Ethics and Computer Hackers

In this paper we are going to research the issues of the computer hacking, evaluate hacking from ethic points of view and study the changes of the attitude towards the problem within various periods of time. Nowadays, the problem of hacking seems to be rather acute and many-sided, with the development of new technologies and sufficiently wide application of them, people have to face not only the advantages, the new technologies bring, but also the problems, which might be related to  storage of private information or distribution of it. (Vaknin, 2007).

First of all we are going to start from the definition of the notion hacker. This is not so easy to concretely define who is a hacker, because there is no real true meaning of the word, for different people it may mean something different. Having a look at the etymological history of the word, we might be clearer about its meaning. For the first time this notion was used in 1960s already as a part of a computer culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At this institute all students were subdivided into two main groups ”“ hackers and tools. “Tools” were the students, who regularly attended classes, spent a lot of time at the libraries and used to get good marks. Correspondingly “hackers” were mostly interested in entertainment activities instead of studies, often missed classes or simply slept during them. This division is clear up to its relation to computers. Initially, hackers were not related to computers only; a hacker could spend his time occupied with some hobby, telephones, radio, science fiction or anything else. Computers were just one of the numerous variants. If to speak concretely about computer hacker ”“ this should be a person, who knows almost everything about computers and can use them to fulfill most of his ideas.

What is really important here is the fact, that all the programming and work with a computer is first of all hobby and not a way to earn money. There are also various types of hackers, for example an algorithm hacker is able to build an algorithm for solving some problem, a system hacker is able to manage operating systems, a password hacker is able to break passwords (Goodman, 1960). Here we should be clear, that a person, who breaks the security system of some bank, aiming at getting money there, should not be called a hacker. This doesn’t mean however that a hacker can not be a thief, he can, but not a professional one. Usually even if hackers perform such operations ”“ they are amateurs. The major difference is, that a hacker, who breaks the password of a system is not interested in stealing and selling information locked by this password, he is first of all interested in knowing the way how the system operates. (MacIntyre, 1981).

The actions of a hacker are rather sophisticated from the point of view of ethics. As long as people exist, irrespective of the age or country, there has always been the major ethical code, defining right and wrong behaviors of all society members. Usually church and state were the main institutions for concrete defining of these rules. However the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant formulated new challenging views on ethic, making a certain ground for the 20th century also. He couldn’t agree to ethical traditions, he was speaking about autonomy along with obligations, every human being has. According to him every person had a free choice what to do, but his choice was subdued to the Categorical Imperative.

The ideas of Kant were of great importance for modern cognitive psychology. “Central to the functioning of the mind, most people now believe, is information processing and rational argument. Even emotions, for many psychologists, are a kind of theorem based on reasoning from data” (Mizrach, 2004).  Thus all the ethical issues and disputes should be solved subjected to rational proof. The views of Kant were reconsidered by other philosopher ”“ Soeren Kierkegaard. He fully supported the idea of Kant, that every person has autonomy for making choice, but he couldn’t agree, that a rational person was obliged to follow ethical principles. He underlined, that the choice of ethical or aesthetic is not equal to the choice of good or evil. The bright examples provided by the philosopher were the romantic lover as an example of aesthetic paradigm and a husband as an example of ethical expression (Harvey, 2006). From all the philosophical information presented above it seems difficult to build a connection between the views of ethics/aesthetics and hackers. However, Kierkegaard, although having no idea about computer technologies, was able to present a rather interesting definition of hacker ”“ as an aesthete. Hackers are not used to build plans, they are spontaneously creating hacks, which can be just funny or presenting a new serious computer program.

One thing is really important for a hacker ”“ this is his aesthetic perfection.

Steven Levy wrote a lot about “hacker ethics” in his book Hackers. But it is still important to take into consideration, that freedom of information, proclaimed by hackers is not an ethical position, based on the notion of property and theft, it is again aesthetic. Hackers support the idea that hiding information is not aesthetic, as it urges unnecessary duplication of efforts (Mizrach, 2004).

Coming back to the original hackers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ”“ we should finish the definition of a hacker, adding, that this is usually an undergraduate, in late teens or early twenties with aesthetic view points. A hacker can not so far be considered an enemy of a society. The problems of moral education of hackers are the same like moral education issues in general. There is nobody among us, who is completely ethical or aesthetic, even the distinction between these two is not always so sharp. That’s why Levy substitutes the word aesthetic by ethic. Moral education in these cases is mostly related to encouraging of development of certain ethical ideas and learning to control the aesthetic impulses correspondingly to ethics. (Hoofnagle, 2005).

Having studied the definition of the notion “hacker” we are going to switch to researching the sense of ethics. Initially children get the basic rules of ethics from their parents, as they are not able to make their own decisions from the very beginning. Even court systems are separated for adults and for children, because there is said to be not so much of criminal intent in a young person. The issues of moral development are nowadays studied not only by philosophers, but psychologists as well. For example Lawrence Kohlberg presented the following description of stages of interpersonal concordance: “Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them.

