Hackanatomy: Who Hacks Digital Systems and Why
Lots of people tend to think that hackers are criminals seeking to steal your money or personal data. Just like all stereotypes, however, this is only partially true at best.
In the context of digital systems, hackers are people with extraordinary abilities. They perfectly understand every detail of online services that we use every day. Not all of them use their skills to advance chaos and destruction: some help make the services better by partaking in bounty programs or mitigating the aftermath of previous hacks. Many hack groups have their own ideology and beliefs, mostly about governments having no right to interfere with personal lives and the internet being a free domain without limitations or prohibitions. To some extent, the same ideology underpins the bitcoin community, which is known for its rebellious attitude.
Of course, there are groups and individuals who use their skills to mess with people or sell them to governments or corporations to push their agendas forward.
In this feature, we’ll take a look at those who hack digital systems, including those of the crypto industry, and see the role hackers play in the development of modern technology and the advancement of human rights.
The Hacker Community
Generally speaking, there are two fundamental hacker groups, as well as those who prefer not to identify as either of them.
- Black-hat hackers.
- White-hat hackers.
- Grey-hat hackers.
Black-hat hackers usually depicted in Hollywood movies: they use their skills to break into digital systems and create malware to pursue their own agenda, which mostly focuses on financial gains. However, their real-life motivation is way broader than movies may suggest: black-hat hackers can be involved in cyber-espionage for governments or companies, and protest against them while inflicting collateral damage to the general public. They can commit cyber-crimes to feed their ego because they are capable of things that most people cannot even imagine. Black-hat hackers don’t always focus on stealing data to make a profit. Sometimes the stolen data are just destroyed, and it may be hard to determine what was the prime reason behind the theft.
White-hat hackers are also known as ethical hackers. In most cases, they use their skills and expertise to discover vulnerabilities in digital systems and rectify them (as part of a bounty program or contractually). They legally break into digital systems with the owner’s permission, which is the main difference between them and black-hat hackers. In the crypto industry, they help retrieve funds stolen from exchanges, or rectify vulnerabilities before anyone could use them.
Finally, there are freelancers who test the resistance of systems to attacks without the permission of the owner but for the sake of professional growth or in the hope to get compensated for the discovered bugs. In most cases, they don’t exploit the vulnerabilities. In some cases, however, they may publish all there is to know about them for everyone to see.
Hackers not involved in crime or cyberterrorism have a very strict code of conduct which resembles that of the bitcoin community. Those principles have been mostly developed in the MIT and published in Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. In Levy’s own words, the principles suggest the following:
- Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
Cypherpunks in the U.S. used similar principles in their fight against the limitations on exporting cryptographic tech. Those technologies had been used exclusively for military purposes and therefore classified.
Some hackers have firmly believe in the freedom of speech, freedom of information, and other fundamental human rights. They use their expertise to promote those values, however, they often take the heat for radicalism even from the hacker community itself. This philosophy is commonly known as hacktivism, and its methods are sometimes mistaken for cyberterrorism, even though the hacktivist movement has completely different goals.
Just like in common politics, hacktivism is opposed by so-called patriotic hacking. Patriotic hackers believe that there are enemies of their country, be that terrorists, persistent critics, or other nations. They use their skills to harm those people or entities, or not to let them strike back. Unless those patriotic hackers work in government entities, however, their actions are considered illegal.
Of course, nothing is written in stone, and a person can change their beliefs. A great example here is Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who believed in the U.S. government and helped them create digital systems for mass surveillance, and then followed the principle of free information and told about it to the whole world.
There are dozens of hacker groups and thousands of lone freelancers. Most of those communities are known only to a handful of people, yet there are some the entire world knows about.
Anonymous is by far the most talked-about network of hacktivists in the world. Most people recognize them by the Guy Fawkes mask associated with Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. Considering the events in the graphic novel, the group’s values should be pretty obvious.
