Does hacking constitute a 'social menace'? Explore in detail the history and ethics of this activity

Roderick Munday

This essay is an exploration of hacking as a cultural phenomenon. But hacking in this context is problematised because there is no universally agreed definition of the term (Taylor: 2001, 13). In the 1960s it was an appellation, worn like a badge of honour among the elite community of computer pioneers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but as computers became more ubiquitous in the 1980s, the term was co-opted by the media and took on its present-day negative connotations. It seems to me that disagreements over terminology are a major characteristic of the debates between hackers and their adversaries, debates in which the same facts can be used to produce very different arguments, depending upon the point of view of the speaker. Consequently, it is important to know from what vantage point the information is being presented. My personal bias gravitates towards the hacker rather than the media, because as one commentator observed, writing about hacking from the point of view of the media is like writing about a remote indigenous tribe from the "scattered and incomplete accounts of missionaries" (Ibid. ix).

Despite the openly adversarial attitude of some sections of the computer industry towards hackers, it is the media who have been largely responsible for promulgating hacking’s negative image. Today, we think of hacking in terms of unauthorised entry into other people’s computers, illicitly copying or wantonly destroying computer data or creating computer viruses. Hackers are stereotypically depicted as young men of ‘nerdish’ appearance whose obsession with computers overwhelms their compunction to be moral citizens.

However, there are a number of inaccuracies in this representation. Firstly, hacking is not solely defined by illegal computer activity, having had a longer and more illustrious history. Secondly, it is an over-generalisation to say that all hackers resemble computer nerds, as some hackers are even fashionably dressed and well-scrubbed (Taylor: 2001, 5). However, the stereotype is accurate in the respect that the vast majority of hackers are young men. While there have been some female hackers, Susan Thunder for example (Walleij, www), the lack of women is significant and demands further investigation. Paul Taylor suggests three reasons for this: societal factors like the sexual stereotyping of children, the ‘locker room’ atmosphere of hacker culture and a masculine gender bias in language that reinforces the first two reasons (Taylor: 2001, 33). Laura Miller develops the latter notion and links masculine gender bias with the frontier conception of cyberspace as a ‘virgin’ wilderness and the hacker with the masculine desire for conquest as a phallic intrusion (Miller: www). The idea that hacking has sexual connotations is exemplified by a posting from the Toxic Shock Group: "We keep on, torturing our brains and pounding our fingers on the keyboard until at last… oh at long, sweet last… we are in" (Ibid., 42), if there were any doubts that hacking contained a masturbatory subtext (or that sublimation exists), this passage would surely dispel them.

A possible explanation for the lack of women hackers is that they choose to hide behind masculine screen names. This possibility underscores the fact that the real people who call themselves ‘hackers’ are an invisible presence; we know about them only from self-aggrandising accounts of their exploits published on the Internet or from the infamy of their actual hacks. This lack of any concrete identity has made hackers into a kind of tabala rasa for cultural mythologising. But the myths reveal our schizophrenic attitude towards the hacker: the news media demonises him as a modern folk devil, Hollywood lionises him as a modern folk hero in films like Tron (1982), Wargames (1983) and the Matrix Trilogy (1999 - 2003) (Bell: 2001, 179).

In 2000, hacking is said to have cost the global economy an estimated $1.2 Billion (Niccoli, 2000). Public awareness of the phenomenon conforms to a pattern discerned by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in his investigation of the moral panics cause by Mods and Rockers in the 1960s. The emerging deviant behaviour is ignored at first, until a specific incident galvanises public opinion that leads to widespread concern (Cohen: 1973, 194). For hacking these ‘galvanising’ incidents have been the emergence of computer viruses—the Love Bug virus in 2000 being a prime example (Bell: 2001, 53)—and sensational media accounts of computer break-ins, like this example from News of the World in 1997:

Hunched in a cramped bedroom... computer wizz kid Matthew Bevan felt a creeping chill as he gazed at the image on the screen before him... the 17 year old had hacked into the American airforce FLEX project... with awful realisation he watched his twitching index finger hover over the nuclear button. (Taylor: 2001, 7)

This report (including its Tom Clanceyesque prose style) is typical of the way newspapers choose to represent hacking (ibid., 6 - 8). The effect of this representation is that hackers have come to embody underlying social anxieties about the all-pervasive power of technology (Ibid., xvi). For example Wired devoted seven pages of its February 1998 issue to describing the "Great Cyber War of 2002" (Arquilla: 1998. 122-127 and 160).

(Fig 1) - Images from The Great Cyberwar of 2002, Wired Magazine, February 1998

From a post 9/11 vantage point the story seems eerily prescient, with its digitally manipulated illustrations of aeroplanes in mid-air collision and a bomb-damaged pentagon (fig 1). However, a central motif of pre-9/11 horror scenarios was the threat posed by advanced technology, and since the actual devastation of 9/11 was cause by the relatively low-tech tools of flying lessons, martyrdom and penknives, that fear has proved to be unfounded.

