If you are like most people without exposure to security or a deep understanding of technology, then your views of a hacker may be skewed by the media. You have probably read or listened to the news reports about Edward Snowden, or think of hackers as the movies would portray them. It is almost a given that you have heard about the popular data breaches to Target and Home Depot in the last few years. While these events are incredibly well known, very rarely is there a name released and made popular like Snowden’s. If hackers are real, then why are there so few names published in the media when a security breach is reported on? Many hackers spend a great deal of time and effort to protect their anonymity and hide behind many layers of software to remain hidden. Furthermore, hackers usually hide behind the name of an organization, often called a “sec,” protecting their identity in numbers like a school of fish swimming together. Identity is so sacred to most hackers, that being discovered, or “doxed,” is considered one of the worst possible outcomes.
The term “hacker” appears every day plastered across news headlines. The onslaught of news stories about hacks in the past few years means the general population knows that hacking happens outside of movies and books. Most of us think of hackers as menacing shadows lurking anonymously behind computer screens. We’re certain that we don’t want a hacker to gain access to our banking information, our social media accounts, or to any of the companies that may hold our personal data, but beyond that we have only murky ideas of what a hacker truly does and an unsettling but nebulous fear of the ramifications of modern day hacking.
Although hackers may seem to be elusive and mysterious, the truth is, they exist everywhere both online and off and many of them are just average people. Out of the rough estimate of 18 million developers in the world, it is likely that a majority of them could be considered a hacker. While that is a substantial amount of hackers, it is important to remember that hackers are generally only technologists that push the boundaries of hardware or software. Not all of them actively participate in black hat activities. Still, that is quite a large number, and if you regularly attend tech events you have likely shaken hands with a number of hackers already.
As hackers came online
As technology and the internet became more accessible, many early phreaks started communicating with bulletin board systems and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in order to share ideas, documents, and secrets with one another. As IRC quickly became a new standard form of communication between the early adopters of the internet, hackers started to find each other more easily to share knowledge and secrets with one another. IRC is conceptually pretty much the exact same as modern day instant messaging or chat rooms, except the communication protocols and number of people involved in these chat rooms are much greater than you will find elsewhere. That statement is still true to this day, as IRC lives strong in the technical community, with popular channels still numbering in the thousands. In general, IRC is only used by those in the technical industry, especially programmers and hackers.
Looking back on the hackers of old, many of them fall into a category that security experts today label as “elite.” Labels are all a matter of perception, and an elite status is ranked the highest. Some elite hackers were introduced to hacking with analog systems such as phreaking or if they were on the digital front, they were writing most of their programs in machine code. These programmers know what “31337” means, and not because some young, wannabe-hackers made the term popular again in recent years. In the early days of the net, servers were expensive, so most IRC chats were hosted on public servers, and many people had to rely on them. For this reason, hackers that used these public servers needed a way to obfuscate their conversations from regex searching. One group had the bright idea of inventing 31337-speak which would represent letters in a way the human brain could interpret, but a machine would not be able to search. For example, with “31337” notice how a “3” looks similar to a backwards capital “E” and “1” looks like a lowercase “L” and finally “7” looks close enough to a capital “T.” This is where the term “elite” originates from, and is a great example of hacker culture.
Most programmers in the early 90’s were hackers or crackers in some way, because they were building low-level systems that ran large businesses. Programming languages were also more difficult to learn, so the barrier to entry was much higher. To be considered a good software creator you also needed to know how to break code. Many of these original programmers and hackers are among the most elite today. While there have been more layers added on over the last couple decades, much of the foundation is still the same: Assembly, C, Java, Cobol and Fortran are still at the core of almost all technology on the planet. This means that the elites in the hacker world understand the core of most technology more than the modern day software creators that are building on top of it.
Aside from just an understanding of technology, what really drives some of the best hackers is an understanding in psychology. Many attacks on individuals and businesses are executed without the use of complex technology or tools. The process of leveraging or extracting personal information with malicious or selfish intent, is often called social engineering. Social engineering can be used for everything from resetting passwords on bank accounts to manipulating people to do what you want. Hackers see the human brain as a logical, and vulnerable system, no different than a complex computer program. This allows them to use logic, reasoning and emotion in order to discover the weak points of an individual.
