White-hat hackers use their powers for good. They help out organizations that might have security breaches before the organizations get hacked. Hacking doesn't always mean hacking into someone else's system.
"The use of 'hacker' to mean 'security breaker' is a confusion on the part of the mass media," said Richard Matthew Stallman, a well-known white-hat hacker and software developer. "We hackers refuse to recognize that meaning, and continue using the word to mean someone who loves to program, someone who enjoys playful cleverness or the combination of the two."
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Famous not for hacking but inventing the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee nevertheless is undeniably a member of the white-hat hacking camp. As a student at Oxford University, Berners-Lee was banned from using the university computers after he and a friend were caught hacking to gain access to restricted areas. He moved on and built his own computer from spare parts. After college, he hacked a few other things including HTML. Did we mention creating the World Wide Web? (For related reading, see Most Costly Computer Hacks Of All Time.)
The "other Steve" of Apple, Steve Wozniak got started as a white-hat hacker by making something called blue boxes. Wozniak and Jobs built blue boxes, which essentially hack the phone system so users can make free long-distance calls. They then sold the blue boxes to their classmates in college. Of course, you know the rest of the story. From blue boxes they moved on to bigger and better things. Those early days of white-hat hacking are what started them off.
Mitnick started as a black-hat hacker, and ended up serving time after hacking into some of the biggest companies in the world. Now he has left the dark side and works as a consultant and a writer. His own hacking experience gives him hands-on expertise. An article by TakeDown.com reports that Mitnick's early hacking days were ambitious and largely successful.
"As a teenage prank in 1982, he allegedly broke into a North American Air Defense Command computer in Colorado Springs, Colo. He once altered a phone program to misdirect federal agents trying to trace his call, sending them barging into the home of a Middle Eastern immigrant watching television," states the article. We're all glad he's on the good side now.
Back in the days when Mitnick was a black-hat hacker, he hacked computer-security expert, Shimomura. This didn't go over well. Shimomura decided to take his own revenge by using his hacking skills to assist the FBI in tracking and locating Mitnick. With Shimomura's help, they were successful, and Mitnick was arrested. Now they're on the same team. (For related reading, see Identity Theft: Who To Call For Help.)
Moss is better known in the computer world as Dark Tangent, though he's now well known apart from his hacking handle. Moss founded the Black Hat security conferences, which still draw thousands of computer security experts. Moss also founded Defcon, which is a hugely popular annual hacker conference. He serves as the chief security officer for ICANN and as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He continues to run the Black Hat security conferences and Defcon.
Jon Lech Johansen
Even though they often help big companies protect themselves from malicious hackers, white-hat hackers are far from being passive cogs in the system. White-hat hackers often embrace the independent and the free sharing of resources such as open source, open access, and free sharing of software and protocols.
Like Wozniak building boxes to allow college peers to get free long distance phone calls, Johansen is a younger, newer hacker who has used his skills to aid others in beating a closed system. His hacking skills enabled him to hack an encryption system used on DVD movies. As a result, users of Linux or other open source operating systems are able to play DVDs encoded with Microsoft's proprietary codec, which is supposed to prevent non-Microsoft systems from running the DVDs.
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Richard Matthew Stallman
Stallman founded the GNU Project. The GNU project is both an open source operating system and a mass collaborative project. According to Stallman, GNU includes programs that are not GNU software but rather programs that were developed by other people for their own purposes. Stallman continues to work on the GNU Project and is an advocate for free and open software.
The Bottom Line
White-hat hacking has become more and more important as businesses and individuals depend on computers and the internet. Since computer security isn't something all of us understand, it's vital to have those who do share their expertise. (For related reading, see Cybercrime The Newest National Threat.)