Not every hacker is a woman

Cornelia Sollfrank

Published in: 'Technics of Cyberfeminism', Claudia Reiche/ Andrea Sick, 2002

The hacker

According to the research of Randall Nichols , president of the computer security company Comsec Solutions, the typical hacker is a young (19-30 years old) white male without any previous convictions. The hacker identifies with technology rather than with his employer. He is smart, intelligent, self-confident, thirsting for adventure, highly motivated, and likes to take up challenges. But, in the 8,000 cases of computer crime investigated by Nichols, there was not a single woman involved. According to him, this finding leads to two conclusions: either women are actually not involved in computer crime, or women are too cunning to get caught! In any case, women hackers don't show up - neither in the media, nor in any (crime) statistics. Where technology is traditionally seen as a male domain, I found the province of hackers a highly gendered zone-one of the last stands of the boys' club. But I still had hope to be able to correct this unpleasant finding and started a research. The following catalogues my hunt for female hackers.

When the word 'hacker' was first coined at MIT in the '60s, it was an honorable title. Hackers were known for their resourcefulness and their persistence in solving software-related problems. But after some major incidents, such as the legendary Internet worm of 'rtm' in the '80s, and the subsequent sensationalistic press coverage, the notion of 'hacker' has been reversed. In a society in which data security and the stability of the infrastructure have become major concerns, the hacker is being hyped as the perfect concept of an enemy. Hackers do not just function as a screen on which technophobia is projected, but also serve, very concretely, as an excuse to cut the rights of the netizens (see cybercrime convention etc.)

But the subversive activity of hackers is not exclusively reserved for the criminal-minded, as the media would lead us to believe. In many cases the goals are not about acquisition but about emancipation: to maintain freedom (e.g., from censorship), security (e.g., through cryptography) and to flatten hierarchies like software monopoly (e.g., the free software movement). Now, it might happen that in order to pursue their concerns, hackers have to cross borders and stretch certain limits, but what often simply is declared as 'criminal' is in fact motivated politically.

The search

In 1996, I started visiting hackers' meeting places on- and offline. Very quickly, I became aware that only a few women participated-and most of them were not actively involved in computer hacking. So I started to research the relationship between women and hacking. Experts of the scene, like Bruce Sterling, assured me that there were no women hackers; at least he had never heard of any. For Sterling, this does not come as a surprise. For him, "hacking is a teenage-male voyeur-thrill power-trip activity. You don't find female computer intruders, any more than you find female voyeurs who are obsessed with catching glimpses of men's underwear."

According to Sterling, women do not have a motive, because hacking is incredibly dull and has no emotional payoff. He traces the roots of hacking to the psychological deficiencies from which male juveniles supposedly suffer. I wouldn't agree with Sterling that hacking generally requires an impoverished emotional and social life, but, even it were? true, certainly some women meet that requirement, too. As for the " power-trip activities", from what I can tell, plenty of women are happily practicing them in myriad forms.

Another expert, Gail Thackeray, Special Counsel, Technology Crimes, in the Arizona Attorney General's Office, whom I contacted through the 'defcon' hacker mailing list, painted the same picture of the absentee female hacker. "There are no serious technical women hackers", she said in an e-mail interview. "The few who are involved with the scene were more interested in the social aspects than the technical ones."

What I found most staggering in talking to the 'experts' is that Sterling and Thackeray based their arguments on essentialist ideas about the differences between men and women. It seems almost to be a genetic thing-women are not 'coded' to code, leaving out any consideration of the socially constructed caricatures of the male techno nerd and the female communicator.

To simplify the story even more, I would say, the result of my research was, that there are no women hackers. And this finding made me change my role, from researcher to artist.

The consequence

Again, this finding made me change my role, from researcher to artist. Assuming that neither physical conditions nor social constructions necessarily would have women to prevent from gaining access to restricted sectors of the Internet, I imagine the scenario of a hacking culture populated by women, and help to make it come true. I would like to quote Yvonne Volkart at this point, she said: "The female hacker and the cyberfeminists alike recode dominant ideologies of information technologies." So, for me it is not about creating female heroes-simply counterparts to the boys-but to undermine the homogenous hacking culture and what it represents by diverse concepts of female hackers.

Clara G. Sopht

The first of these concepts is Clara G. Sopht. I met Sopht in December 1999, at the Berlin hacker convention CCC Congress (Chaos Computer Club, a German hacker organization). She is a stubborn personality who is not in agreement with the hacker community on many issues, and has some undeniably destructive tendencies. She is intellectual and reflexive, but also moody, unpredictable, and dangerous-perhaps a little psychopathic. Most hackers specialize in a field: you can be software cracker, crypto specialist and etc. Sopht's hack is Denial of Service, or DoS, where a system is shut down (usually a corporate or governmental target) by moving more traffic to it than it can handle. DoS is the most spectacular and contested hack within the community and the world at large. First of all, it generates a lot of publicity.

