Nowadays hackers seem to be everywhere. They could be behind you in line at the supermarket, sitting next to you on the tram, or they could even be you. Yes, that’s not a mistake: if we stick to the original meaning of the term hack, it means finding an unconventional solution to a complex problem.
We’ve all done at least one ‘hack’ in our lives but not all of us are hackers as we generally conceive of them in our culture. But primarily, not even hackers agree with each other on what hacking is. Books and movies, however, shape our imagination and provide us with several examples of what a hacker is—or more precisely a partial look at what our society thinks about them. One of the most famous depictions is from the movie that in 2020 turned 25 years old: Hackers.
A techno-thriller in which young, rollerblading, computer geniuses manage to ruin the enemy’s plans. Since then, Hackers has evolved into a cult favorite and seems to describe the attitude of hackers, which in the movie is highlighted with very direct slogans such as “Hack the Planet,” and “There is no right and wrong/There’s only fun and boring”).
This description of hackers certainly clashes with the hacker we’re all afraid of and that is usually stereotyped as the white, middle class, overweight male kid with a hoodie, clicking at sidereal speed on the keys of his computer with rivers of acid-green lines of code running incessantly on the screen, which is the only source of light to illuminate his dark little room. Usually, this figure is intent on committing computer crimes, destroying systems and infrastructures, and jeopardizing the security of our democracies.
News reports seem to confirm this notion of hackers as criminals: one of the most recent and consequential hacker attacks was that of Guccifer2.0, a moniker used by some Russian agents who hacked the Democratic National Convention systems in 2016, publishing data online and thus contributing to the destabilization of American elections. But there have also been hacker attacks with more concrete consequences, as in the case of Stuxnet malware in 2010. Then, hackers linked to the U.S. and Israeli governments infiltrated computer systems of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, in Iran, to sabotage the centrifuges and to slow down and damage the uranium enrichment plant. Because of its capabilities, Stuxnet has been called the world’s first digital weapon.
Hackers have always been sitting between these two extremes: brilliant saviours of the world or dark and heinous criminals of cyberspace. Or at least this is the lazy dichotomy we like to apply to a much more complex world that shows all the different nuances of hacker culture.
The first references to this world can be found in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the term was related to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC): students used to have fun fiddling around with electrical systems and messing around. But hacking doesn’t have a single root, in fact in the same years phone phreakers were already actively hacking systems. We can consider them as direct ancestors to the underground hacker. They were people interested in the operation of the phone system, they studied its architecture and tried to exploit the system to route calls for their own benefit—most of the time this means to make free phone calls.
The best definition of a hacker is suggested by Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and academic and one of the greatest experts of the hacking world: “A hacker is a technologist with a love for computing and a ‘hack’ is a clever technical solution arrived through non-obvious means.” In those MIT years, students enjoyed demonstrating their technical aptitude and cleverness.
The lack of defined origins is however an important signal of what came next: in those years, thanks also to the widespread adoption of electronic technologies and of the digital sphere—the internet network was born in 1966 and the first computers connected to the ARPANET network appeared in 1969—a certain type of world vision, with shared ideals, emerged.
This hacker ethic is found in Steven Levy’s book titled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Hackers are convinced that computers can improve our lives, that all information should be free, that in order to pursue knowledge access to computers and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. And also that people can create art and beauty on a computer. At the same time there was an ultra-push to adopt meritocracy: “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.”
Positioning these hacker ethic principles at the center, however, risks flattening the historical differences between the movements that have emerged since then and the problems they carry with them. As Coleman recalls, this ethic is often invoked in simplified terms, “whitewashing the most fascinating ethical dimensions that flow out of computer hacking.” And it also risks hiding sometimes under the carpet some systemic problems of this culture: such as episodes of sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment and raping happening all around security conferences or in hacker camps—and involving prominent figures of the hacking scene.
However, the genealogical tree of the history of hacking, starting from multiple roots, continues to branch out into multiple ways that sometimes flow together, sometimes ignore each other and sometimes even end up colliding.
Hackers helped invent the field of computer security: that is, those computer researchers who look for vulnerabilities in systems and report through a ‘responsible disclosure’ process to companies in order to let them fix the bugs found. These hackers usually call themselves ‘grey-hat’ and ‘white-hat’ in complete opposition to ‘black hats’ who are mainly hackers that carry out illegal activities.
But the differentiation doesn’t stop there and the confusion increases, there are hackers that have absorbed a more political and activist approach: so called ‘hacktivism’ and ‘anti-security’ are born.
First coined in 1995, the hacktivism label encompasses all those practices of resistance rooted in political ideals. We have hackers located primarily in Latin America, North America, and Europe, who have set up collectives often influenced by the political philosophy of anarchism.
Among the actions carried out by this hacktivist, we recall the acts of ‘electronic civil disobedience’ to draw attention to the Zapatistas in the 1990s. Hackers built a tool called FloodNet that would flood a targeted website with traffic: those were the digital version of mass strikes that usually happen in real life, but in this case they were aimed against websites and online services.
At the same time, another type of hacker is asserting itself, trying to exploit the vulnerabilities of computer systems for its own benefit: adopting the anti-security mantra in order to infiltrate government systems, steal data, and publish them online.
This is the birthplace of one of the most fascinating and active movements in recent history: Anonymous. In the early 2020s this collective of hackers inflicted attacks everywhere: against the Church of Scientology, DDoS attacks on several government sites, data leaks and attacks against Visa and Mastercard. After a series of arrests that sank the collective in 2011, recently during the uprisings of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, Anonymous emerged once again ready to strike.
This kind of activism exploits technical vulnerabilities in order to exfiltrate documents in the public interest and shame governments, corporations and public figures.
Nowadays, from the wrongfully-depicted darkness of their rooms, hackers have actually reached even political positions: Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who dropped out of the primary on October 2019, was a member of a famous group of hacktivists: Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc). And one of the cDc slogans shows how relegating the history of hacking to solely the sphere of technology is in turn limiting: “Global domination through media saturation.” They weren’t simply hacking software systems, they were also hacking media narratives.
And counteracting media narratives is still a constant struggle for hackers nowadays. Some of them have turned into full-time security specialists working for big corporations, others are immersed in the academic world, while others still run loose trying to steal personal data, credit card information and selling them online for profit.
Despite this multifaceted hacking world, a large part of the population still considers them only criminals and it seems that not much has changed since 1986 when an essay by a hacker known as The Mentor, titled The Conscience of a Hacker—universally known as The Hacker Manifesto—depicted a public outcry:
“We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. [….] Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.”