Hacking and Graffiti: What’s The Saving Grace?
by Andrew Millar
For this blog I am putting on my “holier than thou” hat. I want to discuss the prevalence of graffiti as it relates to hacking (or as the purists refer to it: ‘cracking’.) And I want to finish up by putting in a plug for protecting your online presence.
My attention was recently brought to graffiti when the news media lionized the reclusive English graffiti artist called Banksy. They made a big deal of the appearance of his work on private/public buildings throughout New York City, suggesting that his notoriety legitimized his acts of vandalism. For those of you unfamiliar with this fellow’s reputation, note that art galleries have been known to ‘excavate’ his stencils from buildings (that means actually blasting out the wall) in order to preserve them for the marketplace.
I just returned from a trip to Lausanne, Switzerland where I was impressed to see enormous strides in the painting of graffiti since my last visit eighteen months earlier. During my very first visit there in 2006, I was taken by the absence of graffiti. On this visit it had exploded into the public awareness, visible everywhere you turned. The usual buildings, street signs, bill boards. Even walking among farm-fields on a country road, we came upon a storage building of stucco and terra cotta shingles. You could hardly make out the original stucco color because it was so completely ‘tagged.’
Graffiti has been described as writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a public place. Wikipedia says “In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s consent is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime.”
What About Hacking?
My premise is that both hacking and graffiti mirror each other. So now let’s consider computer or website hacking. Wikipedia describes three separate types: Computer Security, Hobbyist, and Programmer Subculture. These are basically defined by their intentions.
A professional computer security expert is self- explanatory. A hobbyist is one who takes retail software and modifies it for his own use, not unlike a car mechanic who jazzes up his street car to improve performance. The programmer subculture is where it gets interesting. They will defend their actions by separating the good guys (white hat) from the bad guys (black hat). So even if they break into a private (or public) computer system, if the purpose is to detect black hat activity then they consider themselves the good guys. (Even when the intrusion is unauthorized.) The black hats are the real criminals because often their behavior is solely for the purpose of obtaining data illegally.
(Btw, beware the prevalence of Trojan web sites for The Affordable Care Act – out to get your data.)
So what are the similarities and differences between graffiti artists and black hat hackers?
For starters they are both vandals. They are not creators of value for the greater society; rather, as parasites, they are sustaining themselves from the works, the good efforts, of others. (I warned you about my getting holier than thou.) As Bob Dylan sings: “The pump don’t work ‘cuz the vandals took the handle.”
At least graffiti artists like Banksy provide themselves the cover as political satirists: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.”
I see these guys for the most part, although criminal, as serving a purpose to keep the greater society honest and not too self-satisfied. The part of me that honors and respects beauty and form absolutely deplores this tagging, this defacing, of property. It has been said that we don’t become conservative until we have something to conserve and in this regard I believe we must all become protectors of our visual environment.
But what about these black hat hackers? Their purpose is to destroy and/or enrich themselves off the efforts of others. These guys are like the highwaymen of old who preyed on wayfaring strangers.
And, like travelers of old, the best protection we can provide ourselves in the internet world, when it comes to our own websites, is customized content management systems and high quality hosting such as www.rackspace.com. Sure, they cost more to put in place and that becomes a cost of doing business in this day and age. There’s a reason why the private security business has become so big these days. We know it costs less to use WordPress or Joomla or cheap hosting but you lose all your savings the first time hackers wreak havoc on your website. Remember the old adage: “Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.”
Now I’m not foolish enough to think that determined and resourceful hackers can’t go where they want to. We only have to look at the sophisticated intrusions in government and corporate business; we know they employ high level security measures. It has been said that the internet is like the historical wild west of America where anything goes and everyone has to look out for himself.
Stage coaches in days of yore employed an extra man to ride alongside the driver armed with a shotgun to add extra protection for the trip. (Thus the reference to the ‘shotgun’ seat in a car.) My advice is to add your own shotgun to your website by protecting your site as best you can. A customized content management system can help with that.