With so much talk about hacking events and data breaches, and with Hollywood’s constant portrayal of the cyber bad guys, it can be easy to forget that simply being a hacker isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It certainly doesn’t always equate to criminal activity. Everyone from law enforcement agencies to retail companies rely on hackers to expose vulnerabilities in their security protocols, to develop creative ways of infiltrating a system before criminals can think of it, and even to solve crimes that may have nothing to do with breaking into a computer system.
This shift in perception of what “good” hackers really do is finally making its way into pop culture through television shows, movies, book characters, and more. Even better, the public image of the quintessential hacker—the person who has routinely been portrayed as a nerdy social outcast who turned to cybercrime because he was never accepted by his peers—is also changing. Instead of outlandish individuals with insurmountable personality quirks, more and more typical characters are making their way to the entertainment realm, and they’re demonstrating the good that this level of technological know-how can provide. At the same time, it’s promising to see the higher-than-ever numbers of female characters in these roles, as technology jobs of this level have often been underrepresented by females and minorities in the real-world work force.
One step that producers are taking with the new crop of highly popular television series is to try to present a more accurate portrayal of what it is hackers actually do, how they can be beneficial to the community at large, and how they operate. While it’s entertaining to watch a smug computer geek tap a few keys on his keyboard and announce that he’s broken into the system, that kind of work can actually take weeks to pull off. Of course, watching an hour-long program in which fifty minutes of it is spent watching a man type isn’t all that fun or engaging, so the industry has taken some liberties with its accuracy, much like it did with forensic detective work on many of the earlier crime series.
The new popularity of hackers does have to tread one fine line, and that’s the concept of vigilante justice. While it’s all well and good to fight for the little guy and make sure consumers are protected, doing so in violation of the law or where other individuals—even a Wall Street tycoon or Bernie Madoff-style criminal—are hurt is not in the public’s best interest. Groups like Anonymous, who’ve pulled off some interesting hacks while fighting for justice, have come under fire for their efforts, while public interest groups have had to draw the line to prevent copycats or “wannabes” from hurting people just to prove they can.
One of the interesting aspects about the hacker community is this concept of one-upmanship, and it’s led to criminal activity of epic proportions. In the criminal hacking sphere, there’s a level of respect to be earned for successfully infiltrating bigger and bigger targets, so much so that several years ago the NSA tried to recruit hackers who were interested in demonstrating that they were the best in the world.
However the movies decide to use the character of a hacker, it’s important to remember that they are people who can choose to do good works or bad, and that no single label determines what a person is capable of. As with all stereotypes, we have to remember that committing a crime is a choice, but engaging in cyber activity to benefit others is also a choice.