The hacking universe is complex and often mired in stereotypes. In fact, it is not unusual to hear hackers referred to as individuals operating on the periphery of the law and of society, despite the fact that in reality, they are highly skilled IT experts with a creative flair. The world of hackers is to all effects and purposes an authentic community whose members gather at their own international events, such as DefCon in Las Vegas and the Hack in Paris.
Despite the fact that most of these people’s names are known almost exclusively among that community (where fellow members are the only ones capable of recognising their true abilities), some hackers have attained international notoriety through their ‘work’. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are just two examples that serve to remind us that hacking is much more than merely an egocentric promotion of the self-centred IT genius.
The work of several cyber activists has been crucial during certain historically significant moments, such as for example the Arab Spring of 2011. In that specific case, the action of the Telecomix agents proved pivotal when they helped the populations of Syria and Egypt bypass censorship of the web imposed by the powerful regimes who ruled the two countries.
Popular stereotypes surrounding the world of hacking are the main reason for the general public’s lack of knowledge regarding the different profiles operating in that field. There are in fact many types of hacker. Those who act with criminal intent are the so-called black hats, while the cyber activists who adhere to an ethical code are known as white hats. Those whose modus operandi lies mid-way between those two groups are known as grey hat hackers.
The hacking scene is a rich and varied one which also includes blue hats, a term adopted by Microsoft to define cyber activists involved with the implementation of IT security and research into vulnerable areas in company systems.
Relations with companies and political authorities
The hacking world is nowadays closely linked to that of the large corporations. International players such as Hewlett-Packard and Quant have admitted using bug bounty, a procedure which involves paying highly-skilled professionals large sums of money when they successfully identify bugs in the system.
Some of the former cyber criminals of the last decades are now security consultants for large multinational corporations. Others, for example Assange and Snowden, are considered criminals and traitors of their nations, an illustration of how far from completion the normalisation process remains.
At present, the relations that individuals or groups have with political authorities is hugely influential. In Germany, for example, IT pirates are accepted as a part of the institutional panorama. One example is the Chaos Computer Club, a longstanding group of hackers which often collaborate with the government. Their role was crucial in the non-introduction of biometric security systems. The CCC group highlighted the system’s lack of security by showing how easy it was to clone one of the Home Secretary’s fingerprints.
The situation of hackers in France is a little more complex, as the hacker community ‘s relationship with the government is less than idyllic and long infiltrated by the secret services. At national level and beyond, the case of the cyber activist Oliver Laurealli caused a scandal, when he was condemned for IT piracy as a result of his divulgence of confidential information relating to the ANSES, the National Agency for Health and Food Safety.
Translated by Joanne Beckwith