Sunday, March 29, 2020

Coronavirus and cybercrime: please say criminals, NOT hackers

Not all criminals wear hoodies.
Not all hackers are criminals.
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash
This BBC headline is both a sad sign of the times and also a sad reminder of how sloppy the media can be:

"Coronavirus: How hackers are preying on fears of Covid-19"

I bet the title was not chosen by the writer of the article.

The article itself, by Joe Tidy, is good stuff, and I encourage you to read it because everyone needs to be aware that—as he writes in the opening sentence—at this point in time, "Cyber-criminals are targeting individuals as well as industries, including aerospace, transport, manufacturing, hospitality, healthcare and insurance." And they are using the public's fear of coronavirus to advance a criminal agenda: infiltrate systems and compromise them. This is despicable behavior and people who engage in it should be ashamed of themselves.

But it is wrong to call the people who are doing this hackers. These are criminal hackers; or, if space is limited: criminals. To be clear: people hack for criminal purposes are criminals, not hackers. There are many people who hack for non-criminal purposes, some of them very noble and unselfish. For example, right now there are people "hacking" solutions to the shortage of medical equipment and apps to help capture and track data that could be critical to tackling coronavirus data (see "Good use of Hacker" below).

Editors who gloss over this extremely important distinction do the world a disservice. As someone who has spent the better part of three decades trying to explain why the world needs to do more to shut down the criminal abuse of information technology, I can assure you that confusion over the word "hacker" has been a serious distraction if not an outright impediment.

One of the main strategies for assessing the security of a computer network or digital device is to hire someone to try and defeat it, i.e. to hack it. That someone is an ethical hacker, but they are in short supply, due in part—in my opinion—to the stigma that the media has attached to the word hacker. The dynamics of the confusion over hacker are too complex to unravel here, but this article provides a simplified overview of the good/bad hacker landscape, and this one helps explain good hacking, You might also want to check out a session at a hacker conventions (DEF CON III, 1995) in which I explored arguments for and against hacking with some of the earliest practitioners.


A postdigital perspective


Having done several stints as a writer and editor as well as publisher, I realize that it's a pain to have to constantly distinguish between good hackers and bad hackers, white hats and black hats, ethical and criminal—not to mention the hits to your word counts and screen space. On the other hand, think how good it is to educate your readers about this increasingly common aspect of daily life, the constant struggle between criminal hackers and the ethical hackers who work so hard to thwart them.

Furthermore, it is suitably postdigital to just say criminals. To use the word hackers when talking about criminals suggests you can't see how modern life has evolved. Allow me to quote Professor Gary Hall, Director of the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University:
the ‘digital’ can no longer be understood as a separate domain of culture. Today digital information processing is present in every aspect of our lives. This includes our global communication, entertainment, education, energy, banking, health, transport, manufacturing, food, and water-supply systems. Attention therefore needs to turn from the digital understood as a separate sphere, and toward the various overlapping processes and infrastructures that shape and organise the digital and that the digital helps to shape and organise in turn.
For good or ill, hacking shapes and organizes the digital. The word for people who commit crimes in our postdigital world is criminal, not hacker. Crimes committed in cyberspace are crimes, not hacking. Bearing these things in mind will help us better understand the fact that we are way behind in our efforts to get a handle on crime (something that I have documented in depth).

Last year I was honored to be part of a much-needed international, vendor-neutral project to address the challenges of cyber-deterrence. The output of the project is freely available here. But even that project started out with a less-than-helpful headline: "To Catch a Hacker." I urged scaling back on that phrase as the project evolved, and I am now trying to be upfront with interviewers and editors: please don't quote me if your headline is going to imply—as the BBC's does—that all hackers are criminals.

Finally, to help out editors who like to learn by example—and to demonstrate that I am not singling out the BBC—here are some bad use cases and some good use cases:

Bad use of hacker:
Good use of Hacker:

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