Ever since people became aware on a broader level that there is such a thing as ‘the internet’ [circa 1990], popular culture has maintained a fascination with ‘hackers,’ commonly conceptualized in media as elite enclaves who wear black clothing and sunglasses; who live in air-conditioned chambers lined with wall consoles and possibly have large cables plugged into their skulls; as lackadaisical yet fashion-forward and highly-paid mercenaries, or as mysterious, short male Asians in the employ of fictional governments.
Hackers are probably not any of these things. However, whatever they actually are, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in hackers of late, as several high-profile events in recent years have drawn attention to the skill some unknown individuals appear to possess in subverting infrastructures or acquiring personal information. Once a simple and fairly insular cultural domain splintered across various subsections of the image board called 4chan, a cultural collective known as ‘Anonymous’ has been credited in the mainstream media with feats that range from mounting protests against Scientology to bullying internet teenagers who are too demonstrative of themselves on MySpace.
In fact, anyone who has ever made a post on certain 4chan message boards or joined others who enjoy similar in concurrent IRC chats could technically lay claim to the title of ‘Anonymous,’ as that is the preferred user ID on the image boards which as a collective culture generally frown on insisting on calling attention to oneself via a unique identity.
For example, the following statements are all true: Anonymous impacted the children’s multiplayer online game called Habbo by overpopulating its pool area with characters wearing afros; Anonymous sought to deplete the resources of various facilities by sending them faxes that were entire pages of black ink; Anonymous protested Scientology events by arriving there physically while wearing V For Vendetta masks; Anonymous bullied the internet teenager named Jessi Slaughter; Anonymous recently ‘went to war’ versus Tumblr and won. However, one would be hard-pressed to identify even one individual who was involved in all of these events, which makes Anonymous amorphous and impossible to identify as a singular entity.
That makes it more interesting to onlookers – that a group like Anonymous has no clear shape, no iron-clad entry point, means it has become a ‘secret society’ entirely by accident. Following this example, many internet users who can trace the origin of popular memes back to 4chan (where many of them in fact originated) feel somewhat included, meaning the culture of Anonymous is something they can identify from afar and feel fondness toward. Simultaneously they are fundamentally excluded, as feeling like an insider does not give them any particular advantage toward participating along with the assumed ‘hackers’ nor understanding their movements.
Even the idea that Anonymous is one mass of individuals is somewhat misleading, as ‘internet rumors’ generally suggest the organization and execution of significant denial-of-service attacks is done by a small handful of deeply-private ringleaders who leverage the annals of various IRC chats to motivate armies of internet users with the skills adequate to support their endeavors – sometimes this isn’t a “skill” at all, but mainly the fact that several thousand people, when moved by the same spirit and/or discussion thread, will attempt the same blunt digital behavior simultaneously until the ‘weight’ overwhelms its generally-unprepared target.
It’s often somewhat random, the product of a memetic tide driven by an unpredictable alchemy of circumstances. One cannot, for example, arrive on any message board or IRC in any community, explain an intense grievance, and demand, request, or otherwise attempt to influence an unknown and intangible community of presumed ‘hackers’ to avenge you. In the case of Anonymous, the popular retort – even by those who are generally ignorant to or disinterested in ‘hacking’ – is “We are not your personal army,” but most communities are likely to excoriate such requests if they acknowledge them at all. Therefore the systemic logic behind who is attacked and when and why, if any in fact any exists, is unclear if not completely arbitrary, often the product of a collective mood at one particular point in time.
Hence another point of fascination: No one ever sees it coming, giving rise to all sorts of imaginings on ‘underground societies.’ It makes the worlds of science fiction and fantasy films just a little more tangible: The future of sci-fi novels does and can in fact exist, because there are these ‘underground hacker collectives’ and so maybe we will also have flying cars or The Matrix for real soon.
Even the preceding explanation, as delivered from the perspective of an outsider, is probably more informed than most evening news reports about the nebulous threat from ‘internet hackers’ and yet fails to quantify who exactly ‘hackers’ supposedly are, what they are doing and why, and what skills are required, which is part of why mainstream culture continues to be fascinated by them.
Even those who are acquainted with hackers of some stripe or who have researched the behavior of coders to any extent are challenged to identify or emulate the ‘mad skillz’ involved in the kinds of intrusions and subversions that make the mainstream news. Consumers can look at Olympic figure skaters or piano virtuosos and while the spine of skill is something most do not find achievable, from a logical distance, they can understand in theory how such feats are possible. Technology, on the other hand, escapes even those who spend their daily lives immersed in it. It wasn’t long ago that those capable of mastering such languages were ostracized as social pariahs, assumed to be irrelevant ‘nerds’. Now, the narrative arc of the meek in the act of inheriting the Earth becomes a compelling triumph story.
