Hacking for the greater good

A graphic image of a padlock in a circle, with a mechanical, cyber design

writer icon Wilma Johansson     Pete Linforth   |   Game Development     🕐 06. Feb. 2019

When the subject of hackers comes up, for many of us it conjures up an image of a young man sitting in the dark, hunched over his computer, existing on pizza and energy drinks.

Hackers have become more prominent in our society as our day to day lives have become more digitalised. Services and infrastructures are migrating to the internet and much of what we do is carried out online.

Corporations and governments are a common target for hackers. Both those who want a challenge and those who have an axe to grind, or a point to make.

Former CEO of Cisco Systems John T. Chambers famously said - “there are two types of companies - those that have been hacked, and those who don't know they have been hacked.”

However, attitudes towards hackers are changing. Cybersecurity analyst Keren Elazari said, “I think we actually need hackers”. Elazari recognises the threat that everyday people feel from hackers, in particular due to the narrative portrayed in films and the media.

“If we see hackers as only the bad guys, we are doing our society a disservice, risking ostracising all those doing great things in the world”
, she insisted.

Rewards and incentives
Elazari points out that while some may choose to do malicious things with their power, there are many others who work to do hard things that will benefit the greater good.

Some companies want to keep hackers on their side by rewarding their skills. They offer “bug bounties”, a financial reward for finding and properly reporting cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

In 2015, United Airlines awarded one million frequent flyer miles to two hackers who identified flaws in their security system. They are open about their desire to hear from hackers and reward them for their help.

“We believe that this program will further bolster our security”
, United communicates on their official website

Information is valuable
Elazari believes that hackers represent an exceptional force for change in the 21st century. “This is because access to information is a critical currency of power, one which governments would like to control”, she declared.

Hire a hacker
British journalist Misha Glenny believes that companies should go one step further, and hire hackers. “They are providing a service by demonstrating how useless companies are at protecting our data”, he argued

Instead, Glenny noted that corporations and governments alike are investing huge sums into cybersecurity and putting their faith in “extraordinary technical solutions”.

“No one wants to talk to these guys, the hackers, who are doing everything”
, Glenny explained. He draws a comparison with China and Russia, who he asserts are “recruiting hackers both before and after they become involved criminal and industrial espionage activities - are mobilising them on behalf of the state”.

Time to pay attention
In order to work with hackers, rather than against them, governments and corporations need to pay attention when a hacker identifies cybersecurity issues and points out flaws without causing damage.

In 2013, Palestinian Khalil Shreateh hacked into Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page, after several attempts to alert the company’s security team of a flaw in their system. The security team did not accept his numerous reports when he tried to submit the bug for review. 

His unorthodox approach quickly caught the attention of the Facebook team, and the bug was fixed. Shreateh was thanked, but Facebook refused to pay a bounty reward in line with their “Bug Bounty” program, as he broke their rules surrounding reporting vulnerabilities.

Fellow hackers raised $10 000 for Shreateh following Facebooks refusal to compensate him for his work. 

Elazari believes firmly in the goodness of the majority of hackers. “The reality is, hackers can do a lot more than break things,” she said. “They can bring people together.”

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