to a powerful home-made antenna, crackers will drive around a city searching for wireless networks they can access. Depending on the colour of hat they wear that day they will either use the network connection to surf the internet for free from the comfort of their car, or they will try to “own” it. Once a wireless network is discovered a mark will be made on a nearby wall to show other war-drivers that access is possible – a practice known as war-chalking. With at least three ISPs in Arusha using wireless networks to make the internet available, how long will it be before cryptic symbols start appearing around town? How many war-drivers are all ready cracking and getting free internet connections?

At the bottom of the ladder of internet underworld denizens are the script-kiddies. Looked down upon by both hackers and crackers, script kiddies are probably the most destructive of internet users. They are the ones unleashing viruses and other nuisance creatures on the world. The interesting thing is that they often don’t know that much about computers. Virus writing toolkits exist which allow those with a malicious streak to create a virus with a few clicks of the mouse. Script-kiddies play at being hackers and crackers without gaining many skills, being more interested in bragging to each other about which systems they have owned, and which websites they have defaced. Script-kiddies often are children – their behaviour is always juvenile.

The dark underbelly of the internet is not something to fear, merely something to be aware of. The talent of hackers and crackers is utilised by many companies in developing new products, and increasing the security of existing ones. Wireless networking has developed far more quickly as a direct result of flexibilities exploited by war-drivers and their like – this has
enabled networks like those around Arusha to appear all over the world. Were the underworld a lot smaller than it is critical computer systems would likely be more vulnerable than they presently are. Attacks would be less frequent, but would likely be far more devastating. The presence of destructive and constructive people on its fringes forces the internet to evolve, which is something we all benefit from.

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Originally published in Arusha Times 306

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