Why do hackers always wear hoodies? Behind the stereotype

Why Hollywood gets hackers so wrong
Why Hollywood gets hackers so wrong

When portraying hackers, hoodies are everyone's favorite stereotype: From TV shows, to movies, to articles on CNN.

There are many types of hacking -- from "white hats" who find vulnerabilities to protect users, to "black hats" who try and make money off of stolen data. But they all, apparently, wear the same clothes and hack in dark rooms while ones and zeroes scroll across the screen.

Hoodies and other stereotypes -- like a hacker in a basement, or young geniuses taking on the man without their parents' knowledge -- are rooted in authenticity.

For instance, the phrase "script-kiddie" is used to describe people who take code written by other people and use it to launch their own hacks. The term was coined in the early '90s when the Department of Justice was prosecuting teenagers (literally kids) for cybercrimes.

Brian Bartholomew, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, says when he started in the industry around 2000, he didn't see the hoodie stereotype in the press, or in the hacker community. Over the years, hacking articles have been illustrated with composites of zeroes and ones, broken keyboards, and combination locks. (CNNMoney once used a cartoon pirate to illustrate stealing someone's WiFi.)

Hacking fashion

In the '80s and early '90s, hackers looked more like cyberpunks, according to Marc Rogers, cybersecurity expert and technical advisor on the show "Mr. Robot." A feature called "R.U. a Cyberpunk?" in a 1993 edition of Mondo 2000 magazine showed them wearing heavy boots, leather jackets and fingerless gloves.

But around the time the 1995 film Hackers came out, the stereotype began to shift, and it showed hackers as young, skateboarding rule-breakers.

"That cyberpunk is actually not a bad portrayal of a hacker. But media stepped in with Hackers, and overwrote it," said Rogers, who is head of information security and IT at Cloudflare. "That image faded out, and the skateboarding hoodie kid faded in."

Rogers is also the head of security at Defcon, the biggest hacker conference in the world. For the last two decades, he has witnessed the style of thousands of hackers evolve.

"Leather jackets, spikes, boots, all of that kind of stuff is [still] pretty normal," he said. "The people who started showing up with dyed hair and skateboards were post-Hackers. They're the kind of the people who saw the film, they decided they want to be a hacker, so they took the image from the film. And it's owned that whole genre."

yahoo hack 2016
An example of photos used to report on a massive Yahoo data breach.

Around the mid-aughts, hacking and cybercrime started taking up more real estate in the mainstream media, requiring a more diverse set of illustrations. Also during that time, tech companies like Facebook started popping up, created by guys who bucked corporate fashion in favor of wearing hoodies.

Although the hacker community often ridicules media portrayals, it's also grown to embrace the hoodie, Bartholomew said. They're sometimes even used as members' only jackets at conferences.

Take "Mr. Robot." The show on USA Network is widely considered to be the most accurate portrayal of hacking in mainstream entertainment. And Elliot, the 29-year-old vigilante hacker protagonist, always wears his signature black hoodie.

Media portrayal can affect the public's perception of hackers though -- and darkness or mystery isn't always a good thing. Rogers says the illustrations used for hackers -- the hoodie over a hidden face -- make them seem scary, and that stereotype should change.

"Instead of inventing what you think looks like a good representation of a hacker, come and see what a hacker looks like," he said.

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