We hear about them all the time. "Hackers." They break into computers at banks, universities, and military bases. Microsoft posts patches for their software regularly to keep them out. They've broken into the Pentagon, they've reportedly taken a British military satellite hostage, and they were spies for the Soviets during the Cold War. They're a threat to global peace and the global economy.
They could be your next door neighbor's twelve-year-old kid. Or your own.
Before the media got hold of it, the term "hacker" was an accolade, a recognition of someone with superior computer skills. Television and newspapers have turned the term into a digital demon, someone who takes over computers and uses them to rob banks and steal military secrets. We prefer the term "system cracker" for these individuals.
What are these "system crackers" actually capable of?
Most of them simply exploit holes in the security of common Unix-based systems. These holes are well-known and well-documented, and the patches to fix them are easy to find. The only reason these people get in is that someone is too busy (or lazy) to keep up with the security issues as they're identified. With the explosion in popularity of the Internet, there has been a great deal more awareness of this problem, and the system cracker is finding it much more difficult to operate -- but those who do are generally the most skilled, and the most dangerous, of the bunch.
Until recently, this group has been made up almost entirely of teenage boys, whose purpose was simply to prove themselves and see what they could get away with: a digital version of joyriding. Reports indicate that this is changing; the majority are now older, and their purposes are more monetary, stealing information for themselves or to sell to other corporations, or holding it for ransom. In one widely-reported (but possibly apocryphal) case, a cracker was said to have hijacked a British military satellite and held it for ransom.
While they can be dangerous, this group is kept mostly in check by the hundreds of system programmers and system administrators who do battle with them every day. The press these system crackers receive when they're successful is proof itself that these successes are unusual -- if they weren't, they wouldn't be news.
"Script Kiddies" is the name given to unskilled system-cracker (or virus-writer) wannabe's who rely on tools ("scripts") written by more skilled crackers. Though they wish otherwise, they are mostly harmless, not even qualifying as a mild annoyance to anyone who has kept up with security patches. They rely on the fact that if you look at enough systems, you're going to find a few that are vulnerable.
What about pirates?
Pirates are fairly benign as a group, at least by comparison to serious system crackers. They limit themselves to simply stealing popular software, and perhaps distributing it to others, often giving it away for free. When and if they're caught, they argue that they aren't depriving anyone of anything, since they're simply making copies of software, not taking it away from anyone, and the people they give it to wouldn't buy it anyway. Some provide sophisticated arguments claiming that they are actually helping the software industry in one way or another. We don't have the information to dispute them -- we doubt anyone does at this point -- but we have to point out that stealing is generally agreed to be wrong, no matter who it does or does not hurt.
Pirates are a law-enforcement problem, and there's not much anyone can do about them right now except to avoid their "wArEz" and try to get the law to recognize the issue. Major software companies seem to have an unspoken agreement that, since they can't do much more than inconvenience these people with CD-keys and such, they'll just ignore them.
But there is one other group, the ones who take it upon themselves to supply the pirates with much of their software. This group generally preys on the smaller software houses and individual programmers who release "demo" or "shareware" versions of their programs. These are the program crackers.
These are the people (usually technically skilled, if morally questionable) who get shareware and demo programs and "crack" their protections, usually by altering the programs, or taking them apart to see how they work and then creating bogus registration keys. Very few people have even noticed them -- mostly the individual software authors and small companies who are being ripped off by them, and few of those have the resources necessary to adequately protect their work.
Well-known or not, this is the weak point in the software-piracy chain -- if the program cracker can't bypass a program's protections, the pirate can't distribute it. And with the easing of legal restrictions on powerful encryption, and higher awareness of technical issues, programs can now be protected from all but the most persistent of program crackers.
The Silicon Realms Toolworks noticed the issue after our first product, Silicon Realms MultiDesk, was "cracked" twice in the first weeks of its existence. We were not happy about this, and began researching the techniques that made program cracking possible. Our solution became a new product: The SoftwarePassport Software Protection System.
SoftwarePassport protects software by wrapping it in an armored digital "security envelope," preventing unauthorized changes to the software and keeping prying electronic eyes out of your code. It also gives you a complete ready-made registration system with keys that cannot be forged, if you choose to use it. As an added bonus, SoftwarePassport compresses your program, usually making it smaller and often faster to load, and adds other abilities as well, such as automatic network licensing. It's easy to use, requires no changes to your program, and works with any language that produces 32-bit or 64-bit Windows EXE files.
If you're a program author, or you know someone who is, we recommend you check it out. It's released under the shareware concept, which means you can try it for free, and only buy it if you think it's worth the money we're asking.
We believe that SoftwarePassport will help keep the computer industry running smoothly for the businesses and individual programmers who will shape the industry in years to come. We hope you will agree.