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September 17, 2014
By Vanessa Ulrich

We recently heard about Russian hackers stealing over a billion usernames and passwords, while a healthcare data breach exposed 4.5 million names, Social Security numbers, physical addresses, birthdays and telephone numbers. August closed out with Sony’s attack by a group of hackers that went so far as to create a bomb scare, diverting a Sony executive’s flight.

Data breaches, malicious hacks and other information security concerns have been at the forefront of this past year’s headlines. It seems like every week there has been another onslaught, to the point where I, for one, feel so overwhelmed by the impossibility of my online data being 100 percent safe that at times I’ve felt like giving up on doing anything about it.

In reading up on these events, I have become fascinated that the same skill set can be used to do good (fixing vulnerabilities and helping shield data from bad guys) or evil (stealing identities, money, harassment and so on). That being said, it seems like there’s a big grey area perceived between the two. If you’re causing hell for Mr. Greedy Corporation, is that different from phishing for Joe Schmoe’s online banking password?

An article from the Netherland Times provides a good example of the varying definitions of hacking. The Netherlands Public Prosecution Authority describes it simply as “breaking into a computer without permission.” On the other hand, leaders of prominent Dutch hacker organizations asserted a different definition: “Hacking is doing more with manufacturers’ technology than they thought of themselves, in a creative way, testing the limits of possibility and exploring the ethic and social consequences of the discovered possibilities.”

Two annual conferences held this past month in Las Vegas illustrate these differing perspectives. DEF CON is one of the largest hacker gatherings in the world. Described as “the Olympics of hacking,” it is the original conference for underground hackers, and wraps itself in a veil of anonymity (attendees pay with cash and go by online pseudonyms), as well as general distrust of outsiders (playing “spot the spook” is a tradition and there are no corporate sponsors). DEF CON’s sister conference, Black Hat, caters to a slightly different crowd. While plenty of hackers attend, so do their suit-and-tie counterparts, representing a wide range of information security companies. The conference focuses on how data can be fortified, and addresses hot topics and areas of vulnerability in information security.

As our lives and identities make a complete shift to the digital world, we cannot afford to be blasé about the risks. From a business standpoint, having customer data compromised under an assurance of care can spell disaster for a company’s reputation as well as their balance sheet. The average total cost of a data breach is up 15 percent from last year, hitting $3.5 million per breach, according to a joint study by IBM and the Ponemon Institute.

Whether you call it “breaking into a computer without permission” or “testing the limits of possibility,” those people who know how to slip through digital fences are in possession of a very important skill set. Here’s hoping they use their hacking superpowers for good.

As part of TEKsystems’ public relations team, Vanessa Ulrich reads everything she can about the technology industry and emerging trends. Vanessa blogs about where technology and society collide, giving context and commentary to top news stories.

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