In the past, whenever we heard the word hacker we instinctively associated it with the figure that has been impressed for years on the collective imagination by cult movies that came out in the 1980s and 90s. These invariably portrayed young men in hooded sweatshirts barricaded in untidy rooms and tinkering on keyboards with passwords, CD-ROMs and even obsolete floppy disks in the light of the dim flicker of the screen. The hacker was generally a mix between a character from the Revenge of the Nerds and Neo in the Matrix.

Modern-Day Hackers are Vital Military Assets

In the present, however, it would be truer to see these increasingly strategic figures in terms of experts in cyberspace — or more simply the web in general — who can influence a war more than entire infantry divisions supported by armored vehicles and sophisticated, latest generation jets. A single hacker who has developed a talent for cracking an enemy’s computer system can launch attacks that strike at the enemy’s heart faster than a supersonic bomber. He can bring down a protected network that controls radar systems which are vital for defense, switch off satellites that allow smart bombs to hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy, dry up accounts to finance operations or to destabilize society and even change the coordinates of intercontinental missiles. The hacker can do this by outwitting the enemy in that cybernetic domain — which has come to exceed the importance of control over the skies — a realm which changed the fortunes of World War II and the power of naval fleets that could once shore up or destroy entire empires.

Hat Trick

If you try to analyse the phenomenon — not necessarily of hackers with pejorative overtones — it can almost be considered a subculture divided into different types and classes, a sort of hierarchy differentiated by specialization and talent. Although there are many types, the main hackers are indicated in jargon by the color of their “hat”: white hat, black hat and grey hat. The white hats are those who defend the network from malicious software, the black hats use their talent to violate computer networks by taking advantage of vulnerabilities to inject malware and steal data, money, sensitive and national security information that can be resold to a rival government or marketed in the dark web to the highest bidder. It could be a foreign terrorist organisation or an anti-government extremist phalanx operating nationally. The grey hats are a sort of unknown mercenary group, a grey area midway between white hats and black hats. Grey hats can act maliciously or benevolently towards a given system, waiting to be hired for a cause, whether it means violating or protecting a given IT system identified as vulnerable.

Recruiting Grey Hats

It is precisely in this third category that for some years the world’s defense apparatuses have gone looking for new recruits: those who now swell the ranks of the new “cybernetic divisions” to be used in tomorrow’s wars. No longer are these sinewy men trained to run tens of miles across deserts in full battle gear, but unsuspected computer geniuses operating at the CIA headquarters in Langley or Lubyanka in Moscow and capable of going where even the most highly trained 007 or Navy SEAL could never penetrate: into the banks of computers storing the enemy’s secrets and vital systems. It is no secret that all the major world powers have been making efforts for many years to deal with this type of threat — or using it as an offensive weapon.

The United States, Britain, the Russian Federation and North Korea (considered guilty of numerous cyberattacks linked to cryptocurrency platforms), Israel, China and Iran have enrolled whole regiments of hackers, training them together with the finest computer experts employed by the armed forces and government agencies to create special units with the sole task of waging war in cyberspace. An example is Israeli Army Unit 8200, accused of sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program in two different attacks, the new brigade of “Chindits” of the British army and Computer Network Operations (formerly known as TAO) of the US National Security Agency. There is also Unit 61398 trained by the Chinese government, all the way to the fearsome cybernetic or kibervoyskami divisions controlled by the Russian FSB and GRU who are accused of having already carried out various operations aimed at destabilizing American politics, as well as stealing hefty sums of money from foreign bank accounts.

Weapons of Cyberwar

This warfare is fought with viruses and worms (self-replicating malware) designed to spy on or strike at the enemy behind the lines. These “bombs” are launched with a simple click of a computer keyboard, which exponentially increases the asymmetry of a possible conflict. A potentially lethal malware package for a server controlling an enemy’s economy, communications or data transmission can be launched from an isolated cell. One man armed with a laptop against NORAD? It sounds impossible, but in the era of hyper digitization it is likely enough.

Some of the most epic — and dangerous — feats by internationally renowned hackers are well known. The British hacker Gary McKinnon — known by the pseudonym Solo — successfully hacked into the Pentagon’s servers. the Russian Alexsey Belan, known by the pseudonym M4G, stole data from over 700,000 email accounts between 2013 and 2016. The Canadian Michael Calce — known by the pseudonym Mafiaboy — launched several crippling DDoS attacks using zombie computers and damaged CNN, Amazon and eBay. Jonathan James, an American, known by the pseudonym of C0mrade, managed to violate NASA’s servers and download essential data on the operations of the international space station. Astra, a Greek hacker whose identity is not yet known, violated the terminals of the French aerospace giant Dassault and stole projects protected by military secrecy.

To these are added computer espionage groups or collectives of activists, such as the well-known Fancy Bear, Syrian Electric Army and of course Anonymous. From time to time they choose to wage a crusade and usually win it.

Future War

However hard it is to imagine, the conflicts of the future will increasingly depend essentially on the skills of these computer experts. Cyberspace is an empty battlefield, where the forces deployed can be offset by a single geek wearing a Marpat uniform, whether he is a simple idealist or a mercenary who ends up on a government payroll. The hacker is someone capable of transforming a string of codes into an attack with devastating effects on a country’s national security, economy or defense systems of a hostile state. This is the true and overwhelming revenge of the nerds, which some already dreamed of at the end of the twentieth century.

It's a tough moment