Notably, Anonymous targets not just governments, but also corporations, private persons, and even Scientologists. Once the group crusaded the participants of the WikiLeaks siege, that started after the website had published exposing materials on the U.S. government. Back then, Mastercard, PayPal, Visa, Amazon, some politicians, lawyers, and the Swedish government all had their share of what became known as Operation Payback.
Anonymous also attacked the Egyptian government, Russia’s pro-Putin youth movement Ours, other pro-government Russian websites, Interpol, Vatican, the European Parliament, and ISIS. The group also protected services like Pirate Bay, MegaUpload, and EX.UA against anti-piracy campaigns.
LulzSec is another well-known hacktivist group. Unlike Anonymous, there seemed to be only 6 people there. Also, they had a leader who eventually cooperated with the authorities. At first, they conducted attacks just for fun, however, later they became politically engaged and attacked the U.S. Senate, the CIA, Sony Corporation, and LinkedIn. The group also participates in Operation Antisec in cooperation with Anonymous and other hackers.
Some brand Lizard Squad as hacktivists as well. Still, its members have never explained their reasoning for attacks against online games, North Korea internet, and Malaysia airlines.
Other hacktivist groups include RedHack, Cult of the Dead Cow, and Chaos Computer Club, among others. Notably, the hacker groups that uncover information on Western intelligence agencies are often claimed to be affiliated with the Russian government. Still, it’s very hard to prove such allegations, and so far nobody has proved that there is a hacker program sponsored by the Russian government. However, in Russia itself, there was the hacker group Anonymous International aka Humpty-Dumpty. Its alleged leader Vladimir Anikeyev was arrested by the Russian law enforcement a few years ago alongside with some other people allegedly associated with the group, including a high-ranking FSB official named Sergei Mikhailov.
The bitcoin community obviously shares some ideals with hacktivists, though their methods and goals may differ. Still, bitcoin users are well acquainted with another kind of hackers: those who want to get richer. Even though the exact sum missing from all bitcoin exchanges is still unknown, the Block analysts suggested it has already exceeded $1.3 billion.
Lazarus may be one of the most notorious groups of this kind. Some analysts even associate with the North Korean government. They conducted their first attack on the South Korean government in 2007; it was followed by another attack on financial companies and media of the same country in 2011. In 2014 they attacked Sony Pictures and several South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges including Yapizon, Coinis, YouBit, Bithumb, and Coincheck. The U.S. authorities believe that Lazarus is behind the notorious malware WannaCry that went epidemic in 2017. Some analysts believe that the money stolen by Lazarus was used by North Korea to bypass international sanctions. However, even if it is true, the exact mechanics of this process is very hazy.
Another notorious hacker group is a so-called United Cyberhaliphat associated with ISIS. The group attacked Australian businesses, French company TV5Monde, and the U.S. Department of Defence databases. They published personal information on some military officers and e-mail addresses of UK ministers.
Fancy Bear is a hacker group with alleged ties to the Russian government. The group is reportedly involved in meddling with the elections in France, Germany, and the U.S., as well as cyberattacks on journalists around the world and military persons in Ukraine.
A group named the Dark Overlord hit the headlines this year after a threat to publish a massive array of data on 9/11 that would “bury” the so-called deep state in the U.S. unless they are paid $2 million in bitcoin. Nobody has paid the ransom, but no sensational revelation has ever taken place. Aside from hinting at conspirological theories, the Dark Overlord is known for uploading a whole season of Orange Is the New Black on torrent trackers. Even though it can hardly be classified as hacktivism, the series’ fans were rejoicing.
The world of hackers is a reflection of the world as a whole. There are liberals, conservatives, freelancers, and criminals just like everywhere else. For that reason, it is way more complex than Hollywood movies usually imply. The image of a skinny person crouching before a computer is a dated cliche that usually has nothing to do with real life.
Most hackers share the same values with the bitcoin community: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of information, and condemnation of repression and discrimination. After all, we are all people. People who care. And we are legion.
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