What is a hacker? More like Mr. Robot rather than Operation Swordfish

If we lived in a fair and more appealing world, children would not want to be Cristiano Ronaldo or PewDiePie (popular Swedish youtuber that if you have a certain age, or dignity, you won’t know about). Children would like to be someone with values, like Immanuel Kant, She-Ra or, of course, a high-level hacker who, from the sewers of a suburban pavilion, controls the world with his killer laptop and his hoodie.

We get the idea of Immanuel or She-Ra, but why do we keep that idea in our head that hackers are so cool? What is a hacker seen through the eyes of someone who knows what this world is all about? It is not that we have brought to the fore a real hacker to solve it -authorities stay calm-, but we have brought Kevin Rojas, a project consultant at Pandora FMS and a renowned technologist and nerd of these things.

What is actually a hacker?

A hacker is a person who knows a lot about computing (security, networks, programming) and uses his knowledge to detect security flaws in the computer systems of companies or organizations.

What exactly do they do?

There are different types of hackers depending on what they do and how they do it, although it could be simplified into “good hackers” and “bad hackers”. The “good guys” (ethical hackers or “white hats”) are usually hired by companies to help them improve the system security by plugging holes and fixing bugs, and the “bad guys” (“black hats”) take advantage of those holes and mistakes for personal profit. Then there are all sorts of intermediate points, such as “gray hats”, who look for faults in business systems… to attempt to be hired to help them solve them.

Why do you think they are so romanticized by movies?

I guess because of the growing importance of computing and how “appealing” it sounds to be able to break into any kind of security. In the end, a hacker is someone who gets away with anything by being “more resourceful.” Who doesn’t like big hit movies?

In addition, a hacker does not obey to any physical pattern: it does not matter whether a person is tall or short, fat or skinny, it does not matter if that person is extroverted or what his economic level is. Anyone with enough wit (and knowledge) could be a hacker… and it’s no small feat.

What things do they usually do?

A real hacker could spend a lot of time studying (really, a lot). They have to know how things work, how elements interact, what known errors different technologies have, what the most effective security policies are and what the most common errors that users make are (which, by the way, are usually the chain’s weakest link: Have you seen those people who write down the password of their user in a post-it stuck to the screen?).

What they also usually do is a lot of programming. They create malware that takes advantage of system vulnerabilities, or that captures the keystrokes and mouse keys of careless users who install programs from suspicious web pages.

They do a lot of things, but there’s one I guarantee they don’t usually do: program “detailed 3D graphical interfaces with countdowns that light up the screen red while a submarine alarm beeps when the system recognizes a security breach and activates the countermeasures”. They don’t do that, even though you may have seen it in movies like Skyfall.

What do you think are the biggest differences between a real hacker and a cliché movie hacker?

Movie hackers often hacking into systems “just like that”. “Give me any computer with Internet access and in 10 minutes I’ll be connected to the Ministry of Defense network.” Well no, it is way more complex than that and it takes much more work behind. It’s more like Mr. Robot rather than Operation Swordfish. Not that much glamour and a lot of black screen with Linux terminals.

Could you name a real hacker who has gone down in computer history for his misdeeds? What did he do?

We do not have to go that far: Swedish Julian Assange, for example, went down in history in 2010 (and on the lists of most wanted people in the United States) for leaking documents from the American intelligence service regarding several incidents that took place in the war against Afghanistan.

Also the group Anonymous is currently quite a hot topic, which is not a single person but a large group of hackers, who have been leaking information since 2003 and from which the aforementioned series, Mr. Robot was inspired.

But not all famous hackers are bad guys: there are also famous ethical hackers like Chema Alonso, Telefónica’s current CDCO, one of the heads involved in managing of the 2017 Wannacry crisis, which, in case you don’t remember, was caused by a program that encrypted the code and data of infected computers, and asked for money to recover them. We need hackers to deal with hackers…