Legal and Ethical Aspects of an Ambiguous Activity

Hacking is an activity which has long been tied with ethical and legal complications. The term has evolved to have both ethical and unethical connotations, which can be confusing to the uninitiated. Hacker subculture has a myriad of terminology, sometimes with subtle variations, and this chapter identifies the main subcategories of hackers. The methods used by hackers to infiltrate systems will also be briefly examined, along with the motives for the activities. The question of whether or not hacking can be an ethical activity, and how it should be dealt with by the legal system is considered in this chapter. Consideration is also given to the international legal perspective. The evolving hacker ethic is described and examined, and the justifications provided by hackers are investigated.


There are numerous cases of famous hackers widely available. For example, Gary McKinnon, who hacked into 97 US government computers, including the US Navy and NASA, between 2001 and 2002 using the online name ‘Solo’. His declared motive was “to prove US intelligence had found an alien craft run on clean fuel” (BBC News, 28th July 2009, para. 3). McKinnon’s hacking became an obsession, and other aspects of his life began to suffer the consequences.

He lost his job and girlfriend, stopped eating properly and neglected his personal hygiene. In hindsight he indicated that he “almost wanted to be caught, because it was ruining me” (Boyd, 2008). Former hacker Kevin Mitnick in particular has made a career from advising on computer security and has authored a number of books on hacking, with a particular focus on social engineering methods (see for example Mitnick & Simon, 2002; Mitnick & Simon, 2005).

Mitnick was involved in hacking behaviors from a young age, manipulating telephone systems in order to play pranks and later progressing to infiltrating computer systems. He was apprehended by the police several times, and served time in prison for his hacking. He has since founded a company aimed at improving organisations’ IT security, and regularly gives guest lectures based on his hacking experience and security expertise.

Definition and History of Hacking

Hacking began in the late 1950s at a few US universities at a time when computers were rare (Levy, 1984). The original hackers were motivated to use and improve computer technology, and many hackers today indicate that their motives have not 23 Hacking changed. Nevertheless, by the early 1960s some hackers’ activities had begun to result in financial abuses, examples of which are still common today (such as software piracy and credit card fraud).

The term ‘hacker’ is a cause for confusion among those wishing to study the field. The media and the vast majority of the general public use it primarily to denote a person who gains unauthorized access to computer systems. However, many online individuals define a ‘hacker’ as simply a person who is proficient at building and modifying computer systems. The term ‘cracker’ is often used instead to describe those involved in criminal activity

Motives for Hacking

Lafrance (2004) proposes that understanding cybercriminals’ motivation can help to improve security measures, and describes the motivations that could underlie attacks by insiders in organizations. These include economical profit, revenge, personal interest in a specific file, and external pressure from people or organizations outside of the company (such as organized crime or a family member).

Taylor (1999) suggests that some motives cited by hackers for their behaviors include feelings of addiction, the urge of curiosity, boredom with the educational system, enjoyment of feelings of power, peer recognition in the hacking culture, and political acts. Schneier (2003) suggests that hackers do not break into systems for profit, but simply to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, for the thrill, and to see if they can.

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