Creative, Audacious or Destructive: The Different Personalities of Nation-State Hackers


What sets a Russian hacker apart?

What are the various styles of different nation-state hackers?

Well, you're not going to find the answers in an online personality quiz, but an IT researcher recently took a stab at explaining the personas you might find among cyber adversaries backed by countries.

So what sets a Russian hacker apart? Creativity. And China? Mass and audacity, "meaning they don’t care if they’re seen for the most part . . . and they throw a lot of people at their problems,” said Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist at FireEye, who acknowledges his statements are “broad generalizations.”

Bejtlich spoke Nov. 2 at a defense summit in Washington, organized by Nextgov’s sister publication Defense One.

Bejtlich described Iran as “still learning” but “willing to be destructive.” And North Korea, who allegedly hacked Sony Pictures last year, is “also willing to be destructive but they’re criminals and thugs."

North Korea is a “criminal state, and I was not surprised by that at all,” Bejtlich said, referring to the crippling hack that became a public relations nightmare and exposed the entertainment giant’s internal emails and information.

Being a hacker doesn't always involve effecting the mini-implosion of a multibillion company -- you know, fun and games.

Fellow panelist Jeff Coburn, FBI’s chief of the Major Cyber Crimes division, pointed out that hackers also have to juggle their own interests while working for someone else.

“A lot of these state-sponsored hackers are not just state-sponsored hackers; they have a private life, they have their own interests that they do on the side and so those kind of mesh . . . working for the state and also working for yourself," Coburn said.

A Chinese cyberespionage unit’s workday may not differ much from the regular 9-5 grind of a regular working Joe, according to a 2013 Mandiant report. Some hackers “do go to work and hold business hours,” and “sometimes, they work shift work,” Bejtlich said.

“Every once in awhile, you get glimpses into who these people are,” he added.

After Mandiant published that 2013 report, a news outlet in China wrote about how someone had tracked down a blog written by one of those hackers. The writer “sounded like your average, bored 20-something-year-old enlisted troop; he didn’t like where he was working, he missed his girlfriend, he was looking forward to his next vacation, he didn’t like his apartment,” Bejtlich said.

Hackers, they’re just like us.

(Image via Tammy54/