Imagination tends to tell us more about the world of the imaginers, not the imagined.
Perhaps no case illustrates this as well as that of Russian hackers, who are in the limelight amid investigations into the information campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. Presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Here we see that the images of this choice anti-hero are full of embarrassing stereotypes and missteps.
Telling good stories about malicious hackers is hard for a reason: this is a subclass of technical experts that seeks to remain unknown. Russian hackers--like all hackers throughout the world--are, if nothing else, legitimately shadow figures in the public eye. Beyond that dramatic intrigue, the current political view of them in the U.S. at least, is at best naïve and at worst dangerous.
Confusion even starts with the term hacker. First adopted by a small group of computer enthusiasts around MIT in the 1950s to distinguish their own creative, playful, and clever solutions to computer problems from the then-prevalent self-seriousness of early computer system professionals—does not actually mean a computer expert who carries out malicious attacks against others. Such an actor is known as a cracker (independently, also a racial slur for white people) or a blackhat hacker (see the cowboy motif below). “Hacker” refers to the much broader class that delights in the craft of clever technical solutions (e.g., the self-help genre of “life hacks”).
Given a knowledge vacuum, most news articles cannot help but frame with archetypes and fill in with hype. This is not to blame the news media so much as it is an epistemological condition of trying to narrate about those who choose to remain hidden. In the English-language press, Russian hackers masquerade as everything from a strategic strike force of elite computer wizards to factories full of bored teenager boys out to make a quick buck spinning “fake news.” In the absence of evidence (and the evidence that Russia-sponsored Facebook ads influenced the election is vanishingly small), the anxious mind paints the hacker in the dark end of the grayscale: a shadowy figure that steals away to isolated islands on the dark net, the proverbial hacker strikes out at the bidding of their evil puppet master, subverting truth, freedom, and democracy at every turn. Only after the sunlight of public scrutiny shines on the hack do we find any evidence that a good hacker had been there. Every gripping hacker narrative hinges on the presumed intertwining of elitism and invisibility: a good hacker is hard to find.
There are surely fewer malicious Russian hackers in the world than there are images of them. The caricature of the Russian hacker is a composite of other stereotypical shadows long cast against Russia—an outlaw hired gun in a Western, maybe a Russian alt-Right update to a Cold War spy, and always an anti-democracy partisan. A smart tech geek, young, white, male, probably libertarian (or perhaps not), and either Aspergic or angry, a hacker appears the twenty-first-century hit-man ready to employ abuse, intimidation, blackmail, force and violence to any end. The prejudices against the Russian hacker approximate those of the alt-Right, the internet-enabled hackers of modern identity politics. So too we see in these images the Westworld-ready outline of the hired gun, the cowboy outlaw, and even bankrobber--fallback enemy archetypes on the lawless and untamed expanses of the American Western. The American Western is also the origins of the term “black hat,” a malicious hacker, although in the Russian case, the Western frontier is flipped into orientalising the enemy other deep in the Siberian East.
There are, of course, many other national “nests” of cyber security superpowers and hackers distributed throughout the world (the United States, China, Israel, and the United Kingdom stand out with regular security concerns about North Korea and Iran), but the fact that the current political imagination is focused on Russian hackers stands out for several reasons beyond the obvious resuscitation of cold war anxieties: while the Soviets fell short of developing the earliest attempts to build digital computer networks at the height of the cold war tech race, now Russian cyber experts appear all the more involved in the race to colonize and capitalize on perhaps the two great frontiers to emerge in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet state and the spread of the internet in the 1990s: cyberspace and post-Soviet economic territory. Now with no more territory to seize between cyber superpowers, the twenty-first century frontiersmen roam the vast unfenced expanses of cyber security and high finance capital: as Michael Lewis hinted it in Flash Boys, Soviet-trained programmers have risen to the top of global finance sector because they had to learn how to code on paper, without the Western liberty to experiment with excess computational resources.
Poured into such frames, the liquid image of the Russian hacker quickly hardens into a fixed political enemy, an ideologue, an outlaw, a partisan, and an elite.
Perhaps more than the others, the imagined Russian hacker harkens back to hardy Cold War spy motifs - smart, crafty, stealthy, tech-enabled. Perhaps only in his lack of sex appeal does the top Russian hacker image differ significantly from that of James Bond, although, even then, it is not hard to imagine a handsome nerd bon vivant setting traps with charisma and code. Such images - cue the television show The Americans about Soviet spies living undercover in late Cold War America—seed a new crop of anxieties about dangerous cold war enemies updated for the digital age.