There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or “natural” behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention – the judgment “he means well” becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being “nice.” (Kohlberg, 1981)

Very important point about the Kohlberg’s stages is the realization that a child or a teen are in their stage of moral development and have their weaknesses and strengths and can not avoid mistakes, which doesn’t mean, that they are monsters. We can compare two situations, when teens go out of a disco and steal a car to make a ride over the city and a group of teens, breaking the computer system. Finally both the groups are likely to use the same explanations and justifications of their actions, as they did no harm to the car owner, because they didn’t break it and they didn’t sell it, also those, who broke the computer system would assure, that they didn’t do anything wrong only because they got access to some information. Many of teens would not compare these two cases, because they realize that breaking into a car is not ethical, whereas breaking into a system is something different. But from the adults’ point of view the both ethical issues are very similar. We mentioned already, that it is important to make a strict distinction between professional criminals, who are able to steal money with the help of computer technologies and those, who are able to break the license of the computer program in order to use it for free. Thus, we might conclude, that there are cases of conscious criminal behavior, cases of intellectual curiosity and something in between, which neither belongs to the first group not to the second. An example of this “in-between” representative maybe a boy, who creates a blue box for making free telephone calls abroad to speak to his girl friend. This is neither a crime nor an intellectual interest. If in case of criminal behavior there should be appropriate responsibility and punishment, in the other two cases it is inappropriate to send a guy into prison. The only way is to make him aware of his own moral principles in connection to his actions.

For any profession there exists a special ethical code for controlling the self- regulation of the participants. This code presents the major values, shared by the people, who work in this profession. This is very important element for building trusting relations with the public.

There are various kinds of codes, old and modern, formal and legalized. Certainly the violation of the code might lead to banning a person from the profession. The notion of hackers’ ethic appeared for the first time unofficially among the hackers of MIT in 50s and 60s. “These “hackers” were the first generation of programmers, employing time-sharing terminal access to ”˜dumb’ mainframes, and they often confronted various sorts of bureaucratic interference that prevented them from exploring fully how technological systems (computers, but also model trains, university steam tunnels, university phone systems, etc.) worked” (Narkiewicz, 2004). Thus their ethical principles were directed at overcoming of these obstacles and development of their ideology. There were six major hackers’ principles, which are summarized by Steven Levy in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. According to the author, ethics and unconventional style helped hackers to force the “computer revolution”, the result of which was the first personal computer, which could be used by any individual (Harvey, 2006). Further we are going to comment on the first principles of hackers’ ethic. The first one ”“ “hands on imperative” ”“ meant, that there should always be access to computers and hardware. They stated, that there should be no barriers between people and technologies. Nowadays, this principle might seem not quite clear, because a rear person hasn’t his personal computer at home and at work.

During those times, the computer system was under the full control of big businesses and the government.

The other principle ”“ information wants to be free ”“ can be interpreted in several ways, namely the word “free” may have several meanings: without restrictions, like freedom of movement; without control, like freedom of change, not considering intellectual property; finally without monetary payment (Towle, 2004). On one hand this principle seems rather democratic, stating, that everybody is equal in getting access to information, but on the other hand, there are certain types of information, which should be kept secret or only for special cases. For example why do authorities prohibit giving the information about serial killers in mass media? Hardly due to the fact, that they want to be the only, who have it, but because there are various people, with different mental health problems, who might see or hear it and the reactions might be unpredictable.

Another principle of hackers’ ethic was promotion of decentralization. This principle is built on the mixture of anarchy and individualism; it reflects the distrust of hackers toward big institutions, like the state for example. They believed, that personal computers were able to take away power from big organizations and pass to users.

Hackers stated, that there should be no bogus criteria for judging them, including sex, age and position. Nowadays, all this information often remains unknown.

The fact of development of internet was admired by hackers. They believed, that internet was a separate world, where users were able to create their own “beauty” and “truth”, where there was enough space for person’s creativity and artistry. Here we have to admit, that good programming skills, with individual and original approaches might be in reality compared to art, where every artist has his own style.

“Thus, the ethical principles of the Hacker Ethic suggest it is the ethical duty of the hacker to remove barriers, liberate information, decentralize power, honor people based on their ability, and create things that are good and life-enhancing through computers” (Harvey, 2006).

Starting from the 1990s, new hackers’ ethic developed. Some principles were logically borrowed from the old ethic. The new ethic was also developed informally and has more contradiction than the old one, probably due to sufficient increase of the practioners of hacking in comparison to 50s and 60s. The basic hackers’ principles were as follows:

-            A hacker should not damage anything

-            A hacker should not damage anyone, either physically or morally

-            A hacker should be funny, at least to most of the people (Harvey, 2006)

-            Hackers are not allowed to make changes in the data, apart of the logs, which are needed for hiding their tracks.

