What is a hacker?
So what is a hacker and how do they operate? A hacker is any individual who accesses data without authorization using computers or other digital devices. They exist on both sides of the law, with some acting as cybercriminals and data thieves, and others working to make cybersecurity more effective.
The criminal nature of this profession is one of the most prevalent and often baseless stereotypes. It fails to represent white-hat hackers; people who use hacking for positive ends. These cybersecurity specialists work for companies or even law-enforcement agencies and try to protect others from cybercrime.
Hacker stereotypes in mainstream media
Oversimplification is common in popular media and journalism, and this applies to hackers too. In movies, their interfaces look like childish video games, and they can crack government systems in minutes with just a few lines of code.
Today we’re going to tackle some of the most popular hacker stereotypes. Let’s try to trace their origins, and see how they correspond to reality.
Popular hacker stereotypes
While some of these stereotypes overlap with the truth, most are exaggerated and unrealistic. It’s fun to explore different representations of hackers, but the real people who work in these areas may have no similarities to their stereotypes.
The Evil Genius
Media coverage tends to focus on criminal activity as it captures the public’s attention. You often need to read specific tech-related publications and literature to find out about the good work many hackers do.
It’s 50/50, actually. Not all hackers are evil, and not all of them are geniuses. Sure, there are black-hat hackers who participate in cybercriminal activities, usually for malicious financial or political purposes. And some of them are skillful enough to seriously disrupt the operations of giant corporations, governmental institutions, and even entire states. But we’ve also got white hatters, who find vulnerabilities in systems before the criminals are able to exploit them.
The Introverted Geek
Sure, a person who spends lots of time behind a computer may not have much time left for socializing. However, this stereotype is really fueled by TV shows and Hollywood depictions.
The stereotype of an antisocial person spending most of their time behind their computer applies to the IT field in general and was especially prevalent in the 90s. But as the sector expanded and the workforce became more diverse, this stereotype has started to fade.
The same applies to the hacking community. Antisocial computer geniuses who communicate better in code than in words still exist, but this is not the default.
The International Spy
The news often covers international cyberattacks and digital espionage between governments. It’s clear that many nations now have state-sanctioned hackers, but how representative is that of the wider community?
While cyber espionage and online warfare are certainly on the rise, the vast majority of hackers aren’t involved. Most individuals don’t have a geopolitical agenda; they’re in it for financial gain, or to help make the internet safer.
The Hooded Figure
This visual stereotype probably arises from two points: hoods represent anonymity, and this item of clothing is specifically associated with a younger generation, to which hackers often belong. The stereotype of hackers being faceless and mysterious is also driven by the Anonymous group and other unidentified hacktivists.
While trying to generalize the fashion trends of such a diverse community is quite reductive, it’s interesting to note the overlap between punk aesthetics and the hacker scene. Marc Rogers, the head of security at Defcon (the biggest hacker conference in the world) has said: “Leather jackets, spikes, boots, all of that kind of stuff is [still] pretty normal.”
The Messy Guy
Again, this one probably comes from many cinematic representations of hackers and their surroundings. Movies often show them as young men working in dimly lit rooms full of fast food packages, discarded floppy discs, and computer gear.
Even if some hackers fall into this stereotype, this is still an outdated generalization. The growing industry of ethical hackers and white-hatters is full of well-paid professionals working in shiny offices.
Moreover, while it is still a male-dominated sector in some places, fortunately things are changing. More and more women are getting involved in IT jobs and in hacking specifically. Popular media reflects this trend too, so this evolution looks set to continue.
The AI Robot
Bots are everywhere online, but the idea of AI-driven hacking bots probably originates in sci-fi’s obsession with artificial intelligence and the robot vs. man dichotomy. In these instances, the robots are frequently portrayed as a rogue force threatening humanity.
Well, this one sounds like a sci-fi movie but it’s partially true. Now that we’re witnessing the emergence and rapid development of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, hackers are employing these new tools as well.
And this fact is scary as AI could really empower cybercriminals and increase the scale of damage they can cause. So we really hope the good guys win this arms race.
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