A Whole Lot of Hacking Going On

September 16th, 2016

Hackers got game. They got etymology.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines Hacker as, first: “an enthusiastic and skillful computer programmer or user”, and second: “a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.” This slant duality speaks to the complex temperament of global computer culture, a modality replete with socioeconomic and political, as well as ethical and factional underpinnings.

Mark Ward, Technology Correspondent for BBC News, recently published a brief history of hacking, which presents a lively investigation of this integral and mercurial, variously expansive demographic.

Reports of criminal hacking activity and threats to information security stream daily through the media, the subject itself viral, proliferating globally with significant impact. These criminal operations  are developed and deployed by organizations that are well mobilized and self-sustaining; in fact, the hacker mob’s got a job board! Indeed, visibility has emerged as a strategy for recruiting and promotion.  Drawing on the trenchant allure of the lauded outlaw, offering quantifiable support and sustainability as gang collateral, recent evidence shows  a seeming unabashed trend in cybercrime network recruiting initiatives, like those featured in the latest material from Brian Krebs, in his KrebsonSecurity report .

News from Google continues to probe the recent attacks on Gmail accounts belonging to American officials and journalists which again appear to have originated in China. The targets were the Gmail accounts of “senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists”, reports said. Baited by an attachment that opened an imitation of Google’s Gmail log-in page and invited users to enter passwords, the seized information was then zipped off to spies or criminals in China. The White House recently acknowledged that some of its own personnel were indeed among those whose Gmail accounts were targeted.

And the  story of George Hotz continues: the 21-year-old U.S. hacker savant charged with “jailbreaking” the PlayStation 3 game console, essentially enabling it to run an operating system and software not authorized by Sony, is now a pundit for the non-malicious sect of tinker hackers. This story began with Sony’s decision in January to file a lawsuit against the tinkering Mr. Hotz (he had  previously gained notoriety for cracking Apple’s iPhone.) News of the lawsuit angered an informal hacker alliance called “Anonymous”, who declared war on Sony and soon was bombarding its servers with “denial of service” attacks meant to overwhelm the system. Coincident with these attacks, criminals hacked into Sony’s computers and transferred out a sizable amount of data such as passwords, email addresses and the credit card information of 100 million people. Sony’s online gaming and entertainment network was subsequently knocked offline for nearly a month. The FBI is still investigating, reports say.

Mr. Hotz, however, takes this stand: Sony has sold 50 million PS3s, a few dozen or hundred of whose buyers might happen to be inspired and relentless tinkerers.  Does Sony want to treat these customers as criminals? Or as allies in exposing the system’s vulnerabilities before organized crime does? This dilemma has confronted companies across techdom, according to reports. Many of Sony’s competitors have grudgingly made peace with identified non-malicious hackers. But Sony positions itself carefully between hackers and content pirates because of Sony’s big stake in first-run content through its ownership of Entertainment Industry and Technology spaces. For more on the Sony saga, click here.

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and what the hack. . . .

Suppose a goodly enterprising crackerjack hacker should dominate the art world? A recent New York Times article by Dorothy Spears profiles artist Cory Arcangel, who specializes in modifying old videogames and other electronic scrap into statements about the cultural role of technology. His survey show “Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools,” is currently up at the Whitney Museum of American Art . Mr. Arcangel, 32, is known for producing works of art that impart a sense of humanity into the technological realm. Markedly different from electronic media artists who rely on state-of-the-art equipment to make their work, he prefers outmoded computer and technology castoffs, as well as equipment like turntables and various gadgets rendered obsolete. Playful and ingenious, he reboots this detritus, producing witty and provocative video and art installations. With a recent spate of museum solo shows, in Berlin, Miami, London and New York, it appears the artist’s potent mix of hack ingenuity and technical wit strikes some cultural accord.

Barbara London, associate curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art, credits Mr. Arcangel with being one of the first in the young generation of digital hackers to  enter the art world.  For his seminal piece at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Mr. Arcangel hacked into Nintendo’s decades-old Super Mario Bros. game, removing its characters and leaving only its signature cartoon clouds floating across the horizon, accompanied by its classic digital jingle.

“The art world just went freaky,” recalled Ms. London, describing the piece as “electronic, funny, abstract, but also like a Warhol, in that Cory was riffing on a game that’s so much a part of culture.”

The New York advocacy group Creative Capital offered Mr. Arcangel a grant to construct what he called “an online archive of all of the computer programming code I’ve ever written.” D.I.Y.W.I.K.I. is an open-source website detailing the artist’s methods of media intervention and hacking.

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