What image does the word ‘hacker’ conjure up?

University geeks creating online chaos for their own amusement? A criminal gang stealing millions from non-savvy tech users? Or an anti-capitalist anti-hero wreaking havoc on multinational corporations?

Throughout the history of tech, the hacker has been all of these things, and more. Here’s a quick look at how the image of hackers and hacking has changed through the years.

The Mad Professor

Remember the original 1969 version of The Italian Job? Not only did it contain an impressive car chase through Turin, but it also featured one of the earliest on-film hacks. Professor Peach, played by Benny Hill, changes the tape reels in the Turin traffic system’s computer to create chaos and allow the heist to happen.

Professor Peach is your archetypal mad professor. He’s clever, but eccentric, and incredibly childish. The hack itself is an amateur affair, requiring Peach and other members of the gang to physically break into the room containing the mainframe computer. You can see the professor in action in this trailer for the film.

Curious Geeks

Hacking first hit the headlines in the 80s, but students at universities like MIT had been hacking into systems since the mid 60s. Some of these earliest hacks involved breaking into telephone systems to make free long-distance calls.

This was known as ‘phone phreaking’. Famous phreaks included John Draper (nicknamed Captain Crunch) and Kevin Poulson, (Dark Dante) who rigged a radio show phone-in to win a Porsche. Even Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, had a go when they were younger.

In the 80s, hackers started breaking in to large corporate and government computer systems. Whilst this initially may have seemed like harmless fun, governments started to become concerned about the possible outcomes of these hacks. War Games tells the story of a teenager who unwittingly hacks into a United States military computer, causing a nuclear weapons scare and nearly starting World War III.

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Cyber Criminals

As internet use increased, criminals started to take advantages of online security weaknesses and users’ naivety. Scams such as spam and phishing developed, encouraging unwitting internet users to divulge credit card or password details that were harvested by gangs.

Cyber criminals may attack users’ computers with programs that take over their systems (malware), watch what’s happening online and record keystrokes to unlock passwords (spyware) or may simply try to disable the user’s computer with an internet security virus. On screen, Bruce Willis battled cyber criminals in Die Hard 4.0.


At the same time as cyber criminals were targeting internet users, cyberpunks arrived on the horizon to save humankind. Probably the most famous cyberpunk of all is Neo from The Matrix, a young hacker who discovers the grim truth behind man’s existence and joins a group that is trying to save the human race. Neo is no geek. Dressed head-to-toe in black, he kicks and shoots his way out of trouble.

Another famous cyberpunk is Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant, but troubled, female hacker in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Like Neo she wears black and is more than capable of defending herself.

Military or Political Hackers

Recently there has been a rise in hacking that is more global in nature and may even stem from military action or even terrorism. Stuxnet, for example, was a virus that targeted and took down power plants and industries in Iran, including centrifuges used for the enrichment of uranium. Whilst the code has been deciphered, the person or group responsible has not been identified.

Another global threat appears to be emerging from China. US security has warned of hacking attacks and there have been claims that hacking camps are being set up to train young people how to hack into US systems. The Chinese government, naturally, denies this.


Recent years have seen the rise of the hacktivists – hackers with political motives. Groups like Lulzsec and, most famously, Anonymous, have targeted institutions and corporations that they feel are damaging society. Some of their activities have been linked with protests such as Occupy Wall Street.

Hacktivist groups often choose targets that oppose internet freedoms. Past victims included PayPal, MasterCard and other online payment sites, which were taken down when they refused to process donations for WikiLeaks.

They have also played a part in the Arab Spring uprisings across north Africa, taking down Tunisian and Egyptian government websites as support for protestors. The 2012 documentary We Are Legion, tells the story of the beliefs and workings of Anonymous.