Computer Hacking Essay

Published: 2020-01-13 21:52:40
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Recent discussions of computer hacking make explicit reference to the disproportionate involvement of juveniles in this form of computer crime. While criminal justice, computer security, public and popular reflections on hacking seldom refer to formal criminological analyses of youth offending, they nonetheless offer a range of explanations for the over-representation of young people amongst computer hackers. Such accounts of hacking can be seen to converge with criminological analyses, by stressing a range of causal factors related to gender psychology, adolescent moral development, family dysfunction and peer-group and subcultural association. The homologies between lay, administrative, expert, popular and criminological discourses, it is suggested, offer considerable scope for developing a critical, academically-informed, and policyoriented debate on young peoples participation in computer crime.

It has been noted that youthfulness or being a teenager appears as a constant source of fascination and concern for politicians, media commentators and academic analysts (Muncie 1999, p.2), not least when involvement in supposedly criminal, deviant and anti-social activities is concerned. Whenever anxieties erupt about new threats to the moral and social order, youth are seldom far away from the line-up of societys usual suspects. Societys perennial fascination with youth and crime has itself become the object of sociological and criminological analysis, furnishing numerous explorations of the ways in which young people and their cultural commitments have become the folk devils in successive waves of moral panics about crime and disorder (Young 1971; Cohen 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Pearson 1983; Hay 1995; Springhall 1998).

Since the 1990s, academic commentators have observed how the Internet has emerged as a new locus of criminal activity that has become the object of public and political anxieties, sometimes leading to over-reaction (Thomas and Loader 2000, p.8; Littlewood 2003). Yet again, the category of youth has figured centrally in discussions of the threat, especially in relation to computer hacking, the unauthorised access to and manipulation of computer systems. Politicians, law enforcement officials, computer security experts and journalists have identified hacking as a form of criminal and deviant behaviour closely associated with teenagers (see, inter alia, Bowker 1999; DeMarco 2001; Verton 2002).

This association has been cemented in the realm of popular cultural representations, with Hollywood films such as Wargames (1983) and Hackers (1995) constructing the hacker as a quintessentially teenage miscreant (Levi 2001, pp.467). While hacking in general has garnered considerable attention from academics working in the emergent field of cybercrime studies (see Taylor 1999, 2000, 2003; Thomas 2000), and some attention has been given to questions of youth (see Furnell 2002), few connections are made with the rich and extensive criminological literature of delinquency studies. On the other hand, those specialising in the study of youth crime and delinquency have largely neglected this apparently new area of juvenile offending (for an exception, see Fream and Skinner 1997).

The aim of this article is not to offer such a new account of hacking as juvenile delinquency; nor is it to contest or deconstruct the public and popular association between youth and computer crime. Rather, the article aims to map out the different modes of reasoning by which the purported involvement of juveniles in hacking is explained across a range of official, expert and public discourses. In other words, it aims to reconstruct the folk aetiology by which different commentators seek to account for youth involvement in hacking. Substantively, I suggest that the kinds of accounts offered in fact map clearly onto the existing explanatory repertoires comprising the criminological canon.

Implicit within most non-academic and/or non-criminological accounts of teenage hacking are recognisable criminological assumptions relating, for example, to adolescent psychological disturbance, familial breakdown, peer influence and subcultural association. Drawing out the latent or implicit criminological assumptions in these accounts of teenage hacking will help, I suggest, to gain both greater critical purchase upon their claims, and to introduce academic criminology to a set of substantive issues in youth offending that have thus far largely escaped sustained scholarly attention.

The article begins with a brief discussion of definitional disputes about computer hacking, arguing in particular that competing constructions can be viewed as part of a process in which deviant labels are applied by authorities and contested by those young people subjected to them. The second section considers the ways in which motivations are attributed to hackers by experts and the public, and the ways in which young hackers themselves construct alternative narrations of their activities which use common understandings of the problematic and conflict-ridden relationship between youth and society.

The third section considers the ways in which discourses of addiction are mobilised, and the ways in which they make associations with illicit drug use as a behaviour commonly attributed to young people. The fourth section turns to consider the place attributed to gender in explanations of teenage hacking. The fifth part explores the ways in which adolescence is used as an explanatory category, drawing variously upon psychologically and socially oriented understandings of developmental crisis, peer influence, and subcultural belonging. In concluding, I suggest that the apparent convergence between lay and criminological understandings of the origins of youth offending offer considerable scope for developing a critical, academically-informed debate on young peoples participation in computer crime.

