October 24, 2008

Hacker practice: Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 3:02 am

So I usually don’t announce my publications on my blog and for various reasons. The main one is that I am more than a little embarrassed that some of them are behind walled gardens (but being I am a junior prof, I am not in a position to negotiate otherwise). Otherwise, some of my pieces are semi-jargony (in the academic sense) and may not be of interest to readers who I think are more geek than academic. Finally, the process of publishing is so slow, so long, and so painful, I try not to think about it, much less write about it, if I can help it. But I decided to announce this
piece , which is on hackers (surprise surprise) as it might be of interest to some readers and because people can download it for free here for the rest of the month (but registration is required )

Co-written with Alex “Rex” Golub, I am pretty happy to see in print although it is far more “academic” in its tone, argument, and language than most of everything else I have written. This is in part because the article is more theoretical than ethnographic (hence the journal, Anthropological Theory) and tackles the question of liberalism alongside hacking. It seeks to demonstrate that these can be talked about 1) together and in cultural terms 2) that we we can identify some cohesive elements to hacking and liberalism, in part by placing them in conversation with each other 3) and yet we can also locate plurality and diversity within liberalism and hacking as well. This is a lot to tackle and cover in one piece under 35 pages and I am sure it could have been pulled off better but I think it is is a decent start to thinking about these questions. If you are interested but are allergic to academicalese, sticking to the Introduction, the Hacker Ethical Practice: Three Examples section, and Conclusion, will give you a taste of the arguments while avoiding most of the jargon.

The irony of this article is that even if it hits at some pretty theoretical issues, it was provoked by a mundane conversation and disagreement I had with one hacker, Karl Fogel, over another hacker, Kevin Mitnick. After returning from the hacker conference, HOPE, I had dinner with Karl and told him about Kevin Mitnick’s keynote speech, which I found particularity enjoyable and entertaining. After calling Mitnick a hacker, Karl responded with the following: Kevin is not hacker. He is a cracker.” Though I think I convinced him that cracker may not be the best word for him (and he convinced me there are differences between hacking, noting perceptively that “his primary motivation seemed to be getting access to something he wasn’t allowed to have access to—that is, it was more about breaking the rules and the thrill of crossing a social line, than about learning a technical system.“), I decided that I wanted to write a piece that squarely addressed tensions and differences among hackers instead of whitewashing them away as most authors, journalist, and even some hackers do.

Although most of the time, it seems like it is the Karl-type hackers who accuse the Mitnick-type hackers of not being true and authentic, recently I have been in a few situations where the tables were turned. For example, last year I was having coffee with a 2600-type who insisted that hacking on Linux was not hacking at all (not innovative enough, according to his world view). Another example I came across was in a recent Phrack issue where the prophiled hacker, the Unix Terrorist, takes a swipe at (well honestly at everyone and everythin) but when he is talking trash about who is and who is not a hacker, he singles out F/OSS developers:

“Linus Torvalds isn’t a hacker! Richard Stallman isn’t a hacker! Niels Provos
isn’t a hacker! Fat/ugly, maybe! Hackers, no! And what is up with
the use of the term “cracker”? As far as I’m concerned, that term
applies to people that bypass copyright protection mechanisms.
Vladimir Levin? HACKER. phiber optik? HACKER. Kevin Mitnick? OK,
maybe a gay/bad one, but still WAS a “hacker.” Hope that’s clear.”

Of course, one can play the game of defining the “authentic” hacking (and it makes sense for many to do this!) but my interest as an anthropologist has never been to draw a bright and clear boundary between “good hackers” and “bad hackers.” or “real and fake hackers,” but instead to describe and grapple with the tension points and internal ambiguities among hackers (my whole course is designed around this theme, in fact). This is not to say that anything goes in the world of hacking (that is, I don’t consider any computer break in a hack; I often just call it a crime) but if there is a group of people calling themselves hackers and thinking to some degree of the ethical implications of their actions, as an anthropologist, this is enough “social evidence” to start asking some questions about the political and cultural significance of their actions.


