Cybernetic Notes: Battle of the black and white hats

IT'S THE fashion nowadays to call programmers who confine themselves to writing code "white hats", and those who also enjoy breaking and entering, "black hats", as if the distinction was ever clearer than mud.

Two whey-faced, bespectacled hackers currently dominate the electronic pages of the world's virtual newspapers. One is Bill Gates, the Henry Ford of the personal computer industry, chairman of the software giant Micro-soft Corp, to some the devil incarnate for making the cyberworld Windows-shaped. He's the white hat. The other is Kevin Mitnick, unemployed, one-time fugitive from justice and the longest- serving detainee at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles. He's the black hat.

Both Gates and Mitnick are wrestling with an American justice system that wishes to make examples of them both. Whereas Gates is feared because his phenomenal success in the highly competitive computer business has given him the wealth and power of a nation state and a de facto monopoly of the world's most widely used business tool, Mitnick is feared because of what people imagine he might do, and others like him, when Gatesworld is wired up, and relies on being safely and securely so.

Bill Gates has deep pockets to pay the phalanxes of lawyers and spin doctors he needs. He will probably not end up in gaol even if it is proved that he is a black-hat businessman and his company broke the laws of capitalism and ruined its competitors. Were it to be proved, then his fortune and his company would be hostage to the lawsuits that would follow, all based on estimated losses of victim companies.

Kevin Mitnick is being accused of causing his victims losses of a mere $80m and is facing a 200-year sentence for his crimes which, on closer examination, amount to theft of telephone source code (computer instructions which determine how a system behaves), which he kept to himself - the worth of which is debatable - and a few hours of free mobile-phone calls.

Hijacking source code is not as shocking as it might appear. Computer companies whose patents have been infringed go to court only if they see their technology being exploited successfully by their competitors and a deal between them cannot be struck. Cases are almost invariably settled by commercial arrangements that, they hope, are mutually beneficial.

Mitnick refused to plea-bargain and has now been in federal custody for nearly four years awaiting trial. He has spent time in solitary and his reputation for electronic wizardry is so feared, the authorities' ignorance of electronics so great, that he was once deprived of a Walkman in case he used it to bug his warders.

Thanks to the laxity of its original design, the Internet retains its potential for accessible free speech. Mitnick incarcerated, though broke, is not without a voice. He has his own website. His supporters continually lobby for his freedom. Whatever Mitnick did, they reckon, isn't worth what he's got. As a consequence, websites, including that of The New York Times, have been regularly targeted by hackers and their pages overrun with slogans, scribblings, spoof threats, and juvenile smut in order to raise the profile of Mitnick's case and attack anyone else they feel has offended them.

A long sentence for Mitnick would ensure that hackers, however they are motivated, would be more likely to plea-bargain in the future. The defence thinks it suits the government to portray Mitnick as a dangerous public nuisance in order to justify its own agenda for regulation and control of the Internet and the telecommunications industry.

But Mitnick pursued his hacking career, rather typically, for knowledge and control. He did not have the criminality to sell trade secrets in Taiwan nor the white-hat profit motive to exploit what he found. If he had done so, he might, like Bill Gates, have got himself the best justice money can buy.

Denise Danks's latest novel, `Phreak', is published by Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week