In the realm of academia we are often confronted with complex phenomena that we then attempt to corral into nicely defined cubicles. Systems of classification are employed ten a penny in order to establish, well, some form of order on a recalcitrant world. Economics, Sociology, Political Science, and all the other branches of the social sciences, look to establish some form of orthodoxy in order to forge a vision of solid ground – a kind of Archimedean point from which to move the world. This is the role of theory, in that it serves to underpin the validity of whatever new classification is currently in vogue.
How then to classify a phenomena that is, by definition, ethereal? I am speaking of the transient, cross-boundary nature of “Hacking” and the fact that as an activity it trespasses across physical barriers, political borders, sociological identities, and legal frameworks. A good hacker is, almost by default, someone who defies classification in the normal sense. However, everyone has to start from somewhere, and in this case we will employ the notion of geopolitics as the defining theoretical framework.
The history of geopolitics is complicated, encompassing notions of territoriality and geographic location that would at first glance seem incompatible with a review of hacking. However, geopol does have a few advantages – geography is a heterodox discipline, meaning it is willing to shamelessly steal from anywhere provided the theory makes sense. Also, modern geopolitics is distinctly critical in nature. As such, geopolitical students often pitch their sights at intangible objectives – such as this one. For the most part, critical geopolitics is seen in four distinct yet interoperable veins: Formal – where academics theorize about the nature of the world, Practical – where policy wonks and politicians try to enact visions onto the world, Popular – where narratives about the world are played out via media, film, video games, and other such mass engagements, and Banal – where the everyday nature of geopolitical narratives are embedded into the environment (think flags above the Post Office, or national symbology on bank notes). Wikipedia has a nice intro, for those with an interest…
In order to look at the issue of hacking, and in particular the identity of hackers, I am going to suggest a term for another sub-field of geopol – namely Disperate Geopolitics. I chose the name as hacking is by its very nature a disconnected practice in the geographic sense, albeit facilitated ironically enough through the process of global connectivity. In essence, both the activity itself, and the participants involved are quite distinct. As such, hackers are an odd bunch. It is very hard to create a template of what the average hacker is like, as there does not appear to be an average hacker. Of course, within the community, as oddly dispersed and discordant as it is, there is a lexicon and classification that differentiates newbs and “script-kiddies” from genuine hard-core techies and innovators.
Even the term “hacker” is contested (and my apologies to those who are passionate about this. I am simply using the term in the popular geopolitical sense). However, from an outside perspective it is very hard to define what makes someone an ideal hacker – and that is why they are so interesting. For example, when you read the term hacker, what do you think of? For many people, their first thoughts will probably turn to either criminal gangs who steal identities online, or alternatively some kid in their mom’s basement with a Guy Fawkes mask, a six pack of Mountain Dew, and a malicious grin. Both of these stereotypes hold some validity, but they obscure so much more in a geopolitical sense. In both instances the reach of the individual is not geographically bounded. Nor is it necessarily focused in the same way that a more earthbound process might be. A criminal gang may be constituted by individuals who have never met in real life, yet can still operate as a cohesive entity. Similarly, the “cyber hactivist” using a denial of service attack may have no direct contact or even personalized animosity towards the target group at all.
And then there are the distinctly nationalistic/ideologically driven cyber “warriors” who do have a clear, personal agenda. Groups such as the CyberCaliphate have taken to hacking government websites in support of the Islamic State. Others, such as TeaM MADLEETS fight low level propaganda campaigns in support of their chosen socio-political positions. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has been active in support of the Assad regime throughout the ongoing crisis in Syria, striking out at a variety of online targets seemingly at random. They even hacked the UCLA web page in 2011, although as the linked report states, they were “awfully polite about it.” The SEA is currently engaged in a form of retaliatory war with Anonymous – perhaps the most widely recognized hacktivist collective, who have taken it upon themselves to “swat at Syrian government websites in response to internet blackouts.”
Anonymous are in some ways the archetypal hacker collective, and the embodiment of the notion of Disparate Geopolitics. Anon has no base, no formal membership criteria, no allegiance, no geographic center, no real defining characteristics at all, aside from a general theme of net neutrality and unrestricted access to information. Before the adoption of the Fawkes mask (courtesy of V for Vendetta) even their logo was deliberately obtuse – a figure of a suit with no head imposed upon a globe, as if to mock the vision of world order associated with modern institutionalism and global governance – a kind of anti-UN, or perhaps just a more honest vision of how the world works – after all, where there should be a person, for Anonymous there is just a question mark. The logo raises two dialectic questions, namely who are we, and who actually controls the world? Who, in essence, is scripting the geopolitical narrative?
At the other end of the scale are what might be considered the more “uniform” visions of hacking, orchestrated by the state, and focused through an old school geopolitical framework. It will come as no surprise that all the major world players have dedicated cyber-warriors of their own, from China’s “PLA Unit 61398” to the U. S. National Security Agency’s “Tailored Access Operations” program. However, while these types of hacking might appear to be simple technological extensions of interstate relations and/or trust issues, they are also indicative of a feature that runs through hacking in general – a distinctly disparate feature that posits a shift in who gets to sit at the geopolitical table.Everyone, regardless of size, military, economic, or political power, wants in on this new geopolitical frontier, from states such as North Korea, Israel, and Iran, to free form hactivist collectives scattered across the globe.
There is so much more to explore within hacking from a disparate geopolitical perspective. We have not even touched upon the notions of “Black Hat” vs “White Hat” operatives, the revolving door between legal and illegal operations, or the recruitment of brilliant young minds into either government service or the criminal underworld (and sometimes both – you are as likely to find new talent in a Federal penitentiary as you are at MIT). At the end of the day, what I hope you take away from this brief exploration is the notion that hacking, and by extension the net, affords alternative avenues for exploring the nature of geopolitics. Our world has changed, and we need to theorize in new ways to understand it. On the internet, new rules apply, and new paradigms emerge. To quote from a couple of mainstream popular geopolitical texts, while new geopolitical players are all aware that “Big Brother is watching you”, the powers that be must also recognize that in the cyber realm “our name is legion, for we are many.”