Barnaby Jack shot to stardom in 2010 when he gave a live, real-time demonstration of how to hack into automatic teller machines to make them spit out money. His technique, called “jackpotting”, forced manufacturers of such machines to deal with the vulnerabilities much more quickly than they otherwise would have.
More recently, he set off all sorts of alarms when he claimed to be able hack into pacemakers and other medical equipment to cause them to malfunction. Using a wireless bedside transmitter, Barnaby claimed to be able to send erroneous signals to various models of medical devices to cause them to take unwanted actions that could certainly cause the death of the patient. He was set to demonstrate these techniques next week at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas in a presentation entitled “Hacking Humans”.
Hacking has a very poor reputation that it does not deserve. A hacker is nothing other than a Computer Scientist who has a deep, technical understanding of a system and uses that knowledge to play with it, pushing its limits to see whether and where it breaks. They are troubleshooters. They provide the crash test dummies for systems that otherwise lack them. Without the work of hackers, we would have far less understanding of what makes systems tick and ultimately break. Banking firms would remain clueless about how large sums of cash could be siphoned from their ATMs. Hospitals would be in a panic over how life-saving equipment had suddenly gone berserk. Electric power companies would have no idea why their switchgear had suddenly decided to open unexpectedly with no apparent triggering event. Hackers are nothing more than informants who detect things most people can’t.
When I tried to add a course on computer hacking two years ago, colleagues in my college refused to pass the course with the word “hacking” in the title, citing its bad connotations. Unfortunately, the vernacular too often trumps deeper meaning.
In honor of Barnaby Jack, I’d like us all to pledge to hack into that mindset and take it down.