While most hackers escape with only minor traces of their organization left behind, there have been times when individuals have come forward or been captured. Most of these names never make the headlines, however, and thus tend to only be known within circles involved with security. Perhaps the most well-known hacker in the world, Edward Snowden, used his access and connections as a contractor for the CIA and NSA to release thousands of documents to the public. While this act alone is not exactly a form of hacking, his background is very much in security and systems, which qualifies him for both the title and reputation. Snowden is a great example of a morally motivated black hat, akin to the Anonymous hacker sec, and as such he has received both praise and criticism for his exploits.
Like Snowden, and often times working alongside him, Julian Assange has been a notorious hacktivist for quite some time. He is well known for his creation of WikiLeaks, a website that allows whistle-blowers and informants to anonymously share classified documents with the public. Many such documents are contributed by the black hat actions of hacktivist secs and individuals, in addition to inner operatives and employees within government institutions.
Present day hackers
Names like Mitnick, Snowden and Assange are recognized by most of the general public for their whistle-blower actions while many other hackers remain anonymous. As hackers became more famous and laws were created and defined to make exploits criminal, there arose a need for more secracy and anonymity. This has lead to the creation of hacker groups, or secs, which have replaced individual names and aliases in many contexts.
For years hacker secs have been relatively small and tight knit. Each hacker sec is built up by like-minded individuals and often shares a core theme, goal or agenda. Some are formed for a specific mission, and others exist as a hobbyist playground. The most famous of secs, in recent years, are: anonymous, lizard squad, lulzsec, syrian electronic army, chaos computer club, level seven, Tarh Andishan, TOA and Cicada 3301. Most have initiation rituals, similar to what you would see in a street gang or fraternity.
For a black hat or grey hat group, the reasons behind this are fairly obvious. Since the activities of a black hat group are almost always illegal, they need to be more selective about who they allow in. Often times this involves a hazing or initiation ritual in order to weed out the government spies and to quantify the initiate’s talents and abilities. White hat hackers also tend to be quiet and selective about their activities and group involvement. This may seem counterintuitive, as they seemingly have nothing to hide, but there are subtleties that are still very sensitive. For example, let’s say a collective of white hats are working on a popular open source program that powers banking software. If the software is discovered to have a large vulnerability, that information must be kept secret and safe until a patch can be released and distributed to the businesses. The differences between white, grey and black start to blur when looking at a collective of individuals. The mentality, knowledge, and operations of these secs tend to be very similar in many ways. Regardless of alignment they all tend to remain nameless, communicate in secret, and share their knowledge with only select individuals which they trust.
Anonymous is one of the newest and definitely the most known hacker group today. As a completely decentralized, anonymous, and open group, anon accepts any hacker or cracker that wants to be involved. Furthermore, the group proposes missions and calls to action that are opt-in only. With anon’s adoption of democracy and open doors, they have positioned themselves as a group of vigilantes and most of the general public praises their activities. Anon’s actions can rarely be labelled as anything but black hat, yet many people celebrate the group for executing attacks. The reasoning behind this is similar to the reasoning behind wars: one organization aims to defend or destroy another based upon validation of moral alignment. In the case of anonymous, they are generally well received because of their attacks against organizations that are deemed evil or corrupt such as ISIS, Westboro Baptist Church or even the US government.
Not many white hat secs get the same amount of press as the malicious ones, but Chaos Computer Club is a white hat sec that has managed to grab a few headlines over the years. This Germany based, hacker group has been around since 1981 and since that time has made many public demonstrations to educate and protect against security risks. Their most renowned demonstrations include robbing a bank, cloning an GSM cell phone card, and publishing the fingerprints of the German Minister of the Interior; each to educate the public on issues inherent in otherwise trusted technology.
Everyone has to start somewhere. Most hackers become so either because they are veteran programmers that start to pay more attention to security, or because they stem into from another tech-related interest such as gaming or web development. The tech world is so large and nebulous, that there is actually very little need to become a master at any one language or tool. Often times hackers today are identified as “script kiddies,” because they leverage existing tools or programming scripts to exploit software, without a deep understanding of how the exploit actually works. Script kiddies most often use existing penetration testing suites to quickly identify a vulnerability and then an exploit script that they have downloaded to actually exploit it. For example, there is a linux distro called Back Track which comes pre-installed with anonymity tools, pen testing applications, and automated programs for hacking things like wifi networks. With a minimal understanding, anyone with a basic background in tech can start to breach into websites, networks, and other systems.
