Hackers: Friends or Foes?

Google the word “hackers” and you’ll be redirected to a movie starring Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller in a crime film aptly called “Hackers”. Released in 1995, the plot surrounds a teenage hacker who accused of being involved in the theft of millions of dollars from a major corporation. The movie wasn’t a fan favourite, racking up only 33 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. But as far as Hollywood adaptations go, it capitalized on putting red flags around computer geniuses in today’s technological climate.

Hollywood hasn’t been the only one painting malicious pictures of hackers. A simple Google search will unveil hundreds of news articles about the latest cyber-attacks and the rise in cybercrime. As stories titled “Hackers are Draining ATMs across the US” and “Demi Lovato’s alleged nude photos leaked by hackers on her own snapchat” circulate the internet, hackers have become a household name for nameless men huddled in their parent’s’ basements, who ruthlessly steal personal data for malicious reasons.

But this year, students participating in Ryerson’s hackathon event, RU Hacks, were doing the opposite. Students developed new apps and software testing the bounds of their own creativity that comes with knowledge in coding and computer programming.

Johnny Libenzon, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student at Ryerson who was the Co-Chair of RU Hacks last year, says a hackathon has nothing to do with what the media portrays as hacking. “I know a lot of people who don’t want to use the word hackathon sometimes when they describe it to sponsors, because they’re afraid that the sponsor might think of it as all those TV shows with the cops, like ‘oh no, they’re hacking into the system’,” he said. “They don’t want to make people think that they’re trying to do something illegal, black market shady stuff.”

RU Hacks is an event that runs for 36 hours straight, where teams of up to four people can create an app, any kind of software, or even robotics during that time frame. At the end of the 36 hours, judges from large corporations like Google, demo whatever product was created. The event provides networking opportunities for students to meet professionals in the technology industry, and workshops are offered to teach coding and computer programming to beginners, all free of charge. Last year, around 300 people attended.

“One of the winners created an app nurses could use in nursing homes, which would track what kind of medicine each person in the nursing home had to use, each senior,” he said. “[the app helped] make sure that [nurses] could run around and serve as many patients at the same time as they could.”

Another participant at the event used software to create a program that allowed people to model furniture and view it through a virtual reality lens. Using a virtual reality headset, you could see how certain furniture looked in a house, move things around, and make decisions on layout design.

The word “hack” was first mentioned at M.I.T in 1955, where “hacking” referred to working on a tech problem, or working with machines. 20 years later The Jargon File, which is a glossary for computer programmers, was launched. It cited the eight definitions of a “hacker”: the first defined hackers as “a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary” and the following six definitions describe something similar. However, the eighth and last definition describes hackers as what most still consider them to be today: “a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.”

In the years since, hackers were put into two categories: “black hat” hackers, who were the malicious people trying to steal your information, and “white hat” hackers, who used their skills to create new technology.

But Libenzon argues most outside the realm of coding don’t understand the difference. “If you’re using the word hacking these days, you’re using the wrong definition, people just assume it’s the media definition,” he said. “Whereas if you say you’re cracking into something, it’s obvious that you’re breaking through security.”

Mobile banking, for example, is one industry that fueled the need for security measures on the internet. According to Business Insider, a study suggested that 97 per cent of millennials used mobile banking in 2018, up from 92 per cent in 2017— the convenience of digital banking has made the lure of putting personal information online inevitable.

In response, Libenzon said a lot of companies employed ethical hackers (or whitehat hackers) to comb through software and make sure people couldn’t steal from it. These hackers had advanced knowledge of computers, along with the ability to exploit them to assess security risks. “They would be trying to hack their own software or somebody else who pays them, to see if they can,” he said. “And if they can then obviously there’s a problem, they would tell you that there’s a problem and you would fix it.”

With a media-fueled widespread fear of hackers, you’d be hard-pressed to find articles praising the great technological innovations of those knowledgeable in computer programming. But the lack of coverage can’t all be attributed to bad press: Libenzon said he believes part of the reason is that the public just isn’t familiar with their technology yet.

“People don’t understand how to break into their computer system, and think of it as a scary thing,” he said. “If somebody has the ability to break into a complex computer system that might have a lot of information, including social insurance numbers, and private information in general, the first thought would be ‘well somebody’s going to want to break into that and steal it’, not that someone is going to try to figure out how to make sure others don’t steal it.”

Some ways to safeguard your data online include making sure your computer is ant-virus free, and create difficult and different passwords for any online accounts.

Hackathons allow students to develop their understanding in computer language and embrace their creativity. Libenzon hopes through RU Hacks, people can differentiate between a hacker, people who work with computer security to take care of loopholes for people who try to break into computers, from people who attend hackathons to explore opportunities as potential entrepreneurs, tech enthusiasts, or who just want to have fun.

“The problem is that it’s become so conflated by now, that the chance that people will ever think of hackers as anything but guys in hoodies sitting in dark rooms typing random letters into a keyboard, it could take years and years for that to go away,” he said.