Hacked off

Hackers and malevolent wrongdoers within the various realms of cyberspace are mutating.

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By  Adrian Bridgwater Published  July 26, 2008

The ever-spawning breed of hackers and malevolent wrongdoers within the various realms of cyberspace have mutated to produce a new and more politically charged offspring, the hacktivist.

With both 'hacking' and 'activism' fuelling his angst, the hacktivist is now starting to show up on the web sites that we know and trust. Adrian Bridgwater reports for Windows on the web's growing problem child.

While hackers have been around since the 1960s, their early activities were not driven by malice in any way. Instead, the term grew out of the rough ‘cobbling together' of software with a comparatively low degree of finesse.

Many people may associate the term ‘hacking' in a negative context, but in the IT industry it is often used in a more positive way. Rather like a mechanic who can open up a car engine and tinker with the internal workings to bring it to life, a ‘good hack' (often known as a white hat) may also be able to get inside a software application and fix a bug so that things run as smoothly as a well-oiled engine.

In the new world of the Internet with web 2.0 applications proliferating that combine data from more than one source such as Google Maps, the emergence of ‘mash-up' software development comes to light.

This is the rough ‘intermingling' of two or more web sites so that online street maps can include restaurant location data, public conveniences and so on. Who does this work? Hackers do it of course. But as mash ups move into the enterprise space, the potential for malicious entrants to get in through the back door increases.

The emergence of the hacktivist is, arguably, an inevitability. After all, the Internet is a virtual extension of almost all aspects of our lives, with some good and some bad.

Political campaigners exist all around the world and most have their own home pages and online user groups. For these people to take the next step and perform an incursion onto someone else's territory, or Internet domain, is a next, natural step.

Hacktivism is coming home

According to Wikipedia, Hacktivism is "the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends." There are many types of attacks, including defacements, redirection, information theft, parodies and sabotage.

Here in the Middle East, hacktivism came rather abruptly of age this May when the web site of the UAE-based newspaper, Khaleej Times, was hacked into. This was not the first example of hacktivism in the GCC as the Gulf News' web site was hacked by an Israeli group in June of 2001.

But the Khaleej Times attack was a high profile event as hackers posted a map and a message, disputing the name of what most refer to as the Arabian Gulf.

Keeping hackers out

There are some simple things you can do to reduce the risk you have of being hacked, or receiving malicious content...

Turn your firewall on

In Windows, go to Start>Settings>Control Panel>My Network Places, and click on ‘Change Windows Firewall settings' in the left menu bar. Make sure you've checked ‘on'. You can go to the ‘Exceptions' and specify which applications can get through, but the more exceptions you have, the more ways a hacker can get into your system.

Install a fully-fledged security suite and keep it updated

Having security software is one thing, but updating it regularly is another. Get into the habit of performing regular checks to pick up anything out of the ordinary. Also, don't open attachments from people you don't know and don't open spam email. And take notice when your browser warns you about the security of a website.

Secure your wireless connection

If you are using a wireless connection, make sure you secure your network by switching on the WPA or WEP encryption. Rename your network SSID and switch off SSID broadcast so that would-be hackers won't be able to find you as easily.

Don't make yourself a target

If goes without saying, but with less sensitive information on your computer, it is less likely you'll be hacked into. If you have confidential information that you think lots of people might want to get their hands on, back it up and put it on a portable storage drive. The more inconspicuous you are about your PC and activities, the better. If you are a senior executive, hold a public position or are famous in any way, you'd better make sure you're adequately protected!

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