Modern hardware has connected most of the planet together, with quick data transfers and standard interfaces. Software has bridged many gaps between languages and cultures. The internet has foster people to share knowledge liberally. With a wide variety of jobs, languages and tools, hacking has become not only a nuissance but also a necessity. With the evolution of technology comes a broader, yet more shallow relationship with the languages and hardware that powers them. White hats and black hats both have to leverage these new technologies and very actively maintain continued education in the tech space. Considering these facts, it is very easy to understand why hackers have become more popular in recent years and assume that their numbers will only continue to grow.
The future of hacking
As systems become more integrated via the Internet of Things and cross-compatibility of programs, hacking will probably only become more common. Integration makes for a more connected world, and like telecom to the world wide web, this makes for more vulnerabilities and easier dissemination of information. Gartner estimates that some 6.4 billion devices will be connected to the internet in 2016, making for an endless landscape for hackers.
Machine learning has become more popular over the last few years, which may make hackers behave entirely different than in the past. With the power of artificial intelligence at their disposal, we may see a world where hackers are little more than pre-built bots that are designed to test, infect and spread across the terrain of connected hardware. The incentives and motivations of such attacks will likely remain the same, with cyber attacks mostly being motivated by financial gain and smaller percentages motivated by hobby, hacktivism, or political interest. Likewise, white hat hackers are constantly improving automated software to test systems, update software and detect intrusions.
It is also fair to assume that hackers will often come from a younger and more tech aware demographic as secs like “lulzsec” has proven. With technology in the hands of millennials from an early age, programming and understand of software development is becoming more relevant in many education systems than writing or grammer. These groups will prove bothersome to larger and more archaic organizations as well, as lulzsec alone has claimed responsibility for very notable attacks against the US Senate, CIA and the AntiSec hacks alongside Anonymous. The most impressive thing about lulzsec is that the organization consisted of less than ten members, most of which were only teenagers or young adults. A small team of renegade black hats, Lizard Squad has also become well known for their powerful attacks against Xbox Live, Playstation Network and the Malaysia Airlines website. Lulzsec and Lizard Squad represents the most common form of a modern, and possibly future, collectives. The members are less likely to know each other on a personal level and keep their doors closed to new members. Their attacks have rarely seemed to have a purpose of financial gain, but rather for infamousy and pride. It is likely that the future of hacking will contain smaller and more privatized hacker secs like these, wherein they never dox themselves (reveal their personal identity) within an organization. Anonymitiy is becoming increasingly important to hackers, as the number of whistle-blowers and snitches in this world increase with pressure from government intelligence agencies.
The last staple in the future of hacking will likely be politically motivated cyber wars. The Syrian Electronic Army, for example, was created to retaliate against businesses that were promoting Anti-Syrian media. This group of roughly 20 members attacked news sites such as The Onion, New York Times, and many smaller media outlets. Many of their victims suffered irreversible damage and data loss to their websites. Most notably, was their hijacking of the twitter account belonging to the Associated Press. Once on the account, they published a tweet stating that the White House had been attacked and Obama was injured, which resulted in a $136 billion dollar drop in the S & P 500 financial index! We are nearing a day when wars will be waged entirely online. Evidence of this exists with groups like Tarh Andishan. After a worm, named Stuxnet, wreaked havoc on Iran’s network, the government responded by creating this hacker group of an estimated 20 elite crackers. Since their formation, the group has targeted government and business entities alike to wage war under “Operation Cleaver.” So far the damages have been highly destructive and successful with notable damages being done to the United States Navy and Saudi Aramco. Of course the United States National Security Organization (NSA) has their own internal hacking group as well. State sponsored groups and government intelligence organizations exist in most first world countries. The Tailored Access Operation (TAO) group has some of the greatest talent and abilities in the world, often times recruiting from the US military or even offering bailouts for highly skilled hackers that have been caught and arrested. To date, they are known to have captured incredible amounts of data, create powerful worms, and have even leveraged federal national security laws to force tech giants like Google and Apple to allow them backdoor access to consumer devices. Among other things, TAO represents George Orwell’s Big Brother like no other organization on the planet, with capabilities of turning on and tapping into mobile devices to access the microphone and geolocation. They have even been rumored to have invented and injected secret decryption techniques for some of the most common encryption software and programs around the world.