Future Tense

Meet Some Real International Hackers

When a new data breach is announced, we’re usually more worried about the hack than the hacker. Not that we don’t eventually want to know who the suspect is and see him or her punished (if possible), but hacking is so often done remotely that the connection between humans and breaches feels abstract.

A new 18-minute documentary from Norton (Symantec’s security product) and director Sean Dunne puts faces and context in front of us, to try to make the whole concept of cybersecurity feel more real.

The short, “The Most Dangerous Town On The Internet,” focuses on the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlcea, which is known as a hotbed of hacking. In 2011 Wired called it “Cybercrime Central,” and a priest interviewed for the film says, “The cybercrime phenomenon may have started here so we gained a reputation. But Râmnicu Vâlcea is a quiet town.”

The documentary introduces viewers to real-life hackers and scammers and points out the distinction between the former group, which uses technical knowledge to execute original or challenging hacks, and the latter, which uses pre-existing tools to do things like trick people into giving away their money. “Scammers steal, they are thieves, not hackers. Hackers hack. Only hack,” says Max Ray Vision, the hacker for hire known as Iceman, who infiltrated NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “I thought NASA would give me a job or something, but only they give me a fine.”

Another featured hacker is Guccifer, who is known for breaching email accounts related to Hillary Clinton, the Bush family, Colin Powell, and others. “The Internet was one of my best friends,” he says. He talks about exposing truths and says, “I feel what I do is good. … I am not sorry for what I have done. Never, never in my lifetime.”

The film also profiles anonymous scammers. “At first I did everything out of pure curiosity since elementary school,” one says. “I was among several friends meeting at Internet cafes sharing experiences, and that’s where I first learned how to access servers from abroad.”

Of course, since Symantec sells security products, Norton has an interest in funding a documentary that makes the world of hacking look bleak and threatening. The film notes that in 2014, Romanian hackers stole more than $1 billion, and the hackers talk about how naive Americans are and how hacking techniques are always getting more sophisticated. Then toward the end, Norton security expert Kevin Haley explains why the situation isn’t so dire that we should all just give up hope and how defensive products are always improving.

It’s a convenient narrative for the company, but it’s not untrue. You don’t have to get your security products from Norton, but the threat to cybersecurity is real both for individuals and (especially) for large entities like corporations and governments. Seeing who hackers are is a fascinating way to make the problem feel urgent yet somehow surmountable, so hopefully people will take action to protect themselves.