Cyber Culture: Why hackers are being asked to come and have a go, if they think they're smart enough


Security personnel tend not to challenge the public to sneak unnoticed into buildings they're guarding, preferring to give the impression that the entrances are impregnable and they themselves are invincible. But the "keep out or else" approach doesn't work online, where cyber attacks are rampant and the task of thwarting them is too colossal for stretched IT departments.

Instead, companies are encouraging us to discover weaknesses by hacking their websites: to have a go if we think we're clever enough. At a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) event in Hawaii, web-security expert Jeremiah Grossman gave a talk entitled "Hack Yourself First" which outlined this principle of ethical hacking; permitting people to hack systems provided that they disclose their findings.

Thinking of hacking as a benevolent practice runs contrary to everything we've ever been told, but there's a growing movement of crusading "white hat" hackers, partly encouraged by the huge sums that companies pay out in rewards for uncovering flaws. An annual white-hat conference, ShmooCon, took place in Washington DC a few days ago and was attended by 1,800 people whose interest in gaining access to restricted areas is totally benign – at least, that's what they say.

Google has a roll-call of people who've pointed out coding errors and helped make its products safer, grandly termed the "Security Hall Of Fame"; one of the latest additions is a 15-year-old boy from Norway, Cim Stordal. In an interview with CNET he revealed the time it took him to uncover flaws (four days for Facebook, five minutes for Apple) but the more surprising revelation was that he's only been doing this kind of thing for a year.

When you know that an inexperienced teenager can quickly find holes in the world's most popular websites, it's easy to see why hacking of the non-white-hat variety is so widespread. And why some companies are now having to place their trust in white-hat hackery.

Despite its bad-boy name, jailbreaking is legal, for now...

When spiffy new features appear on your smartphone during software upgrades, you can be sure that a handful of those ideas emerged from the jailbreak community. Jailbreaking – or rooting – is about getting under the bonnet of the phone, gaining access to features that the operating system (OS) wouldn't normally allow, and exploiting them with apps. Jailbroken iPhones, for example, could sync over Wifi and record video clips long before their squeaky-clean, Apple-approved cousins.

Unsurprisingly, jailbreaking isn't smiled upon by manufacturers; it wrests control of the device away from them, transporting it away from a safe, fluffy, cosseted world and into one full of possibility and (so we're told) danger. So it probably invalidates your warranty, and keeping it jailbroken when your phone's OS is upgraded can be tiresome – but it's not illegal, and hasn't been since a ruling by the US Copyright Office in 2010.

These rulings come up for renewal every couple of years, however, and so the issue of jailbreaking is once again being kicked around furiously. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is campaigning for the exemption to be extended to tablets and video game consoles, arguing that it provides an essential platform for innovation, and allows the untapped potential of our devices to be explored and tinkered with.

The Apples and Googles of this world will be submitting incredibly detailed legal arguments as to why this isn't a good idea. It seems unfair to me that a niche activity borne out of curiosity and enthusiasm should ever be punishable by a fine or a jail sentence – but then again I'm not a multinational technology company, so what do I know?

Information wants to be free. So do oppressed citizens

Intrepid geekery may also have a big part to play as emerging legislation begins to affect the way we use the internet. Much has been written about Sopa (Stop Online Privacy Act) and Pipa (Protect Intellectual Property Act) that are currently being debated in the US, along with the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta); all three seek to criminalise certain types of internet activity, but some vague definitions and lazy wording seem to jeopardise some legal activity, too.

Last week, Infoworld's Paul Venezia lamented the internet becoming "crippled by greed and ignorance". But, as the slogan goes, information wants to be free. And there'll be thousands upon thousands of tech-savvy netizens working hard to circumvent any measures that are put in place.

Anonymising services such as Tor are already used by whistleblowers and human rights workers, alternative domain name servers (DNS) can circumvent countrywide blocks, while proxy servers and virtual private networks can run rings around attempts to censor the web.

Venezia envisages a jailbroken internet, where all these circumvention measures are wrapped up into a package you can install to bypass the standard internet pathways, prolonging this digital game of cat and mouse. Many might deem it frivolous, wilful lawbreaking, but those whose voices are being silenced by oppressive regimes will relish the idea of a jailbroken internet.

QR codes: a boon for lazy shoppers – and mischievious sports fans

QR codes, those blocky, black and white symbols that appear on printed adverts and look like the results of blindfolded knitting, are becoming more widespread; one American survey recently noted a 400 per cent increase in their appearances in magazines over the past 12 months.

The idea is that snapping the QR code with your phone's camera will instantly take you to a website with further information about that product, service, album or film.

But aside from a single exploratory snap I made when first writing about QR codes for this newspaper a couple of years ago, I've never used them – and I'm not the only one.

It's supposedly a one-click "information solution", but in reality it's a drag: you have to launch the barcode reading app, wait for the cameras to focus, keep a steady hand, snap the picture, hope the image is clear, and then keep your fingers crossed that you've got an stable enough internet connection. You're probably better off memorising a URL – or, God forbid, writing it down. But QR codes do have their uses.

There are virtual supermarkets at stations in South Korea with pictures of goods each appended with a QR code; just snap the products you want and they're delivered to your home within hours.

But aside from it being a clumsy means to an end (one commentator described it as like putting roller skates on a horse) it's a system that's obviously ripe for mischief. Stick your own codes over existing ones and you can easily transport the unwitting snapper to a website of your choice.

This was beautifully demonstrated the other week at a football match in Turkey, where fans of Karsiyaka FC made a banner with a QR code on it. When the opposing fans of Goztepe FC took pictures they were immediately transported to a website informing them that they were "sons of bitches", providing not only a good laugh for Karsijaka fans, but also one of the best headlines I've seen for a while: "QR Ya? QR Ya?"

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Account Manager

    £27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...

    Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Developer - Magento

    £28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

    SThree: IT Recruitment Consultant

    £22500 - £30000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking for experie...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?