Ethics of Hacking Public

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This course will briefly discuss the ethics of hacking.

Module Information

Welcome to the Ethics of Hacking        Hackers: friend or foe? In this day and age of technology, the term 'hacker' can carry with it many connotations. An average person will usually associate the term with some shady individual in their parents' basement, trying to gain unauthorized access to someone's computer in an attempt to exploit them somehow. However, there are many different types of hackers, and some can be extremely beneficial to society. In this brief course, I will discuss some of the most commonly observed instances of hacking, as well as the ethics, morals and legality surrounding these activities. I hope to shine some light on the more positive aspects of hacking, and how ethical hacking is actually a very important if not necessary practice in today's world.
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What is a Black Hat?    Black Hat Hackers are the people you want to worry about. They typically use their talents in ways that are meant to harm others. The reasons behind their actions are far and wide, consisting of but not limited to: monetary gain, infamy, revenge, political reasons, or just for the thrill of it.  Black hats are very proficient in computer security, and are very active in trying to find undiscovered flaws or "0-day exploits" in operating systems or computer hardware. They not only like to work alone, but also in groups. Even worse, some black hat entities would appear to be state-sponsored, garnering the quiet support of their home governments. Black hats are, by definition, the 'quintessential hacker'.
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Examples of Black Hat Activity    Ok, here's the situation. You sit yourself down to your computer after a long day's work to play some games with a few of your friends. You enter your password for Windows, your desktop loads, when suddenly you are hit with an unfamiliar, red pop up box. This box is telling you that all of your local files have been encrypted, and the only way to decrypt them is to pay $600 in Bitcoin. What is happening?      It seems your computer was compromised by a particularly nasty ransomware worm, known as WannaCry. This attack that affected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide is widely attributed to North Korea, a country known for it's hacking capabilities.      So since your computer is totally locked up, you decide to hop on your Playstation 4 in an attempt to play something on there. When you load up your PS4, however, you notice that you are unable to connect to the Playstation Network. You check your home connection and realize that there are no problems on your end. After a bit of investigating, you discover that the PSN is down, and is under a DDoS attack, or distributed denial of service. These attacks are hallmarks of black hats, and are usually done for no reason at all (other than possible revenge or infamy reasons).
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What is a white hat hacker?    Ethically, legally and morally speaking, white hat hackers are "the good guys". They are the antithesis of a black hat in every single category, aside from where it really counts: technical ability. Most white hat hackers are viewed as computer security experts. In many cases, they try to actively prevent the very things black hats attempt to disrupt. They can take the form of network penetration testers and bug bounty hunters, and are also highly respected (and highly compensated) by governments, such as the United States government.
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Examples of White Hat activities    A great example of a white hat hacker is something known as a penetration tester, or just "pen tester" for short. Typically contracted by a business, their job is to test the overall security of a network, usually by any means necessary. Interestingly, a white hat hacker will often use many of the same tools and methods that black hats will use, including DoS attacks, social engineering, or utilizing the same exploits known to black hats.      Let's say you work for a government contracted corporation that is involved with military technology. You take your job and your work security very seriously, and rightfully so. Some of the things you actively work on require a security clearance. Recently, your manager has hired a pen tester (unbeknownst to you) to attempt to find exploits or loopholes that could be manipulated by unwanted parties, such as hacking groups or even state-sponsored hackers.      The pen tester decides first to test the wit and attentiveness of you and your coworkers. Using the tools available to him, he is able to scour the internet and discover your work email, posted in a forum regarding stamp collecting. This may seem like a harmless thing at first, but for the pen tester, this is a golden chance to send you a "spear fishing" email. The pen tester quickly writes a bogus email regarding some rare stamps he has in his possession, and creates a malicious link designed to run a script upon mouse click.      You open up your email, and out of sheer excitement and inquisitiveness, you click on the link. Within seconds, the pen tester has gained access to your computer and possibly the whole network. Without even finding flaws in the critical infrastructure of the network, he was able to get unauthorized access. This is the main function of a pen tester: to test not only the stability of the network, but also the general attentiveness of the company's employees, regarding overall computer security.
