How are Hacking Behaviors Tackled Under Law

How are Hacking Behaviors Tackled Under Law?

Brenner (2006) indicates that according to section 1030 of the US Code, depending on the type of hacking activity engaged in, offenders can be fined, imprisoned for up to ten years, or both. This imprisonment can be extended to up to 20 years for repeat offenders. Tavani (2007) suggests that most involved would “support legislation that would distinguish between the degrees of punishment handed to those who are found guilty of trespass in cyberspace” (p. 202).

Tavani goes on to indicate that in real-world counterparts of these activities (such as breaking and entering), a distinction would normally be made between offenders who have engaged in different degrees of criminal activity (so that the offender who picks a lock but does not enter a premise would normally receive a lesser sentence than the offender who enters the premises but does not steal or damage anything, but who in turn would receive a lesser sentence than the offender who commits burglary).

Solutions and Recommendations

There are a number of potential actions which could be taken in relation to hacking behaviors, particularly with respect to ethical perspectives. It is not clear yet if hackers truly subscribe to the principles behind the hacker ethic, or if they are simply using it as justification for their actions. In either case, the use of cognitive-behavioral treatment programs focusing on moral reasoning may reduce recidivism in hackers (see for example Wilson, Allen-Bouffard & MacKenzie, 2005, for a review on the effectiveness of moral recognition therapy with offenders). It may be prudent to extend this tactic to prevent hacking behavior as well, perhaps by including a class on the ethical use of technology during computing courses in schools and universities.


Despite the significant quantity of literature relating to the ethical positions of hackers, few studies have sought to empirically test if hackers subscribe to the principles outlined above. This is probably due in part to the difficulties in accessing participants many hackers would not be willing to discuss their behaviors with a researcher for fear that they would be putting themselves at risk of prosecution. In addition, it is difficult for the researcher to ensure that their participants are indeed engaged in hacking behaviors.

To date, much research in this area has relied on completing content analysis of hacker bulletin boards, and public online spaces in which hackers may not be entirely honest. The hacker ethical principles outlined in this chapter need to be appropriately tested to ensure their validity. Only when this is complete, and the current hacker ethic is established, could intervention programs such as those outlined above be developed and implemented.


Regardless of the arguments presented in hacker ethics, it seems that true ethical hacking is rare. Even where hacking activities seem to have a higher moral purpose, as with the efforts to thwart pedophiles online, there is still a grey area. While it cannot be disputed that some hackers 33 Hacking have higher moral standards than others, to the extent that they feel that the same labels cannot be applied to both groups, it does seem that many hackers hold a distorted ethical perspective. While it is possible that some might genuinely feel that what they are doing is right and for the common good, it would be naïve to believe that no hacker utilizes ethical principles to hide ulterior motives.

Many types of offenders provide justifications for their criminal activity, and in most cases, society does not recognize these justifications as acceptable excuses for their behavior, at least not to the extent of waiving punishment. The fact that we would consider doing so for one specific group of offenders (hackers) would therefore be extremely unjust.

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