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What Makes a Hacker A Hero

02/03/2015 8:04 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Computer hacker POV, Seattle, WA

Even as the news of the Sony hackers fades away from public imagination and the verdict against the Silk Road cyber bandit is announced, we find a spate of movies featuring hackers as heroes, albeit flawed ones. From Julian Assange in Fifth Estate a year ago to Alan Turing in The Imitation Game to a formerly imprisoned hacker helping the FBI in the soon to be released Black Hat, hackers are everywhere. They are no longer the mysterious bad guy making an occasional appearance to thwart the good guy. To top it, this year's Oscar for the best documentary film went to Citizenfour, reportage about the hacker-activist Edward Snowden.

As I sat in beautiful Goa a couple weeks ago, attending Nullcon, one of the largest congregations of ethical hackers and cyber geeks from around the world, I could see young Indian techies, executives and wannabe hackers milling about on the sea-facing lawns. I could not help but wonder what makes the hacker - and yes, even those with debatable online antics - transform into a compelling hero of our times.

A hero is someone who, in the face of extreme adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage for some greater good. But, let us examine this a bit deeper.

The greater good is the first point of reflection. Today, the word hacker has been tarnished with black in common parlance. Yet, it was coined to describe someone who tinkers with tools and tricks to create new solutions or explore the fuzzy boundaries. Wozniak was the original hacker, as is Zuckerberg in our times. But there is a narrow divide between good and bad. We love sugar, but an excess of it causes diabetes and obesity. Let's examine hacking. At the positive end, hackers create new technologies and test the effectiveness of current ones. At the negative end, they can cheat, defraud, steal, terrorise or stalk using the same technologies. But it is when they test boundaries, either physically through unauthorised penetration tests or cognitively through online activism, that the notions of good become debatable. Assange and Snowden are fugitives. But many laud them for moving forward the debate on data privacy and right to information. Can hacking, then, be dismissed merely as 'demerit' good?

Thinking of adversity, for a moment let's dwell on one particular superhero. Spiderman was a much maligned do-gooder, tagged as a vigilante by the media, law and police in his fictitious world. Despite fighting a lone battle, legions of fans will swear that Spiderman was a good guy, who had to take the law in his hands to reveal the real bad guys. Does the story of Assange seem familiar?

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The other word to reflect upon is courage. In modern internet parlance, we could equate it with the values of risk-taking, innovation, passion and principle. Does greater good demand personal sacrifice? If Zuckerberg makes billions by creating a social networking site that first emerged from hacking into college fraternity lists, does it make him a hero? Or do we vilify him for making money? The platform Avaaz uses passion, purpose and the internet for social protests. The group Lulzsec hacked into an FBI-affiliated site and defaced it (though the leader of the group 'redeemed' himself later). These are clear distinctions. But when 4chan or Anonymous members deface a site or launch a DDoS attack to protest against a corporation or a government, how should we judge them? What about the Canadian hacker who got arrested for using the Heartbleed bug to steal information? He clearly exhibited innovation and out-of-the-box thinking - of the distorted variety. Does that mean he showed courage?

Borrowing from years of looking at strategic frameworks, I sought to classify this brave new world, where laws follow action, social change can be caused by vigilantes, and diktats of what's right today goes unheeded by those wild dreamers who see a better and more just tomorrow.

We can place digital actors on their risk and passion versus the profit they make from their activity.

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The heroes of the internet age, then, could be those who act on passion, take risks and adopt a stance, whether the purpose of their actions was to create profits or not. These would be the tech activists and the tech entrepreneurs. We could thus bucket the tech billionaires and the penniless tech activists. Both display heroism, in different ways of course.

In contrast would be those who acted without passion or purpose. This means the opportunistic hacker looking for the next con job for some money or a cyber mafia lord motivated by the thought of large and easy gains. In this category could also be ordinary developers who create routine programs or ethical hackers who conduct routine pen tests. They could be paid handsomely. But it is a job, not heroism.

The ones in the first category, then, emerge as the conflicted heroes of our age. They are neither right nor wrong. Even the entrepreneur, while creating an opportunity that didn't exist before, causes creative destruction, ending the lifecycle of competing technologies or businesses. Be they entrepreneurs or hacktivists, they are driven to act upon their convictions, to create new markets or to defy unjust conventional wisdom, and in the process change how we interpret markets, consumer preferences, ethics and the law.

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