Advanced Hacking?

By | December 5, 2005

When you think of a hacker, you always get the image of some scruffy young guy (normally a teenager) stuck away in a dark, untidy room. His room, as you can no doubt imagine, will be strewn with half-eaten pizzas and empty drink cans and the walls will be decorated with posters of ´underground´ bands.

This of course, is the stereotypical image, and like all good stereotypes, it is false. Many hackers don ties and work in plush offices, although some don´t; many hackers hide out in dark rooms, others work from their university… But they do all have one thing in common: the computer.

But what kind of computer do they use? In 99.9 percent of cases it is a PC. The processor is the same as almost all other PCs around the world (Intel, AMD or Motorola). The operating system may be a commercial release or free version, but will be widely-distributed (Windows, Linux or OS/X). With these computers they launch attacks on other similar systems, i.e. simple desktop PCs or corporate servers, but with the same basic equipment.

It is true that they also launch attacks against systems with platforms that don´t coincide, such as a large servers belonging to governments, universities or multinational companies. But remember these attacks are few and far between, and are carried out by a very small group of hackers.

Hackers today, or at least those that call themselves hackers, focus their ´research´ on the security of the most vulnerable and easy to attack systems: home user PCs or systems in small and mid-sized businesses. It is easier to be successful against weak targets, as there is less need for in-depth IT knowledge. Exploits for many systems can be found on many web pages along with applications for carrying out intrusions, all you need to do is simply run a program.

However, these self-proclaimed IT security researchers are conspicuously avoiding targets that could really demonstrate their knowledge and keenness for research. I´m talking about the new IT technologies that are being implemented around the globe.

Have any of these hackers ever tried tampering with a grid system? Have they ever managed, even just for a moment, to use the calculation time offered by grid-connected computers to researchers around the world? I guess not, as here they won´t be able to steal any personal data or find any current accounts they can use for financial gain. Neither will they be able to sell the hijacked computers in order to send spam or launch denial of service attacks. These systems are designed for scientific research; they are not kids´ Christmas presents used to download pirate software from the Internet.

Another possible target for hackers could be the so-called supercomputers. These systems would really be a challenge, as the processing capacity they have is the spearhead of today´s IT technology; these systems really ought to be in the sights of hackers.

There are now many supercomputers installed around the world, such as “Mare Nostrum”, “Earth Simulator”, “Blue Gene / L” or “Columbia”. All of them dedicated to tasks that do not offer, at least on paper, any direct financial benefit to an attacker, simply the spiritual pleasure of having triumphed over the security barriers.

These systems are used for researching the human genome, protein folding, medicines, climate change… basically the highest levels of scientific investigation. In these systems there are no credit cards, nor users entering their bank details on websites.

Moreover, the creators of these systems have a thoroughly different concept of security from hackers of desktops and bargain-basement computers. Each teraflop is highly expensive, and therefore monitoring of each and every process in execution is extremely rigorous. Each wasted clockcycle represents a financial loss for system owners, so anyone even dreaming that a process could be hidden on the system is, frankly, on another planet.

Hacktivism is today just simply about making money or crashing systems which, half-the-time, crash anyway whenever their owners install a new game. So this is hacking? This is just crass computer violence.

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