Let’s talk about hackers.
It is a more complicated word than people realize, largely because it is a more complicated word than most reporters realize.
Contrary to the popular notion of a greasy, basement-dwelling, malicious nerd trying to guess your email password or trick you into giving over your social security number, a hacker by the most general definition is basically interchangeable with the word programmer or coder.
It is just a person who writes computer programs, whether for keeping financial records, infecting other computers with a virus or just scheduling regular maintenance for your computer to keep it running smoothly and free from other hackers’ viruses.
The common concept of hackers is usually referring to the much more specific world of security programmers, which is still more complicated than most people understand.
Writing viruses, “phishing” for personal information or accessing supposedly restricted computers over the Internet, while appearing inherently malicious, are done by many people for many reasons.
The specific, dangerous group that people think of as hackers do these things for their own personal gain, mostly by stealing.
They are called black hats.
Other hackers do these things to find vulnerabilities in security systems that the black hats could take advantage of and either fix them or let the owners know they are vulnerable to protect them.
They are called white hats.
As usual there is a middle ground of, you guessed it, grey hats who generally work toward the same goals as the white hats, though occasionally with tactics that are not technically legal or ethical.
Many hackers, from all groups, work independently, but they are also increasingly working for existing institutions, like major businesses or lobbying groups and world governments.
The past few years have seen a rise in reports of Russian and Chinese hackers pushing against and sometimes beyond American corporate or governmental firewalls.
A story swept the web just last week explaining a U.S. and Israeli collaboration — code-named “Olympic Games” started by George W. Bush and continued by President Obama — that yielded the “Stuxnet” virus used to stop or delay the Iranian nuclear program.
The virus was able to copy itself onto any hard drive or thumb drive it came in contact with, to eventually reach the isolated computers inside Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Once there it was programmed to make the machine simply spin itself apart, to break itself.
No guns. No bombs. No hostages or casualties. No more refined uranium.
So there is a cyber-war going on. And governments do need to be prepared, but the proposal from Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., that we adopt a China-style shutoff switch is not the way to do it.
That would be like saying we’ll win a war by just not letting anyone onto the battlefield. It won’t solve any problems. It just gives the enemy more time to prepare.
The key to U.S. cyber-security is not to pass some law that would only succeed in limiting free speech.
The key is to make sure that, as in past wars, America has the best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared and most imaginative troops on the ground who are ready to defend our country and our rights from the forces of oppression and restriction that threaten our new, vibrant and powerful digital domains.
If the U.S. government becomes one of those forces of oppression and restriction — as SOPA, PIPA and CISPA have all tried to do — then it would be safe to say that those troops may rather switch than fight.
(Zach White is a journalist with the Havre Daily News.)