Spoiler: there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there are perfectly ethical uses for hacking. Though there is debate over the meaning of the term, a positive application is possible regardless of any one definition. Both good and bad reasons and uses for hacking exist. In other words, hacking can be unethical, but it does not have to be.
Some prefer to differentiate the terms Hacking and Cracking, with only “cracking” indicating a negative connotation. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will only be using the term “hack” and its derivatives, as it is the popular, all encompassing term in use today. The common social concept and stereotype of a hacker has become that of a malicious computer criminal, often a teenager, sitting alone in a dark bedroom. Most people would probably define “hacker” as someone who breaks into computers. The origin of the word, however, predates computers by several years. Though academic hackers at MIT popularized the term, it can actually be traced to HAM radio operators. The word was used to describe those who resourcefully fiddled around to learn about or improve the radios—“hacking around” with them. “Hack” as a noun, to this day generally represents the result or sum of any particular hacking activity. Most tech enthusiasts and programmers still would define the term hacker as one who is a master hobbyist, or at least an accomplished master of a skill. In fact, “hacker” used to be, and in many communities still is, the highest compliment attainable, particularly among programmers.
I consider the original computer hackers, as it relates to its original definition, and those who follow in their footsteps to be the “true” hackers. There are a few generalizations that can be made about this community of hackers, as they have developed somewhat of an inevitable culture due to their similarities in personality. Firstly, it takes a very intelligent mind to absorb all the information required to be such a proficient programmer. They often go as far as to consider themselves a class above everyone else. Most hackers are avid readers, especially of science fiction. They dress casually, with more hippie influence than stereotypical nerd. Perhaps the most common attribute is a distinct distaste for anything proprietary, especially anything to do with Microsoft. The open source movement arose out of this distaste, and is considered a large part of what defines a hacker. In fact, they do not like to be forced into anything, including “impractical” social standards. Exclusive use of a Linux kernel is usually a given. Political views vary, but in general hackers avoid politics, or at least conventional classification of political views. If anything, they tend to be more liberal than conservative, and have unique, unusual ideas on the subject. They certainly have a powerful aversion to government censoring of the internet, or otherwise authoritarian standards or policies. They obtain their gratification by solving problems, mounting new challenges, and expanding their knowledge. Hackers are constantly trying to become better at what they do, as opposed to being just content with the minimum required. Creatively solving new problems and improving existing solutions is a major part of hackers’ drive and sense of purpose. This is done with the progress of the greater good in mind.
Of course, in popular culture, “hacker” refers to any computer whiz who can crack security systems, steal passwords, etc. Though hackers indeed possess such ability, it is not within their interests or goals. If they do by chance happen to do anything “unethical” or illegal, it is not for the sake of being malicious, but is the result of some higher purpose or principle.
Since its inception, however, out of the box thinking has always been a common strand in defining a hacker, regardless of whether it was used in a negative or positive context. In short, hacking is about the combination of mindset and skill set.
Individuals who possess the skills or even the attitude of a hacker can certainly use them for evil. Apart from activities which are simply illegal, many applications are clearly wrong. For example, there are some people who do use their skills to access trade secrets, emails, passwords, etc, for various malicious purposes. Cyber attacks between two hostile countries are also incredibly common. Because so much of our lives is controlled at least in part by computers, and hackers are partially defined by their ability to control computers, their control, and at least their potential influence, is very far-reaching. As a result, proficient hackers possess the power to wreak damage costing billions of dollars, or even lives. Of course, many, if not most hacks are at a much smaller scale, and essentially harmless, even if not ethical, but the potential is still there.
On the other hand, hacking has plenty of potential for good. In fact, most (if not all) true hackers actually despise those who use computer proficiency for malice. This is especially true if those people try to call themselves hackers. Actually, hackers do not consider other people to be hackers until they have been deemed as such by an outstanding member of the hacker community. Self-proclaimed hackers rarely, if ever, actually are. The hacker community laments the wide misuse of the word in the media, and the flawed stereotype that has become so popular.
