From Bedroom to Underground – The Evolution of Hackers

In its original meaning, the term “hack” stood for the re-configuring or re-programming of a system so it worked in ways not meant by the owner, administrator, or designer. More generally, a hack is a quick and clever solution to a problem. One of today’s most famous pieces of malware inherited its name from an invention that could be considered the very first hack: The Trojan Horse that was created by the Greeks to breach the impregnable Trojan city walls. Moving to more modern times, in 1822 Charles Babbage began working on what he called the difference engine, made to compute values of polynomial functions – the first computer. And in 1939, British cryptologists worked on a device called the Bombe in order to help decrypt German Enigma-machine-encrypted signals during World War II. These examples demonstrate that the original meaning of the term hack had little to do with Internet security and was not always tied to malicious activities. Later on, with the birth of the Internet, the possibilities for system hacking increased – and so did the number of people dedicating their time to this activity.

The term hacker is difficult to describe as it has so many different meanings and connotations. It was first used at MIT (Massachusetts Institute Technology), which held the first courses in computer programming and computer science. A group of students started to call themselves hackers because they were able to create code that made computer programs perform actions that were not originally intended. In the beginning, hackers were driven by something like a spirit of adventure. There was this new technology, this World Wide Web evolving quickly, and people wanted to discover what was possible. They wanted to test their own limits, create chaos or simply destroy property. The reason to do something was “because I can”. The first malwares crashed PCs, deleted hard disks and let Pacman appear on the screen. Their victims helplessly watched as the hackers demonstrated their abilities by inflicting damage while staying incognito, at least outside the hacker scene. This was the era of script-kiddies using simple malware coded by others in their bedroom.
But soon, the motivation for hackers started to change. What began as a recreational activity was then and still is driven by commercial goals as hackers realized that they could actually make money with their abilities and knowledge. A real market had developed, offering several ways of making money. Depending on which way they chose, hackers can be classified in several categories. The best known classification refers to classical western movies: the white and black hat.

A white hat hacker uses his know-how for non-malicious purposes, for example by working as a penetration tester within a contractual agreement or by searching for vulnerabilities in operating systems or applications and selling them to the vendor. On the other hand, black hat hackers break computer security or use technology like a computer or a mobile phone for credit card fraud, identity theft, piracy, or other types of illegal activities that earn them money.  Or they offer their method for renting or leasing, e.g. if they “own” a strong botnet and have others pay for spam floods or targeted denial of service attacks, which is also often preceded by blackmailing.

The most important difference between the money earning hacker of today and the script kiddie in the past is that the former does not want to be noticed. Back then, hackers wanted fame (for their hacker alias). They felt their capabilities should be recognized or even feared. Today, hackers attempt to stay invisible and want their hacks to remain unnoticed as well. Often weeks or even months go by until their victims realize something is wrong. Modern malware is installed unnoticed and works in the background of a system. The reason is: The longer it takes to detect an infection, the more money can be earned.

We are now at the edge of a third evolutionary step. In summer 2010, the term cyberwar became popular in the media, and the discussion was fueled by the discovery of Stuxnet, the first known worm that spies on and reprograms industrial systems. The actions of hackers now have a new motivation besides the longing for fame or money: Political motivation. There are hackers that follow their own political interests and views, like the hacker Jester, who claims to be responsible for the DDoS attacks on wikileaks that brought down their internet connection – Jester stated that wikileaks endangered “the lives of our troops, ‘other assets’ and foreign relations”.

Other hackers sell their abilities and resources like botnets to political players, whether they are political organizations or even governments. Some nations are suspected to have set up dedicated departments for cyber espionage or sabotage, while other nations are known to have set up dedicated departments to defend themselves against this new threat, e.g. the Pentagon’s Cyber Command (Cybercom) that is responsible for safeguarding the American military network. It is easy to imagine that those departments hire hackers– hackers, who see themselves as kind of cyber mercenaries, working for the political party that pays the most, or who dedicate their skills to a cause in which they believe, and operate in stealth. It is rumored that Stuxnet was a first shot in the dark by an unknown party, aiming at sabotaging not only production plants, but even nuclear power plants.

But still, there are also the good guys:  The security industry, engaged software vendors, white hats and non-profit organizations like CERT, SANS or MITRE and more. There are and always will be hackers that deliberately put on the black hat, for fun, money or politics, but there are and always will be those wearing the white hat. As the bad guys develop, so do the good guys. This is a cat-and-mouse game, with no model or theory telling us that there will be a final winner instead of an ongoing race.


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About the Author: Shannon Lewis

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