On Leaked Pictures & Hackerphobia
Over the course of the past week, the celebrity hacking scandal has been widely and diversely discussed. Its victims have posted their comments on the matter on Facebook and Twitter and various media outlets have reported on the issue. The scandal is also still very much a hot topic on Reddit, where both the story and its leaked pictures were dominating the website since the scandal’s early hours. In the discussions surrounding this event, a particular notion stood out to me. It stood out because it was a phrase that was used quite a few times: the person responsible for leaking these pictures is “not a hacker.”
“Not a hacker”
Lena Dunham, creator of both the series Girls and a platinum blonde haircut, posted the following tweet:
Seriously, do not forget that the person who stole these pictures and leaked them is not a hacker: they’re a sex offender.
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) September 1, 2014
Dunham doesn’t really try to explain her insight, which is a shame. Also, I don’t really understand why someone can’t be a hacker and sex offender at the same time. Anyway, Seth Meyers addressed the ‘not a hacker’ notion way more thoroughly and interestingly during an edition of NBC’s Late Night:
Stop calling them hackers: they’re thieves. Hackers are the cool geniuses in movies who are always the underdogs saying things like “I cracked the mainframe. We’re in!” or “There’s one more thing I can try, but it’s a long shot.” This isn’t Neo freeing mankind from slavery. This is perverts making money off of stolen goods.
In this small section, Meyers addressed Neo as a saviour of mankind, a ‘cool genius.’ I’ve seen The Matrix and it’s true Neo does these things, but only after he escapes from a world where he broke “virtually every computer crime we have a law for.” That seems like a lot of computer crimes. I’m not saying that Neo also hacked the Matrix-version of iCloud and downloaded pictures of celebrities, but my point is that Neo isn’t a ‘real hacker’. Meyers notion of the hacker seems to be in tune with that of a hacker straight out of 1990s Hollywood films: a loveable geeky character who’s amazing with computers and using his powers to ‘do good’. Interestingly, many the films who include such a character also include a different sort of hacker. A hacker with the same set of skills, but not so loveable and mostly busy with threatening and shooting people. Examples are Swordfish (with the worst hacker scene ever conceived in cinematic history), Die Hard 4 and The Italian Job (the remake version).
Where did this positive (and apparently popular) interpretation of a ‘hacker’ come from? I personally think it’s to humanise the hacker, who is usually someone cloaked in anonymity, to make the persona less scary. A hacker can gain access into systems, both professional and private, and take the information stored there. Someone actively trying to gain access to your (very) personal files is scary – you weren’t expecting it and you couldn’t stop it. The thought of a well-experienced computer cracker having an agenda with your personal files (like leaking them to the public) is even scarier. With computers becoming an everyday part of people’s lives and upbringing, the amount of well-experienced computer users is strongly rising. Hacking is no longer a culture or anything like that: it’s a skill and everyone can learn it.
Hackers can be political activists, hackers can be twenty-somethings with way too much time on their hands. Hackers can be sex offenders, hackers can be thieves. Anonymity and (computer) crime is always a scary combination and I think everyone should be ready to see even more cases in the future.
The Cuckoo’s Egg
In the light of these new interpretations of a hacker, perhaps it’s interesting to look at this in another way. I highly recommend the book The Cuckoo’s Egg (1989), by Cliff Stoll. Stoll’s account of “tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage” is an early example of computer hacking. The book also deals with the then-unique characteristics involved in capturing an international ‘lawbreaker’ (Amazon.com, Bol.com).
Stoll, Cliff. The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.