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Hacker ethic is a term for the moral values and philosophy that are common in hacker culture. Practitioners of the hacker ethic acknowledge that sharing information and data responsibly is beneficial and helpful. Whilst the philosophy originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s-1960s, the term hacker ethic is attributed to journalist Steven Levy as described in his 1984 book titled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The key points within this ethic are access, freedom of information, and improvement to quality of life. While some tenets of hacker ethic were described in other texts like Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) by Ted Nelson, Levy appears to have been the first to document both the philosophy and the founders of the philosophy.
Levy explains that MIT housed an early IBM 704 computer inside the Electronic Accounting Machinery (EAM) room in 1959. This room became the staging grounds for early hackers, as MIT students from the Tech Model Railroad Club sneaked inside the EAM room after hours to attempt programming the 30-ton, 9-foot-tall (2.7 m) computer.
The MIT group defined a hack as a project undertaken or a product built to fulfill some constructive goal, but also with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement. The term hack arose from MIT lingo, as the word had long been used to describe college pranks that MIT students would regularly devise. However, Levy's hacker ethic also has often been quoted out of context and misunderstood to refer to hacking as in breaking into computers, and so many sources incorrectly imply that it is describing the ideals of white-hat hackers. However, what Levy is talking about does not necessarily have anything particular to do with computer security, but addresses broader issues.
The hacker ethic was described as a "new way of life, with a philosophy, an ethic and a dream". However, the elements of the hacker ethic were not openly debated and discussed; rather they were implicitly accepted and silently agreed upon.
The free software movement was born in the early 1980s from followers of the hacker ethic. Its founder, Richard Stallman, is referred to by Steven Levy as "the last true hacker". Modern hackers who hold true to the hacker ethics--especially the Hands-On Imperative--are usually supporters of free and open source software. This is because free and open source software allows hackers to get access to the source code used to create the software, to allow it to be improved or reused in other projects.
Richard Stallman describes:
The hacker ethic refers to the feelings of right and wrong, to the ethical ideas this community of people had--that knowledge should be shared with other people who can benefit from it, and that important resources should be utilized rather than wasted.
and states more precisely that hacking (which Stallman defines as playful cleverness) and ethics are two separate issues:
Just because someone enjoys hacking does not mean he has an ethical commitment to treating other people properly. Some hackers care about ethics--I do, for instance--but that is not part of being a hacker, it is a separate trait. [...] Hacking is not primarily about an ethical issue.
[...] hacking tends to lead a significant number of hackers to think about ethical questions in a certain way. I would not want to completely deny all connection between hacking and views on ethics.
As Levy summarized in the preface of Hackers, the general tenets or principles of hacker ethic include:
In addition to those principles, Levy also described more specific hacker ethics and beliefs in chapter 2, The Hacker Ethic: The ethics he described in chapter 2 are:
From the early days of modern computing through to the 1970s, it was far more common for computer users to have the freedoms that are provided by an ethic of open sharing and collaboration. Software, including source code, was commonly shared by individuals who used computers. Most companies had a business model based on hardware sales, and provided or bundled the associated software free of charge. According to Levy's account, sharing was the norm and expected within the non-corporate hacker culture. The principle of sharing stemmed from the open atmosphere and informal access to resources at MIT. During the early days of computers and programming, the hackers at MIT would develop a program and share it with other computer users.
If the hack was deemed particularly good, then the program might be posted on a board somewhere near one of the computers. Other programs that could be built upon it and improved it were saved to tapes and added to a drawer of programs, readily accessible to all the other hackers. At any time, a fellow hacker might reach into the drawer, pick out the program, and begin adding to it or "bumming" it to make it better. Bumming referred to the process of making the code more concise so that more can be done in fewer instructions, saving precious memory for further enhancements.
In the second generation of hackers, sharing was about sharing with the general public in addition to sharing with other hackers. A particular organization of hackers that was concerned with sharing computers with the general public was a group called Community Memory. This group of hackers and idealists put computers in public places for anyone to use. The first community computer was placed outside of Leopold's Records in Berkeley, California.
Another sharing of resources occurred when Bob Albrecht provided considerable resources for a non-profit organization called the People's Computer Company (PCC). PCC opened a computer center where anyone could use the computers there for fifty cents per hour.
This second generation practice of sharing contributed to the battles of free and open software. In fact, when Bill Gates' version of BASIC for the Altair was shared among the hacker community, Gates claimed to have lost a considerable sum of money because few users paid for the software. As a result, Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists. This letter was published by several computer magazines and newsletters, most notably that of the Homebrew Computer Club where much of the sharing occurred.
Many of the principles and tenets of hacker ethic contribute to a common goal: the Hands-On Imperative. As Levy described in Chapter 2, "Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems--about the world--from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and more interesting things."
Employing the Hands-On Imperative requires free access, open information, and the sharing of knowledge. To a true hacker, if the Hands-On Imperative is restricted, then the ends justify the means to make it unrestricted so that improvements can be made. When these principles are not present, hackers tend to work around them. For example, when the computers at MIT were protected either by physical locks or login programs, the hackers there systematically worked around them in order to have access to the machines. Hackers assumed a "willful blindness" in the pursuit of perfection.
