The best way to know how an Hacker is born is to ask one of them.
Here is the answer of Matteo Cuscusa, Ethical Hacker and member of WhiteJar Community, the first Italian community of Ethical Hackers.
“That’s how it started for most of us, what we could maybe call the hacker generation of the 80s. The world was still a place where information technology was far from most people’s everyday lives. Social networks were still not here, they were probably not an idea yet, as unbelievable as they might sound today.
Most of us remember the first time when we saw a friend writing code, the sound of the keystrokes. It was the day when our curiosity found fertile ground and our passion started to grow.
I consider myself lucky to have grown up when the internet was still unheard of by the public masses. This made me feel like a pioneer in a world still not explored and unknown to most of the people I knew. The internet was a place where you could find something that these days is getting more and more uncommon: freedom.
I have a few memories of those days. A few milestones, the experiences that boosted my curiosity. I clearly remember the sound of the modem I got for Christmas. It was a snowy day and my father wanted me to go with him to the computer shop, so we could choose a good one.
Back home, I will never forget the first website I surfed. For a child, it was something closer to magic than technology. Those days it didn’t take anything spectacular to impress people with computers and technology and to me, seeing the images and the text loading looked like a small miracle.
I grew up spending a lot of time sitting there, the sound of the modem like adrenaline in my veins, surfing and taking my curiosity to new places and new knowledge: long nights meticulously reading, learning, and texting people with the same interests. It was a computer, it did exactly what I wanted it to do.
If something didn’t work as I wanted, I was the only one to blame.
The sun was just a dull intermission between the nights when I would come back to learn new things and discover things I could not have imagined existed. As The Mentor writes in the Hackers Manifesto, “we have been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak…the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless”. An unexplored world was in front of me, in front of most of us that those days were living the same dream. The dream of a child.
Never will I forget the first time I logged into a so-called MMORPG. After years spent on boards and forums, it was something that struck my mind. Communication with other people through the internet was already normal to me by 1997, but watching small characters moving on the screen and interacting with others in a way that would somehow recall what could have happened in a fancy fantasy world, was something different, that added up a sense of reality to conversations that usually happened only by lines of text.
It was just a game, but a game founded on principles of math, a game whose perfection, which at first struck me, turned out to be not so perfect.
My closest friends were also living the same experiences and we used to spend more time together in a virtual environment than face to face in the same room. What is really funny is that we used to spend countless hours trying to figure out the flaws of the game and exploit the mechanics, rather than playing it. We enjoyed this challenge more than the hours spent repeating the same actions to increase skill points.
And then a week came, in which the two events that pushed me on the path of hacking happened.
On a Thursday night, my friends, to whom I will give the fictional names of Elio and Ivan, and I were chilling on some random IRC channel when suddenly Elio went offline and he never came back. We had no chance to talk to him until the day after at school when we found out that he was private messaging with some user that sent him a file, which was later revealed to be malware that made his computer unusable.
A few days later, Ivan and I found a bug in the game we were playing, that allowed us to have access to one of the most powerful spells, which was not officially allowed in-game.
Of course, we got it and went to the newbies’ area where we started spawning big demons. It didn’t last much, probably one or two minutes before the staff came and banned our accounts. But two minutes made us understand what the power of knowing more could be.
What a week. In a room, sitting together, we discussed again what had happened. Elio had his computer fixed. We wanted to understand more about what the file was. At the same time, we wanted to feel again the adrenaline of finding a bug in the system and taking advantage of it. Was it ethical? No, probably not, but I don’t blame myself for not having a high level of ethics at 14.
So we started our path to hacking. Why? Because we were curious and we wanted to understand more, know more, and take advantage of our knowledge.
One of the luckiest things of our lives is that we were both able to transform our passion in our job and hack things to try and help to make them better.
Today, the word hacker sadly has taken on a negative meaning and is always associated with a cybercriminal. Society perpetuated the concept of hackers being synonymous with criminals using a computer.
Hackers are curious to understand how things work; what happens if we push that button? What if we send the right packet? Can we break into the system? Can we gather information by manipulating people with our social engineering skills?
Hackers have a different approach to problems. They set the limits, tell where the limits are, and then break right on past them. Hackers are those who love learning, and there is no crime in learning. Hackers are doers that mainly value practical experience. They sit in a dark room playing video games to find bugs and that’s where they get most of their enjoyment from.
Some hackers do it for fun, some because they love the adrenaline rush of breaking and exploring systems where they are not supposed to be. Some just want to impress people, some just want to test their skills to find out if they are good enough to reach their objectives. Some just want a continuous challenge, some others just want to increase their knowledge.
What all the hackers have in common, though, is that they are curious, they want to explore, learn more and solve problems. That is what moves them, that’s what brings them forward and that’s where they get most of their satisfaction.
Very often, since the profession of the hacker became so famous, we can read and hear people asking how to become one. That is not something you can learn. You can learn how to be a security expert, you can learn how to use exploits, which most of the press and people refer to when they talk about hacking. But you don’t learn to become a hacker. Or you have the spirit and the mindset or you don’t.
Some hackers decide to take advantage of their skills and knowledge to gain personal benefits, very often economic. They become crackers, although in today’s world the press tends to call them, absolutely incorrectly, hackers. Real hackers use their skills to try to make the world a better place. In the battle against cybercrime, they are the best allies you can have.