A History of Hacking
The word hacker was coined at MIT as a term for a computer aficionado in the late1950s. Traditionally a hack was the name the college gave to an imaginative and audacious student prank (Levy: 1984, 23). Subsequently it entered the jargon of the student Technical Model Railroad Club (TMRC). A hack in the TMRC described "a technical fix that was imbued with innovation, style and virtuosity" (ibid.). The person who performed such a fix was known as a hacker, and all hackers seemed to share an abiding fascination with systems (Ibid.).

When the first computer course was instigated at MIT in the spring of 1959, many of TMRC hackers signed up. What they soon realised was that the computer was the ultimate tool for creating systems (Ibid., 126) . At the time, computers were valve-driven behemoths which filled entire rooms and cost millions of dollars (Ibid., 19). The computer room at MIT contained an IBM 704, known as a ‘hulking giant.’ In the oedipal struggle that characterises the relationship between hackers and authority, IBM represented the hated father figure. Its approach to computing was conservative, ordered and hierarchical, the hackers called it a ‘batch-processed mentality.’

In direct contradiction to IBM’s almost religious respect for the machine, the TMRC hackers had learnt about systems by crawling among the wires and relays of the model railway (the dictionary definition of hack, in the sense of cutting through think foliage, must have seemed particularly apposite). The experience taught them the best way to understand systems was through what they called "the hands on imperative" (ibid., 20). But this was precisely the kind of understanding that the batch-processed mentality expressly forbade.

However in the 1960s, hackers succeeded in getting direct access to computers and various intakes of MIT undergraduates became converts to the hands on imperative. These elite and highly gifted students saw the computer as a kind of pedagogue, influencing their ideas about the nature of information, fairness and action (Ibid., 89). Through the computer's exacting demands for logical precision, as well as the occasional surprising results of programming errors (which revealed deep mathematical truths) it taught the hackers to live their lives according to a particular ethos, which became known as the hacker ethic. The hacker ethic can be summarised by five fundamental commands:

1/ All Information wants to be free.

2/ Mistrust authority; promote decentralisation.

3/ Hackers are judged by their hacks, not by other social hierarchies or prejudices.

4/ You can create art and beauty on a computer.

5/ Computers can change your life for the better. (Ibid., 40 - 45)

The hacker ethic is often described as a code governing hacker behaviour, but it is a mistake to see it as a code deontology, or the name given by moral philosophers for an ethical code like the Ten Commandments (Hamelink: 2000, 2-3). On the contrary, it was the activity of hacking that inspired the code. If the first-hand accounts of hackers interviewed in Steven Levy’s book are to be believed, the hacker ethic was never consciously learnt or articulated: it was not even written down until many years later. (Levy: 1984, 40). Therefore it can be argued (controversially in the context of cultural studies) that the computer largely determined the hacker culture that grew up around it: a peculiar social instance of technological determinism, which although does not justify McLuhan’s theory that the medium is the message, does indicate how important a technology can be in setting the conditions for certain types of social behaviour.

Hacking is essentially a playful activity, but in the 1960s, computers were thought of as tools for serious scientific research. For instance, it seemed totally inappropriate, if not perverse to use a multimillion dollar computer to play games on. However this is exactly what Steven Russell did, when he invented the first computer game, Spacewar, in 1962 (Ibid., 59 - 69). Other 'unorthodox' uses of the computer were as an "expensive desktop calculator" and "expensive typewriter" (Ibid., 46 - 47). Thus the future ‘killer-apps’ of the information age—the spreadsheet and the word processor—were hacked out in embryonic form at MIT just for the fun of it. (Ibid.).

Throughout the history of computing, bureaucracies have had a tendency to get stuck in their paradigms and have consequently had to play catch-up with the hackers in the field of innovation. In the early 1980s, the phenomenal success of the Apple personal computer (invented by the hacker Steve Wozniak in 1976) took IBM completely by surprise, their own version of the PC had to be quickly assembled from non-propriatorial parts, using a third-party operating system that was licensed from a tiny company called Microsoft. A decade and a half later, the now giant Microsoft Corporation failed to see the potential of the Internet and faced with the phenomenal success of Netscape Navigator (invented by hacker Marc Andreessen in 1993) was forced to create its Internet Explorer by hastily reworking third-party software, sourced from an outside company called Spyglass. (Castells: 2001, 176).

While some hackers became synonymous with computer criminals in the 1980s, in other contexts companies were learning the hard way to pamper them like princes. Allucquère Rosanne Stone tells an amusing story of the rise and fall of Atari Computing. The company, buoyed up by the phenomenal success of games like Pac Man, attempted to maximise their profits by hiring ‘suits’ to manage the ‘unproductive’ hackers. Consequently, the Atari hackers found themselves being supervised by people who had previously worked on cruise-missile programmes for the military. The clash of cultures was too much, Atari stopped producing innovative software and its profits nose-dived (Stone: 1998, 127-155). The computer industry has learnt from such mistakes and in the 1990s instigated a more 'playful' atmosphere in the areas of blue-sky research. Today the essentially hacker attitude of ‘work as play’ has trickled-down into all areas of contemporary working practices (Gürer, www).

