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February 2, 2014

What do hackers do, anyway?

NORMAN — Last week, we looked at the origin of the word “hacker” and how most people have come to equate it with “computer criminal.”

Even with that knowledge, though, they still don’t know what these bad-guy hackers actually do. How do hackers “hack” something? Do they use hatchets, swords or what?

When you hear about a computer, or some company’s network, or a website being “hacked,” that generally refers to the behavior of a computer or computers being changed from what the owners originally intended.

For example, what was originally an online email sign-in page is “hacked” into being a sign-in page that also steals user IDs and passwords and sends them off to bad-guy headquarters.

Similarly, if you heard anything about the great Target hack of 2013, which occurred between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you heard that millions of credit card accounts had been stolen by hackers. What was originally Target’s credit card processing system was hacked into one that also copied credit card information and sent it to the hackers so they could steal money.

You also may recall that last week, the Microsoft Office blog website and CNN’s Security Clearance websites were hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army, a Middle-east hacker group that has been active for about three years.

In the past, the group also has hacked The Associated Press and the Washington Post, as well as messing with links posted to President Obama’s official Twitter account. In each case, the original messages displayed were hacked into something that suited the Syrian Electronic Army’s agenda.

How do hackers do their dirty deeds? How do they change something from its originally intended purpose into something else?

It’s not done by magic, or by furiously typing endless lines of crazy-looking computer code faster and faster, like you see on TV shows and in the movies; nor is it typically done by people sporting multiple tattoos and piercings with dyed-black hair, wearing all-black Goth garb and army boots.

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