What the hack?! Perceptions of Hackers and Cybercriminals in Popular Culture (HOPE XI live blog)

These notes taken at HOPE XI

What the hack?!

Aunshul Rege, Assistant Prof in Criminal Justice at Temple University
Quinn Heath, Criminal Justice student at Temple University

Aunshul begins. Work based on David Wall’s seven myths about the hacker community. How does the media portrayal of hacking differ from reality? Three objectives: 1. get hacker community’s perspective, 2. how does the hacker community feel about Wall’s myths, 3. general thoughts on how the media interacts with the hacker community. Work conducted by interviews of self-identified hackers at HOPE X.

Quinn starts on the first objective. What makes someone a hacker? Plays some interviews from HOPE X. Every hacker had a unique story, but there were common threads. Many hackers felt they had been hackers from a young age. There was also a common thread of hacking bringing empowerment.

First myth: cyberspace is inherently unsafe. Mixed response from interviewees. Some felt that the internet was “just a pipe,” while others believed that as a human system, it empowered misuse.

Second myth: the super hacker. Interviewees believed that no one person knows everything. Highly unrealistic. Real people just aren’t as interesting.

Third myth: cybercrime is dramatic, despotic, and futuristic.

Fourth myth: hackers are becoming part of organized crime. Many felt there was some truth to this.

Fifth myth: criminals are anonymous and cannot be tracked. Everybody uses handles, but you have to go through a single IP. Everyone leaves a trace. The only way not to get caught is to not do anything worth getting caught over.

Sixth myth: cybercriminals go unpunished and get away with crime: Law enforcement is making examples out of people in the hacker community. You have to be careful about what you type into a terminal, assume it will be used against you in the worst possible light. Media portrayal translates into harsher prosecution for hackers than for violent criminals. The CFAA is abused by law enforcement, for example in the Aaron Swartz case.

Seventh myth: users are weak and not able to protect themselves. Media focuses too much on companies and not enough on the users whose data is released. People are becoming less scared of technology.

Quinn moves on to common themes. One was a common objection to the way the word “hacker” is used in the media. The word is ambiguous, but has been used by the media in a much narrower and disagreeable way.

Women are underrepresented in the hacker community, even though the community tends to be more liberal. Women in technology sometimes aren’t presented as hackers because they don’t fit existing media stereotypes.

Hackers are portrayed as geeky, nerdy, boring, caucasian males. But there are hackers of all races. Sometimes hackers of color are presented as a vague formless threat.

Hackers are presented in a polarized way: either losers or dangerous and powerful. Women in the media are always attractive and sexualized and/or goth.

The media sometimes focuses on the hack, and sometimes on the hacker. It’s easier to get information on a hack, and easier to twist the facts to suit the story the media or company want to convey. The media likes to have a face and a personality, but that’s rare.

How does the news interact with the hacker community? There needs to be better journalism. The media takes snippets that don’t give the full story, but shape public opinion.

What about movies? Most of what happens is inaccurate. “They’re not going to make a movie about people staring at computer screens,” it would be “boring as hell.” The movies and media don’t pay tribute to the social engineering aspect. It makes sense that Hollywood would do this, but less so that the news does.

What about the 1995 movie “Hackers”? It’s almost a parody. It’s old and outdated, even for when the movie was set. It’s fun, but not good or accurate. It stereotypes what hackers are. Almost everyone mentioned this movie, and loved it in a “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way.

Over time, the hacker stereotype has gone from the teenage prankster in the 80s, to dangerous cyber-warriors or weird, young, and soon-to-be-rich.

Hackers are careful about using the word because they’re sensitive to how people will perceive it. They described a strong personal impact due to the media portrayal. But the community remains strong.

What kind of movie would hackers make about hackers? It would be fun to flip all the stereotypes. Most hacking is boring from the outside, so it would need to be dramatized, but it could be more realistic.

Anshul: interested in more information on race, gender and age. Also wants to know how the hacking community is influenced by media stereotypes. Will be publishing this work soon.