  1. Hackers and Crackers

    Well, there was a time when these words were used by three groups to describe themselves. Hackers for the old style hackers, hackers for those who break into systems, and crackers for those who crack crypto/copyprotection/DRM.

    Until Eric S. Raymond turns up in 1990 with this: “CRACKER (krak’r) n. One who breaks security on a system. Coined c. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of HACKER,
    see definition #6.”

    And I’ve never heard before of this; so I presume ESR himself decided that people who break into systems are now called by a name which some other group had already applied to themselves. I anyone has some documents referring to this kind of “crackers” from before 1990 and not from ESR, I’d be happy to hear of. And I’ve got plenty of documentation on the other “crackers”, those who crack copyprotection, from 1980 onwards…

    Now, should the crackers insist that we should use “hacker” for perpetrators of security-break-ins, because of journalistic misuse of the word “cracker”?

    Comment by Seegras — October 24, 2008 @ 4:42 am

  2. What Seegras said.

    I had never heard of crackers in the ’80s, except for people who bypass copy-protection. When I first heard the term “crackers” (as in “bad hackers”) I thought people had missed the point of “hacking” at best.

    In my mind “hackers” and “hacking” did certainly come with a certain ethos; however, it was completely orthogonal to the fact whether or not what they were doing was against the law or not. I also disliked the later terms “white hat hackers” and “black hat hackers” for similar reasons. Was this distinction really needed? “Black hat plumbers”? “White hat art lovers”?

    Instead of missing the point, it seemed more likely that certain people were trying to project their sense of ethics and morals on a wider group of people by intentionally redefining words. Which, if it was the case, I consider quite dishonest. ESR did this, RMS did it with “Free” f.e. (notwithstanding the fact that I respect him for the GPL), the RIAA/MPAA does this with “theft”, etc. It’s propaganda, pure and simple.

    People let them get away with it, I think because people like well-defined groups; it allows them to put themselves into one of these categories. Us open-source folk (see I do it too) do it all the time.

    Comment by nona — October 24, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  3. (Quote) Hacking on Linux was not hacking at all (not innovative enough, according to his world view).

    What does he hack with then if he dosnt mind me asking? Windows!?!? What a skiddie!

    As for Mitnik he was Guilty as SIN, loads of people involved in hacking eventually land up in hot water they should just stop whining about it.

    All that crap about prison making him a reformed and changed charachter, does John Markoff or Shimomora think prison changed him in anyway? Social engineering at it’s best. I’m an innocent victim in all of this, yeah right Kevin!

    Comment by Scott Thompson — October 24, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  4. Scott, there’s a difference between “hack on” (his words) and “hack with” (yours)

    Comment by Dean — October 25, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  5. Couple of thoughts:

    Regarding that conversation over dinner, Biella, I’m surprised now that I insisted on the terminology point at all. Sometime between then and now my thinking on this must have changed so completely (perhaps because of you) that I’ve forgotten ever holding the opinion that “cracker” is the more appropriate word for the “likes to break in to places” type of hacker.

    However, the reason I wouldn’t now insist on using “cracker” is not because there’s no distinction, but rather because “hacker” is indeed historically accurate, as Seegras and nona point out. The break-in type of hacker did refer to themselves as “hackers” back in the day, and so did others — in particular, their victims. So who are we “likes to code creatively, but not very interested in breaking into places” hackers to claim exclusive rights to the term now?

    Furthermore, even though there is an observeable distinction between the two types, they are not completely unrelated. Modern-day chemists might like to deny their connection to the alchemists who preceded them, and would be right to draw a distinction between their practice and that of the alchemists… but there’s still a connection, a historical line of descent that cannot be denied. The two may not overlap much today, but they overlapped a lot when the earlier discipline was transforming into the later one. The same is true with old- and new-style hackers.