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What is a Hardware Hacker?      A very interesting sub-category in the hacking universe, a hardware hacker is someone that engages in the hacking or modifying of consumer electronics. These electronics typically include things like Android or Apple smart phones, and video game consoles such as the Xbox One, Playstation 4 or Nintendo Switch. Hacking these systems allows consumers to utilize the full power of their electronics, such as installing custom firmware, fixing manufacturer's bugs, or enhancing features already present. These hackers are a mostly harmless crowd, and are most of the time seen as hobbyists. In almost all instances, there is no exchange of money for the services performed by these hackers.      For example, let's say you have an Android smartphone from the year 2013. This thing is getting pretty old, and the last update you got seemed to slow down the phone a considerable amount. Seeing as how your phone doesn't have modular hardware, your options are limited. Alas, you find a solution online that allows you to install a custom version of Android that will work better than the official update. However, you will have to 'root' your phone for this to work. Since most manufacturers are against giving root access to consumers, you will have to hack your phone to get this custom version of Android to work.      Luckily for you, there is a thriving Android community on the internet, complete with every tool you could possibly need to accomplish any goal with virtually any smartphone. These communities have become commonplace on the internet, not just for smartphone hacking, but for video game console hacking as well. Interestingly, rooting your phone was considered illegal under the DMCA until a law was passed in 2014, making it legal for anyone to gain complete access over their phones.      Another great example of hardware hacking is the recently discovered flaw in all Nintendo Switch consoles in existence. A group of hackers were able to run unsigned code via a flaw in the Switch's GPU (hardware developed by Nvidia) and install a portable version of Linux on one of the consoles. The hacking of this console also opens up the ability to emulate older video game systems, such as the PS1 or Super Nintendo. While this is a boon for owners of the Switch, it is terrible news for Nintendo, as the hacking of these systems can open the floodgates for game piracy.
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Examples of Harware Hacking activity    Here's a couple examples of hardware hacking. Let's say you have an Android smartphone from the year 2013. This thing is getting pretty old, and the last update you got seemed to slow down the phone a considerable amount. Seeing as how your phone doesn't have modular hardware, your options are limited. Alas, you find a solution online that allows you to install a custom version of Android that will work better than the official update. However, you will have to 'root' your phone for this to work. Since most manufacturers are against giving root access to consumers, you will have to hack your phone to get this custom version of Android to work.      Luckily for you, there is a thriving Android community on the internet, complete with every tool you could possibly need to accomplish any goal with virtually any smartphone. These communities have become commonplace on the internet, not just for smartphone hacking, but for video game console hacking as well. Interestingly, rooting your phone was considered illegal under the DMCA until a law was passed in 2014, making it legal for anyone to gain complete access over their phones.      Another great example of hardware hacking is the recently discovered flaw in all Nintendo Switch consoles in existence. A group of hackers were able to run unsigned code via a flaw in the Switch's GPU (hardware developed by Nvidia) and install a portable version of Linux on one of the consoles. The hacking of this console also opens up the ability to emulate older video game systems, such as the PS1 or Super Nintendo. While this is a boon for owners of the Switch, it is terrible news for Nintendo, as the hacking of these systems can open the floodgates for game piracy
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Differing ethical standpoints hackers    Ethically speaking, black hats are horrible. They have little regard for the well being of others and act with complete impunity. They engage in activity that is not only illegal, but to most people, highly immoral as well. They gain unauthorized access to secure systems, steal sensitive data, exploit or blackmail individuals, and disrupt the system just for fun. The laws regarding hacking are quite strict, most likely in an attempt to dissuade future black hats from proliferating.      White hats, on the other hand, adhere to not only a strong moral code, but also take a very ethical approach to hacking. They are the ones attempting to find issues with networks, hardware or software, with the intention of notifying the effected parties. Since this is the case, most of what they do is considered perfectly legal. Many white hats operate as private contractors, or are even employed by government agencies, such as the National Security Agency. They are, as the color of their hat denotes, the 'purest' form of hacker, ethically and morally speaking.      Hardware hackers find themselves in a bit of a grey area, however. In the case of hacking video game consoles, most people would consider it completely ethical (and moral) to modify a gaming system. But, these modifications, regardless of the original intent of the creator, can sometimes be used to pirate games. This is highly illegal, and extremely unethical. As a general rule of thumb, so long as the hacker isn't attempting to create monetary gains from their work, they are typically safe from legal ramifications.
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In conclusion, the hacking world is very diverse. There are a large number of individuals around the world who are willing to exploit entities; there are a large number of individuals around the world who are willing to help entities; there is also a large number of people who are willing to devote their own time to improve upon products that they deem "improvable".      All in all, there are some very bad people in this world. It seems there will be a never ending struggle of dark vs light in the computer security universe. However, many hackers should actually be viewed as the superstars they are. White hats are fighting the good fight, and are quite beneficial to society. Hardware hackers are also, in my opinion, very important people, because they are putting more power into the hands of consumers. I also personally believe the practice of hardware hacking can also be viewed as beneficial the propagation of creativity.      I hope this brief overview of hacking and the ethics surrounding this topic has been enlightening. I will leave you with a quote from a very outdated, but classic movie.   "Hack the Planet!"
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