Someone asked me recently why hackers hack the government. That’s a little more complex question than why they hack other people. Governments are complex, so that means there’s more reason to hack a government than to hack a corporation or a citizen.
Government hackers generally have three motivations behind them: Money, activism, or espionage. The motivations depend based on who is doing the hacking.
How can you make money hacking the government?
I bring up money as the main motivator, because money is usually the main motivator behind hacking. In this case, money is also a factor, but not necessarily the only factor. The people carrying out the actual hacking probably are getting paid to do it. If they could make more money doing something else, they would. That’s human nature.
Many of the people who hack governments work for another government. They aren’t working for free. Most likely they are getting more than just money to do it. Training and prestige, at the very least. But given the unemployment rate in the cybersecurity field is well under one percent, the people who hack governments are making enough money to make it worth their while.
The people doing the work might or might not believe in the same things the people writing the paychecks do. But money can be an equalizer in that case.
Activism, or hacktivism
Activism can be another motivator for someone to hack a government, especially their own government. I don’t know exactly what motivated Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or Reality Winner, but activism almost certainly played a role. They saw something they didn’t like, so all three of them stole data to expose it, then released the data. None of them profited financially from what they did, and it’s probably not reasonable to think they expected to.
The hacking group Anonymous, symbolized by the Guy Fawkes mask, is also frequently driven by activism. If a government does something Anonymous doesn’t like, Anonymous will try to do something about it, whether that means destroying a computer system the government needs, or more likely, doing something to embarrass the government.
Arguably, Julian Assange started out as an activist. I think he became an activist because he wanted fame and saw that as the easiest path to get it. He got involved in espionage after the stakes changed. He thought he personally had something to lose if one candidate won, and something to gain, or at least much less to lose, if a different candidate won. I don’t know if self preservation is a form of activism, but maybe.
Activism and money aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Manning and Winner lost more financially than they gained. Snowden profited more than they did as a result of the notoriety he gained, but with good career counseling I think he could have made more money working as a cybersecurity analyst in the private sector, and he could live anywhere he wanted.
The amount of talk about hacktivism probably suggests it happens more frequently than it does. Hacktivism does happen but tends not to be a primary motive.
The third, and perhaps biggest reason why hackers hack the government is espionage. Any government of any reasonable size has a department whose job is to steal other governments’ data while protecting its own. In the United States, that’s the National Security Agency (NSA). The UK’s equivalent is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In Australia, it’s the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). Any other country that has spies has these types of agencies too.
This type of hacking is just another form of spying. Typically these hackers are working for one government, hacking other governments in order to gain knowledge, such as military intelligence or technology.
Unlike hacktivism, this can be a good career move. After a military career ends, an individual with this training can become a consultant working on government contracts, or move into the private sector. Since this work is sanctioned by your own government, it has much less of a stigma than hacktivism.