There are a growing number of online hacking communities
Cybersecurity incidents are gaining an increasingly high profile. In the past, these incidents may have been perceived primarily as a somewhat distant issue for organisations such as banks to deal with. But recent attacks such as the 2017 Wannacry incident, in which a cyber attack disabled the IT systems of many organisations including the NHS, demonstrates the real-life consequences that cyber attacks can have.
These attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using psychological manipulation as well as technology. Examples of this include phishing emails, some of which can be extremely convincing and credible. Such phishing emails have led to cybersecurity breaches at even the largest of technology companies, including Facebook and Google.
To face these challenges, society needs cybersecurity professionals who can protect systems and mitigate damage. Yet the demand for qualified cybersecurity practitioners has quickly outpaced the supply, with three million unfilled cybersecurity posts worldwide.
So it might come as a surprise that there is already an active population with a strong passion for cybersecurity – hackers. This is a term with many negative connotations. It evokes the stereotypical image of a teenage boy sat in a dark room, typing furiously as green text flies past on the computer monitor, often with the assumption that some criminal activity is taking place. The idea of including such individuals in helping build and protect cyber systems may seem counterintuitive.
But – as we have highlighted in our recent research – the reality of hacking communities is more complex and nuanced than the stereotypes would suggest. Even the phrase “hacker” is contentious for many individuals who may be labelled hackers. This is because it has lost the original meaning: of someone who uses technology to solve a problem in an innovative manner.
There are a growing number of online hacking communities – and regular offline meetings and conventions where hackers meet in person. One of the largest of these events is DEFCON, held every year in Las Vegas and attended by up to 20,000 people. These hacking communities and events are an important source of information for young people who are becoming involved in hacking, and may be the first contact they have with other hackers.
On the surface, the conversations that are held on these forums often relate to sharing information. People seek advice on how to overcome different technical barriers in the hacking process. Assistance is given to those who are having difficulties – provided that they firstly demonstrate a willingness to learn. This reflects one of the characteristics of hacking communities, in that there is a culture of individuals demonstrating passion and the desire to overcome barriers.
But such events are about more than sharing practical skills. As individuals, we are strongly influenced by those around us, often to a greater agree that we are aware of. This is especially the case when we are in a new environment and unsure of the social norms of the group. As such, these online and offline hacking communities also provide an important source of social identity to individuals. They learn what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, including the ethics and legality of hacking.