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In the age of digital pirates or privateers?

In the collective imagination, hackers are often associated with modern-day pirates. But is this still the case today?

Digital pirates, the idealization of hackers

The first Internet hackers were driven by their ideals of freedom and distrust of symbols of power. It was this attachment to the ideal of freedom that led to their comparison to hackers.

In addition, any pirate code promoted solidarity and democracy. These principles can be found among the values of hackers. One example is the hacker group “Covid-19 Cyber Threat Coalition“. This is a group of volunteers that formed during the health crisis to help hospitals protect themselves against cyber attacks. Ethics are the real driving force behind these modern-day hackers.

However, there are cases where the existence of a “hacker code” seems to be a mere illusion. For example, the hacker (or rather cybercriminal) group DarkSide claims to have a code of conduct. This ransomware specialist states that its code of conduct prohibits it from attacking schools, hospitals, governments and NGOs. The claim that DarkSide has a code of conduct makes us smile, especially when we know that 90% of ransomware attacks targeted hospitals in the second half of 2016¹.

A reality rather full of digital privateers

Although hackers are often equated with pirates, they are increasingly acting as privateers. A privateer is a sailor acting on behalf of his country, thanks to a letter of marque which can be likened to an official document setting out the conditions of the mission.

Thus, at the end of 2021, the ANSSI announced that French institutions were the target of a phishing campaign carried out by the Nobelium group. This group of Russian hackers is suspected of receiving support from the Kremlin. This offensive does not seem to be a coincidence. It is part of a resurgence of tensions between Europeans and Russians on the Ukrainian issue.

For more information: Phishing campaigns by Nobelium attackers

More publicly, in 2018, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces announced its willingness to set up a unit of hackers (or cyber attackers to use the IOL’s terms) to set up an offensive computer warfare system (IWC) for military purposes. The hackers, part of the 4,000 cybercombatants in the French army, will have to follow the government’s instructions.  

For more information: Public elements of French military offensive computer warfare doctrine

The hacker is moving further and further away from his image as a modern-day pirate, and closer and closer to that of a privateer. As a result, moral values can vary greatly from those of the original hackers, depending on the government they serve.


¹ Instruction n°SG/DSSIS/2016/309 du 14 octobre 2016 relative à la mise en oeuvre du plan d’action sur la sécurité des systèmes d’information (« Plan d’action SSI ») dans les établissements et les services de santé public

A propos de Lisa Mirmand