Add in all the glamorous obfuscation – words like “efnet” and “mIRC,” things that begin with hashtags, sequences of numbers punctuated by odd characters, even the concept that we each have a digital address that is an abstraction of our real one, and hacking might as well be black magic, a nebulous ability that tickles the common fantasy gene.
You can see this principle at work in the vast strata of science fiction and digital crime books, television and film that features hackers or the act of hacking as key plot points despite the total ignorance that most have on the subject (particularly egregious is this fairly recent list celebrating Hollywood’s lack of understanding toward the digitally-minded).
Lately the internet – the most vocal participants of which are still technophiles and video gamers, no matter how ‘mainstream’ internet culture gets — has become fascinated by the invasion of Sony’s PlayStation 3 online service by hackers, an intrusion that has put the PlayStation Network offline for a week. Further, users learned only yesterday that at some point in the period between the service interruption and now, their personal account data, which includes name, home address and credit card numbers, may have been compromised. There are some 75 million PlayStation Network accounts in existence.
Despite the fact that, as individual users may make multiple accounts on a single console this is a somewhat-misleading representation of the total population that may have been affected, the hack is still one of the most visible and significant invasions to date in the public sector, although average citizens might hear ‘video game console’ and ignore the news under the assumption it is frivolous or irrelevant.
It is quite likely that the group responsible is acting in retaliation against Sony for its recent prosecution of one George ‘Geohot’ Hotz, who ‘cracked’ his PS3 console and supposedly posted instructions on message boards to other console owners on how to do the same. People are liable to want to ‘crack’ a hardware platform for any number of reasons: Curiosity, to enable them to install their own operating systems (a feature Sony once offered but has long disabled citing security concerns) or to play ‘homebrew’ software. Users often attempt to ‘crack’ hardware to facilitate software piracy, but despite the position of hardware platform holders, it remains unknown the extent to which piracy is the primary goal of ‘jailbreakers’ (Hotz, for example, maintains piracy was not his intention).
Core to those legal arguments is the question of what one has permission to do with a piece of hardware one has purchased and assumedly owns: Jailbreakers believe that they are free to invade and modify a device they have purchased to whatever extent they wish; platform manufacturers maintain that such behavior puts abiding users at risk.
Whatever cause they appear to act in favor of, hackers’ allegiances generally appear to fall on the side of social justice – in this case a statement on individualism and ownership — and as such it can be assumed that Sony is being taught a ‘lesson’ about having been controlling about its PS3 and the device’s concurrent online network. However, a fascinating principle arises: Although this vast number of innocent consumers who purchased a PS3 and enjoy playing video games and/or consuming other media online through the console may now have their personal data at high risk, even a cursory check of the internet’s pulse – through video game websites, Twitter or community forums – seems to indicate that consumers take the hackers’ side, that they feel betrayed by Sony’s failure to prepare for attack or to take appropriate steps thereafter, or that the company is receiving its due deserved action after a period of what many fans perceive to have been poor community or data management. They are not sympathetic toward the victim, but rather toward the perpetrators.
This is in part because, when it comes to digital activism, no one is physically harmed, at least not in a way that’s visible from the detachment of the internet. Great acts of subversion and rebellion against religions, corporations or other offensive cultural outliers can be viewed from an abstract distance. They can be romanticized; people can cheer for them.
In the case of the PS3, users understand the idea of punishing a hardware giant for trying to interfere in its users’ sense of individual ownership, and while they may not support organized crime, why they might feel super totally bad about people’s credit cards being compromised, they can assume that identity theft is only a side effect of the reckoning to which Sony is now being called. Even if they’re users worried about their own information, bummed about the downtime, something inside them quietly supports mysterious, unseen digital rebels, secretly wishes to be included as operator and not as victim, the last to hear about the fantastic execution.
At the crux of all of this is that we live in an age where civilized humanity is gradually becoming aware that being misinformed is tantamount to social surrender. This awareness can manifest in malformed, even offensive oddities – see crazy people who believe they must see the President’s birth certificate with their own eyes to believe he is American and not some embedded terrorist – or in more constructive ways, like the emergence of WikiLeaks and the near-celebrity status of Julian Assange, which he earned simply by being able to bring common individuals information that would have otherwise been deeply hidden from them.
In the digital age, information is rapidly becoming more essential to the human experience than more tangible signifiers of identity. Out of the average person’s sight and comprehension, hackers, once largely creatures of fiction, are demonstrating their mastery of information and wielding that power for civil disobedience, for quiet revolution. Everyone can fall in love with that.