NPR logo Black Hat 2010: Hackers Gather to Prevent Hacking?

Privacy & Security

Black Hat 2010: Hackers Gather to Prevent Hacking?

Every few months for the past 15 years, a cyber attack has threatened online global security. But in the past couple of years, they have started to occur on a daily basis. These attacks strike governmental organizations but also international corporations as in the recent incident with China and Google.

Hackers who help prevent hacking are like gunslingers who shoot bad-guys. Photo Illustration by Art Silverman hide caption

toggle caption Photo Illustration by Art Silverman

Hackers who help prevent hacking are like gunslingers who shoot bad-guys.

Photo Illustration by Art Silverman

The individuals perpetrating cyber attacks are known in the computer security world as "Black Hats." A "Black Hat" is usually somebody who is a villain or bad guy, especially in a western movie, like Jack Palance's character in Shane, the villainous gun slinger, Jack Wilson.

In today's world, Black Hats attack computer systems for fun or profit. Do you know that pop-up nag window that displays on your computer screen when you are trying to find software to remove some virus you got online? We can thank the Black Hats for both the pop-up nag screen and the virus.

In 1997, a small, annual computer security conference was dubbed "Black Hat," and has continued to grow ever since. Attendees include governmental representatives, FBI agents, computer hackers and other computer experts.

Some of the former hackers who attend this conference are more Richard Boone from Have Gun — Will Travel than Jack Palance from Shane. They know the game and are sharing their knowledge to increase cyber security.

This year's event — at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, Virginia — runs from January 31st to February 3rd. Lectures and training include some frightening Flash exploitations. This means that a Flash plug-in installed on your internet browser — for watching online videos or displaying web pages — is actually a gaping security hole.

Last year, at Black Hat, training courses were given on subjects such as hacking 10 million Social Security Numbers. Computer researchers and government representatives at the conference were also hacked. This included their private emails, IM chats, and other sensitive documents. In other years, hacker attendees have been known to hijack wireless connections, hotel billing systems, and even the ATM machines.

I'm covering the conference for All Tech Considered. And I have to admit, I'm heading there with a bit of anticipation and fear. It's the first time I have to make a checklist of things NOT to bring: my iPhone (they are able to virally infect every iPhone in the world using a text message flaw), computer, and basically anything that sends out a signal. Don't worry, I will not be withdrawing money from any ATM's in the area.

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