Is hacking healthy?

One of the biggest assets to the computer security industry is - surprise! - hackers

For the typical layperson, the word "hacker" evokes a very specific image: a mysterious, malicious, digital intruder -- the PC-age equivalent of a cat burglar, waltzing through networks, past locks and alarms, to steal data at will.

If you look in the hacking community, however, you are unlikely to find anyone matching that description.

Indeed, hacking does not necessarily have anything to do with computer security; while there are certainly those who "hack" their way into systems, the term itself has more to do with a desire to understand technology. The Jargon File -- the nearest thing to a standard hacking lexicon -- defines the word "hacker" as "a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities."

Mark Loveless, Senior Security Analyst for Bindview, puts it more succinctly: "Hackers take things apart to figure out how they work."

Loveless, better known to other hackers as "Simple Nomad," contends that the ethics of hacking are more complex than the common image would suggest.

"The hacking community is just like society at large," he says. "There's a minority who are scrupulously respectful of the law, a majority who bend the rules now and then, and a minority who are outright criminals."

The first group -- sometimes referred to as "white hat" hackers -- spend their time hunting for software glitches, security vulnerabilities, and new approaches to hardware or software problems. They work largely within the confines of their own computers or networks; when they make use of other systems, they gain permission first.

But the majority of the hackers behind the keyboard are best described in shades of grey.

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