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The arrest of a 24-year-old Australian claiming to be the head of an international hacking ring and a Twitter hack that briefly sent Wall Street into a tailspin last week has shone the light on hackers as Perth prepares to host its first "hacker con".

But the figures behind this weekend's WAHCKon conference say the term hacker has been hijacked and most hackers are simply curious people with a computer.

"It's about curiosity; it's about pulling things apart," Perth academic and WAHCKon co-organiser Andrew Woodward said.

"It's unfortunate that 'hacker' has come to be synonymous with 'cybercriminal' because the origin of the term is someone who is interested in something and how it works, perhaps making it fall apart so they can do something better."

Hacking culture is not homogenous but runs the gamut from "white hat hackers", who typically work in computer security, to "black hat hackers", whose pursuits are more often illegal and malicious, and "grey hat hackers", who fall somewhere in between.

Some welcome the hacker tag, others reject it. Some work in the industry, others consider hacking a hobby.

As an articulate academic with a PhD, Dr Woodward does not necessarily fit the image many would think of when they hear the word hacker.

The average person may be more likely to picture someone such as SuperDae, the online alias of the Perth teenage hacker recently raided by the FBI and WA Police after leaking sensitive information about Microsoft's yet-to-be- released Xbox online.

"Hacker has a few submeanings," said SuperDae, who asked only to be known by his first name Dylan and has not been charged in connection with the raids.

"All hackers have one thing in common: they are people who explore and push the boundaries.

"A hacker is someone with the technological knowhow to do something different."

Asterisk Information Security consultant David Taylor is an example of someone who falls into the "white hat" classification.

Asterisk offers information security advice and services to WA businesses and Mr Taylor will be speaking at WAHCKon.

"The majority of people who speak (at hacker cons) are talking about weaknesses they've discovered in x,y,z system," he said.

"While (speakers) may have discovered a fault in the system, they are usually presenting because they want to see the weakness resolved, to make things safer and better for everybody.

"Although at any conference you're going to have some people who are engaged in illegal activity, most are computer security guys."

For its first year, WAHCKon has started small and its allocation of 120 tickets is a far cry from the scale of some overseas conferences such as Defcon. Every year thousands make the pilgrimage to Las Vegas for that event.

But WAHCKon, which will be held at Edith Cowan University at the weekend, has sold out and supporters are hopeful it will grow.

Dr Woodward said hacker cons usually attracted a range of people, from computer security experts and technical types to government agencies and State and Federal police.

"You'll get people going who are practising, you'll get hobbyists and you'll get the semi-underground community," Dr Woodward said.

"Everybody really does play nicely at these things," he said. "The law enforcement guys aren't there to arrest anybody. They are just there to get a better picture of what's going on with security and in the hacker community."

'The origin of the term is someone who is interested in something and how it works.' "WAHCKon co-organiser

  • Andrew Woodward *