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Ethical hacking: saving society with computer code

As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.

Credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI via Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • Hackers’ motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
  • Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
  • The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.

The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb, which is publishing in paperback on July 21. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.

As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the “hackers” succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.

Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany’s election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers’ biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).

More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal’s boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software’s four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious “WANK worm” attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military “doomsday machines.”)

It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.

But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.

It is not clear where the line between “good” and “bad” hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.

In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.

Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was “not just a bunch of techno freaks: we’ve been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning.” Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies’ responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.


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