Controversial Topic: Hacking
Hacking refers to the use of computing skills to penetrate, disrupt, or interfere with a computer system by non-standard avenues. Hacking is a controversial issue because this skill can be used for many different purposes both lawful and unlawful; ethical and unethical. Some hackers use their skills for criminal activities while others may use their skills to create cybersecurity defenses against malicious actors. Activists may use hacking to undermine dictatorship just as dictators might use hacking to suppress individual liberties.
The nearly infinite range of hacking activities, and the intentions underlying them, make this a controversial topic. There are many competing views on what should or should not be considered ethical hacking. In its earliest incarnation, during the 1950s and 1960s, “hacker culture” represented playful subversiveness and technical virtuosity. For the “hacker culture,” the ability to breach classified data or tinker with a proprietary operating system was done for the sheer intellectual thrill.
In the decades that followed, hacking persisted as an activity for those with intellectual curiosity, but also increasingly became associated with ideological and activist pursuits, especially as they pertained to the ideas of informational freedom, and the development of open source, non-proprietary systems and applications. Hacking also became a prominent theme in science-fiction writing as well as in an emergent genre called cyberpunk.
By the mid-1990s, widespread internet use also produced newly widespread vulnerabilities for private citizens, commercial entities, and national governments. The consequence has been steady growth in use of the term hacking to describe cybercriminal activities as well as some of the activities aimed at preventing cybercrime.
The hacking controversy, therefore, largely centers on the different ways that hacking is used today:
- Hackers, in the purest sense of the word, are those who practice hacking for the exhibition of computing skills, the pursuit of intellectual curiosity, and the spirit of playfulness.
- Hacktivists view their hacking activities through the prisms of social justice, activism, freedom of information, software freedom, and other ideological frameworks.
- Black Hat hackers, or cybercriminals, use their skills to commit financial crimes, data and identity theft, viral attacks, and other malicious computing activities;
- White Hat hackers are cybersecurity professionals and security hackers who use hacking skills to identify weaknesses and recommend strategies for improvement in security systems for financial entities, government agencies, e-commerce merchants, and more.
- Malicious state actors may use hacking to suppress civil liberties, violate the privacy of their citizens, steal secrets from other sovereign states, or engage in cyberwarfare.
A Brief History of the Issue
In its earliest days—the 1950s and 1960s—hacking was largely an intellectual pursuit. “Hacker culture” was the province of an insular club of programmers with a playful sense of mischief and new ways of looking at computer problems. In the early history of computing, programming was a rigid field occupied by serious-minded engineers and data scientists. But as computing evolved, it also attracted a new and more adventurous personality type. University computing labs proved particularly fertile ground for programmers who preferred to explore outside the traditional rules of computing. This was the beginning of hacker culture.
MIT and the Emergence of Hacker Culture (1950s–1960s)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the most noteworthy of these early hacking hotbeds. At its heart, hacking during this time was centered on the intellectual challenge of overcoming or bypassing the limitations of existing programming systems. While the goal was ostensibly to expand the capabilities of such systems, hacking culture also embraced a sense of playful subversiveness and clever ingenuity.
Activities were centered around two MIT groups”—Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At that time, enthusiasts were most interested in demonstrating feats of skill and intelligence by penetrating computing spaces that were not otherwise open to them. At the same time, a number of like-minded computing laboratories cropped up in several academic communities, most notably the University of California, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University. Remarkably, these hacking subcultures evolved independently from one another, absent a connective force such as the internet.
This changed with the invention of the PDP-10 machine at MIT. This machine used the Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS), a cheekily-named operating system which allowed for “time-sharing.” This meant that remote “guest” access to the machine was possible through ARPAnet—one of the earliest incarnations of the internet. As a result, numerous parties from different locations could interact with, and collaborate on, operating systems and application programs. This was the beginning of an interconnected hacker culture. No longer were college computer labs pursuing innovation in isolation.
The Jargon File (1975)
As hacking became an increasingly collaborative and geographically diffuse phenomenon, hacking culture naturally developed its own insular language. This precipitated the 1975 creation of The Jargon File. This was a system directory first begun at Stanford (and credited to Raphael Finkel). The file was a usage dictionary of slang terms employed by hackers, and included the array of informal terms that had become the language of the hacking culture. The Jargon File was first published in print in 1983, and has since received several critical updates.
One of its most noteworthy contributions was to draw a conceptual distinction between “hackers” and “crackers.” Whereas hackers were, in the Jargon File’s view, consummate programmers, crackers were computer criminals. The Jargon File is inherently sympathetic to the humor and playfulness of hacker culture, and its slang dictionary reflects this humor. In spite of its playful tone, it is often cited as a reference in more serious research and literature on hacking.
