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Governance and Hackers

 When I was watching the movie Hackers, several questions began to stir around my head. What identifies an individual as a part of a community? Can hackers be considered a true counterculture and if so why? What is it that identifies the individuals that call themselves hackers? In the community to which they belong, what is the source of authority?  Is it a case of David and Goliath syndrome or do they consider the possible damage that could be incurred to the system owners?   What is, for that matter, their concept of ownership?  Do they recognize real property, intellectual property, or do they have a concept of property?
Are various ideologies concerning governance applicable to the conflict between hackers and non-hackers? The following will be an exploration of these questions.

Culture and Counterculture

 A community is made up of a group of individuals who have a common interest or who are within a communal geographic location interacting with each other on some level. Obviously, Internet communications void the necessity for physical interaction with those found in a particular community. Geographically, the members could be on opposite continents but still be part of the same chat site, distance education class email groups or any other number of groups.
Communities normally act according to a commonly agreed upon set of guidelines which maintains the social structure and order within the group.  These guidelines may be written laws, social traditions, or both.  Countercultures are those groups who place themselves on the fringes of a dominant community and act in a manner contrary to the norms upheld by the majority.

Dominance and Hierarchy: An Invariant in Group Behavior

Even small groups of intelligent animals have social hierarchies.  In industrialized society, status, which often defines hierarchical level, can come from skill and knowledge, from the acquisition of resource, or from the popular culture notion of "celebrity." Those that hold this higher level of social status have great sway with the governing body of the group as that body is often composed of members of the same peer group.

In the general society, elites often avoid identification as such. Politicians with real power deprecate themselves, in public, as "staff" or "advisors." The members of most military special operations units are calm and quiet in public.  There is little need for those who are secure in their position of power to be overzealous in pursuit of acceptance by a peer group simply because there are so few individuals that possess that degree of power.

Some elites -- physicians as one example -- simply act with authority but do not explicitly proclaim it.  Of course, the white coat and the stethoscope, even if the wearer uses neither in practice, is a major status symbol.

Hackers as Counterculture

From the perspective of the general community, hackers would be considered a counterculture because they appear not to adhere to community norms. Hackers are subject to the same pressures to achieve higher social status within their group as all non-hackers do within their groups.
An important distinction needs to be drawn.  There are "solo" hackers whose values are self-assigned, and their exploits may indeed be based on intellectual curiosity.  Only when groups form does dominance and peer pressure come into play.  This paper focuses on group behavior, springboarding from the groups described in the movie Hackers. There does appear to be a need, however, in most hacker groups, to wear one's status rather visibly, to one's peers.  In this society, people are actually called "elite" and wear the badge proudly.

As do many groups, hackers differentiate themselves from the general society through the use of language.  Technical jargon certainly has a valued role for concisely conveying information to a peer.  Hacker society goes farther, however, in using spelling and typographic conventions fully understood by the elect, such as "E1eeT D00D".

In the hacker community, hierarchical status can come from actual skill or from the daring of cyberexploits.  Plains Indians gave as much or more status to "counting coup" than killing; there may be more status in "cracking the Pentagon" through a weak password than there is in a much more technically sophisticated attack.

Upon reflection of the movie Hackers, came the realization that there is a whole area of potential research in the exploration of hacker group dynamics.  Is it similar to the status seeking in a warrior culture?  If so, what is the moderating role of elders and shamans?

Just as warrior bands have limits to growth, and their further growth requires structure as villages, clans, tribes, or nation-states, are their limits to hacker group growth?  What are the potentials for transformation?

"Elite hackers," within their community, are respected as skilled, daring, or both.  "Script kiddies," who use tools developed by others, do not have skills that gain respect, but may still gain status through luck or persistence.  There is the same imperative in hacker as well as conventional society to become one of the elite.

Hackers also have a form of governance that plays an integral part of their communities. Most often this involves a third party vouching for the ability and integrity of the individual seeking admittance into the group. Authority tends to be placed with those at the top of the social hierarchy and for the most part, depends on taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions and sanctions against those who do not act maturely.

Hackers:  a Cinematic Exploration

In the movie Hackers, theatrically necessary conflict takes place among representatives of several communities. The protagonist, Dade Murphy, is a member of the counterculture, held there in part by bonds of peer pressure.  Known as "Zero Cool" within that group, seeks status inside the group, but, as opposed to other peers, has some sense of the consequences of unconstrained hacking.

