Hackers explained: an evolution of curiosity and chaos

The first hacking incident occurred in 1878, long before computers were invented. It happened two years after the launch of Alexander Graham Bell's iconic telephone company, with cheeky young operators gleefully pulling pranks on callers by swapping phone lines.

As the world of telephony evolved, phone phreaks, aka telephone hackers, followed. And then computer hackers. We marveled over the beauty of the baud, which allowed the few home users who owned computers to connect to the interconnected world over dial-up modems. It was then, in the days of the mainframe computer, that we were called the same term used to describe an addict: users.

Today's hackers are an incomparable contrast to the hackers of yesterday. During the first few decades, the hacker subculture was driven by a strong wind of curiosity. We were defined as tinkerers, programming wizards from MIT and Stanford University. Until that description broadened to encompass so much more.

We pushed boundaries, broke limitations through our experiments, and explored fascinating new domains within a greater electronic symbiotic macrocosm called the World Wide Web.

In the annals of MS-DOS history, the first computer virus was unleashed in 1986 named “Brain.” marking a pivotal moment in the digital realm. Two brothers from Pakistan wrote it, and it was originally purposed to serve as a copy protection. Instead, it had the capability of overwriting the boot sector on the floppy disk, rendering the computer unable to boot.

I digress. As personal computers started getting smaller and internet speeds faster, our hunger and thirst for information increased. Hackers dreamed of bigger possibilities. We saw the boundaries and the loopholes in these computer systems and perceived them within our imaginations as we lay in our beds at night with almost hypnagogic lucidity and watched as the proverbial iron curtains of limitations came crashing down by our new ideas.

And we laughed because the art of bending technology was fun. We shared our exploits with others, and we made the technology more convenient and accessible for others. We formed communities on bulletin board systems (BBS) and shared our knowledge with the world.

Soon, the entire world itself would come to be connected to that same macrocosm. The internet became a world within a world itself, and together, we gloried in its allure. We came to spend more time on the wire than in the physical world. In a way, we became children of the Matrix.

I’m a byproduct of the hackers of yesterday. I remember the old ways and what our culture was like in the years of our genesis. Now, 30 years later, I exist in augmented reality spaces, watching new-wave hackers and what drives their consciences. I’m always evolving. I’m not obsolete. But as the hacking subculture has risen from the shadows of obscurity and has taken itself into the light of the mainstream, I say with absolute certainty that the old ways are over.

Harmless exploration to sate the curious mind that thrives on stimulation is dead.

Nowadays, people cannot think about hacking or even hacktivism in general without thinking about cybercriminals, scammers, Mr. Robot, or Anonymous. We went from being the cyber boogeyman to everyone wanting to be like us. They took up the Guy Fawkes mask, thinking this was the only way.

Then, they got swept up in the riptides of peer pressure influenced by an overwhelming amount of empowerment propaganda memes, an obsession with positive affirmation imagery, larger-than-life slogans, and the other online social trends that drive the hacking subculture. Others were enticed by their love for money to steal and accumulate illicit wealth.

We have become a people fueled by anger and vengeance.

My journey began between the age of curiosity and vengeance.

The Electronik Tribulation Army

The year was 1998 when I began my journey as a hacker. I was, by all accounts, just a script kiddie – an amateur. We all start this way as we learn how and why things work. I collected hacking tutorials and warez from popular hacking websites and underground IRC servers. Warez was the term we used to describe free pirated cracked programs. Tools like Claymore could be used to brute-force serial keys and crack copyrights.

I used old MS-DOS programs that probed for modem numbers and tried every possible number in an exchange associated with a user-defined prefix. It was easy to guess your way into computer systems in those days, especially over Telnet. Social engineering was my foremost weapon.

Accessing a computer system was like opening the door to another dimension. Once inside, I was enthralled by what lay before me. The thrill of exploration and curiosity possessed me in its vice-like grip.

As I got older, I ended up creating a hacktivist group known as the Electronik Tribulation Army. The times had changed, and so had the trends. Internet access had shaped the world since more people could now afford a personal computer, and internet speeds had increased, making dial-up modem access obsolete.

