“Hacking isn’t about breaking and entering,” Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has said. “It’s about being unafraid to break things in order to make them better.”
A computer, like capitalism, is based on the premise of systems, ownership and security. But security can be impinged, property trespassed, systems destroyed or reordered. Hacking may conjure an image of a geek in a basement. In reality, it is much more than that.
The hacker has become an emblem; a lone freedom fighter bathed in the grey-glow of a computer screen, fingers whizzing across a keyboard, determined to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed. Hackers are analysts, rebels, questioners and rejectionists, drawing back the iron curtain of authority, using their relationship with technology to beckon a better world. As journalist David Leigh says, hacking is “a distinct psychological genre.”
Think of the traditional and enduring images of the hacker in cinema: Keanu Reeve’s Neo bursting awake in his grimy bachelor pad and receiving a minidisc from the White Rabbit. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt high-wiring into the world’s most secure office to nab the NOC list. Wayne Knight’s Dennis taking down the mainframe and letting out the raptors in //Jurassic Park//. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith rewiring the alien craft to celebrate //Independence Day//. Hugh Jackman, Vinnie Jones on one side and a hospitable blonde on the other, given 60 seconds to break into “The Department of Defense” in //Swordfish//. Cinema has done a remarkably good job of depicting hacking in all its guises and quandaries, from the virtuous, to the ethically dubious, to the plain naughty, to the egocentric and deranged.
Yet many of these films exhibit a Cold War perspective of a world defined by the existence of a wall. Today the defining symbol of our interactions is not a wall, but a net.
The internet has filtered into every aspect of our society. As hackers like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and Pirate Bay’s Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij have become global icons, the significance of the hacker has changed, their identity corroded, their existence maybe even endangered.
It is now easier to find a sense of community online than at your doorstep. We share the minutia of our lives, we share art and culture, we comment on events as they unfold, we treat what used to be secrets with the same familiarity as our online status. Politicians, celebrities, generals and spies are discovering to their peril that privacy isn’t easily kept these days, and revenge is a dish best served cold. When friction creates a spark, it spreads like wild-fire.
Zuckerberg, 25, whose work on Facebook has provided a 24 billion dollar kitty, is a self-confessed hacker. Facebook started life as a drunken hack-job prank in the halls of Harvard. When he was still at school, Zuckerberg invented artificial intelligence software that predicted a user’s music tastes. Microsoft and AOL wanted to buy it for millions, but he uploaded it to the net for free and joined the Ivy League. Today, with over 500 million active users, he lives in a rented flat with his Chinese girlfriend (and learns Mandarin for a couple of hours before heading to work at 6am). Refusing to watch the biopic courtesy of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, Zuckerberg works like any other programmer at the Facebook offices and seems to have no real relationship with the fortune he has earned.
Zuckerberg’s creation has been the source of concern for a lot of existing hacking communities who accuse it of muddying the sacred waters of interaction. As possibly the most successful produce of a traditional hack, the social network is not welcomed with particular warmth. McKensie Wark, the author of //The Hacker’s Manifesto//, is part of this chorus. His polemical book seems to view hacking as part of a re-tuning of Marxist social theory for the modern age. Wark defines hacking as:
“The gift of time and attention to a project that can be shared with and by others. That is, and perhaps always was, the vast, invisible part of how social formations get by.”
He talked to Little White Lies about Facebook, saying:
“For those of us in the overdeveloped world, the main game is the subtle overlap of hacking, working, playing and hustling. It is now not clear which is which. Is my Facebook time labour or play, or hustling? Am I working for Zuckerberg, am I playing with my friends, am I trying to build an audience to sell my next book? Or am I spending all my time there on Farmville? This ambiguity about social communication time is I think the big question our culture will face.”
Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Gates’ Microsoft, Jobs and Wozniak’s Apple and Richard Stallman’s GNU project are all products, and statements, born from the culture of hacking. Indeed, so is the world wide web itself. Tim Berners Lee, who made his first computer with a soldering iron, an M8600 processor and an old television and is now accredited with fathering the net, did so by hacking existing software and welding it together, discovering a way to communicate that is wholly unconcerned with time and space.
But these visionaries of information technology are just the tip of the iceberg. These are the hackers known in the game as White Hats; entrepreneurs concerned with conventional ethics who hack company software with the implicit desire to improve security through exposure, and to create rather than deconstruct. Most good hackers were tapped up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) or IBM as soon as their capabilities became clear – Agent Smiths looking to turn Neo into Mr Anderson.
Before Silicon Valley existed, the cutting edge of technological America was the railroad. The Tech Model Railway Club, a legendary club at M.I.T, built sophisticated train models and complex circuits that allowed the trains to pioneer further into America. Its members were amongst the first hackers because they insistently pushed the programs beyond what they were originally designed to do. So emerged the hacking ethic – a silent doctrine based in the premise of transparency and knowledge, in which a man’s relationship to his machine could lead to a better world.
Finding the “perfect hack” is the pinnacle at M.I.T, and the stories predate the computers. Back in the 50s, on a balmy summer’s night, a bunch of students left their halls and broke into Cambridge’s Kendall Square subway station where they set about greasing down the lines. The first train to enter the station the next morning hit the grease and slid through to the other side, before eventually coming to a stop in a darkened tunnel way down the other end. When the driver backed up, the train slid through in the opposite direction. Not many people using Kendall Square got to work on time that morning. For several generations of M.I.T. engineers, it went down as the ultimate hack. A simple practical joke, but executed with such finesse that it obtained a certain beauty.
