Honor Among Theives: Hackers and Their Vague Codes of Ethics - Cheating Week on BTR


The ‘flag’ of the Anonymous group, an organization of hacker-activists (or ‘hacktivists’) famous for their involvement in the WikiLeaks scandal. Photo courtesy of the Anonymous group and is in the public domain.

Let’s face it, computer hacking is so in these days. From the popular Girl With the Dragon Tattoo book series, to infamous scandals in real life surrounding companies like News Corps, there’s no avoiding the word of the moment: hackers.

Generally speaking, they are ordinary people with a knack for computers who use their technical know-how to get around Internet security and gain access to information they were never meant to have. What they do with that information depends on whether their motivation lies in creating chaos, exposing government and corporate secrets for the greater good, or maybe a little bit of both. The word “hacker” would suggest a certain crudeness to their methodology, but professional hackers prove that you first must know the rules in order to break them. When a hacker successfully breaks through a company’s online security system, he has outsmarted their software and now has bragging rights for having done so.

Take for example the hacker group known as LulzSec, who successfully hacked into the UK division of the News Corp through the website of it’s newspaper, The Sun, and redirected visitors to a faux breaking news update that announced the suicide of News Corp CEO, Rupert Murdoch. The story was untrue, but the fact remains that LulzSec was able to publicly embarrass the company, and the group couldn’t help but boast about their online conquests (using anonymous identities on Twitter, of course). Suda, an affiliate from LulzSec bragged, “Sun/News of the world OWNED. We’re sitting on their emails. Press release tomorrow.”

“Sitting on their emails” heightened the suspicion UK authorities already had that LulzSec’s hacking into The Sun’s website also meant they had access to other confidential information, including e-mails and passwords of other News Corp execs. OWNED indeed.

Given their carefully crafted anonymity while committing such bold mischief, LulzSec was bound to make a few enemies along the way. The hackers continued to hide behind their online personas while still sticking out their tongues at UK authorities and News Corp executives like Murdoch, who were naturally not too pleased about the whole ordeal. More surprising, however, was that other members of the hacking community were equally displeased with LulzSec’s antics.

Calling themselves the A-team, a rival group of hackers openly deplored the group, saying that LulzSec members “lacked the skill to do anything more than go after the low-hanging fruit.” They felt that LulzSec’s tactics were below the belt, and that’s really saying something coming from a group of peers who also spend time breaking into online security systems.

So how does one group of hackers take down another of their own? In a very “spy versus spy” fashion, they publicly outed certain members of LulzSec by exposing their identities on the Internet. These stats included names, emails, and even where they went to school (yes, members of LulzSec were actually still in school). While no members of LulzSec admitted to being one of the several “outed” hackers, the group later announced that they would disband. Anonymity is crucial to any successful hacker, and being “dox’d” (or documented) is the hacker’s kiss of death.

The A-team’s drastic measures raise the question: is there a code of ethics among hackers? Some would say yes.

In his essay “Is there a Hacker Ethic for 90s Hackers?”, Dr. Steven Mizrach, a cyberanthropologist from Florida International University, originally posed the title question to see how ethics in hacking had changed from the 1960s to the 1990s. His study’s findings showed that there were indeed different ideologies within the later generation of hackers, namely, those who subscribed to the “Hacker Ethic,” as he called it, and who “…anethematize ‘crackers’ and ‘dark side’ hackers for transgressions which violate the spirit of their ethics.” Yet, “Some new hackers do repudiate the original Hacker Ethic or the possibility of having an ethic at all.”

Sounds awfully familiar.

What Dr. Mizrach described in his essay between those who do and don’t subscribe to the “Hacker Ethic” is precisely the dynamic at work when the A-Team called out LulzSec for what they considered unethical computer hacking.

“I am interested in the growing ‘hacktivist’ culture,” Mizrach told BTR. “Particularly the group ‘Anonymous’.”

Anonymous is a larger hacker collective that instructs its members on precisely how to avoid being identified on the Internet while weaving through online security.

“They view many of the things they do as the new,” says Mizrach. “[As the] Electronic/online equivalent of civil disobedience. I’m not sure this is really true.”

Hackers from the Anonymous group don Guy Fawkes masks (circa the V for Vendetta comic book and film) at the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles– an organization whose tax exempt status they openly protest. Photo by Vincent Diamente.

“If you believe in the Hacker Ethic,” he explains, “you believe that you should not damage or corrupt other peoples’ data or information, or damage computers or systems that people depend on… you’re allowed to enter into ‘restricted’ systems to understand how they work–not to disrupt them or to do damage to them.”

The idea of causing chaos through computer hacking justified by a greater good presents an interesting blend between the two ideologies of a “true hacker” and a depraved “cracker.” Yet, Mizrach points out that the very definition of “hacktivism” as civil disobedience is problematic.

“’IRL’ [in real life] civil disobedience means you put your name and body on the line for your goals of resisting unjust laws – ‘Anonymous’ does neither.”

Hacker, cracker, or hacktivist, it is ironic that the art of cheating the system could actually have so many, well, rules. Appropriate to Cheating Week on BTR, however, is the not-so-baffling fact that hackers bend the rules of acceptable ways to cheat. Can they be blamed, though? Their line of work encourages them to think outside of the box, so how can they make any technological progress without testing the limits and breaking a few rules? The bigger question remains, however, if their roles as professional cheaters put them above any moral code of conduct, especially when they have the luxury of anonymity on their side.

Written by: Mary Kate Polanin