    So, yes, Mitnick was a hacker, and possibly is a hacker still (although the term has been expanded and changed so much that he might confuse some people if he referred to himself that way).

    Too bad we don’t have separate terms for “likes to break in” and “likes to code creatively”. Maybe “geek” or “code geek” is becoming an accepted way to refer to the second, leaving “hacker” free to be used in its old sense without fear of confusing the newcomers.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — October 26, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  6. Btw, what are the exact copyright terms SAGE has for the article? Do you and Rex hold copyright, but just have an exclusivity agreement with SAGE? Or does SAGE have copyright outright?

    I tried to visit it, but SAGE required me to sign up for a free trial registration. That sounded bad — like something I might have to remember to undo later, the way one does with so-called “free trial” magazine subscriptions — so I didn’t do it.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — October 26, 2008 @ 12:21 am

  7. They have copyright and in a year we can put up the article on our webpage for download, so effectively, most of the restrictions go away.It was not worth the battle, not for this piece anyway, especially since we can throw the real deal up in a year’s time. And if anyone wanted to translate it, I am sure they would give permission in an instant. Journals are pretty good about allow that.

    I have signed up for a lot of these things and honestly there are nothing like magazine free trail subscriptions. They ask you IF you want to follow the table of contents of various journals, which is handy. But that is about it. I think the free reg is a way to get people to sign up for that service and also a way to get around their guilt for i am sure they must know what they are doing is wrong.

    On the other hand, something like Harper’s to tell you the truth is much more annoying as they sell your data no matter what to a bunch of places. I know this because when I do sign up for magazines, I change my name so I can track who is selling me off.

    Comment by Biella — October 26, 2008 @ 3:45 am

  8. So these are interesting comments and I have a few thoughts:


    So that is an interesting point but yes, what happens with hackers today, hackers that do the Mitnick thing? Times have changed and there is ostensibly this new term, so do we keep using it? I ask because your alchemy/chemistry comparison makes it seem like there was overlap in the past but there is not today. And yet I have met hackers who blur these lines: they are free software geeks, like to hack in UNIX and have dabbled in the break in behavior as well. The lines between these types exist but they are not stark and bright. The alchemist and chemist are still around, in other words.

    In terms of the where the term came from, I also would like to know if it arose independent of ESR or if it was just being used “natively” or even by journalists and then he included it in the JF. I know one could figure out this answer (I just don’t have time right now). I think I will post Seegras’ question in the blog to see if it can elicit any answers.

    I agree with Nona that cracker is not too dissimilar to the propaganda the RIAA spews with theft/piracy, which is why many hackers (even those that don’t do the illegal stuff) are offended as well by the term cracker.

    But to be a little charitable, it must have been tough to see in the 1980s the avalanche negative press that arose that gave hackers a BAD NAME. WE have in part clueless journalist to blame for that (who need to sensationalize).

    Comment by Biella — October 26, 2008 @ 3:59 am

  9. I have to admit, I feel instinctively that “hacker” is still the best term for those who do both the alchemy and the, uh, chemy.

    (It may also be that breaking in just isn’t as interesting as it used to be, now that computing resources are so much more widely available?)

    Re the copyright thing: I wasn’t criticizing (not sure if it came off like that), was just curious.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — October 26, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  10. Hi,

    “Cracker” was in the 80s the common term of people who were “cracking” copy-protection algos of e.g. commercial games or other software products.

    Especially in the C64 scene, “Cracker” was the normal term of people “cracking” the copy protection code…another term was “Spreader” who were using the work of “Crackers” and put their nametag on it (very bad these days).

    “Hackers” in these days were guys like the “CCC” who were breaking into data networks like (e.g. in Germany) DATEX-P or other mailboxes or other networks via telecommunication methods. There was no difference between people who were showing the world that networks were insecure, or if they intruded networks just for gaining money (e.g. Hagbards Hack)

    Then we had “Phreaking” people etc. pp.

    Comment by shermann — October 27, 2008 @ 6:54 am

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