Today the Wall Street Journal gives us even more on hackers, under the title “Hackers Shift Attacks to Small Firms” (GEOFFREY A. FOWLER And BEN WORTHEN, July 21, 2011). They write:

Hacking at small businesses “is a prolific problem,” says Dean Kinsman, a special agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s cyber division, which has more than 400 active investigations into these crimes. “It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.”

In the time it takes to break into a major company like Citigroup Inc., a hacker could steal data from dozens of small businesses and not get detected, says Bryce Case Jr., a former hacker who broke into several government and corporate websites a decade ago and now runs an online message board for hackers called Digital Gangster. Now that small companies use computers, “the juice has become worth the squeeze,” he says. “Even a pizza place has addresses, names and credit-card information.”


Joe Angelastri, owner of City Newsstand in the Chicago area, is out $22,000 because cyber hackers attacked his stores’ payment system. Clayton Hauck for The Wall Street Journal

Now unless you believe that either (a) the WSJ is in the business of remotely trying to influence academic discussions of computing politics, or (b) there is an elaborate disinformation campaign being conducted to disempower social revolutionaries like LulzSec and Anonymous, there is certainly a stark contrast between the repeated coverage of hacking in the press and the repeated discussions of hacking on any net.politics list, in which hackers remain portrayed just about exclusively as heroes.

Yet one commentator even on this story has to chime in on the blemish placed on the word “hackers” by the WSJ’s reportage:

John Ziegler wrote:

Just because the name “hacker” is applicable to both groups: those who use software and computer science to intentionally exploit the computer security of large companies and governments for the sake of public humiliation or economic damage…

And one of many 100s of thousands of low level hackers who steal credit card numbers, spam with virii, etc.

They are totally different.

I replied

Given the huge amount of money made by the security industry, and the public stories of traffic between the “two” activities, it seems that hacking of computer systems is 99% carried out by criminal groups directly attempting to steal information or property (usually cash), and 1% of it is carried out for “altruistic” reasons and/or by very young people who have not (yet) been hired by either the criminal cartels, foreign governments, or security firms.

The romanticization of hackers is one thing. The bizarre certainty on people in the academic world that the 1% of “white hat” hackers are doing anything with political meaning is what I find unfathomable.

Neither LulzSec nor anonymous, for example, were doing anything that anyone should admire politically. But not only do some admire: that is pretty much the default position. what heroes! they shut down MasterCard and later Sony because their feelings were hurt.

Yet even this story about obvious criminal activity–and I for one could not be any more impressed by computer-using criminals than by any other thieves–raises hackles in computational evangelists by daring to use the literal word “hacking” to describe how it was done. there should definitely have been an asterisk next to Hackers*

* The bad kind of hackers, we mean, as opposed to the good kind who randomly expose innocent customer data when a company makes them mad. And steal a ton of stuff from NATO but promise, promise, promise not to expose it! WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS!!! TRUST US.

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