Hello, hacker

Just once, I’d like to meet a hacker face to face. Perhaps I already have.  But I would like to know I’m talking to someone who malevolently hacks into people’s hard drives and phones. I want to look into their eyes, ask some questions. I am curious that way.

I’ve known many lawbreakers. I’ve even met a couple of murderers. I may have met more without realizing it. I did not know at the time they would take someone’s life. And I’ve known some physical abusers, and their victims.

But most of the people I know who’ve committed crimes are petty thieves, cheaters, or, most often, speeders, parking ticket-evaders, registration avoiders, and tax scofflaws. Also pirates of stuff like music, movies, and software.


Full disclosure: I’ve had a few speeding tickets and moving violations, and I went on a brief spree of stealing candy from the Majik Market when I was a free-range tween — until I got caught taking a Mars bar, and was banished, crying and ashamed. Apparently that was all it took to dissuade me from a life of crime.

I’ve also witnessed lots of legal crime. I’ve known folks who used unjust laws to take advantage, and I’ve known their victims. As Woody Guthrie sings in “Pretty Boy Floyd”: “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen.”

“Sure, it may be immoral,” I’ve heard a lawyer say. “But it’s legal.”

But aside from the federal government – don’t get me started – the people whose illegal actions most affect my peers and me on an almost-daily basis are hackers. Sometimes they just seek to be a wrench in the machinery, but it’s becoming ever more common that they want, and get, data. Your passwords and address book. To sell.

We often assume it’s “a bot.” But more often than not, it’s an actual fellow human enacting their will.

I envision a spouse somewhere on the globe saying, “Honey, how was work today?”

“It was great! I hacked into this person’s Facebook account, and sent a message to their hundreds of friends saying ‘I just saw this video with you in it!’ About half the recipients clicked on it, which enabled me to access everything in their account, and their friends’ accounts. I got some quality data, which my friends over at Company X will pay a premium for, which means we can go to Great Adventure after all!”

“I’m so proud of you, sweetie.”

Or: “You’re in a good mood. What happened while I was at the grocery store?”

“I finally finished this virus, which I was able to put on this site, so now when someone clicks on it, their hard drive will implode, and all their data – photos, correspondence, contacts, everything – will be gone forever. I was hoping I could make it so their email contacts would also get infected, but I couldn’t get that part to work.”

“Better luck next time. I love you. Let’s eat some hamburgers.”

It’s those hackers – the ones for whom there is no fiscal gain – that perversely fascinate me the most. Clearly, all hackers are, to a degree, sociopaths. Some more blind to other people’s emotional lives than others. My vigilant nature, combined with my innate, ever-sharper curiosity, wants to look them in the eye, hear how they talk, register them in my mind’s impregnable database. I will then tell myself that in knowing the hacker I can protect myself and my friends and loved ones from them.

I write all the above knowing that just meeting one of these assholes would not actually guarantee any of that. But if hackers can have their compulsions I can have mine.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.