Hackers are often no ordinary criminals. Having spent hundreds of hours interviewing them and the cops who pursue them for my book “DarkMarket,” I can testify that despite coming from every conceivable social and cultural background, many bear striking similarities to the young German whiz kid, Markus.
They often demonstrate a single-mindedness that borders on the obsessive and a social awkwardness that can easily be mistaken for extreme discourtesy. Over half of the hackers I spoke to performed well above average at math and science at school. A considerable number betrayed characteristics that in a clinical situation would be consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome or even autism.
But this is anecdotal. We urgently need proper research to understand the social psychology of hackers and how they differ from other characters who inhabit the cyberworld underground. Most crime on the Web, for example, does not involve hacking at all. Instead, criminals use the technique of “social engineering,” which involves persuading computer users to act against their own interests, for example by clicking on a link that will download a virus and relieve them of their money.
Hacktivist groups are a problem and they lack accountability. Anyone can pretend to be Anonymous, not just hacktivists but criminals or intelligence services up to no good. But we need to recognize that hacktivist groups are in part an authentic political voice of the young. They are not going to go away simply because some of their number face long prison sentences.
We need to learn about hackers, engage with them more and examine if and how we can use their skills as a force for good. After all, nobody understands better what is happening on the Dark Side than these guys, and in my experience they are willing to talk.