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If I asked you to say what you saw in your mind when you read the title of that piece, what would you say? Most probably you would say you visualized a dark figure wearing a hoodie sitting behind a computer screen and doing bad things to good people.

That’s ok, I won’t hold it against you because that is how the mainstream media, and blockbuster movies, have been portraying computer hackers for a few decades now.

And it’s totally, absolutely, entirely and utterly wrong. Let’s set the record straight.

All computer hackers, or information security experts, fight daily against the image that is portrayed of them. I was once asked, before travelling to one of the many Information Security conferences that happen yearly all around the world (where computer hackers meet and exchange ideas, research and a good amount of drinks) if and how computer hackers were allowed to have conferences!

Unfortunately if the media does not change its way of not discerning between good people using their knowledge for the betterment of an industry and criminals using their skills to break the law, there is little we can do to change mass opinion or perception. Though here are my two cents on the matter and if I can nudge your perception, albeit just a little, towards the truth, dear reader, then it’s a win I will gladly take.

First and foremost hacking is not the purview of only computing and hackers are not all computer experts, which is why I always use the term “computer hackers” and not just “hackers”. Merriam Webster dictionary defines a hack as “a clever tip or technique for doing or improving something” and “a usually creative improvised solution to a problem”. No mention of computing in those definitions (to be fair to Merriam Webster they do include the computing part in their definitions, as it has entered the everyday lingo, but I do not agree with it).

Hackers can be found along the entire spectrum of, well, everything. If you ever found a creative solution to a problem, or were not satisfied with the state of something and improved it, you are hacker in your own right and domain. A hacker is someone who has, primarily, an unsatiable curiosity in his discipline. His field will also be his passion and he will spend every second pursuing it whether he is being paid to do so or not. So a hacker is a person who has a lot more expertise than the average joe in a certain area and continuously chases more knowledge.

Einstein was a hacker, Leonardo Da Vinci was a hacker. All creators are hackers. Artists are hackers. Few would argue if I said, for example, that Banksy has been hacking art for decades now. Most advances in any sector were made by hackers who did not accept the status quo of what they saw in front of them and kept looking for ways to improve, optimize and advance.

So let’s agree that hackers are just really creative experts in a specified field. But some fields can be abused more than other. And here we come to computing.

But first, an example to drive my point home: Any country’s army is generally comprised of many different branches each with a different specialty, and usually a very small number of soldiers are part of the army’s fighting elite (special forces, commandos, etc.). These are highly trained, passionate and dedicated operators that are skilled beyond measure, always looking for new ways to become better than the best. And they probably know a multitude of ways to kill someone, and could dispose of a normal person in a heartbeat. But do we automatically portray these experts as criminals just because they can do something? I think not. If a person with a special forces training started to kill people randomly on the street he would, then and only then, be labeled a criminal, arrested and jailed as he should be. And the same if a virologist researcher creates a deadly virus and releases it into the wild. Examples are many but you get my point.

Computer hackers are just experts in the computing world. And just like people with skills in the art of hurting others, or in creating deadly viruses, they have expertise general people don’t have when it comes to computers. And they can indeed use this knowledge to break the law.

But in every case it’s how one chooses to use their skills that should define who they are or how they are labeled, not the skills themselves!

And yes, in today’s digital world there are people who use their computing competence to do bad things. And yes, of course they should be stopped and made to face the law. But there are a very small number of lawbreakers when compared to the overall population of the field. And all computer hackers should not be labeled as criminals just as all commandos should not be labeled as murderers.

However the mainstream media wants to sell news, and I guess a dark figure in a hoodie behind a computer screen sells more than a nice guys helping you reset your router, or finding vulnerabilities in the software or hardware of all the IoT devices you put in your homes, and disclosing them to the concerned companies or authorities to better protect you and others (where do you think all those vulnerability patches and updates come from?) Fear sells news, it always has and always will.

So computer hackers are good and necessary actors, just like all hackers in any field or domain. And in those crowds you obviously have bad seeds, just like everywhere I guess.

Nevertheless it is true that in today’s over connected and under secured computing world people who can invade networks, steal data or cripple infrastructures are more dangerous than ever. But to be fair, there is blame all around when it comes to that subject and I will write about it in a later piece, just as I will write about what it is that information security experts (the good computer hackers) really do.

Hackers of all disciplines, I salute you.

Instagram: @sehnaoui | Twitter:@sehnaoui

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