There is no denying that politically-motivated hacking is real and worrisome. However, this fact should demand tighter, not looser, storytelling: Trump is, by all accounts, a symptom of significant political regression; but it should be a warning sign to his critics that so too are most of our images of his accidental allies: little is as easy, or as historically dangerous, as conjuring an enemy so evil that the sum of all of our problems can be hung around his neck. Legitimate security concerns about hijacked routers, for example, feel watered down by dime-a-dozen rumours that Hollywood movies are not connecting with American audiences in 2018 because of Russian manipulation of online movie reviews. A curious contradiction typifying the current media environment obtains, where the concerns of the American left can be marginalized both by the proliferation of both false accusations as well as false admissions of Russian interference.
The image of the Russian hacker needs revision. Doing so will take time and collaboration, learning and inspiration. Meanwhile, here are ten modest, sometimes overlapping corrections to bear in mind. (Note: these ten statements should not be read as a defense of any kind of malicious hacking; they are only meant to correct and limit certain misconceptions of the actors accused of carrying out such acts.)
1. Not all “Russian hackers” are Russian—only some live in Russia, and the diaspora of Russian-speaking information technology workers is global. Meanwhile there’s no reason that any malicious attacks need to be carried out by Russian citizens. “Russia-backed hackers” may be the more precise accusation.
2. Not all “Russian hackers” are black hat hackers—in other words, the vast majority of self-proclaimed hackers do not engage in malicious or even illegal activities. The majority of hackers believe, without complication, that their hacks—such as debugging systems without breaking them—makes the world a better place. Most cybersecurity experts agree—indeed most cybersecurity experts are also hackers of this stripe.
3. Not all “Russian hackers” even are—false accounts, fake profiles, dead leads, pseudonymity, and anonymity muddy any attempt at a census. As Alan Turing suggested in 1950, there’s no reason that identities must correlate between cyberspace and what Wired Magazine loves to call meatspace.
4. Not all “Russian hackers” are partisan hacks—it is far more likely that most report being motivated by money, the fun, and the intellectual challenge of their technical field. Those carrying out election disruption campaigns are likely hired guns. If a single ideology holds among hackers, it is probably that technology comes with no other ideologies. That is certainly wrong, but no more wrong than the misconception that hackers are partisans.
5. Not all “Russian hackers” oppose democracy or any political system—in fact, only a diminishing few would likely hold such simple political positions. Like the technical elites that preceded them, the Soviet cyberneticists I chronicle in my recent book, the global class of IT elite inhabit the diverse complications, compromises, and contradictions that come with operating in any political order. If nothing else, at least the 2016 election hacking scandal issues an indispensable reminder that that technology is political and politics, technological.
6. Not all “Russian hackers” are mirror images of the alt-right: while scholars and commentators have long debated whether the American alt-right has learned more from Russian traditions of ethnonationalism, racism, and homophobia (or here), or the other way around, it is clear that Russian hackers represent neither as a group. (See also here.)
7. No “Russian hacker” is a Cold War spy armed with twenty-first-century tech: only certain hacker groups and cybersecurity services pledge more than contractual allegiance to the Russian state. Even then, and despite some overlap, the stated goals and practices of the Russian petrostate and its oligarchical interests fundamentally differ from those of Soviet state socialism.
8. Not all “Russian hackers” are angry young white men. A minority, but only a small minority, self-identify as female; a strong majority appear under 45 years old; and minority ethnicities are likely over, not under, represented among the Russian-speaking hacker global diaspora.
9. Not all “Russian hackers” fall into the cowboy showdown of “white hat hackers” and “black hat hackers.” There are plenty of “grey hat hackers” (those that stress test a system’s weaknesses and then decide whether to share the news quietly with the appropriate channels or to extract a ransom).
10. Not all hackers are smart; mistakes abound. Indeed, learning from the many mistakes may be the first step toward shaping smarter, more sensible stories about the world of Russian hacking.
In short, Russian hackers are not as they seem. The popular imagination of them reveals more about the most perplexing paradoxes of our times than anything else. In history, Russian technical powers are nothing new, although almost always forgotten: as my most recent book argues, the story of global cyber network is far more complicated and multi-actor than popular imagination permits. In theory, the stakes are even higher: hacking is both the culmination and the contradiction of technological freedom. Anyone skilled enough can influence almost any networked part of the world. Yet, the effects of this hacking amount to no less than the potential total constraint and compromise of any person or thing online.
It is incumbent upon us to develop a more comprehensive baseline for understanding the imagination and the realities of the global emergent technical class known as Russian hackers.
By design, hackers presuppose stories in which they disappear. In prompting corrections to our current hacker “factive fictions,” the vanishing antihero of the 2016 US election may not only compel and enrich a shared imagination for hacking that reaches beyond the itch for blood and blame. So too may the hacker narrator acknowledge that the disappearing hacker makes us all out to be stumbling between worlds of politics and technology at once all too familiar and not yet imagined.