Myth of the Hacker

Myth of the Hacker

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Myth of the Hacker

The 1960s hacker, a term that was originally a referent to a good person with computer wizardry, has come full circle into the 1990s. Through media representations and the formation of hacker icons, modern hackers are mythologized as the good hacker.

The original hackers of MIT belonged to a group of privileged individuals; they operated during a time when computers were not a household item. Hacking, for this generation, began as an intellectual pursuit as well as a way to pull elaborate pranks. The progression of hacking was limited because computer networking had not been completely implemented into society.

In the 1980s, hackers reidentified and renamed themselves rebels; computer bandits who worked to infiltrate the network. With the advent of 80s hacking, cult icons were created in this seemingly underground group of renegades. Such names as Condor and Pengo became worldwide gurus to aspiring hackers.

Such icons have also found their way into mainstream media, namely television and film. The very popular film War Games (1983) became a beacon for many modern day hackers; it considered the inventiveness and connectedness of humans and computers, but also went as far as to show how unsecure the government could be. In War Games it is youth that devours computer knowledge and obtains infiltrating power. This new generation of hackers, who seek to know that which is hidden, is portrayed as a boy. The limits become unbounded; it is not just those who are taught at MIT who can hack. What of those who continue to seek access?

The 1990s saw a great consumer demand for hacker narratives. Television shows such as The X-Files position hackers fighting against a well-informed government. The X-Files perpetuates the media myth that hackers are a subculture. These are intelligent men who are outcasts of mainstream society. They form an underground culture hidden from view, continuously weary of government plots. The X-Files series also plays up the role of the hacker as humanitarian. They work to find the truth buried in the network by the government. This role of hacker as humanitarian searching for truth becomes a recurring theme in other films.

The 1992 film Sneakers is one example of this hacker narrative. The lead role, played by Robert Redford, has a history as a student when his hacking lands his friend in jail and himself into a new life where he has to change his name. He starts a business which hires itself out and attempts to infiltrate/hack security systems of its client(s).

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The hacker as humanitarian becomes apparent in the film once a secret coding device is discovered; the hacker protects humanity from war by tricking the government. This ethical hacking becomes an American myth in which the government is continuously hiding something from the people. The hackers portrayed in television series such as The X-Files and mainstream movies like Sneakers are seen as saviors; the ones who can bring down the government single-handed.

The myth of the hacker is supported by society as long as their efforts are directed at the government. Although the myth of the hacker is perpetuated through media and hackers are revered by some as freedom fighters, people fear invasion of privacy. Such hackers, recently renamed crackers, are on the most wanted lists because privacy seems worth fighting for. The myth works positively for the hacking community, but as long as they stay within what might be called a humanitarian ethic. This is where crackers such as Kevin Mitnick were caught; his cracking created a personal vendetta which led to his capture. This brings up another serious question: is the network a public or private space?
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