The Morality of Hacking


A couple of weeks ago The Guardian leaked sensitive information regarding common NSA surveillance practices. These leaks left the world reassessing the boundaries of privacy and ‘safety’.

With his disclosures, Edward Snowden became the man of the hour, reviving the excitement and curiosity for the hacking culture. As the world became stagnant, taking in every drop of information that was available; wondering if every dash of data leaked would flip the scale of privacy versus security. Would this become a revamped WikiLeaks 2.0? Will this be the latest version of uncovered ‘truths’ which the world has purposely chosen to remain aloof about?   In the name of national security, peace of mind and technological advancements, everyone has blindly agreed to the ‘terms and conditions’ attached to products, apps, social media websites, software and companies. But at what cost is this information made available? Who decides how this information is used? Who is entitled to access this information? In brief, what are the moral boundaries of hacking?

Before dissecting the decency of hacking, it is imperative to define it. According to whatishacking.org, “Hacking is the practice of modifying the features of a system, in order to accomplish a goal outside of the creator’s original purpose”. Why would anyone have the right to modify the default features of a system? More importantly who is entitled to make such changes? How are such privileges earned?

In order to answer such questions, it is essential to determine what motivates certain individuals to ‘hack’ and release information not designed for public consumption.

Public Enemy Number 1

What motivates hackers?

Some individuals and groups do it to truly help improve and solidify a system. These ‘good’ hackers test current systems in order to encounter –and fix- flaws. In fact, Edward Snowden was employed as an “Ethical Hacker”. Their job comes as a direct response to attacks from inconspicuous characters. These inconspicuous characters are ‘bad’ hackers that break into systems out of spite or simply because they can. Causing harm in order to boast their egos or benefit another party (whether hacking for the government or for corporations). There is a third group of hackers who do it as a form of protest, usually against a particular economic, social or religious policy (e.g. WikiLeaks). Thus, it can be said that certain hackers, much like other individuals, use their unique skill-set to attain fame, create disruptions, correct inequalities and promote their personal beliefs.

Nonetheless, are these factors enough to justify the abuses that are committed in the name of strategically and eloquently used nouns ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, ‘truth’ and ‘profitability’? Are these actions ever justifiable?

The Good, The Bad…The Gray

Given this is such a controversial topic, the definitions of good and bad may vary significantly. Since history is only written by those who are victorious and it does not take into account the narrative of the defeated.

The Bad:

North Korea and South Korea, war by means of hacking.

Three months ago a ‘malware’ known as “DarkSeuol” shutdown computers all over South Korea. More importantly the malware hit the financial heart of South Korea impeding menial yet critical services, such as withdrawing money from an ATM.  Many sources report the origin of the malware to be in China. Yet as reported in the New York Times, North Korean hackers honed their skills in China and operate from there. Last week, during the 63rd anniversary of the Korean War, several websites (including government and media) were shutdown in both nations. As a preemptive measure against possible cyber-attacks. Considering the thorny and gossamer relationship between these nations, is hacking justified in this context? At this rate, future wars will not come in the conventional sense (land and resources). But rather it will come in the form of a battle for information and exposing vulnerabilities in a country or military’s network.

The Good:

Several terrorist acts that have been stopped thanks, to government surveillance program.

For example the alleged Canada Day plot, was curtailed because the suspects were under government vigilance. It can be deduced that several other plots were stopped as a result of the invasive measures taken by government agencies. How many other terrorist actions could have been prevented if more surveillance was involved? Should freedom and privacy be the price of security?

As with anything in life, nothing here is black and white. Everything is a different shade of gray. Thus, every situation must be analyzed and treated as a unique instance. For instance, if consumers willfully agree to give up information, why is it a surprise when it is used against them? A healthy and conscious debate has to be encouraged in order to assess the price of freedom and technological convenience. It is time end users demand better management and protection of the information that is collected. Realistically no government will ever be able to handle such sensitive information in a transparent and just way. As consumers, it is urgent and imperative to pressure companies to exert more control on the information that is collected. If not, then they should educate themselves about how their information is going to be utilized. If they are not happy with it, then they should withdraw from giving up their information.

In the end, I have no answer in terms of the morality of hacking. I pass this question on to you. How do you define the trade-off between privacy and security?

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