Hackers are a relatively rare breed of computer users. These technological elites are some of the most tech-savvy people in existence. They practically think in binary code and see vulnerabilities in systems that even the top minds who design them could never have thought of. Anyone can be a hacker, regardless of background or appearance. But why do hackers do what they do in the first place?
Yes, obviously one reason is that they have the technical ability and intelligence to do the hard work of hacking, but that’s not really a reason. There are plenty of people who are smart and knowledgeable enough to be hackers. However, not all of them walk down that road. On an individual level, the specific reasons why people hack are going to be unique to them. Still, there are some common, broad reasons for people who can hack to go ahead and do it. So that’s what we’ll be focusing on in order to shed some light on what happens behind the mask of a hacker.
Money, Money, Money
Let’s face it, there’s a lot of money in hacking no matter which sort of hacker you are. As the world becomes ever more digitized the importance of cybersecurity grows exponentially. Which is why many talented hackers are making a good living as security testers and consultants. Any organization can pay an ethical hacker to deliberately attempt a break-in of their systems. With a full report of any weaknesses, they might have discovered on the way.
Black Hat (malicious) hackers are often also in it for the money, but they turn to criminality in order to make a buck. This can include blackmail after intercepting sensitive information or just straight-up selling stolen information, whether credit card numbers of trade secrets. Many top hackers literally have the skills to pay the bills and it’s no surprise that it’s an attractive vocation for many.
They Dislike Authority and Censorship
Grassroots hackers and most of the famous hackers in history have shown a real lack of respect for authority. Many hacks are essentially a middle-finger to the powers that be, just as a way to show them they aren’t as in control as they think. When a 15-year old kid hacks into NASA using an old Pentium computer, NASA doesn’t look like such a big deal anymore.
Hackers who adhere to the traditional hacker ethos believe in freedom of information, free access to knowledge and an open-access world. Open Source licensing is an expression of the hacker ethos, as are exploits of copyright protection. Whenever a fat cat wants to tell everyone else what to do, a lot of people who can’t stand that will turn towards hacking.
Because They Love Puzzles
There’s a certain class of person who just can’t let an interesting puzzle go. That simple fact explains why some people are hackers. They look at a black box, such as a network security system, and just need to crack it open. This might not sound like a compelling reason all by itself, but you have to remember that people get into things gradually. You might think you’re just tinkering with a few interesting computer technologies and before you know it you’ve slid over into full-blown hacking and system penetration.
They Love Taking Things Apart and Messing With Themjailbreak a new phone so they can mess with the phone freely. The fact that they also end up sharing that work and therefore enabling regular schmoes to beat those systems as well is incidental.
You can really see this desire to tinker and change things at hacker conventions like DEFCON, where hackers show off all sorts of weird repurposed gadgets and completely out of the box hacks that only a very special mind could come up with. In fact, one of the largest sources of pioneering hackers was a model train club at MIT, where the students messing with their model signaling system smoothly moved into messing with the new computer mainframes that came to campus.
To Change the World
Because the world is so reliant on technological systems, it also means that you can have a real effect on it by affecting those very same systems. Since hackers have so much potential power, it makes sense that some of them will want to do something about their disaffection with the status quo. That’s at the core of hacktivism, the practice of being a political activist by way of hacking. Not only does this mean more visibility than more traditional protest actions, but hacktivists can also often find information that the authorities would rather remain secret. Sites like Wikileaks, though controversial, have already exposed some pretty shady dealings on the part of the ruling classes.
Because the net and other related technologies have so much pure reach, it’s easy to understand the appeal of using those tools to get the greater public to take notice of your cause. Of course, hackers being hackers, the legality and morality of some activism projects fall into a pretty substantive grey area.
They are Hardcore Geeks
These days being a geek about one thing or another is pretty mainstream, but many (if not most) of the people who become hackers are seriously hardcore geeks. Their interest, focus, and knowledge of esoteric and technical computer topics are truly astounding. For many of these people hacking is a natural next step, when you’ve learned so much in theory and have played with all the “safe” aspects of computer technology, what’s left? The hunger for more knowledge and information never goes away for long, so hacking is one way to sate those geeky obsessions.
They Have a Passion for Security
Grey and White Hat hackers, who are not malicious, often care deeply about security and privacy. They work to break into existing systems but don’t use their successes to do harm or for illegal personal gain. In the case of Grey Hat hackers, they might stumble onto exploits and vulnerabilities while exploring systems without permission. However, they’ll let the owner of the system know about the problem. Giving them a chance to fix it. White Hat hackers do the same thing, but with the explicit permission of the owner of the system. These hackers have to think like computer criminals in order to break in, but they do it with the intention of making the overall level of security better.
For the Fame and Reputation
One major point of principle among those that follow the hacker ethos is that only your ability matters. Not your education, your race, your age or anything else. Your status depends on the biggest hack you ever pulled off. The most complex one, or perhaps one that was the first of its kind. Respect comes from demonstrating your knowledge and power. Hackers are smart iconoclasts and often nothing matters more than acknowledgment from their peers.
It’s also one of the reasons some hackers have been caught. If they didn’t claim the credit on dark web forums and other places that hackers hang out, the authorities would have no leads at all. Unfortunately, hacker pride and ego are a potent mix, so it’s often just a matter of time before the bragging starts.
They’re Working for the Government
The new century brought all sorts of interesting government jobs into the world. For example, you can now join the Airforce and become a drone pilot. Sitting in an air-conditioned command station all day while a robotic aircraft under your control flies around the war zone. Although apparently, it’s not the best job. You can also become a cyber warfare specialist and work on protecting and breaching security systems as the government needs you to. Yes, all over the world, governments are building up digital warfare assets and state-sanctioned hackers are an important part of this process.
So there are hackers out there who do it because of the government trains and pays them to. These are clearly a new breed of hackers because grassroots hackers don’t work for authorities as a rule. Only time will tell what sort of effect this new breed of hacker will have on the overall hacker community, but I doubt they’ll be hanging out at the same virtual bars.
Leaving Something to Mystery
Although we know the rational reasons that people become hackers, that doesn’t explain that unique mix of intelligence and personality that defines the core of a hacker. It would be interesting what these people would have been before the age of computers. Would Da Vinci have been a hacker? I’d like to think so.
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