Get to know your Hackers! The Psychology of Ransomware

Shut your eyes and imagine a hacker. Thanks to TV shows like 
CSI: Cyber and the above still from Mr Robot, you’ve maybe just drawn a mental picture of an anti-social, hoodie-wearing male between 15 and 30 years of age sitting in his mom’s darkened basement surrounded by monitors and wires, right?

Well, you’re half right – because “the most visible breed of computer cracker is an “obsessive middle-class white male, between 12 and 28 years old, with few social skills and a possible history of abuse”.

That was the controversial conclusion of Canadian psychologist Marc Rogers in his “Psychology of a Hacker” RSA Data Security Conference as early as 1999, before the Y2K Bug sent every operating system in the world through a wormhole back to 1901. Oh, it didn’t? Cor, blimey, Guv’nor – that’s news to us!

Yet, since the most recent Millennium, society, tech and how and where we work have moved on in leaps and bounds. Those Oliver Twist-like 12-year-olds Rogers refers to are now in their thirties and his 28-year-olds will be approaching their 47th birthday!

So, in theory, anyone between 12 and 47 sitting next to you right now in Starbucks could be top of the FBI’s most wanted list for trying to infect millions of people’s computers with Ransomware.

Could it be that cybercriminals are just criminals who have adapted from “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”-whistling Dickensian street-urchins who have acquired the I.T. skills to illegally pay the bills?

Well, it turns out there’s more to hackers than just traditional criminalism updated for the modern age…


One thing is for sure – to derive pleasure from wreaking havoc or authoring Ransomware to make money from other people’s misfortune shows hackers and virus authors share a lack of empathy.

In the study collection “Corporate Hacking and Technology-Driven Crime” (2011), Dr. Bernadette H. Schell concluded that the reason hackers perceive the world differently to the rest of mainstream society may be attributed to neurological conditions.

Hackers are commonly believed to have higher degrees of Asperger’s Syndrome than most in mainstream society and going back to the year 1901, sorry –  2000, The New York Times Magazine called Asperger’s “The Little Professor Syndrome” and within a year, Wired Magazine labeled it “Geek Syndrome.”


Asperger’s is characterized by dysfunctional forms of social skill under-development, lack of empathy, communication difficulties, obsessive interests, high intelligence, exceptional focus, and specific unique talents, including creative pursuits. According to Mark Rogers, hackers’ lack of social skills means “They relate better to computers than humans” sound like any Pentagon hacker we know?

So, now we know that Asperger’s and those high on the autism (ZX) Spectrum are the perfect ingredients to make a hacker pie, what about Ransomware authors?


Often playing on imagery from movies like Saw and the V for Vendetta-influenced Anonymous mask, Ransomware demands primarily exploit victims’ fear of losing their data. They heighten this anxiety through “Tick Tock” deadlines threatening to delete files, threaten to embarrass or humiliate victims by releasing a person’s internet history or to release captured information (like hospital patient’s medical records) to the public – a tactic known as ‘doxing’.

In some cases, like ransomware variant Reveton, the threat seems to come from reliable sources such as the FBI or IRS and some phishing emails contain no ransomware at all, but extort payment through bluffing.  

These mind-games, we here at RWNZ like to call “cyber-chicken” prove that whether they are Asperger sufferers or plain old criminals with laptops, Ransomware distributors know how to play mind games and push our psychological buttons.


Sarah Gordon, lead researcher for Symantec, claims that hackers look down on virus authors, since “viruses attack indiscriminately, hackers are surgical”. Other experts claim that the personality differences between the two are dynamic, with hackers more often prone to risk-taking and aggressive behavior. In a game of Top Trumps, hackers win hands down! We’re no psychologists, but it seems Ransomware authors are maybe opportunistic criminals while hackers are more obsessive script kiddies.


Ransomware is only going to become more prevalent and, as cyber attacks grow, it will surely mean criminal enterprises will branch out…

If you saw Homeland’s election-hacking-inspired season six, you’ll remember that Brett O’Keefe (modeled on InfoWars founder Alex Jones) headed up a Troll Center in which data miners, known as “sock puppets,” disseminate fake news and propaganda via social media to influence voting patterns.

In the not-too-distant future, we may even see a world in which scores of low-paid workers in Russian troll farms and Mumbai call-centers make money from trying to infect your machines. Will you be ready for repeated Ransomware attacks as they show up on your computer every couple of weeks like a starving Oliver Twist, demanding “Please, Sir, I want some more.”


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