It's fair to say Mr. Belford, the security officer, is the chief villain, as he has committed acts (i.e., embezzlement) that are against the rules of the dominant community. To complicate matters, Belford also has an identity in the hacker world, The Plague.  Belford's group relationships are complex, including:

o Belford to his employer
o Belford to the hacker counterculture in his role as The Plague
o Belford to law enforcement
o Belford to Murphy, in the eyes of the hacker counterculture
o Belford to Murphy, in the eyes of law enforcement

Conflict:  General and Intellectual Property Rights

 Problems occur when the hacker and non-hacker’s ideas of what constitutes responsible actions clash. The root of conflict lies in the idea of what should be recognized as an intellectual property right and what should not. While the majority of hackers do agree that there are certain files that should not be open for public viewing, such as medical records and credit card numbers, they do feel that other records and systems should be open for exploration. Non-hackers tend to feel that any system should be off-limits unless express permission to enter has been granted. To take advantage of, The motivations of hackers and non-hackers are comparable; the thrill, to gain social standing, to gain knowledge and experience. The question then becomes—who decides what qualifies as intellectual property?

 Examine the widely circulated "Hacker Ethic:
Hacker Ethic                                                                                                           Conventional

Computers can change your life for the better.
Computers are tools.
Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way
the world works - should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative! 
Access to any intellectual property is limited by the rights of its owner
All information should be free.
 Information is free when placed in the public domain

Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.
Authority can be legitimate when a political or social contract exists

Hackers should be judged by their Hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

   Hackers are a danger to the integrity and security of all systems.

You can create art and beauty on a computer.

  Computers are primarily a tool to make life easier.

Locke, Hobbes and Hacker Ethics

 With the advent of the technological era, new issues have risen to the forefront concerning property rights and personal freedom. Locke states that "the measure of property nature has well set by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniences of life"  Does this apply to personal information and intellectual property as well?

If one subscribes to the principles of Locke, as most people do in the West do to a certain degree since these principles are the primary basis for legal property laws. Are one's thought and ideas subject to the same protection by property rights? The first thing that must be established is if one labours for ideas or if they are simply there. Body systems use nutrients consumed to sustain the brain so that functions efficiently. Energy is expended in this process so therefore, labour is done. That does establish that thoughts and ideas are protected by property rights just by fulfilling the labour requirement.

What are the establishing criteria for something to be concerned a convenience of life? Obviously, technological advances like credit cards, automobiles, computers and electronic mail have made everyday life and communications much faster and easier. AS the definition of a convenience includes something that is used to lessen the amount of physical labour required to accomplish a task, these items and those like them are protected by property rights as well.

 It is where the two coincide that there becomes an issue. Non-hackers tend to be of the opinion that information is property of an individual whereas hackers tend to believe that information should be public property. There is a fall back onto the Hobbes principle "property belongs to those who have the power to take it". If a hacker can bypass security measures and infiltrate a system by means of their own labour, are they not entitled to learn what they can about that system as long as there is no damage or corruption of the information being used? According to the principles of Locke, Hobbes and even Darwin they do.

 However, perhaps more frightening to the non-hacker is that they as individuals have little recourse once their system has been penetrated. Even though the legal authorities do tend to be very tough on those hackers that are apprehended, the fact is, very few are actually caught. An elite hacker by definition, is an individual that has the skill, daring and resources to penetrate a system anonymously. Modern western society depends on a hierarchy of power that one can appeal to if an individual feels that their rights have been violated. A third party with authority then makes a determination in favor of the plaintiff of defendant in a particular matter. When one cannot determine who it is that they feel their personal rights have been violated by, there is little option but to take proactive measures and assume that the intruder's intent was malicious even if that was, in reality, not the case at all.

 There are no simple solutions to the conflicts between hackers and non-hackers. Perhaps this is the next step in evolution of the technological era. One that will be based on a Darwinian playing field where those with the skill and the means will quash those individuals who are technologically inept. The legal system always lags far behind the technologies that are available to the public. Until such time as the two are on the same page, little progress will be made and the floundering about will continue. Of course, once the hackers and non-hackers finally get their differences worked out, something else will be at the forefront and the process will begin once again.