Church said people typically think of pirates as raising their flags on their ships to set sail on the high seas and have dramatic battles on the hunt to find buried treasure chests filled with gold and jewels. “Most of the time that’s not what happened. With the swashbucklers and buccaneers – there was as much conflict and battles on land as there was at sea. They identified the weak points in travel. They were hacking a network in the same mental framework as someone who’s trying to get illegal access to something online today.”
In the early modern period, maritime trade traveled through the same circular networks we have now, and the pirates continually tried to hack those networks. Church, who is writing a book on the topic, said you can’t have piracy without trade, so you need to follow the trade networks to find the pirates. Since the early modern period, trade networks have increasingly become transatlantic and even global. Church said the largest transformation in the world’s trade networks took place between the 15 th and 18 th centuries. “This is where most of the world’s piracy comes from.”
“They were hacking a network in the same mental framework as someone who’s trying to get illegal access to something online today.”
As the world moved from the late 19 th century to the present, the trade transformation has become more and more virtual, starting with telegraphs, moving to telephones and eventually to fiber optics and cloud computing. At one point in history, pirates moved textiles, sugar and slaves and held them for ransom – similarly today, hackers will lock down a computer – or an electrical grid – for ransom money. Church said it’s not accidental that virtual data is now one of the most profitable goods. “While the players have changed, the game has structurally remained the same.”
In the early 2000s Somalian pirates, who initially called themselves the Volunteer Somali Coastguard, hijacked international fishing vessels for disrupting the local trade networks. What started as pushback against globalization, gradually lost its high-minded ideals. Somalian pirates found their tactics were successful and quite profitable and continued capturing large transport vessels purely out of financial gain. If you remove the technology, Church says, what’s left is human behavior.
One of the biggest economic ties between historical piracy to the present-day hacker is that piracy is profoundly disruptive. In the earlier periods, piracy was often used to the benefit of the state – or rather to the detriment of a given state’s enemies. Queen Elizabeth I hired pirates to disrupt Spanish trade. Church said the shift in piracy becoming a general economic threat (as opposed to a targeted one) happened at the turn of the 18 th century, when the trade with the New World focused on plantation slavery and sugar. When the pirates started working for the highest bidder and stopped calling any one nation home, the powers that be ran a massive propaganda campaign against piracy.
Church noted a similar process starting to take place today with cybercrime and hacking. Hackers were once seen as helping the little guy – the only opposition to large corporations and monopolies. Now, people are starting to see hackers as enemies of society. Church said the tipping point will come at some point in the future because of massive losses to the world’s economy. Although, he said it’s too early to tell if it will end as a revolution against corporate monopolies or as a backlash against public hackers. “Historians are loath to make projections.”
By understanding how piracy has progressed and evolved since the 15 th century and looking at how it’s changing today, it’s possible to see patterns emerge, and while we can’t say for certain just how things will play out, it’s undeniable that they’re escalating, growing in complexity right alongside our global trade networks.
“In the cyber world, if we just treat the economic and technical side of security and don’t look at the social side or bring in the political and cultural side, then we’re only addressing one small piece of cybercrime,” Church said.
Modern day technology and hacking
Church points out that if you were to look at a map of fiber optic lines today and compare that to maritime trade routes and the railroads, the two look eerily similar. Data is travelling the same routes, something end users don’t often consider when logging into a coffee shop’s network. “Wi-Fi invites this ‘in the cloud’ feeling – but there’s a physical there that evolved with maritime trade,” Church said.