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How hacking is improving the world

It is easy to think about hacking in an entirely negative way. When the major film studios Sony Pictures was brought to a standstill over the release of “The Interview,” it was hacking that was to blame. Even something with relatively little technical sophistication, such as the nude celebrity image scandal, was attributed to this very modern disease.

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However, hacking, and indeed hackers, is not inherently disruptive. In fact, as a result of the numerous examples of hacking being used for social good, the definition of the term is being contested.

Eric S. Raymond, a US software engineer, explains hacking in a way that contrasts markedly with its portrayal in the media.

“Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers make the World Wide Web work,” he said. “Hackers build things, crackers break them.”

While “hacking” may have accumulated too much baggage to ever be considered wholly in the positive terminology used by Mr Raymond, it is still important to bring examples of constructive hacking to light.

London’s Tech City, the innovative cluster at the heart of so many thriving start-ups, has also been involved in a number of government-supported projects to help struggling UK communities.

In February 2014, the UK government issued a call for developers from all over the country to support a national flood rescue operation at an emergency Hackathon. A “hackathon,” focuses on hacking as a way of exploring software and programming, without suggesting any criminal activity.

The event saw more than 200 software engineers turn up at Google Campus, Shoreditch and was supported by the likes of Microsoft, Facebook, Twilio and Google. As a result of some of the teams' efforts, a whole host of new software applications were created that could help those affected by future floods. Some of the most highly praised projects included Don’t Panic, a system that lets those without web access find local information, and UKFloodAlerts, which uses text messages to inform individuals about power cuts and burst river banks.

With any of these collaborative hackathons, a key consideration is whether these promising ideas are followed up on. One software package that also received praise, ViziCities, uses live water level data to predict dangerous and safe areas and the platform is still growing today. ViziCities, which won 3 months of Azure hosting from Microsoft, is now able to map a huge variety of city information, with analysing flood risk just one of its uses.

Hacking, in the sense of exploratory computer programming, can therefore clearly be put to positive ends, but it can also be beneficial even when used to infiltrate and disrupt security systems.

White hat or ethical computer hackers specialise in testing computer security by attempting to expose its vulnerabilities. In the past, this form of computer hacking has successful identified several high-profile security flaws before those with more malicious designs were able to exploit them.

New Zealand hacker Barnaby Jack famously demonstrated a way of “jackpotting” ATM machines, or making them dispense cash freely, as well as potential hacks to medical equipment like pacemakers and insulin pumps. Barnaby Jack sadly passed away in 2013, but his work serves as a reminder of the potential damage hacking can cause in an increasingly connected world.

However, sometimes hackers’ motives are less easy to define. Teenage hacker Raphael Gray infiltrated a number of consumer websites in 1999 to expose the lax security protocols of a number of businesses. While exposing these flaws was surely to the consumer’s benefit, publishing the details of more than 6,500 credit cards online was also a huge invasion of privacy that could have been extremely damaging.

Even Gray’s actions, whether they were simply naive or deliberately malicious, demonstrate that the hacker community is a more complex one than the media often portrays it to be. Hacking is not always focused on disruption and destruction.

Businesses and governments are increasingly recognising hackers as crucially important both for the creation of new and innovative computer tools, as well as the improvement of those that already exist. There are even entire start-ups, like Tinfoil Security, dedicated to using hacking methodology to identify security flaws.

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Hacking is no longer a dirty word, carried out by basement dwellers and social outcasts to attack businesses and individuals; it can also be a force for immense social and technological good.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.