It’s a competitive environment. Stories abounded at M.I.T of some of America’s brightest and most ambitious students going into ‘wrap-around;’ foregoing meals, sleep and any social activity as they buried deeper and deeper into their computerized worlds, purely for the challenge to find the holes in the system.
M.I.T housed ethical hackers not unlike Zuckerberg. But the loose network of hackers is as nuanced, and their motivations as varied, as any community. Not every hacker hacks for capital gain or the sake of mankind. Infact, most don’t. For every straight-laced White Hat, there is a Puck-like Grey Hat or an Iago-like Black Hat.
Grey Hats are hackers unconcerned by rule of law if it stands in the way of their discoveries. Perhaps the most iconic hacker currently working is Julian Assange, the controversial face of Wikileaks. Assange, who rarely sleeps in the same bed twice, lives nocturnally, carries a desktop computer in a pack on his back and started his hacking career by heading up a group called ‘International Subversives,’ is a nailed-on Grey Hat.
By exposing in no uncertain terms the true cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his work as a hacker is clearly servicing a thirst for a fact-based, transparent democracy and he has been applauded as a Robin Hood of the information age. But to achieve his ideals, Assange has broken every secrecy law ever passed, and has been accused of failing his sources. Bradley Manning, the US private charged with passing top secret Government files to Wikileaks under the online pseudonym Bradass87, is facing a life in jail for the theft of Government property, property that Assange eagerly published before joining the global lecture circuit. In an open letter to Assange, press freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders accused Assange of “incredible irresponsibility” for publishing the Afghan war logs “indiscriminately.” Assange’s methods, they said, “reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility.” Spokesperson for The White House Robert Gates said Assange “had blood on his hands.”
Grey Hats are hackers whose intentions are shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Assange’s objectives are clearly rooted in a uncompromisingly moral world-view. Morals that, justifiably or not, allow him to break international law without recourse to any process of accountability. He said recently:
“There’s a question as to what sort of information is important in the world, what sort of information can achieve reform. And there’s a lot of information.“Information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that’s a really good signal that when the information gets out, there’s a hope of it doing some good.”
Assange’s assertion that the presence of money compromises the pursuit of information is deeply embedded in the culture of hacking. Many hackers seem to regard themselves and their work as standing outside of, and rejecting, the worst excesses of capital democracy, with its accompanying trade-offs and equivocations. This is an age-old thing, as prevalent in the first stories of hacking as in the latest.
This may have been true throughout the baby-boomer generation. Their world was smaller, but most of it was still closed from view. Journalism investigated, but governmental departments and big business remained enshrined in their towers. Their economies were exploding, but they dealt in material worth.
But Generation Y live in a tertiary marketplace powered by creativity and freedom of information. We were given the internet and we showed them how to make it work. What does this mean for the hacking community? What role does it now have in this brave new world of venture capitalism?
“On the one hand, hacking has become a more widespread and self-aware cultural practice, and not just in computer related fields,” Wark says. “Lots of people now think about themselves as members of communities that share information, make a gift of their labor, and achieve recognition from others for this. On the other hand, general social production has been more seamlessly integrated into internet-based media, from search engines to games and social networking. All of these portals extract a rent from ‘hosting’ such activity. I say ‘hosting’ because, in reality, they are the parasite – that which syphons off the surplus from its host, the host being social labor and creativity or, in other words, hacking.”
Hacking, in Wark’s world, is an extension to what the guys at the bottom of the pile have always done; adapt to survive. His manifesto places hacking as the only credible and justifiable response to pernicious authority and parasitical enterprise. He views the attempts to police it, or indeed choke it at source, as a classic exercise in wagon-circling self-preservation:
“Hacking is something that certain vested interests want to criminalize. It is exactly like the criminalizing of the pre-modern forms of economy that went with the rise of capitalism. For example, weavers used to always take some of the cloth in exchange for their work. The capitalist putting-out system criminalized this as ‘theft’. Likewise, culture has always worked by borrowing and adapting. Now the theft is of so-called intellectual property.”
Back in the day, Black Hat hackers (or self-termed “social engineers”) like Kevin Mitnick could manipulate the script and jump down the rabbit-hole. Gary McKinnon, a Glasgow-born systems administrator and Aspergers sufferer, is currently awaiting extradition to the US for what one prosecutor termed “the biggest hack of all time,” after he broke into 97 different US military and NASA computers. His online pseudonym, SOLO, reflects his working habits.
McKinnon’s motivations, and indeed his grasp of reality, remain unclear. He insists to this day he uncovered on those machines evidence of alien-life cover-ups, antigravity technology and the suppression of free-energy fuels. The American government have never commented on the veracity of these claims, but successive administrations continue to seek his extradition.
Throughout his tour of America’s most secure information, McKinnon would leave his detractors the occasional goading message:
“US foreign policy is akin to Government-sponsored terrorism these days … It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand down on September 11 last year … I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”
One thing is clear. However much we attempt to categorise hackers, however much we attempt to understand their motivations or their relationship to the state, however much we try and justify or condemn their actions or morality, one consistent thread remains. Hackers, despite their means, are looking for the one known as Morpheus – that most alluring and elusive of ideals, the thing they call truth. The road may be changing, but the pursuit stays the same.