Hacking conjures up images of pimply nerds in teenage bedrooms doing baffling online hi-jinks to crash the FBI's website. Like all clichés there's some truth in this image with the likes of Jonathan James breaking into the US Department of Defense as a 15 year old just because he could. We'd like to imagine hackers as super smart and motivated by antipathy to state authority, I mean, if you're going to hack into NASA then tell us something about defence procurement or the moon landings.
Legendary figures like James along with Adrian Lamo and Kevin Mitnick who between them epitomise the old school cyber criminals were driven largely by personal gain. Their notoriety stems from their ease of entry to some of the biggest corporations in the world. Microsoft, Yahoo, Citigroup, the New York Times and Nokia are just a few of the global behemoths to benefit from their attentions. These guys were the so-called 'black hats', young men with serious criminal intent who succeeded in exposing severe structural weakness in the corporate information edifice. Most ended up dead or imprisoned on federal charges.
The other side of the hacking coin is represented by some other famous names. Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Wozniak, all have backgrounds as hackers with Berners-Lee banned as a student at Oxford from university computers. Wozniak famously started out soldering boards in Steve Jobs' garage while Torvalds spent part of his education playing and subsequently writing computer games. They ended up applying their skills to world-changing digital products. What the 'white hats' had (and continue to have) in common is a larger vision for society, committed to internet freedom, web access and open source software.
The new frontier of hacking looks very different; it's dedicated to cracking open proprietary systems such as the Playstation 3 or the Microsoft Kinect. The companies behind these products just don't seem to get it though. We simply don't care about Sony or Microsoft anymore. Brand loyalty is dead, ownership is dead, sharing and repurposing is everything. The most interesting trend in hacking at the moment is jamming real world interfaces, hacking the physical world. Arduino for example provides cheap and easy access to micro processors. This trend is driving ubiquitous computing and wearable electronics among other things; it promises to usher in a fascinating era of improvised home made interaction.
The final aspect of hacking that's been getting plenty of press is the rise of decentred groups such as Anonymous and the Masters of Deception. These loose alliances of hackers pride themselves on sticking up for internet freedom and will happily take on anyone who gets in their way. Their use of language is particularly provocative and is a powerful way for them to gain attention. By implementing distributed denials of service (a relatively lo-tech mass jamming technique that calls on thousands of people) and shouting loudly about it they often achieve their ends not so much by disrupting online systems but by drawing press attention to their exploits. Pretty soon everyone is going to know how to do this. For the moment, lock up your hard drives; the truth is coming for you, expect us.