You may have seen in the news that a man called Barnaby Jack, a New Zealand-born computer expert died recently in San Francisco, aged just 35 years.
His significance and the shades of grey that he was a leading exponent of, warrant a set of answers to your varied questions.
Q: Who was he?
A: He became famous for demonstrating how to hack ATM machines in 2010.
Q: Is that it?
A: Oh no, he also said he knew how to kill someone wearing a heart pace-maker from 30 feet without touching them.
Q: Wow. So who killed him? People with heart conditions?
A: Possibly. Lots of voices on social media thought he’d been neutralised. However, the coroner’s office in San Francisco has ruled out foul play.
Q: What was he into it before he died?
A: Well he was due to speak at the annual Black Hat security convention in Las Vegas on the topic, Hacking Humans…
Q: Whoa, hold on a minute. Black Hat convention?
A: Yes. You’re too young to remember that in the old western movies, the villain always wore a black hat and the good guy a white one. Think the maverick cowboy robot in Westworld in his black hat and The Lone Ranger in his white one.
Q: So how does that help today with computers?
A: There is a whole colour coding. Barnaby Jack was a white hat hacker, but since the conference is called Black Hat, let’s start with black ones!
Q: I’ll sit down.
A: A black hat hacker is a person enjoying wide computer knowledge who works to either breach or bypass all or any internet security, he/she may create viruses too. They are the real baddies, and they also go under the names of dark-side hackers or crackers. PC Tools claim that ‘hackers build things, crackers break things.’
Q: OK, what about the white hat guys, are they all good?
A: They identify weaknesses in security but on behalf of the owners or those with legitimate interests. They find loopholes so they can be closed. Every company needs at least one white hat who gets ahead of the black hats, and some employ just such experts. Some of them started out as black hats, crims turned honest, you might say. Some have it that both Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg started out wearing the black ones.
Q: That’s clear enough. Anything between black and white?
A: Grey hat hackers are those who work in some sort of twilight world between the two extremes. They do white hat activity and also black hat stuff. Don’t ask me why.
A: I said don’t ask. There are also blue hat hackers who are specifically people paid by Microsoft ‘to expose vulnerabilities in Windows products.’ Other companies may engage similarly tasked people, but the colour of their headgear is not readily known, unless we hack in to see.
Q: Why don’t we hear more about these people in hats?
A: ListVerse publish a list of the 10 Most Notorious Black Hatters that includes Kevin Poulson (Dark Dante) infamous in the 1980s, Albert Gonzalez the cybercriminal responsible for the biggest ATM and credit card theft so far and the Russian scammer Vladimir Levin.
Robert Tappan Morris dispatched a worm that paralysed ten percent of the net in 1988. He now works for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Michael Calce (Mafiaboy) launched denial-of-service attacks on big companies in 2000. David Smith authored the Melissa virus, Adrian Lamo, the ‘homeless hacker’, Sony PlayStation 3 jailbreak artist George Hotz, Jonathan James (cOmrade) was the first juvenile (15 years) jailed in the US for cybercrime with British Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer Gary McKinnon tops – he completes the rogues’ gallery.
Q: Any more hats?
A: Try Zazzle.com who sell a wide range of hacker hats for individuals if you want to join the elite, at least show people you do, although real hackers prefer to wear their hats in silence.
Q: One final hat?
A: Only the mad hatter …but that’s another story.
Blogs to see without hacking:
No Green Credentials for Computer Scammers and Internet Pirates, 23 January 2013
Cyber Attack in the UK Set to Be the Biggest Growth Industry, 21 January 2013
Another Week, Another Systems Malfunction, 3 July 2012
Scams Are Out to Get You, Online and Off, 21 May 2012
11 Worst Computer Viruses, Worms and Trojans (So Far), 21 November 2011