GNU Manifesto (1985)
As collaboration became a more common feature of the hacker culture, so too did adherents begin to take on a more ethical disposition. Increasingly, hackers were interested in more than just clever subversiveness. Software freedom also became a critical dimension of hacking. This is perhaps best captured by the 1985 GNU Manifesto, written by activist programmer Richard Stallman, calling for programmers to protect the free and open sharing of computer operating systems.
At the time, Unix and other proprietary operating systems were leading a trend toward closed-source software. Stallman viewed this as a way of dividing users and preventing them from collaborating with, supporting, and helping one another. The primary thrust of Stallman’s manifesto is that ethical programmers should show solidarity by declining to produce programming for proprietary software. The manifesto showcases the highly philosophical impetus that permeated hacker culture, ultimately leading to the later proliferation of online open-source programming.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1997)
In fact, it was this very impetus toward open-source coding that eventually helped to raise the profile of hacking from an obscure subculture to a major source for popular innovation. In 1997, software developer Eric S. Raymond published an essay (and eventually a full-length book) called The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. In it, he provided a series of observations from his work on two projects—the development of the Linux kernel, and an open-source project called fetchmail.
The impact of the essay and book were profound. Raymond differentiates between two distinct modes of software development. The Cathedral Model, according to Raymond, refers to programming which is conducted by an exclusive group of developers in private, with new versions released to the public only periodically. By contrast, said Raymond, the Bazaar Model of development took place out in the open, across the Internet, in full visibility of observers, and accessible for contributions from the public.
This practical contrast between proprietary and open coding was laid bare. In particular, Raymond argued that all bugs are readily uncovered and cured when enough programmers contribute. He made the case that proprietary programming—the Cathedral Model—is inefficient.
The argument proved influential. The following year, popular web browsing pioneer Netscape Communications Corporation released the source code for its Netscape browser to the public, and followed this by initiating the Mozilla project, which would become a prominent open source browser. Netscape’s leadership would acknowledge Raymond’s work as a major influence in their evolving approach. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales acknowledged the same influence, indicating that Raymond’s text illuminated the possibilities of collaborative coding.
These events dramatically raised the profile of hacking, demonstrating the mainstream impact of the rogue programming culture.
Black Hats, White Hats, and Hacktivists
As personal computing, web access, e-commerce, and online banking exploded into popular use during the 2000s, so too did a more nefarious type of hacking. What was once referred to as a ‘cracker’ increasingly became known as a cybercriminal. The ability of hackers to use their programming skills to defraud, disrupt and steal grew as rapidly as the technology itself. Increasingly, criminal codes came to include terms such as cyberterrorism, cyber warfare, malware, ransomware, spamming, and more. From the petty and annoying to the disruptive and downright dangerous, hacking came to encompass a wide range of illicit and illegal activities.
A 2014 report sponsored by virus protection software maker McAfee estimated that the global economy lost roughly $445 billion annually to cybercrime, including such notable incidents as a 2012 credit and debit fraud scheme that netted $1.5 billion in the U.S. In 2018, a similar study found that the cost to the world economy was roughly $600 billion.
During this same time, companies, law enforcement groups, and both national and global agencies increasingly took up the work of providing cyberdefense and cybersecurity. The consequence of these changes is a constantly shifting landscape in which several different breeds of hacker are engaged in their own, sometimes competing activities. Primary among these groups are black hat hackers, those involved in criminal activities; white hat hackers, those using their hacking skills to identify and address cybersecurity vulnerabilities; and hacktivists, those using their hacking skills to support the freedom of information or the pursuit of ideological aims in areas such as commerce, policy, or environmental ethics, whether legal or illegal.
Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Hacking Debate
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures falling under the term “hacker” in between 1950 and 2020. Our rankings produced a list of influential programmers, ethical hackers, black hats, white hats, non-fiction authors, and cyberpunk fiction authors.
|3||Eric S. Raymond|
Top Ten Most Influential Books About Hacking
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of “hacking” in the U.S. between 1950 and 2020. This list is composed of landmark reference texts, works of nonfiction, journalistic endeavors around important computing discoveries, and a number of cyberpunk fiction texts which proved influential beyond the world of science fiction.
|4||Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT|
|5||Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution|
|6||The Cuckoo’s Egg|
|7||Ready Player One|
|8||The Hacker Crackdown|
|9||The Cathedral and the Bazaar|
|10||The Hacker’s Handbook|
The Current Controversy
Today, the debate over hacking is largely ideological. Hacking can be used for a wide range of purposes, including ethical or unethical; commercial or criminal; practical or playful. The original hacker culture ethos, which embraced a playful and clever mode of subversion, remains an undercurrent of hacking.
