The iPhone hacking of the killer responsible for the San Bernardino shooting sparked a national debate about the ethics of hackers working with national security agencies.
Apple refused to hack the phone in an attempt to protect its customers’ data, but the FBI found a way around the issue by hiring an external consulting firm to do the work for them.
So the question on the lips of many people is: what if hackers help the FBI?
A lot of people still associate hackers with fraudsters and criminals, treating them as anarchists and lawbreakers who use their array of technological skills to break through the (fire)walls of governments and businesses for their own gain. And while we know there are some who deal with criminals and use their skills to take advantage of weaknesses for their own ends, this description certainly doesn’t apply to all of them.
In fact, over the past two decades, hackers have become important allies for the government when it comes to revealing the real bad guys and increasing cybersecurity.
But despite their intelligence, their motivation to crack seemingly impossible puzzles and their willingness to help, hackers are still not seen as mainstream or as natural allies when it comes to protecting national security.
Some argue that the question should be rephrased and that we shouldn’t be discussing whether hackers should help or not, but rather how they should help.
We all know that secure systems are becoming increasingly important on a daily basis since so much of our life is online nowadays. Ironclad encryption is a must for data security, both for individuals and organisations.
This means that we need to protect data security above all. The priority should be to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security flaws.
One view of the matter is that the government and hackers should combine their resources and efforts in order to protect citizens and their information.
An often-ignored fact about hackers is that most are driven by curiosity and the desire to solve puzzles, to solve what seems unsolvable. Many are enthusiastic and concerned about the world they live in.
We know that the hacker who uncovered flaws in medical pumps did so because he had been a patient and wanted to help.
However, hackers are still reluctant to cooperate with the government. Maybe their reluctance has something to do with a fear of being locked up. After all, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, many of the activities that constitute hacking are illegal. We also need to consider the fact that many people do not agree with some of the government’s initiatives such as mass surveillance and the FBI’s tug-of-war with Apple to create a backdoor into a gunman’s iPhone.
We could all gain a great deal if the government were to create a safe haven where hackers did not feel threatened and could come forward with the security flaws that they had discovered.
A “bug bounty” program created by the government could also be a significant recruitment opportunity focusing on an important skill set which is currently lacking.
The FBI’s position on cyber security is that it is too good and that it is too easy for criminals to hide behind their computers and run amok. Or at least that’s what they tell us.
But we know that’s not the case. Computer systems are in fact far from being “too secure” or foolproof. It is worth remembering that the devices used by criminals are also used by schoolchildren, housewives and small businesses – ordinary people who need and deserve to have their information protected. Computers need to become more secure, not less. This is where hackers can contribute in a big way. Through constant stress tests and system hacking, hackers have the ability to help build stronger and safer systems.
At the end of the day, we know that an ethical hacker has the ability and the desire to help. Through close collaboration with national security agencies, hackers can prove to be immensely helpful when it comes to security, especially when the aim is to prevent crime.