Sopht agreed to give an interview under the condition that all material (like her name, image, and traceable details of her exploits) would be masked to preserve anonymity. What follows is an excerpt from our interview:

'Have Script, Will destroy' - an interview with Clara G. Sopht

Q: Clara, would you call yourself a hacker?

A: No. Always the same stupid question. I guess there are some hackers who would call me a 'hacker', others would call me 'cracker' and others just 'lazy-assed destroyer'. There are a lot of dirty names for people like me, but I don't care.(...)

Q: From what you said about the congress, I conclude that you are mostly interested in the political aspects of information technology.

A: Every aspect of information technology is political. And it is definitely true that I'm very much concerned with the idea of resistance and political activism on the net-the electronic underground. Hackers are the spearhead of a new form of resistance. They have an enormous political potential, although most of them aren't aware of it. And there are also other political activists who fight for goals outside the net, and use the net as the site for their dissent.

Q: What are the forms electronic resistance takes today?

A: Well, that's a very delicate question. In the end, there aren't many, and the few existing forms are very controversial. I give you an example. In the mid 90s the group Critical Art Ensemble published a book called Electronic Civil Disobedience. The basic assumption of the book is that power and representations of power are no longer located in the real world but have been shifted into the nets. That's why the resistance against power has also got to take place within the nets. They developed a theoretical model by transferring civil disobendience from the real life in the virtual world, and called it 'electronic civil disobedience'. What it's about is blocking the flow of information rather than the flow of personnel, and it takes place at military, corporate, or governmental sites. Their basic assumptions are proven right simply by the extent to which these locations are defended, and the extent to which trespassers are punished. The greater the intensity of defense and punishment, the greater the power-value. And, as I'm sure you are aware, hackers are punished severely for what they do. And this means that they are operating at the right sites!

Q: But what is the controversy regarding this form of resistance about?

A: The controversy is about the direct translation of the theoretical model into practice. The name of this concrete form is Denial of Service attack, DoS. It basically means remotely disabling machines by flooding them with more traffic than they can handle. You can effectively cripple any network, regardless of size or bandwidth with this method. So, in minutes all network activity on the attacked server is shut down because the attack consumes all available network resources. To automate this processes all you need are simple scripts which are used to generate endless traffic. But of course, not all DoS attacks are politically motivated and go back to the theory of CAE. There's a lot of these attacks just committed for fun, and the targets are chosen arbitrary. And that is what causes the confusion and makes the whole idea of DoS as a political tool doubtful.(...)

Q: What do you personally think of these attacks?

A: First of all, I would like to note that the people who own computers, especially hackers are gaining more and more power. The computer networks are one big display of power, and somehow by mistake, they sold millions of computers to the people. We made them rich by buying those machines, but now we have these weapons. Obviously, they didn't think when they sold us the tools, because the last thing governments want is 'power to the people.' So with regard to Dos attacks: All people I know who carry out such attacks are skilled hackers. Secondly, those people think about whom they're attacking and why. So, it's not just stupid script-kiddies who don't know what they're doing. For these people it is one form of resistance amongst others. I do not really want to promote DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) as the best form, but we do not really have a better one yet. It's still waiting to be developed, and it develops by trial and error. The good point about it certainly is, that it attracts a lot of attention, it makes evident where power accumulates and-the people who execute these things don't usually get busted. If you do it intelligent, it is very secure. And blocking information access is the best means to disrupt any institution, whether military, corporate, or governmental.(...)

Q: I would like to switch to another aspect, Clara. You are operating in a dominantly male domain. Does that cause problems for you? Do you have to fight for equal rights? Would you consider yourself as a feminist?

A: Well, my experience is that most hackers hate feminists. That would be reason enough for me to call my self a feminist. I'm not a big fan of '-isms' in general-like hackism J-but the fact is that we are far from having equal rights and opportunities for men and women. We need to be thinking about what strategies would actually work today. The problem is that we are still fighting against structural discrimination, but the conditions changed. The intentional understanding of politics like in the 70s does not work any more: no more common starting points, no more common goals. So the fights tend to become very individual. Instead of being subjects which would demand rights, today we have to construct our identities. (...)

Q: Do you have a vision? What makes you work?

A: I don't know. At some point you just start to hate the things you love. And sometimes I have the vision to take down the whole Internet-with the help of my friends of course-and then I might think about becoming a musician and a dancer.

Netochka Nezvanova

The next (second) concept I would like to introduce is Netochka Nezvanova, N.N.

"First I will give you the official cv of N.N.: She was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1977. She studied music and physics at Victoria University in New Zealand and then 'disappeared into a deep, often dark world' where she spent most of her time engaged with computers, music and reading.