However, ideological aims have also taken centerstage for many who view themselves as ethical hackers. The term hacktivism covers a wide range of activities. Among the most notable contingents of the hacktivist community are groups like Anonymous—which is famous for doxxing (publicly exposing) those guilty of what it characterizes as civil rights violations, human rights abuses, and other ethical trespasses, and Wikileaks—which uses hacking to obtain and proliferate confidential or classified information about government and state actors. In both instances, the methods used are recognized as having an ideological basis, but may also sometimes run afoul of national and international laws.
The proliferation of computing technology and web access has also created widespread vulnerabilities for private citizens, companies, and governments. These vulnerabilities have attracted tremendous criminal activity to the hacking subculture. These criminal activities have made cybersecurity and cyberdefense absolute necessities for companies and countries. As governments, organizations, and agencies have increased their defense capabilities, they have often employed the skills of white hat hackers to confront the activities of their black hat counterparts.
The result is a tug of war between those charged with cybersecurity and those dedicated to violating or undermining this security. The conflict is perhaps best defined by the heightened use of hostile governments in actions against other sovereign nations. In December of 2020, U.S. intelligence revealed that hackers sponsored by the Russian government had succeeded in penetrating extremely sensitive and classified data in multiple areas of the U.S. government. The attack had gone unnoticed for months, and is regarded as one of the worst cyber-espionage incidents in U.S. history. It demonstrated the scope and danger of cyber warfare between world governments.
This underscores a debate which is less about whether hacking is acceptable—it is an inextricable reality in modern computing—and more directly about what ends hacking can and should be used to achieve.
A Quick Overview of Our MethodA Quick Overview of Our Method
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of hacking, this requires us to consider the key term, “hacker,” as well as terms describing specific types of hacker such as “black hat,” “white hat,” “ethical hacker,” and “hacktivists.” The subject also invokes key terminology around both criminal and security activities, including “cybercrime,” “cybersecurity,” and “cyberattack.”
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the climate change issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:Key Terms:
- Ethical Hacker
- White Hat
- Black Hat
- Security Hacker
The key terminology relating to the present debate, “hacker” refers to programming activities which seek to bypass traditional rules in order to penetrate or disrupt computing systems. In its earliest incarnations, hacking was an intellectual pursuit reserved to a few top programmers, but increasingly came to encompass a range of activities including criminal, law enforcement, and activist undertakings. The influencers yielded by this search term include a combination of these practitioners.
Specifically referring to those who use hacking for ideological activities which may or may not be legal, the search term yielded influencers from prominent groups such as Anonymous as well as those who have been influential in the emergence of open-source programming.
Those who refer to themselves as ethical hackers will typically use their programming skills to combat those who would use programming to engage in criminal activities. The influencers returned by this search terminology are generally experts in cybersecurity.
With the proliferation of computing technology and web use, hacking increasingly became the province of cybercriminals. Cybercrime refers to the activities of those who use hacking strategies to engage in financial crimes, fraud, data theft, and more. The influencers yielded by this term are generally the cybersecurity and legal experts who have worked to uncover, classify, and combat cybercrime.
The concept of cybersecurity emerged in tandem with the growing threat of cybercrime. As the challenge of security private citizens, government agencies, and financial entities against online crimes has grown, so too has the industry dedicated to this security. The influencers here are technologists who have worked directly with governments, agencies, and commercial entities to produce the technical and policy imperatives around cybersecurity.
While the reasons behind a cyberattack may be varied—including personal, political, and philosophical imperatives—the act itself is typically illegal. A cyberattack may be carried out on a company, country, or a private citizen, and may include disruption of service, public exposure, data breach, and more. The influencers here include those who have worked to provide security against such attacks and those who have been found guilty of committing such attacks.
White hat hackers are those who use their computing skills to strengthen security systems. Typically, a white hat hacker will use hacking skills on behalf of an entity to identify that entity’s security vulnerabilities so that they can be remedied. As the list of influencers falling under this classification demonstrates, it is not uncommon for “black hat hackers”—those engaged in illegal hacking activities—to become white hat hackers.
Black hat hacking generally refers to illegal hacking activities, including both criminal activities and hacktivist activities that violate the law. The list of influencers produced here includes both those who are known to engage in black hat hacking activities and the cybersecurity experts who have worked to identify and prevent their activities.
Security hacker is a term largely synonymous with white hat hacker, and refers to those who use their computing skills to identify vulnerabilities in, and ultimately strengthen, computer security systems. Influencers here include a number of prominent cybersecurity experts.
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the hacking debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
- The Most Influential Computer Science Degrees
- The Most Influential Engineering Degrees
- The Most Influential Philosophy Degrees
Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!