Sunday, August 14, 2011

Etymologically Speaking: Cracking or hacking, mobile phones or voicemail?

In the wake of the News of The World (NOTW) scandal in which "journalists" are alleged to have listened to, and sometimes erased, messages left on phones that did not belong to said journalists, the term phone hacking has shot up the charts of widely misused phrases.

As this very helpful article on Geek News Central points out, the NOTW scandal is not really about phone hacking, it is about voicemail hacking, which the article's title tries to make clear: How To Hack Mobile Phone Voicemail.

Like the proverbial Trojan Horse, which was really neither horse nor Trojan, we are probably stuck with phone hacking as a phrase hacked together by hacks to describe some types of phone system manipulation and/or phone user duping. Such subtle distinctions may not matter to some people, but I think they matter to information security professionals. Why? Because part of our role in society, one that I personally take very seriously, is trying to bring clarity to matters involving the theft of information, unwarranted invasions of privacy through the abuse of information systems, use of computer systems to commit fraud, and so on.

And perhaps no word in recent memory has been more abused and hacked than hackers. As Steven Levy firmly established more than 25 years ago in his book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, the word started out with a positive connotation, a subject he addressed at the recent DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas.

For almost as many years, my good friend Dr. Mich Kabay has tried to maintain a consistent distinction between hackers and criminal hackers. In his copious writings and teachings on information assurance, Mich diligently avoids omitting the word criminal from the phrase, either for convenience or brevity (see these Google results for examples).

(In the 1990s, some people tried to get criminal hackers shortened to crackers but that was doomed by ambiguity, between the decidedly non-technical use of the term cracker in the Southern states and people who specialize in cracking encryption codes.)

While criminal hackers are generally to be reviled for the mess they are making of otherwise beneficial technology, some hackers may be deserving of praise. You can get a personal perspective on this distinction by watching the excellent documentary made by another good friend, Ashley Schwartau, titled "Hackers Are People Too."

All of which underlines the ambiguity--some might say neutrality--of information technology, and the need to use care, as well as clear and specific language, when discussing its use or abuse. Voicemail can be incredibly useful, but it can be abused and cause pain when "hacked" by people of questionable ethics. Encryption can protect your private information from prying eyes, or allow a criminal hacker to hold your data for ransom. Cracking encryption can save lives or expose people to their enemies.

You might say that the problem with technology is the people who abuse it. We need to distinguish them from the people who try to improve it. And choosing our words wisely is one way of making that distinction.

Footnote: I will have a lot more to say about this and other aspects of information security after September 1, which is when I transition to a new position: Security Evangelist for ESET.