It is unsure whether Nezvanova is a real person-or an Internet art project gone haywire. The Nezvanova entity began participating in online discussions devoted to electronic music and art, as well as various programming languages in the late 1990s. She regularly posted long, rambling messages written in a personal code that combined English, French, German and other languages and mixed well-known quotations with ASCII artwork - pictures formed with the 0's and 1's of standard computer code.

She calls herself 'Netochka Nezvanova', after the title character of Dostoyevsky's first novel, whose name translates as 'nameless nobody.' But thanks to her controversial activities on the Internet, the name of this self-styled person/group has become familiar to digerati all over the world. Asking witnesses who have personally met Netochka cannot help to paint a clearer image. The statements about her are contradictory and range from a Amsterdam-based woman who claims to be Netochka, to a variety of actors who have performed as Netochka, to a group of Danish male hackers who write the software, using the label Netochka to attract more attention in the art world. And the art world loves the game she is playing to them.

In the beginning she was banned from several Internet discussion groups for her hostile and aggressive behavior. Meanwhile Nezvanova's software programs--the most famous is nato.0+55, which extends the capabilities of a popular graphical programming environment known as MAX-are praised by curators and artists who use them to work with audio and video data. She has been invited to present her work at numerous new-media festivals and won awards, including being named as one of the 'Top 25 Women on the Web' by a San Francisco non-profit group."

I would like to quote some extracts from an interview I have made with Netochka Nezvanova, de-body. The idea of introducing different bodies, like nl-body or de-body or dk-body is a first concession to structure the character in a more transparent way, and also indicates that, in fact, there is several people involved in creating it.

Q: I assume that behind N.N. is a group of people. Why did you choose these technique of creating a virtual identity?

N.N.: This has to do with the way the art world functions. In my mind, it is no longer possible that individual artists can create relevant expressions. You always need to collaborate with various experts. On the other hand, this necessity does not go very well with the art system. Either you have the star in the centre, surrounded by underpaid and not mentioned helpers or you have to form a group. At the same time, the art system still believes in the idea of the genius. It is not willing to handle groups, because their work is harder to sell, costs more time, might be confusing for the audience or collectors and mostly is very unstable. Additionally, the art system is about products which can be sold. And the value of a piece goes directly with the value of the author's name. That means you do not just have to make a piece of art, you have to spend the same amount of energy or even more in creating your image. Working as a group, and at the same time pretending to be a single person is the perfect way to satisfy all the needs of the art system. We have programmers who write the software, performers who show up at festivals, and marketing experts who work on the concept.

Q: Why did you choose a female character?

N.N.: Very simply because it is easier for a woman to break the rules and so attract attention.

Q: What do you mean?

N.N.: This has to do with role of women in society in general. They are communicative, social, helpful etc. To create a special character you just have to break all these rules. N.N. is very aggressive, constantly attacks other people, does not socialize at all, gives a shit about what other people think of her. This is very distinctive and makes her attractive. Additionally, women tend to have a very pragmatic way in handling technology. They just want it to function, and are mostly not at all socialzed to see technical problems as a challenge. This is also different with Netochka. She is a nerd, a hacker, maybe the only woman on earth who loves her machines more than humans.(...)

Q: Would you say N.N. is a successful artist?

N.N.: Absolutely! She is well-known all over and won several prizes for the work. There's tons of articles about her, and she gets more requests and invitations she could ever respond to.

Q: What role plays the actual product, like the nato software, for the concept of N.N.

N.N.: Well, even the most radical conceptualist has to come up with a sort of product in the end. This is the software in her case. But she considers her programming work not as particularly important. 'Code is one of the easiest things in the world', and 'Any idiot can program and most do.' would be typical comments of Netochka on software. So, the software she produces plays a minor role; it is more the creator who produces it who is special... Of course, the character is the actual product...
But, arty-farty mob does not really get that. They talk about social sculpture, and love anything she does, just because she is different and entertaining. And then she receives a prize for software... (...)


To undermine the fact, that the hacking culture is a purely white male phenomenon, and to populate this environment with loads of dangerous and idealistic women hackers, requires effective strategies.

Profound research, collecting information, and denouncing can only be the starting point. Getting organized with too few combatants and fighting vociferously for territory could be a second one-just means a lot of effort.

Fortunately, art holds methods and processes which allow to manipulate unpleasant realities in an unexpected way. In this context, Cyberfeminism does not just function as a browser to look at the world, as Alla Mitrofanova has suggested, but as an useful tool to change it according to your own ideas.


A short outlook to a near future where the electronic world will be populated by countless female nerds and hackers gives the 'Guide to geek girls'. There you can read how this new species behaves, how it looks and feels, what it likes and dislikes... and how you should treat it. For further information please visit: