A hacker is smart, much smarter than the average. With just a few clicks and a few key combinations, he’s hacked into the systems of governments, government agencies and large corporations. He avoids the public and acts in secret. His skin is pale, he always wears dark clothes and works late into the night – that’s what Hollywood tells us. And the stereotypes created by the film industry remain in our consciousness… But who is behind the ingenious attacks that frighten whole companies? How can we imagine the developers of Ryuk, Emotet and WannaCry?

In August 1986, computer sabotage and the unauthorized manipulation of data and data carriers were included in the penal code as a special form of damage to property. The term “hacking” is often equated with criminal intent, especially in German-speaking countries. But not every hacker is a criminal – some are consulted or even booked by companies in IT security matters in order to test the internal systems for possible security gaps. Depending on compliance with the laws and the intention of their activities, hackers can be assigned to different groups:

  • White Hats: The “ethical” hackers move legally through the systems of companies that have hired them to search for vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure
  • Black Hats: Also known as “crackers”, they are the black sheep of the hacker herd. Sabotage of systems, extortion and theft of confidential data and information, that’s what Black Hats are after. With their hacks, they often do great financial damage. The motives have different backgrounds.
  • Grey Hats: There is not always black or white. Between the white hats and the black hats, this group of hackers operates in a legal “grey zone”. They find vulnerabilities in systems and publish them on different platforms so that they can be repaired as quickly as possible by those responsible. This distinguishes them, for example, from white hats, which report security vulnerabilities directly to those affected without going public. The public “denunciation” of IT vulnerabilities also reaches black hats.

Some hackers gained special attention through their activities. They are considered “inventors” of special hacking techniques. Some have penetrated highly secure government and corporate networks, or uncovered top secret documents. Here are a few of them:

The Father of Social Engineering: Through his social engineering techniques, Kevin Mitnick captured sensitive corporate information, source code, and database access. Among other things, he is said to have penetrated the US Department of Defense and the NSA networks several times. In the 1990s, the FBI declared him the “most wanted hacker in the world”. After spending several years in prison, Mitnick changed sides. Today, he works as a penetration tester and lecturer and as managing director of his own company, advises large companies on security issues relating to their systems.

Hagbard Celine: Karl Koch, also known as “Hagbard Celine” is one of the best-known German hackers. Together with other hackers, he sold data from US computer systems to the Russian secret service KGB. Koch was found dead in his car at the age of 23. However, the exact cause of death has not yet been fully clarified.
John Draper alias “Captain Crunch” was one of the first telephone hackers (phreakers) and became known for his use of a toy pipe from a Cap’n Crunch muesli package to transfer the fees of an American telephone company. Together with some of his friends, he developed the Blue Box, which can play the 2600 Hertz tone in order to make free telephone calls. Organized crime was also very interested in the phreaking business and was able to record a good “turnover”. At the same time, however, the telephone companies were in the red and sued Draper as the inventor and causer of this development. He was sentenced to five years’ probation, four of which he spent in state prison. In the 1970s, he met Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple. Draper also developed Apple’s EasyWriter word processor. In July 2018 Draper published his autobiography “Beyond the little Blue Box”.
Whistleblower: Under the pseudonym Mendax (lat. liar) Julian Assange attacked foreign computers and was found guilty in 24 cases of illegal hacking. In 2006 he founded the disclosure platform Wikileaks and distributed censored and confidential documents that are normally not or only partially accessible to the public. As a result of this work, Assange was arrested several times and sued unsuccessfully. Over the years, the Wikileaks founder has often been in conflict with the law; in April 2019, he was arrested by the London police and has since been in a high-security prison in the UK.

The motive matters

The digitalization, the Internet of Things and global networking are making it possible for hackers to carry out their mischief in larger areas of society, business and politics, even beyond national borders. The goals and motives behind the hackers’ activities are very different: Some strive for wealth, others want to cause political and economic change.
Hacktivists are cyber criminals who use their hacking skills to manipulate the systems of companies, governments or authorities out of political, religious or other ideological convictions. A well-known example is the Anonymous activist group. The group has been active against various organizations such as the NSA, the IS, and Scientology. Hacktivist actions are an example of what protests and rebellion could look like in the digitalized future. In July of this year, hacktivists invaded the servers of the Bulgarian tax authority NAP and stole records of some 5 million Bulgarian citizens and businesses. In an e-mail to the state media, the hackers demanded the release of political activist Julian Assange.
Professional criminal organizations are also taking advantage of digitalization and are increasingly outsourcing their illegal activities to networked environments. The danger posed by these groups is high, because they not only have many resources, but also the necessary criminal energy.
Hackers who work on behalf of governments are primarily targeting espionage, but manipulation and crippling of public services are also on their to-do list. The cyberattack on Iranian uranium centrifuges in 2010 was allegedly initiated by state actors. Microsoft reported in July that around 10,000 users were attacked within a year by hackers working for other governments. In contrast to private cybercriminals, it is easier for state-sponsored hackers to enter foreign networks because their resources are virtually unlimited.
Understanding a hacker’s motives can be extremely helpful for businesses. By identifying the attacker, possible attack scenarios can be identified in advance. For example, does a hacker “only” intend to enrich himself or is it a kind of attack that really damages a company? Politicians, authorities and business see a great threat from cyber espionage, critical infrastructures are subject to the growing risk of being sabotaged by cyberattacks.
Basically one thing can be said: The image of an outsider created by Hollywood fades. The result are highly differentiated groups that, as our world is becoming increasingly digital, are showing all sorts of facets of it – from good to evil, on their own or in a team, to harm others or for the common good.