One of the most common utilizations of professional hackers can be found in the implementation of system security. Private organizations and government establishments alike need to defend against malevolent cyber criminals. Who better to develop and test the defense system than those equipped with the same skills and thought process as the “enemy” on the offensive side? It is common practice for large corporations to employ hackers to test their security, find the holes, and assist in patching them. In this way, hackers can help others stay safe from their own game. On a slightly different note, the creativity and ingenuity of the hacker mindset can provide another benefit to society. The best programmers are those who can provide ingenious solutions to problems, as well as come up with innovative new ideas. Hackers are not afraid to search beyond the established boundaries and expectations in order to discover unprecedented opportunities. Steve Wozniak himself was an early hacker. He, along with Steve Jobs (also a hacker), helped build Apple, which is often considered to be one of the most innovative companies in the world.
In this light, hacking can more or less be considered an art form. Some hackers actually consider art to be an indispensible element of their definition. After all, the foundation of any type of art is creativity, the execution of which is made possible and perfected by skill. Hacking is the employment of mastery and creativity when it comes to computers (though originally it did apply to any hobby). In addition, like other types of artists often do, true hackers possess a unique outlook on life and have strong, if only semi-conscious, convictions regarding political and social issues.
Professional “hackers” have daily proved useful in as large-scale matters as national defense. For example, the pentagon is constantly defended against hackers and various forms of cyber attacks by the “good” hackers in order to keep information secure. Of course, ethical hacking does not always have to be on the defensive side. For example, it would be perfectly ethical for a hacker to use his skill in order to tap into the infrastructure of a terrorist cell in order to learn about and predict their movements. Granted, this type of activity may seem like the events one might witness on a television crime drama, but that and similar situations actually occur in real life.
So much of our society leans quite heavily on various forms of technological dependence, in nearly every aspect of our daily life. As such, is it not logical that those certain individuals who have such a deep understanding and creative approach to computers be considered crucial to modern civilization? In any given emergency situation involving computers, the hackers would most likely be the first ones to find a solution. In fact, that trait is debatably within their very definition.
Regardless of the term “hacker,” extreme technological proficiency is clearly useful and ethical. Any sort of criminal act, however, or anything with malicious intent is, of course, not only unethical but plainly wrong. Cybercriminals who engage in such activities are often tagged with the term “hacker,” and get a lot of bad publicity. The “real” hackers make up a community with a distinct culture of their own, and provide innovation and expertise to the technology world. It is important to distinguish the two, and realize the importance the former has in society. Perhaps we should all give them a little more respect; after all, they helped make the internet what it is today.
Some references and resources:
(2010, February 19). Reeling in the hackers. Irish Times, Retrieved from Newspaper Source database.
Löwgren, Jonas (February 23, 2000). http://webzone.k3.mah.se/k3jolo/HackerCultures/origins.htm. Retrieved March 2010.
Raymond, Eric (25 August 2000). “The Early Hackers”. A Brief History of Hackerdom. Thyrsus Enterprises. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
Eric Steven Raymond (2001). “What Is a Hacker?”. How To Become A Hacker. Thyrsus Enterprises. Retrieved 2008-10-18
Eric S.Raymond: A Brief History of Hackerdom (2000)
hacker. From the Jargon File. Retrieved March 2010
See the 1981 version of the Jargon File, entry “hacker”
Sterling, Bruce. “cyberview_91.report”. “"hackers” had built the entire personal computer industry. Jobs was a hacker, Wozniak too, even Bill Gates, the youngest billionaire in the history of America – all “hackers.”“
Graham, Paul (2004). "Great Hackers”.
“Timeline: The U.S. Government and Cybersecurity”. Washington Post. 2002. Retrieved March 2010
Raymond, Eric Steven (19 September 2003). “Reasons to Believe”. The Art of Unix Programming. Addison-Wesley. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
cracker. From the Jargon File Retrieved March 2010
Thompson, Ken (August 1984). “Reflections on Trusting Trust”
Richard Stallman (2002). “The Hacker Community and Ethics: An Interview with Richard M. Stallman”. GNU Project. Retrieved March 2010