In the 1980s, the number of hackers grew exponentially because of factors like the introduction of the personal computer, and the glamorising of hacking in Hollywood films like Wargames (Taylor, 2001, 11) and, for the first time, hackers found themselves actively targeted by computer security firms. The stakes were raised, not simply because hacking grew more subversive, a favourite pastime of the MIT hackers had been to make illegal phone calls (Levy: 1984, 92-95), but because society was simply more dependent on computers. As Ray Kurtweil points out, if a computer stopped functioning in the 1960s no one cared, but if the same thing happens today it is a major issue (Hamelink: 2000, 14). In this context, the playful pranks of the hacker (amplified by increasingly powerful technology) began to be treated a lot more seriously. What is more, the reactions of the victims (amplified by increasing powerful media hype) created the breeding ground for moral panics, pressuring the introduction of draconian counter-measures. A clampdown was in a sense inevitable and the first mass hacker arrests happened in the US in 1982, these were followed in 1986 by the introduction of the US ‘Computer Fraud and Abuse Act’ (Gere: 2001, 191) and in 1990, there was ‘Operation Sundevil,’ a FBI sting involving hundreds of federal agents simultaneously raiding the homes of suspected hackers in fourteen cities (Ross: 2001, 254).

The Ethics of Hacking
In debates about the ethics of hacking, one of the points of contention between hackers and security companies is the appropriateness of certain metaphors used by the latter to describe the activities of the former (Taylor: 2001, 149). These metaphors tend to borrow from real-world crime or medical sources. Thus there are computer break-ins where data is stolen, and computer viruses from which one must be inoculated. Hackers are seen as computer vandals or thugs and people have even talked of computer rape (Miller: www). To the members of the security services these metaphors are entirely appropriate and their 'hang tough' attitude is baked up by the judicial and government legislation, For example, in the UK when the 1990 'Computer Misuse Act' came into force, computer trespass was deemed to be a more serious offence in law than actual trespass (Taylor: 2001, 148).

In a sense the use of metaphors is inescapable when dealing with a subject as highly abstract as computing. But when a metaphor becomes axiomatic, the argument becomes ideological rather than factual. This danger is exemplified by the way that a term like cyberspace has become, not just a synonym for the Internet, but the dominant way in which it is conceived and described. Laura Miller, for instance, questions the appropriateness of a spatial metaphor—with its connotations of property and ownership—to describe the multiple connections of computer terminals (Miller, www).

The use of metaphor also highlights a fundamental aspect of all ethics, in the sense that it is not primarily concerned with issues of fact (or even metaphors posing as facts) but with feeling. The philosopher David Hume famously remarked, there are no vices in facts and the existence of vice would entirely escape the interpreter, if she concerned herself solely with the facts of the matter and did not turn her reflections inward to consider her feelings (Raphael: 1994, 14). Therefore arguments purporting to be about ethics, which are solely concerned with the ontology of computer crimes, are not by definition ethical arguments. Ethical arguments are concerned with how we should feel about the disputed facts of computer crime, whether it is the reification of cyberspace, or the imprisonment of hackers. These arguments have apparently already been solved in both the US and the UK as new laws have criminalised hacking. But I would suggest that any society that seeks to reify information as private property and sends people to prison for actively challenge that conception is acting unethically, not because information cannot be reified, but because as Cees J. Hamelink points out "when knowledge becomes private property, common good is destroyed." (Hamelink: 2000, 151)

Hackers have been responsible for two of the most of the iconic developments in computing, the personal computer (PC) and the Internet (Himanen: 2001 www), but today we generally regard then as either adolescent mischief-makers or modern folk devils. These marked differences of opinion can be explained by the very different connotations that the term hacking. However, neither of the first two characterisations provide adequate justifications to label hacking as a social menace and although the existence of a folk devil would constitute a social menace, such a phantasm thankfully only exists in our collective imaginations. However, in the same way that the early puritans were trying to establish the shape of the devil so that he may be feared and hated (Cohen: 1973, 193), the modern media has established hacking as a source of social anxiety, albeit for more secular reasons: hackers are represented as objects of fear to justify technophobia, media hyperbole and the perpetuation of an ideological agenda to privatise and civilise cyberspace. Andrew Ross writes that: "the story of the creation of a social menace is central to the ongoing attempt to rewrite property law in order to contain the effects of new technologies." (Ross, 2001, 254). However it can be argued that hackers have performed two socially useful functions, firstly they have taught ordinary computer users not to be complacent about the impenetrability of their systems (for instance, imagine in some alternative universe that hackers had started taking penknives on board planes to test airline security, we would have no doubt labelled them as sick psychopaths, but 9/11 would have probably not happened). Secondly, they have revealed the extent to which computers (for good or ill) are embedded in modern life. As Frederic Jameson notes, a paradox of cyberspace is that the emblematic visual power of computers resides in the fact that they are becoming invisible (Bell: 2001, 197). Hackers make them visible once more.


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