This behavior was not malicious in nature: the MIT hackers did not seek to harm the systems or their users. This deeply contrasts with the modern, media-encouraged image of hackers who crack secure systems in order to steal information or complete an act of cyber-vandalism.
Throughout writings about hackers and their work processes, a common value of community and collaboration is present. For example, in Levy's Hackers, each generation of hackers had geographically based communities where collaboration and sharing occurred. For the hackers at MIT, it was the labs where the computers were running. For the hardware hackers (second generation) and the game hackers (third generation) the geographic area was centered in Silicon Valley where the Homebrew Computer Club and the People's Computer Company helped hackers network, collaborate, and share their work.
The concept of community and collaboration is still relevant today, although hackers are no longer limited to collaboration in geographic regions. Now collaboration takes place via the Internet. Eric S. Raymond identifies and explains this conceptual shift in The Cathedral and the Bazaar:
Before cheap Internet, there were some geographically compact communities where the culture encouraged Weinberg's egoless programming, and a developer could easily attract a lot of skilled kibitzers and co-developers. Bell Labs, the MIT AI and LCS labs, UC Berkeley: these became the home of innovations that are legendary and still potent.
Raymond also notes that the success of Linux coincided with the wide availability of the World Wide Web. The value of community is still in high practice and use today.
Levy identifies several "true hackers" who significantly influenced the hacker ethic. Some well-known "true hackers" include:
Levy also identified the "hardware hackers" (the "second generation", mostly centered in Silicon Valley) and the "game hackers" (or the "third generation"). All three generations of hackers, according to Levy, embodied the principles of the hacker ethic. Some of Levy's "second-generation" hackers include:
Levy's "third generation" practitioners of hacker ethic include:
In this digital age, and due to our reliance on technology, hackers are able to gather more information on us than before. One way to combat this is to teach students to hack in such a way that they become what are called white hat hackers. White hat hackers follow ethical guidelines that proscribe harming either other people or the systems on which other people depend. Through their efforts, they have the ability to prevent malicious attacks. The movement of ethical hacking has gained traction through different programs such as the L0pht and GhettoHackers, and courses have become integrated into university- and college-level curriculum.
Security researcher and an application security engineer Joe Gervais pointed out that students who are intellectually curious enough may start to experiment with computers without thinking of the ethical repercussions of their actions. He points out that there are a lot of classes that exist for more gifted students in areas such as math, reading, etc. However, there doesn't seem to be courses that can address the curiosity that a young hacker may have.
Hacking courses can create a moral compass for young hackers. They require a constructive environment that allows them to satiate their desire to understand computers. Students in these classes have the ability to learn what they are passionate about while also understanding the ethical boundaries that should not be encroached upon. However, the integral part of the curriculum would be to prevent the development of black hat hackers.
There seems to be a lack of skilled cyber security experts. However, there doesn't seem to be curriculums that teaches individuals the skills required to protect security systems from malicious attacks. Teaching hacking is a plausible way to fill the gap in the supply and the demand of hackers who are capable of implementing defensive measures against attacks. Ymir Vigfusson, professor at the School of Computer Science at Reykjavik University and assistant professor in Emory University's Math and Science Department, is a major advocate for educating students about hacking. Ymir points out that teaching hacking can be a way for students to better understand the computer security. He believes that hackers have a unique mindset where they are constantly thinking about how they can get through cyber security. However, defenders, or the ones providing the cyber security are only thinking of ways to keep people out. Defenders are concerned with thinking about how to keep people out. However, what ethical hackers can contribute is how to break in. This mindset allows defenders to realize weak points in security systems and to reinforce those shortfalls. In 2012, Ymir held a TedTalk in Rekjavijk titled "Why I Teach People to Hack" that further illustrates reasons supporting the teaching of hacking.
In 2001, Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen promoted the hacker ethic in opposition to the Protestant work ethic. In Himanen's opinion, the hacker ethic is more closely related to the virtue ethics found in the writings of Plato and of Aristotle. Himanen explained these ideas in a book, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, with a prologue contributed by Linus Torvalds and an epilogue by Manuel Castells.
In this manifesto, the authors wrote about a hacker ethic centering on passion, hard work, creativity and joy in creating software. Both Himanen and Torvalds were inspired by the Sampo in Finnish mythology. The Sampo, described in the Kalevala saga, was a magical artifact constructed by Ilmarinen, the blacksmith god, that brought good fortune to its holder; nobody knows exactly what it was supposed to be. The Sampo has been interpreted in many ways: a world pillar or world tree, a compass or astrolabe, a chest containing a treasure, a Byzantine coin die, a decorated Vendel period shield, a Christian relic, etc. Kalevala saga compiler Lönnrot interpreted it to be a "quern" or mill of some sort that made flour, salt, and gold out of thin air.