Hackers and Hacking: Contested Definitions and the Social Construction of Deviance

A few decades ago, the terms hacker and hacking were known only to a relatively small number of people, mainly those in the technically specialised world of computing. Today they have become common knowledge, something with which most people are familiar, if only through hearsay and exposure to mass media and popular cultural accounts. Current discussion has coalesced around a relatively clear-cut definition, which understands hacking as: the unauthorised access and subsequent use of other peoples computer systems (Taylor 1999, p.xi). It is this widely accepted sense of hacking as computer break-in, and of its perpetrators as break-in artists and intruders, that structures most media, political and criminal justice responses.

However, the term has in fact undergone a series of changes in meaning over the years, and continues to be deeply contested, not least amongst those within the computing community. The term hacker originated in the world of computer programming in the 1960s, where it was a positive label used to describe someone who was highly skilled in developing creative, elegant and effective solutions to computing problems. A hack was, correspondingly, an innovative use of technology (especially the production of computer code or programmes) that yielded positive results and benefits. On this understanding, the pioneers of the Internet, those who brought computing to the masses, and the developers of new and exciting computer applications (such as video gaming), were all considered to be hackers par excellence, the brave new pioneers of the computer revolution (Levy 1984; Naughton 2000, p.313).

These hackers were said to form a community with its own clearly defined ethic, one closely associated with the social and political values of the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture and protest movements (movements themselves closely associated with youth rebellion and resistance Muncie (1999, pp.178 83)). Their ethic emphasised, amongst other things, the right to freely access and exchange knowledge and information; a belief in the capacity of science and technology (especially computing) to enhance individuals lives; a distrust of political, military and corporate authorities; and a resistance to conventional and mainstream lifestyles, attitudes and social hierarchies (Taylor 1999, pp.246; Thomas 2002). While such hackers would often engage in exploration of others computer systems, they purported to do so out of curiosity, a desire to learn and discover, and to freely share what they had found with others; damaging those systems while exploring, intentionally or otherwise, was considered both incompetent and unethical. This earlier understanding of hacking and its ethos has since largely been over-ridden by its more negative counterpart, with its stress upon intrusion, violation, theft and sabotage.

Hackers of the old school angrily refute their depiction in such terms, and use the term cracker to distinguish the malicious type of computer enthusiast from hackers proper. Interestingly, this conflict between the old and new is often presented in inter-generational terms, with the old school lamenting the ways in which todays youngsters have lost touch with the more principled and idealistic motivations of their predecessors (Taylor 1999, p.26). Some have suggested that these differences are of little more than historical interest, and insist that the current, negative and criminal definition of hacking and hackers should be adopted, since this is the dominant way in which the terms are now understood and used (Twist 2003). There is considerable value to this pragmatic approach, and through the rest of this article the terms hacking and hackers will be used to denote those illegal activities associated with computer intrusion and manipulation, and to denote those persons who engage in such activities.

The contested nature of the terms is, however, worth bearing in mind, for a good criminological reason. It shows how hacking, as a form of criminal activity, is actively constructed by governments, law enforcement, the computer security industry, businesses, and media; and how the equation of such activities with crime and criminality is both embraced and challenged by those who engage in them. In other words, the contest over characterising hackers and hacking is a prime example of what sociologists such as Becker (1963) identify as the labelling process, the process by which categories of criminal/deviant activity and identity are socially produced. Reactions to hacking and hackers cannot be understood independently from how their meanings are socially created, negotiated and resisted. Criminal justice and other agents propagate, disseminate and utilise negative constructions of hacking as part of the war on computer crime.

Those who find themselves so positioned may reject the label, insisting that they are misunderstood, and try to persuade others that they are not criminals; alternatively, they may seek out and embrace the label, and act accordingly, thereby setting in motion a process of deviance amplification (Young 1971) which ends up producing the very behaviour that the forces of law and order are seeking to prevent. In extremis, such constructions can be seen to make hackers into folk devils (Cohen 1972), an apparently urgent threat to society which fuels the kinds of moral panic about computer crime alluded to in the introduction. As we shall see, such processes of labelling, negotiation and resistance are a central feature of ongoing social contestation about young peoples involvement in hacking.

Hacker Motivations: Insider and Outsider Accounts Inquiries into crime have long dwelt on the causes and motivations behind offending behaviour in the words of Hirschi (1969), one of the most frequently asked questions is: why do they do it?. In this respect, deliberations on computer crime are no different, with a range of actors such as journalists, academics, politicians, law enforcement operatives, and members of the public all indicating what they perceive to be the factors underlying hackers dedication to computer crime. Many commentators focus upon motivations, effectively viewing hackers as rational actors (Clarke and Felson 1993) who consciously choose to engage in their illicit activities in expectation of some kind of reward or satisfaction. The motivations variously attributed to hackers are wide-ranging and often contradictory.

