Hacking Politics: What’s it All About?

By Sydney Butler / July 30, 2019

Hacking is one of those things that gets romanticized no end in the media. The reality is much less exciting, but the actual impact of hacking is even more profound. Hacking politics, in particular, are incredibly interesting. It's a deep topic that I'll probably never fully understand, but there's a lot to hacking that comes from political philosophy. Plenty of hackers choose to use their skills for political motives. Moreover, the values that drive grassroots hacking movements often coincide with a common set of values when it comes to morality and power.

While entire books have been written on the subject, I want to summarize some thoughts on the politics of hacking and help people who don't have the time to look at the subject more deeply to better understand these dynamics.

The Misuse of "Hacker"

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First off, as always, we have to talk about the word "hacker". Traditionally the word has been reserved for people who look but don't touch. For people who break into computer systems and do damage, the accepted term is "cracker". No, not the racial slur!

Greater society hasn't paid much attention to this terminology. So when I talk about "hackers" here, it refers to both hackers and crackers.

In any event, there's a better way to understand the ethical spectrum of hacking. Over time we've come up with various "hats" that hackers wear. Which describes how and sometimes why they hack.

Hacker Ethics

Hackers are not a uniform group. In the insider jargon, hackers group into three broad groups.

Black Hat Hackers use their knowledge of computer technology to enrich themselves. These are the people who steal info to sell it. They write malware, crash systems and take money to do damage.

White Hat Hackers use their knowledge to prevent cybercrime, find weaknesses in system so they can be fixed and are generally the good guys.

Grey Hat hackers are more interesting. These guys usually report if they find vulnerabilities in systems, looking for a bounty. The problem is they don't ask for permission to go exploring. They might go ahead and publicly put out vulnerabilities they find if the company in question ignores them. So, while they have the potential to do harm, they tend not to be actively malicious.

Obviously real people are not so easily categorized. So it's more sensible to apply these categories to the specific activities. Writing malware, for example, is clearly a black hat action. Unsolicited penetration-testing is in the grey hat domain. A given hacker can obviously wear any hat at any time, although some may think of themselves as being essentially one of these categories exclusively.

The Anarchist Stereotype


So all hackers share similar politics? The answer should obviously be no, but there is a stereotype attached to the hacker collective that sees them as left-leaning anarchy types. Groups like Anonymous are often compared to Antifa. In truth, when it comes to personal political beliefs there may be only a few things that all hackers have in common.

Any given hacker might be on the left, middle or right of the political spectrum. Grassroots hacking is almost universally anti-authoritarian. Which might bias the overall political spectrum of the hacker universe in some ways. After all, if you have a respect for authority and rules, you'll have a hard time being a hacker of any stripe. In one way or another, hackers try to learn about the world, gain power and then change it in some way. The most explicit form of this is something known as hacktivism.



In general, hacktivism is exactly what it sounds like. It's activism that uses hacking to achieve its goal. This is probably also the best way to see the diversity of political thought that's present in the hacking community. That's because hacktivist projects have targeted all sorts of causes. Some are traditionally liberal causes and others are more conservative. Many hackers have a strong libertarian streak, which can include a mix of both views.

Anonymous is probably the best-known hacktivist group, but others like LulSec and Wikileaks are also virtually household names by now.

Hacktivist often targets the computer systems of individuals and organizations they perceive as their ideological enemies. Whether a given hacktivist act is seen as good or bad depends on the person doing the observing. You might know the group of hackers who helped Chinese citizens get past government internet blocks in 1990. You may have a dim view of LulSec taking down FBI resources, however. There have been attempts at creating some sort of hacktivism ethos, but ultimately each hacker is a complex individual.

Hacktivism might already be past its golden age though, with a staggering 95% drop since 2015. Still, one would expect a threat of the right type to rally the hacker collective together again.

Professional Government Hackers and the New Hacking Politics

The largest shakeup when it comes to the politics of hacking has come in the form of actual politicians becoming involved in hacking. It was inevitable that, as computer systems became nationally important, governments would start to engage in war-like actions on digital systems. Malware like Stuxnet could actually physically destroy facilities and machinery. Crippling military, financial and administrative systems can be as devastating as a bomb or chemical weapon.

Which is why countries are training hackers of their own. In the past, a grassroots hacker might have graduated into doing their thing professionally, but now it's becoming a profession where the powers that can grow their own hackers. These people working for governments such as the US, Russia, and China, don't necessarily form a part of that quintessential hacker culture. Instead of aligning with whatever ethos their employer has. This is a rather new wrinkle in the political landscape of hacking and one we all have to watch closely.

Hacking Politics: More Complicated Than Ever

As the world moves to one where cyber warfare is just as important as the more regular kind, the politics are going to get much more complicated. New technologies such as deepfake videos and intelligent software that can act in much more sophisticated ways, add a new generation of tools to the hacker arsenal.

It's already a pretty obscure world. With its own language. I have rituals, values, and worldviews that are perhaps unique to it. Yet, compromising computer systems will become a routine form of attack and defense. How that feeds into political causes and ambitions remains to be seen.

Government-sponsored hacking from places like the USA, Russia, and China is in another league compared to what even significant grassroots groups can do. Whether these new elite hacker forces will even take notice of traditional hackers remains to be seen. Those traditional hackers have usually gone up against people and systems that simply aren't prepared for them. What happens when the professionals go against the streetwise warriors is something no one knows the outcome of. At least not yet.

What do you think is the most interesting part of hacker politics? Let us know in the comments. Lastly, we’d like to ask you to share this article online. And don’t forget that you can follow TechNadu on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!

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