When the term ‘hackers’ first began infiltrating our common web-jargon its understanding largely defined teenage boys spends their free time hacking into computer systems for the pure thrill of the act. Such attempts initially fuelled sci-fi depictions of global-scale hacking, leading to the usual virtual web battles and the end of the world sort of attacks. Whilst those remain (for the time being) in the realm of imagination, what is very much a reality is that the practice of hacking is no longer dominated by teenagers in their bedrooms, instead it has immigrated into governmental chambers, army headquarters and secret intelligent service office of the most powerful nation-states in the world.
When Hillary Clinton’s emails were ‘leaked’ over recent months, the public opinion as well as media coverage were understandably focused on the emails themselves, their content, Hillary’s reasons for using her work email account - a governmental one at that - for private messages. But what was skimmed over in the discussion was who was behind the releasing of such content. Indeed Wikileaks leader along with Russia were on the blaming front, with Ecuador cutting off Assange’s Internet connection in his London asylum. But despite these general accusations, there was no real addressing of the discourse behind such hacking acts. Who entered the candidate’s account? Who was the instigator of this agency?
According to Mikko Hyppönen, guest speaker at Web Summit, computer security expert and hacker hunter since the nineties, the Russian military and the intelligence service supported the email hack. In his opinion, they also attempted to hack the elections, without a successful result at that.
It is not the first time that the Russian government has been accused as prime suspect for attacking nations through hacking acts. The term cyber attack is still one that commonly lends itself to the world of sci-fi, yet Hyppönen argues that ‘attack’ is precisely what these hacking operations are doing, no less weighed by the word’s definition. For example, last December Russian cyber-strategists and hackers attacked the Ukrainian power grid, leaving 230,000 people without electricity in the middle of the Ukrainian winter. In times of war, proving to have the abilities to shut down the power grid of an extended geographical area reveals how cyber attacks are a fatal, extremely potent weapon nonetheless.
Hackers have a crucial – and largely underestimated - role in the game of power played by governments and nation-states. As almost every artificial element of our world is likely connected to software, computers and the web, what happens when, on a virtual level, countries, dictators and fighting groups have the capacity to impact our lives in ways we are still not completely aware of? And more potently, might not have the tools to fight back with just yet.