Hackers and the Cult of Personality

The hacker subculture looked very different back when I began my journey in the late 90s and onward.


While hacking groups began to form as far back as the 1960s - as telephone enthusiasts started merging together as the evolution of phone phreaking started taking form - computer hacking groups, in general, began to gain traction in the early 1980s. That is with famous names like the Chaos Computer Club and Cult of the Dead Cow, which gained a strong foothold within the hacking landscape. Both are extant and continue to the present day. Just in a different form.


In the early days, as the hacker phenomena grew, most people still didn’t know what a hacker was, least of the government or the media. Once both caught wind that hackers existed and had heard of the rumors of what hackers could do with common technology, cybercrime laws were eventually conceived, starting with the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And so began the hysteria driven around the enigma.


Nevertheless, in what began as a revolution of intelligent MIT programmers, hackers emerged, driven to push the boundaries of technology in ways not previously pursued or imagined by the manufacturers of the technology we used. Though, I must take a moment to mention that both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began their journey as hackers as pioneers of the computer revolution.



Keeping a Low Profile


As the 90s approached, I remember that hackers as a whole organism didn’t appear to be driven by any goal to carve out a piece of history or to make a name for themselves. We kept a low profile, especially after 1986. Of course, hackers aren't all cut from the same cloth.


We had no desire for a spotlight in the mainstream media, especially once one of our own fell into the crosshairs of the FBI. Suddenly, it was being reported that Kevin Mitnick could ignite World War 3 simply by whistling nuclear launch codes from a payphone. That’s one of the reasons why we had to keep our heads down.


Rather, it was our nature to connect with each other and share our ideas and the knowledge we obtained from our respective journeys on BBS boards. As the subculture evolved, we migrated to IRC servers, a tradition that still survives to this day, more or less. Most of those who broke the law did so out of a strong wing of curiosity. Others broke into systems because they were both curious and mischievous.


I feel this is self-evident to those from the era because some of the most popular post-exploitation hacking tools, at the time, focused on creating mischief, like reversing a person’s mouse buttons, flipping their screen upside down, or ejecting their CD-ROM tray. I can’t think of a single remote access Trojan that didn’t have some similar function.


The way we saw it, the world was both our lab and our playground. We frequently proclaimed “Hack the Planet” from the 1995 film Hackers, just as much as we said “Free Kevin” as Kevin Mitnick was still serving a 46-month sentence, at the time, with charges too long to mention here.


Those that stole data and money were the few.



The Concept of Hacking Has Evolved


We weren’t accustomed to wearing masks - or yes, even hoodies for that matter. But strangely, in time these stereotypes came to be authentic. However, most houses aren’t built with basements. I’m not entirely sure where that stereotype came from, or why parents would confine their hacker children to basements at all.


Additionally, exposing our actual faces on social media wasn’t considered a strike against maintaining our personal OPSEC. Times were different back then. Nowadays, we have reason to wear masks. Hackers, who were the hunters, are now the hunted. After all, they’re extraordinarily hard to catch.


In those days, the only element which made us individually unique was our screen names, which served as our calling cards, the element by which we would be known and remembered in relation to our exploits. We knew which names were behind which hacks. We didn’t boast about them too much, except in our own circles. Nowadays, we tell the world what we plan to do and what we have done.


In modern times, the concept of hacking has evolved into the overall knowledge of hackers, even if the hackers themselves remain an enigma and sorely misunderstood. As time has evolved, our conquests have become more complex. Still, the fear of hackers remains among the uninitiated, while others ostensibly perceive them as heroes, a recourse when all other options have failed.


Nowadays, if you want to become a hacker, you take a college course and obtain a certification. The cat’s out of the bag. Want hacker gear? Buy it online. Want hacker swag? There are online stores for that, too. Want to listen to hacker-inspired music? It's out there.


And yet, the advanced skills of the home-grown hackers are still enshrouded in mystery. College courses can teach a person how to pass certain tests. But can they expand the mind to breach the limitations of technology?



The Age of the Cult of Personality


The conditions for a cult of personality arise when an individual or group uses the media as their medium to help drive their propaganda. Also, a cult of personality can be characterized whenever a person or group creates an idealized, heroic, and at times, worshipful image.


Throughout the decades, hacker groups have risen and fallen into obscurity. Most of them don’t even have a Wikipedia page. However, from 2003 to the present day, Anonymous arrived on the scene, conceived from 4chan, which started as a lowly image board gone viral. From out of 4chan, Anonymous came forth and has etched its legacy in stone.


The focus of this article isn’t to analyze the merits of their image, but rather to generalize the effectiveness of the cult of personality for creating a successful movement focused on a certain image. Any person or group bearing an idea, ideology, or agenda that needs to encompass a large audience, as well as gather a massive following in order to facilitate some goal, can find a foothold in the cult of personality if the image and message are driven correctly.


Anonymous, now a decentralized hacktivist group, has engaged the media to carry powerful messages against corporations, governments, cartels, and terrorists in ways no other group has and has skillfully utilized social media to reach audiences across the globe. The message attracts like-minded individuals who join their cause daily, whether it be in the form of reposting a video, a message, or an image, or filling in the ranks as a facilitator.


The reach of its influence is fascinating. All Anonymous has to do is point an accusatory finger at a country or some other entity, and the whole hivemind rushes to facilitate the work and bring their goals to fruition.


The Anonymous brand has become a household name, and we’re talking about a hacking group. Music is dedicated to the group. Clothes. Artwork, even Operation: Vendetta, better known as The Million Mask March, a global, annual protest event on Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5. It’s curious to mention that this one group alone has its own culture, and most of the media’s portrayal of hackers comes from the cult of personality that has been driven by Anonymous.


The success of the collective is largely based on the cult of personality, as well. They have created an idealized larger-than-life image, artfully portrayed in memes, YouTube videos, and on other social media platforms as being defenders of the innocent, those who expose injustice, and most importantly, cyber vigilantes.


Powerful. Virtuous. Justice. An army that fights for the people. These are all characteristics most people in society desire to see in our nation’s actual leadership. Anonymous knows this and has created an idealized leader without being a leader in the conventional sense.


They give disenfranchised youth, as well as oppressed people, an image they can relate to, and place their hope in. This is all accomplished by the personality they have created for themselves, which, through the forces of causality, has created a kind of cult mentality. I do not say this in the negative sense.


This is possible because Anonymous offers what no one else can. Consequently, exist like a sovereign entity, and exude an image that seems omnipotent to outsiders. But whether they can facilitate what they offer or claim in keeping with their image has become a debate.


Most of the skill sets of their members are not on par with APT hacking groups operated by nation-states. Rather, they are people like you and me, just trying to make a difference in the world however way they can.


An article by

Jesse McGraw


Edited by

Ana Alexandre

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