Apr 17, 2008 | 14:30 GMT

6 mins read

Cyberwarfare 101: What Makes a Hacker Tick

The online hacker community is strongly individualistic, though it does exhibit a number of characteristic ideologies. An ideological underpinning is not a prerequisite to being a hacker, and many ideologies are not mutually exclusive. Any one actor might subscribe to none, many or a unique amalgam. But these basic ideologies should be considered and understood in any meaningful discussion of cyberwarfare.
Editor's note: This is one in a series of analyses on the emergence of cyberspace as battlespace. The personal motivations driving individual hackers are virtually infinite. But there are a handful of dominant ideologies that can offer insight into the mindsets and motivations of much of the larger hacker community. Not all hackers subscribe to or are driven by these beliefs, but most are shaped or affected by them in some fashion. Any discussion of these ideologies must begin with the basic Hacker Ethic, the founding principle of the hacker community.

Hacker Ethic

Interpretation of this ethic can vary, but it essentially entails the following beliefs:
  • Information should be free and accessible to all.
  • Access to computers should be unlimited.
  • Computers and the Internet can be a force for the betterment of humanity.
  • Authority is not to be trusted.
  • The principle of decentralization goes hand-in-hand with all of the above.
These fundamental principles, and variations thereof, are commonly held in the hacker community and have evolved over time into some of the ideologies described below.


The basic principles of exploration — an outgrowth of the Hacker Ethic and the first ideology many hackers adopt — are to look into every corner of the Internet and bypass any security simply for the sake of improving skills and learning how to navigate cyberspace covertly. In the process, explorationists generally try to leave no trace and to avoid any damage to the system (which would, inherently, be evidence of their intrusion). Many of this ideology's tenets originate from newer versions of the Hacker Ethic — especially the white-hat version, which emphasizes benevolent rather than malevolent actions.


Another outgrowth of the original Hacker Ethic is informationism, which holds that information should be allowed to flow freely throughout the Internet and, by extension, throughout all human societies. Hackers who embrace this ideology often have specific areas of interest they monitor to identify developments and actors that they might perceive to be limiting the free flow of information. Once these hackers identify constraints, they attempt to remove them by a variety of means, from simply rerouting data to removing security protocols to staging comprehensive network attacks — essentially making that information free through force.


The tenets of altruism vary greatly, depending on the person subscribing to it, but often they are based on an individual's beliefs regarding the Internet and are often associated with what are considered positive actions intended to serve a perceived public good. These tenets can include the free flow of information, security preservation and user protection. In some ways, altruism can be understood as a variation of the Hacker Ethic with a benevolent bent. But because it all comes down to a personal perception and world view, "altruistic" hackers may sometimes perform actions that seem quite malicious to others (e.g., shutting down Web sites that are believed to be blocking the free flow of information).


Hacktivism promotes the use of hacking to accomplish political goals or advance political ideologies. Depending on the campaign, these actions may involve both white-hat hackers and black-hat hackers and can include Web site defacement, redirects, DoS attacks, virtual sit-ins and electronic sabotage. Many hacktivist actions often fall under the media radar but their political, economic, military and public impact can be significant.


Although a rare hacker ideology, nationalism can envelop large portions of the community given the right cause or circumstance. By their very nature, hackers are individualists who rarely pledge allegiance to other hackers or groups, let alone countries. This is partially due to the fact that the Internet itself and the hacker community it supports have their own cultural elements — indeed, some of the other motivations discussed above often supersede or transcend national identity. There are situations, however, when hackers can be motivated to act in what they perceive to be the best interests of their respective nations. When these situations arise, powerful alliances can quickly emerge that often possess greater capabilities and resources than many developed nations. This ideology is particularly relevant to cyberwarfare. An outgrowth of nationalism is an ideology not often discussed: when hackers unite to protect not their nation but their community. Thus far, sufficiently explosive or inspiring conditions to unify such a disparate community have been rare. But the potential remains — and is perhaps growing greater in an increasingly wired world.

Rally Around the Flag

Much like nationalism, the "rally around the flag" ideology is rare in the hacker community, but when it emerges and builds a large following it can yield a significant power. Basically, rally around the flag refers to any situation that mobilizes large numbers of hackers behind a particular cause. The cause can vary or be governed by any number of ideological motives, but it is usually a cause that is sufficiently controversial or out of the ordinary to spark outrage and reprisal. Both nationalism and rally around the flag exemplify how certain ideologies can quickly join subnational and transnational hacker groups into fleeting alliances that can bring great force to bear on a target. In these last two categories, the significance of the ideological motivation is the unifying factor. Once the skills and resources of a particular online demographic are amassed, a broad spectrum of attacks and targets are possible. One notable example was in 1999 during the NATO intervention in Kosovo, when Serbian hackers reportedly began carrying out attacks — from vandalism to larger distributed denial-of-service attacks — against all manner of targets in NATO member states. After the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy, a second upsurge in attacks against targets in NATO countries began. The most recent example — and one of the most mature instances of the disruptive effect of this kind of incident — was the Estonian cyberwar in 2007. Next: Case Study of a Textbook Attack

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