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When I Gave Up Being an Ordinary User: Psychology of a Hacker

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, once said, “All warfare is based on deception.” As a hacker, deception is one of many tools in the hacker’s toolbelt. Also, the ability to manipulate our targets, and sometimes to remove all emotions from an attack, regardless of any malicious intent.


Two years ago, researchers put hackers under the microscope at the University at Buffalo School of Management, where they summarized that regardless of an individual hacker’s moral motive, hackers have manipulative tendencies, are contemptuous and deceitful, as well as have insensitive qualities.


The study was based on an analysis developed by the psychological profiles of 439 college computer science students. It was used to devise a set of scales based on which students exhibited personality traits consistent with different hacking motives, white hat, gray hat, and black hat. This itself was determined by measuring each student’s perception of the expectation of getting caught for violating privacy laws.


Whether hackers are performing virtuous acts in an attempt to make the world a better place or running fake crypto token scams, the former is true. While the research generally typifies qualities exhibited by certain individuals, the same also can be said that these same qualities are necessary tools in the arsenal of most hackers. But why?


I feel that everything in this world, in general, is the product of consequences, a motivating force. For me, this began in increments, until momentum did the rest, essentially snowballing into what I would inevitably become.


However, the finished product of which path I would come to walk was a decision I was able to make. But the consequences which set me upon my individual journey were born from an involuntary force that was outside my control.



Memory Lane


Deceit. Manipulation. Lies. Obsession. Thrill riding on other people’s computer access. These are all things most hackers worth their salt inevitably do. Not necessarily for evil, or for financial gain.


Oftentimes, these are simply just tools that are used when a situation necessitates it. There truly needs to be a psychological study focused on actual hackers, which focuses on the circumstances that gave birth to the hackers themselves.


As a young adult, I lived with a lot of anxiety that really impacted my self-esteem. Consequently, I was vulnerable and naive. Nevertheless, I found myself being manipulated and taken advantage of by a religious cult that micromanaged my everyday life.


Though I had initially picked up hacking skills in the late 90s, I had set it all aside for a few years until I fell into the aforementioned cult. But during this critical moment in my life, rediscovering hacking became a means to save myself, as well as to discover who I am, in addition to rebuilding a shattered self-confidence.


I was able to overcome the fear of being controlled by being in control. At the time, I was still a member of this cult and found that living a double lifestyle came naturally to me, especially since I knew that the people around me were essentially doing the same thing.


I used deception to corner my enemies. I lied in order to be able to continue hacking, without being condemned by those around me. I manipulated people and events in cyberspace so I could control the proverbial battlefield and orchestrate my victories. These were personal victories.


You see, when you hack for something, you’re hacking because it’s fueled by passion. In the same way, a musician or a painter relies on their creative prowess to make something that reflects their passion and identity. It was the ultimate escape and elation. This helped me identify who I was outside of the cult, which tried to program by taking my sense of identity away.



The Devotion of a Hacker


The art of hacking isn’t just a medium for thrills or a means to make money. For almost everyone in my network, hacking is an emotional outlet, regardless of the level of skill involved.


For the coder, a basic notepad is transformed into a canvas, which the coder uses to express their creativity thereupon. Every programmer has their own unique style. This is how they communicate with the world.


Even the amateur or the “script kiddie” who is enthralled with learning new things and seeing how programs simplify extremely complicated tasks by experimenting with them can find validation and confidence along the journey.


The art of hacking is more than a tool or skill to the individual wielding it. At its core, it’s not what we do, but how we think, which separates us from the dilettantes and those who have just watched too many Mr. Robot episodes.


For some, hacking is like a living thing, and it is oftentimes the only thing that truly understands and sympathizes with the hacker as the two work in tandem like a single, living organism. At the core of its essence, it is a lifestyle that has given rise to the hacker subculture itself.


For example, whenever I suffered deep heartbreak, hacking was my outlet. A way to disassociate from the social simulation and from the things or people I felt I couldn’t relate with. Wherever one of my friends experiences a traumatic event in their lives, it is hacking that offers validation during moments of great powerlessness.



Unmasking the Hacker Inside


When I was a teenager, I was introverted and very antisocial. Not knowing how to really find my identity or obtain validation during a time when the world was very confusing to me. Worst of all, I didn’t know my place in the world, and I felt driven to try and figure out my purpose. Perhaps, years later, this is why I became so easily ensnared by the cult.


However, extraordinary circumstances pushed me towards hacking as a means to dismiss my own human limitations and embrace a special power that made me feel unique and different but in a good way. It all started during Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in the late 90s.


Essentially, from the 80s until around the mid-2000s, IRC existed as the predecessor of modern social networking and chat platforms back in the 80s and 90s, until the convenience of Facebook and messenger apps cast a shadow on IRC’s former popularity.


I found myself at the receiving end of a flurry of WinNuke attacks over IRC. This attack vector worked by transmitting a specially crafted exploit string carrying out-of-bound (OOB) data packets over TCP designed to target computer systems with an open NetBIOS port 139. The attack forced systems to crash, which was painstakingly frustrating to no end.


That’s when I gave up being an ordinary everyday user. So, thanks to a programmer who identified themselves as "_eci" on that fateful day in 1997, as causality would have it, altered the entire trajectory of my life as I vowed to learn everything I could about how to think like a hacker from that day forward.


What followed, is the rest of my childhood, devoted to learning about computers. My story is no different from the many who started out in this same way. The point here is this, the skillsets that hackers develop, regardless of whether they are cybercriminals, APT Units, Hacktivists, or otherwise, are often built from a lifetime of endless training that never stops even if that of a fourteen-year-old kid.


This is why the information security industry typically finds itself contending against what seems like impossible forces. But we can be reminded from the pages of an ancient book that even a small shepherd boy was able to slay the giant champion of a foreign army with only a rock and a sling.


The same rings true for anyone who has ever felt unmatched against what seems like an impossibly powerful opponent. Hacking is the giant that crushes unbreakable stones. That is why I became a hacker in the first place.

cybercriminals



An article by

Jesse McGraw


Edited by

Anne Caminer

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