Cyberbullying became an epidemic, so we focused on doxxing and hacking bullies and basically cut them down to size. We regularly hunted online sexual predators against children. In fact, I ran an event called “Catch a Pedo Month.” The joke was that every month was Catch a Pedo Month.

We considered ourselves champions of the people because we fought for the people. We not only defended victims of bullies and victims of various injustices but trained them in how to defend themselves. In those days, you really couldn’t go to the police for a lot of things. Therefore, they came to the ETA.

We began to form our own political ideologies and then decided to give the US government a run for its money by hacking scores of US government and US military websites and remote desktops by performing database dumps and defacements.

I did cross-site script injection attacks with client-side javascript with cheeky little messages on websites belonging to NASA, the Pentagon, and the FBI. I did it because I could, and it was fun. Plus, it was my way of informing these agencies that their security was laughable and that they needed to take it seriously because the next cyberattack could be Chinese state-sponsored hackers.

Don’t worry, all this is known, and the statute of limitations has long since expired.

Somewhere in time, I joined Anonymous and took up the Guy Fawkes mask in the old days before Anonymous found its hacktivist identity, even though we did not assume their culture.

In those days, they were self-described as simultaneously existing as an "anarchic, digitized global brain" or "hivemind." This saying is true. They were a decentralized machine that produced random acts of chaos. A thought would take form, and the hivemind rushed to facilitate it. For the Lulz.

As for the ETA, we were writing a new chapter in the annals of our group’s history. Now, we were using our botnets to participate in OpIran in 2009. We launched operations against North Korea. Somehow, our strength and skill caused us to tiptoe into the geo-political hacktivism arena.

But I am no paragon of virtue. In time, I became corrupted by our power and reputation. I used my skills at the expense of others to leverage my personal affairs. Ultimately, like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun, and my wings burned as I plummeted to my doom. My hacking landed me 11 years in federal prison as the first person in the history of the United States to be convicted for corrupting industrial control systems.

I had years to rethink things…

Hackers of today

Over a decade later, I stepped forth from my chains and prison cell and into society once more and marveled at how profoundly the world had changed. The best way to describe it was that prison was like coming out of a slow-moving time machine and into an unknown future. A world I did not know or recognize. I hadn’t sociologically or technologically evolved alongside society. I had to learn to adapt.

Hackers changed. The things that motivate them changed. It’s almost like a new religion surfaced upon the face of the earth while I was gone those many years, and all the hackers and groupies converted to it, which now shapes their political ideology, their morals, their worldview, their knowledge, and how they look, talk, and think.

True freedom fighters are like diamonds in the rough. You won’t find them, only perchance.

If humanity was but a lump of cookie dough, there’s a cookie cutter in the shape of a Guy Fawkes mask making thousands of identical cookies somewhere. Welcome to the cult of Anonymous, the force that has usurped everything that comes to mind when we think about hacktivism and what it means to use technology in acts of protest.

Does this mean I am not pro-Anonymous? Not at all. Anonymous is an idea that is ideal and attainable – in the right hands. But those ideals, in my opinion, are no longer reachable with the current climate within the Collective.

The years of virtue from righteous hacktivism have become stained by the egos and recklessness of the many. Those with the power have absolutely corrupted their good image with their incessant boasting, internal feuding, and attacking their own members and participants.

This includes overwhelming waves of Machiavellian manipulation and deception that have every group poised against each other, and where would we be without the rush to produce as much daily propaganda and copy/pasta news vomit as possible?

We support free speech, but we attack everyone whose views on wars don’t align with ours. We act on false news. We propagate false news. The world and all its governments are targets, while we claim to be helping protestors and citizens in foreign countries – by DDoSing public websites and attacking cyber infrastructure that has nothing to do with any operation.

Those with influence are leading converts to bad ideas involving cyberattacks against nuclear power stations, military satellites, public transportation, and public health and safety infrastructure. This is the new trend, and everyone’s doing it now. No longer is defacing websites newsworthy or even praiseworthy by their peers. Thus, the future of cyberattacks will only evolve along these lines until something changes.

A cyberattack so monumental that it involves human life.

A global discussion revising how everyday people like you and me authenticate ourselves in order to use the internet.

A world where hacking becomes regulated.

Where hacktivism is defined as terrorism.

Alas, I feel we are at the cusp of a cyberattack that will change the world forever.

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