Like members of other ‘special societies’, internet hackers are applauded for their ‘different-ness’, fearlessness and willing to confront mainstream society and the powers that be, no matter what the potential cost to their own personal freedom. There’s almost a heroic element to hacking, an allure of mystery, not forgetting the romanticism behind all that knowledge and power – the ability to crack government codes, view classified information and even steal money. On the flip side, there is a culture of criminality, so what should we make of cyber hackers?
A new study by Norton Cybercrime has shown that internet crime costs the UK government £1.8bn a year, which includes identity theft, banking fraud and spam. But not all hackers are necessarily criminals and there are two types of hackers – ‘white hats’ who are generally portrayed as friendless geeks who enjoy taking some of their social power back by messing things up slightly just for fun and ‘black hats’ who have a more sinister approach to hacking and are often portrayed as criminal masterminds with a chip on their shoulder.
Groups like ‘Anonymous’ call themselves ‘hacktivists’ as they strongly oppose internet censorship and surveillance, demonstrating their opposition by hacking government websites and major security corporations, according to Wikipedia. Wearing Guy Fawkes masks as a show of their collective anonymity, they encapsulate a romantic anarchy that makes the ‘organisation’ appear ‘cool’ rather than criminal. They also have no formal structure in terms of an actual leadership and the feeling of equality will definitely appeal to some. Their stance against anti-digital piracy and support for groups like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ have painted them more like a ‘digital Robin Hood’, attempting to liberate media and wealth for those of us not able to stand up for ourselves. They have affiliations to the People Liberations Front, a U.S.-based group ‘founded on the principle that electronic communications networks belong to the people’. They have created free numbers giving people access to free calls, even at long distance and continue to look for ways to liberate internet usage. Whether you think this is okay or not and even if you don’t like them, it’s difficult not to at least think they’re cool, especially when they call themselves the ‘freedom fighters of the internet’.
On the other hand, there’s a much more sinister side to hacking. According to cnet.co.uk, Dr. Bernadette Schell, Psy.D., and her co-researchers have collected ten years’ worth of research on the hacker community by attending their conferences and surveying their interactions. It has always been an assumption that hackers, with their high intelligence and anti-social reclusiveness may have higher instances of mental health issues and depression but this new research has even gone so far as to say that Asperger’s syndrome may be a big issue in the hacker community. The disease has been nicknamed ‘Little Professor syndrome’ and is characterized by ‘dysfunctional forms of social skill’ and a lack of empathy.
These traits are easy to see when discussing hackers like Kevin Mitnick, once called the “most wanted computer criminal in U.S. history.” Mitnick went on a years-long hacking spree that included breaching national defence systems and stealing corporate secrets. If sold, these secrets could endanger his country by weakening it’s defence mechanisms and exposing the entire country. Not so cool. Even less cool is stealing directly from the people as Albert Gonzalez did. As leader of the hacker group, ShadowCrew, he collected over 170 million credit card and ATM card numbers over a couple of years and with them, the money behind them. Details to manufacture fake passports, health insurance details and birth certificates were also stolen. Gonzalez is serving a twenty year prison sentence which started in 2010.
In short, hacking is wrong but as far as ‘liberating’ information for the masses goes, there may be a grey area in which a lot of people feel comfortable. Hackers are definitely talented, focussed individuals but they perhaps need to focus their talents on good rather than evil. As far as activism goes, it may just be the new wave, I’m just not so sure about having my personal details and money stolen.