Amongst those concerned with combating hacking activity, there is a tendency to emphasise maliciousness, vandalism, and the desire to commit wanton destruction (Kovacich 1999); attribution of such motivations from law enforcement and computer security agencies is unsurprising, as it offers the most clear-cut way of denying hacking any socially recognised legitimacy. Amongst a wider public, hackers are perceived to act on motivations ranging from self-assertion, curiosity, and thrill seeking, to greed and hooliganism (Dowland et al. 1999, p.720; Voiskounsky, Babeva and Smyslova 2000, p.71). Noteworthy here is the convergence between motives attributed for involvement in hacking and those commonly attributed to youth delinquency in general the framing of hacking in terms of vandalism, hooliganism, curiosity and thrill seeking clearly references socially available constructions of juvenile offending and offenders (on hooliganism see Pearson (1983); on thrill seeking see Katz (1988); Presdee (2000)).

One way in which commentators have attempted to refine their understandings of hacker motivations is to elicit from hackers themselves their reasons for engaging in computer crimes. There now exist a number of studies, both popular and scholarly in which (primarily young) hackers have been interviewed about their illicit activities (for example, Clough and Mungo 1992; Taylor 1999; Verton 2002). In addition, hackers themselves have authored texts and documents in which they elaborate upon their ethos and aims (see, for example, Dr K 2004). Such insider accounts cite motivations very different from those cited by outsiders. In fact, they consistently invoke a rationale for hacking that explicitly mobilises the hacker ethic of an earlier generation of computer enthusiasts.

In hackers self-presentations, they are motivated by factors such as intellectual curiosity, the desire for expanding the boundaries of knowledge, a commitment to the free flow and exchange of information, resistance to political authoritarianism and corporate domination, and the aim of improving computer security by exposing the laxity and ineptitude of those charged with safeguarding socially sensitive data. However, such accounts straight from the horses mouth do not necessarily furnish insights into hacker motivations that are any more objectively true than those attributed by outside observers. As Taylor (1999) notes: it is difficult . . . to separate cleanly the ex ante motivations of hackers from their ex post justifications (p.44, italics in original). In other words, such self-attributed motivations may well be rhetorical devices mobilised by hackers to justify their law-breaking and defend themselves against accusations of criminality and deviance. Viewed in this way, hackers accounts can be seen as part of what criminologists Sykes and Matza (1957) call techniques of neutralisation.

According to Sykes and Matza, delinquents will make recourse to such techniques as a way of overcoming the inhibitions or guilt they may otherwise feel when embarking upon law-breaking activity. These techniques include strategies such as denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners and appeal to higher loyalties. The view of hackers self-narrations as instances of such techniques can be supported if we examine hacker accounts. A clear illustration is provided by a now famous (or infamous) document called The Conscience of a Hacker authored by The Mentor in 1986, now better know as The Hackers Manifesto.

In the Manifesto, its author explains hackers motivations by citing factors such as: the boredom experienced by smart kids at the mercy of incompetent school teachers and sadists; the experience of being constantly dismissed by teachers and parents as damn kids who are all alike; the desire to access a service that could be dirt-cheap if it wasnt run by profiteering gluttons; the desire to explore and learn which is denied by you who build atomic bombs, [. . .] wage wars, [. . .] murder, cheat and lie (The Mentor 1986). Such reasoning clearly justifies hacking activities by re-labelling harm as curiosity, by suggesting that victims are in some sense getting what they deserve as a consequence of their greed, and turning tables on accusers by claiming the moral high ground through a citation of real crimes committed by the legitimate political and economic establishment. Again, we see an inter-generational dimension that references commonplace understandings of misunderstood youth and the corrupt and neglectful nature of the adult world.

Thus young hackers themselves invest in and mobilise a perennial, socially available discourse about the gulf between society and its youth. Discourses of Addiction: Computers, Drugs and the Slippery Slope A second strand of thinking about hacking downplays motivations and choices, and emphasises instead the psychological and/or social factors that seemingly dispose certain individuals or groups toward law-breaking behaviour. In such accounts, free choice is sidelined in favour of a view of human actions as fundamentally caused by forces acting within or upon the offender. From an individualistic perspective, some psychologists have attempted to explain hacking by viewing it as an extension of compulsive computer use over which the actor has limited control.

So-called Internet Addiction Disorder is viewed as an addiction akin to alcoholism and narcotic dependence, in which the sufferer loses the capacity to exercise restraint over his or her own habituated desire (Young 1998; Young, Pistner and OMara 1999). Some accounts of teenage hacking draw explicit parallels with drug addiction, going so far as to suggest that engagement in relatively innocuous hacking activities can lead to more serious infractions, just as use of soft drugs like marijuana is commonly claimed to constitute a slippery slope leading to the use of hard drugs like crack cocaine and heroin (Verton 2002, pp.35, 39, 41, 51).

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