-            Their main target is not to destroy the systems, but to investigate and study them.

As we see, some of the ethical principles do coincide with general ethics, but there are still some contradictions. On one hand, if a hacker explores the system and is not stealing or vandalizing anything there, there seems to be no problem for anybody. On the other hand, what if a hacker still accidentally alters or deletes the important data, is he breaking the ethical code in this case? The problem is also that “doing harm” is often seen differently by hackers and their victims, a hacker wanted just to make a joke and his victim might have to lose additional time and effort to improve the system again. Having studied the ethical rules, worked out by hackers themselves, we might conclude, that although they cover some important points, like vandalism, for example, their ethic rules are still not sufficient and there are numerous other problems related to their activity.

If the problem of computer ethics exists, there should be the ways of solving it. The usual methods, applied to criminals seem not quite appropriate for hackers. The two approaches, which seem to be the most fitting the situation, are control of the technology and moral training (Narkiewicz, 2004). These approaches are very well reflected in the following two examples: registration of cars and karate lessons.

Certainly official registration of cars is a serious step against car theft, but not against joy riders. Actually the more sophisticated systems of automobile security were invented, the more skillful became the thieves and joy riders. The same situation is with computer systems, in spite of development of new programs and approaches, hackers are still able to learn how to break them. We wanted to compare this approach to the one, used in karate lessons, while it is absolutely different one. The main principle of karate is trust. Having learnt the nuts and bolts of this sport, teens get a very serious physical power, which certainly should be used very carefully. But at the same time, karate students realize, that they have the complete trust of their teacher and would usually have no wish to break it and not to correspond to the expectations of their instructor. Besides, karate schools have the aim of making not only a physically strong personality, but their also pay a great deal of attention to moral development and maturing of the students. Students are made aware, that the skills they get, should not be abused. Based on the karate example, we could conclude, that the best way develop ethics for young computer and Internet users is to trust them. In order to reach this aim, it is necessary to make some changes in education system for computing and using it in general. Further we are going to suggest some important points for making these improvements. Coming back to karate example again, we should note, that the discipline rules there should not be followed only by students, these remain the same rules for adults as well, thus for the instructor also.

Only in this case, the ethical principles are taught correctly and accepted seriously. This changes the attitude of young people completely, they do not feel that they are punished by these rules, they realize, that the ethical rules are integral part of the community they belong to.

Unfortunately at the moment, this is not built in this way in compute culture. There is no real community, with clear principles for all its members, as everybody has his own interests, either to earn money or to develop his skills.

As we already explained with karate example, there is no division for adults and kids, certainly the beginners of karate can not do the things, which professionals can, but they are learning the same karate, thus they potentially get the same access to real power as everybody, who is in this community, irrespective of their age. This is not the same with computers. “The technology available to most young people is not a simpler version of what experts use; it’s a completely separate, more arcane, fundamentally less powerful medium. That medium – the programming languages, the file storage, the editing tools, and so on – is simply inadequate to challenging intellectual work” (Harvey, 2006).

Let’s take password hackers as an example. They learn some basic rules, how to break into somebody’s emails, which certainly doesn’t give them any profound understanding of the computer science. The tools they have are too narrow, they can not be applied to solving other serious problems. In this case it seems to be senseless just to forbid them to do it. It is better to teach them how to understand the algorithm, formal theory of computing. There are actually two directions to work at ”“ access to ideas and access to technology. For the first direction there is a strong need of high school teachers’ training. Also active cooperation between departments of computer science at universities and high schools should contribute to the pointed aims. This is not a new idea, and there are some problems, connected to this cooperation, and still it proves to be rather positive.

Karate instructors bear responsibility not only for the development of the technical skills of their students, but for their moral knowledge and choices as well. Students get challenging targets and corresponding appreciation after successful fulfillment of the task. The same approach might bring positive results in computer education as well. Unfortunately till the moment it seems, that students are treated more like irresponsible children, than equal specialists. Their access to technologies is limited and most of the tasks they are to perform are far not challenging and need no serious research.

This problem is also closely related to the problem of moral experimentation, i.e. students are afraid at the beginning to apply their skills in practice. The atmosphere of the computer lessons should be also created in the way, that all students feel free to try and to do, feeling safe about their experiments (Holmes, 2005).

Overall, in this paper we studied the problems of hackers’ ethics, researched how this notion appeared and developed, what are the strong positions in their own ethic code and what needs improvement, what are the potential ways to teach young people to be responsible for their actions, even of they are able to remain unknown. We came to the conclusion, that under conditions, that several important steps are taken in order to change the system of education for computer technologies along with different psychological approach, there is a high possibility, that the damage, done by hackers at the moment might be reduced and that young specialists, including hackers will learn how to employ their skills, knowledge and curiosity in the correct direction.

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