A version of this column first appeared in the New Philosopher magazine.
In his excellent new book The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab, the British author and researcher Carl Miller describes the mind-set of a hacker taking control of a digital device. First comes exhaustive attentiveness: learning how something works, its limitations, its imperfections. Then comes the quest for a method that can turn these imperfections into vulnerability. Finally, you exploit the vulnerability. It’s a model of the scientific method in action—and of power grasped via empirical research. “Through a mixture of knowledge, skill, perseverance,” writes Miller, “you’ve owned the device!”
This idea of “owning” something or someone, in the sense of conquest or domination, is central to hacking. To hack is to subvert a system, substituting your intentions for those of the designers. Hackers have the power to do things that, so far as everyday users of technology are concerned, are not so much forbidden as impossible—because the system itself defines what is possible with absolute authority.
Most of us can no more sidestep the rules of the software girdling our lives than we can temporarily switch off the force of gravity. As hackers would be the first to point out, these protocols are some of the 21st century’s most ubiquitous and coercive structures of power. Neither optional nor obvious, they map our relationships with everything from money and property to the state and each other. And they come wrapped in a rhetoric of empowerment that is, at best, disingenuous—and at worst deceitful.
If a hacker “owns” your smartphone—most probably by tricking you into executing malicious code on it—they exercise far greater authority over its contents than you ever did. This is because the actions you can perform on your own hardware are carefully circumscribed. You don’t fully control most of your data, or the software you use every day. Genuine ownership, together with its power and entitlements, remains with the companies of whom you are a customer. The vast quantity of metadata that profitably constitutes you, online, is someone else’s property. You are owned.
Does this matter? This depends upon how far you mind being beholden to those maintaining the services you rely upon—and what recourses you have when your desires clash with the system’s desires for you.
The history of ownage in hacking—sometimes typed pwnage in tribute to a common typo—is interwoven with the history of online games, complete with their zero sum outcomes. In gaming and hacking, to be pwned is not simply to lose: it’s to be destroyed utterly. Everything you have—your in-game character, the complete contents of your system—becomes subject to someone else’s whim. Annihilation arrives at the click of a button. Hackers sometimes refer to their victims as “sheep” because, like livestock to the slaughter, they can’t begin to resist or comprehend what is happening.
As part of his research, Miller paid a visit to the world’s biggest hacking convention, DEF CON in Las Vegas—and felt this energy crackling through the air. “To me,” he writes, “every crescendo on these DEF CON stages meant one thing: power.” You’ve probably got an image of the DEF CON crowd in your head: dark hoodies, pale skin, tattoos and pseudonyms. If so, you’re not far wrong. Yet what hackers most desire is something that belongs not to you, but to those designing and administrating systems: the power to write, rewrite and (if they feel like it) circumvent the rules mere customers are compelled to obey.
They don’t want to take power away from you, the sheep-like user, because you don’t have it in the first place. They want to step into the shoes of the engineers who own the fabric of your digital existence—to reach inside and reconfigure the black boxes whose code is law.
This symmetry is embedded at the heart of the world’s most influential companies. If you want to visit the headquarters of Facebook’s global operation, you’ll find it at One Hacker Way, Menlo Park, California. If you wander the company’s sprawling campus, you’ll see the word HACK blazoned on walls, floors and clothing. “Move fast and break things” is the unofficial mantra of digital disruption. It signals innovators’ refusal to play by established conventions—their appetite for smashing existing systems, then putting them back together in new forms. Other people’s rules are there for the breaking.
So far as big tech is concerned, you don’t win the game by playing fair. You win it by designing a new game in which you own all the pieces, then convincing the world to play. You win by knowing more—and more, and more, until the way you say the world should work becomes the way it does.
Anyone who’s been hacked will tell you that it’s accompanied by a sense of fierce helplessness. Depending on whether you suffer extortion, abuse or just inconvenience, it represents a humiliating loss of assets and agency. Watching your phone succumb to hacking is particularly painful, as your most useful, personal and adaptable device betrays your trust. It’s as if a close friend inexplicably ransacked your house and turned over its contents to a stranger.
This analogy isn’t quite right, of course—because the relationship’s imbalance and your vulnerability were always there, waiting to be exploited. The power hackers tap into is something they usurp, not something they create. It’s just that people only tend to notice after it’s overtly abused.
Does this sound like an exaggeration? In some circumstances, and for some users, it is. There are plenty of people out there who know what they’re doing, and plenty of tools that grant ownership and control. Yet in the global scheme of things, the asymmetry between what most people know versus what is known about them is becoming more extreme on a daily basis—together with the willingness of governments and companies to leverage this force.
In our digital world, ignorance is impotence. Information is aligned with power not just because it allows those who possess it to do more, but because it defines the fabric of what can be said, done and acted upon in the first place. And this means that, if you want to push back against your own disempowerment, it all begins with the right kind of questions, warnings and examples; the ethical hack, the open-source alternative; the collective interrogation of whatever mere users aren’t supposed to know.
To paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, the power technology grants its designers and manipulators is a kind of magic—and, like all magic, the first step in dispelling it is to keep on asking how it’s done.