With Technology Ruling Our Lives, Are Hackers The New Agents Of Change?

Posted on May 30, 2016 in Sci-Tech, Society

By Saurabh Das:

Protesters from the online activist group "Anonymous" wearing Guy Fawkes masks march in downtown Guatemala, November 5, 2015. The group claims to be mobilizing protests in more than 600 cities worldwide as part of what they call the "Million Mask March" held on Guy Fawkes day. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez - RTX1UZ08
Image credit: Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez.

Power structures are ubiquitous. It’s nuanced and it can be experienced in a day to day scenario either in a public place or in a private one. Power structures are created through our defined roles and through voices, opinions, views, skill sets and even at times the ideology which we abide by. However, sometimes there is also a role reversal among the actors present in that power structure. In our day to day life, we find an interaction between technology and society which defines the power structure. The power structure is observed when we depend on technology to mobilise the available resources and when, in turn, technology depends us to interact with it. In the current milieu, hacking has redefined this power structure.

Hacking has led to the construction of communities where each hacker develops skill sets of computing in computers and networks. It is not only a philosophy of business but also a radical movement opening manifold opportunities and expressing creativity, freedom, care, openness, and social worth. In the post-Karl Marx era, hackers are the new revolutionary class of the 21st century as in McKenzie Wark’s words,

“To hack is to differ….Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. In art, in science, in philosophy and culture, in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old.”

McKenzie Wark is one of the leading critical scholars whose voluminous contributions in media and critical theory is amazing. His book titled ‘A Hacker Manifesto’ is one of the seminal works on hacking. It is observed that scholarly works have majorly identified that hackers are attracted to illicit acts. These acts are performed either by individuals when transgressing a law or social convention or in collective moments like when they set up alternative technical infrastructures. Another set of scholarly works have observed that hackers are deeply careful about their own individuality based on their quality of hacks which could be understood well through the lens of a technical language. So, a layman like you and I are unaware about the nuanced versions of hacking.

Hacking can be understood as a material practice connected to computers and networks and is divided into two core groups: 1) Cracking and 2) Free software and open source (FOSS) based on their expertise.

Cracking is the interaction between acts and community. Acts can be further explained through different types of cracks.

1. Day zero exploit – in this method of cracking, technology is altered to produce an unanticipated change in authority over a computer or network. Do you remember, the film the ‘The Social Network’, a biographical film based on one of the successful social media founders? In one of the scenes, he breaks into the university database which can be considered as a day zero exploit.

2. Day zero plus one – this process of cracking is done through the deployment of an existing technique and is not so innovative as compared to day zero, but quite unique. In most of the films pertaining to hacking, the script writer while working on the mode of hacking to be shown takes refuge in day zero plus one. For example, in the Die Hard franchise, the film titled ‘Live Free or Die Hard’, the protagonist John McClane is a young hacker who joins forces and uses the existing technique to fight against cyber-terrorist Thomas Gabriel.

3. Social engineering – Almost all of us using computers and network have been victims of this type of cracking. In this case, a window pops up carrying a message that our computers are prone to virus. No matter how much we try to get rid of that window, a new graphic comes up showing a virus scan being run on the computer. This is deceptive as it persuades us to install a software to get rid of the virus found through the scan. The program itself is a virus and further installation will affect our unaffected computer.

4. Script kidding – this is an automated process where accessing one particular program may lead to the automatic installation of deadly virus like Trojan which totally paralyses the network and computer.

The process of cracking among communities is quite popular as it leads to a plethora of knowledge acquisition and dissemination activities. The community of crackers are strongly bonded and the persistent methods of peer education and peer reviewing among them leads to a dynamic environment on the internet.

FOSS is a kind of hacking where the intervention of experts making programs are more. The programmers here use a source code which carries a set of instructions enabling one to understand the functioning of the software. If you have watched the film ‘Source Code’, it has very little to do with source codes and more to do with time travel. However, if you have gone through the documentary Revolution OS, it is interesting to find out the trajectory of open source code and the quintessential role played by collaborative software writing projects like Linux and Apache in developing programs like OpenOffice which are readily available on websites free of charge! Thus, the three main components which make FOSS influential are property, community, and politics.

If on one hand, considering the path the hackers use, viz., Cracking and FOSS are propagating material practices, then, on the other, there are another set of political activists known as the ‘Hacktivists’ who create changes in the current socio-political and economic milieu through political campaigns. Tim Jordon and Paul A. Taylor aid our understanding when they connote hacktivism as an activism which has gone electronic. They further consider it as grassroots political protest along with computer hacking. There are many hacktivists who had or are in the process of leaving a significant mark of their protest and trying to make a better society. For example, a young hacktivist like Aaron Swartz founded watchdog.net in 2008 through which one could track certain information like politicians’ involvement in illicit acts of receiving money from various sources. He says, “It’s up to you to change the system… Let me know if I can help.”

Another hacktivist group ‘Anonymous‘ whose activism in the recent days has taken the internet by storm has been involved with many political operations. One of the operations which left me awestruck was their protest against ISIS being involved in the Paris terror attack through bringing down thousands of pro-ISIS social media accounts.

So, it’s quite clear that through different types of hacking, the power structure is becoming more nuanced. But what is more important here is to not only understand the nuanced way of hacking, but also decoding the power structure through the social lens. In this nuanced power structure, the hackers don’t restrict themselves to alter technology to disrupt or create an unanticipated change, rather what they bring here are the diverse approaches to look out for the answers to philosophical questions embedded within the interaction between technology and society. Their actions are often responses to changing trends. You may ask or argue what kind of changing trend a hacker might find in my computer, but if you spare a moment of thought, you are a part of that change the hacker might be interested in.