that Hackers Assign to their Being a Hacker
This study analyzes the ways in which hackers interpret their lives,
behavior, and beliefs, as well as their perceptions of how society
treats them. The study was based on unstructured, face-to-face
interviews with fifty-four Israeli hackers who were asked to tell their
life stories. Analysis of the data reveals differences in the hackers’
self-presentation and the extent of their hacking activity. Although
these differences imply the importance of informal labeling since
childhood, it seems that hackers succeed in avoiding both, the effects
of labeling and secondary deviance and that they feel no shame.
Furthermore, they structure their identities as positive deviants and
acquire the identity of breakers of boundaries, regardless of the number
and severity of the computer offenses they have committed.
hackers; crackers; hacking; labeling; positive deviant; construction of
deviance has not been sufficiently studied, especially from the
perspective of the perpetrators themselves (Yar, 2005). The present study
analyzes the ways in which hackers interpret their lives, behavior, and
beliefs, as well as their perceptions of how society treats them. The
study examines hackers’ life stories that explain who they are and what
they do, which provides a deeper, sharper picture on the complexity of the
phenomenon than a survey could (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach & Zilber, 1998).
The focus is on the social construction of deviant identity among hackers
and on the meanings they assign to their reality (Charmaz, 2000).
underground forms a worldwide subculture (Holt, 2007; Meyer and Thomas,
1990). The symbolic identity of the computer underground generates a rich
and diverse culture consisting of justifications, highly specialized
skills, information-sharing networks, norms, status hierarchies, language,
and unifying symbolic meanings (Meyer & Thomas, 1990). The "hacker" label
is often used to refer to the computer underground as a whole. Hackers
have a distinct image, an imagined identity that binds them, even if they
never meet each other (Jordan & Taylor, 1998).
But there are also
differences between subgroups that are classified depending on their
expertise, areas of interest, and behavior patterns (Voiskounsky &
Smyslova, 2003). The perplexity surrounding the label "hacker" has to do
with the fuzzy definition of the term and the vague boundaries between
computer experts and hackers (Jordan & Taylor, 1998), as well as those
characteristics that differentiate between various types of hackers.
Hackers themselves suggested different terms and meanings to define
hackers and hacking (Holt, 2007; Coleman & Golub, 2008). The best-known
members of the computer underground are hackers/crackers (usually
referring to those who break into computer systems), phreaks (those who
use technology or telephone credit card numbers to avoid long distance
charges), and pirates (those who distribute copyrighted software
illegally). As there are differences in the meaning and practice of being
a hacker, it is essential to examine if and how it is represented by
differences in the hackers’ self-presentation. This research outlines the
differences between deviant and less deviant computer hackers.
The term hacker has
evolved through the years (Jordan & Taylor, 2004). From the beginning,
hacking has raised serious concerns on the misuse of the powerful, new
electronic technology (Hannemyr, 1999). Yet, initially the term had
connotations of honorable motives of virtuoso programmers overcoming
obstacles. Sterling (1992, p. 53) says, “Hacking can signify the
free-wheeling intellectual exploration of the highest and deepest
potential of computer systems. Hacking can describe the determination to
make access to computers and information as free and open as possible.”
This is hacking as defined in Levy’s (1984) history of the computer
milieu, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.
Hacking has evolved
into unauthorized access to computer networks (Jordan and Taylor, 1998).
The label hacker has acquired has the negative connotation of computer
criminal and electronic vandal (Chandler, 1996), a national security
threat and a threat to intellectual property (Halbert, 1997). However,
Skibell (2002) calls the computer hacker a myth (2002) and stated that few
computer hackers possess sufficient skills or desire to commit more than
the Internet and personal computers (Wall, 2001), and “it might, in fact,
even be suggested that the personal computer would never have existed
without the computer hacker” (Chandler, 1996, p. 229). The earliest
generations of hackers (Jordan and Taylor, 2004; Levy, 1984) passionately
wanted computers and computer systems designed to be useful and accessible
to individuals, and in the process pioneered public access. Hannemyr
(1999) concludes that the hackers have successfully created several usable
and unique software programs, ranging from text editors to the Internet.
Furthermore, the open-source movement, an alternative and successful way
of developing and distributing software (Ljungberg, 2000), has rooted in
the hacker culture since the early 1960s (Levy, 1984). And it seems that
in recent years the positive connotation of hacking has been partially
returned in connection with the involvement of hackers in the open source
movement and their influence on it.
In its short
history, the "hacker" label has changed from a positive to a negative one.
Most sociological knowledge on the stigma focuses on what Goffman called
information management rather than on the contested nature of
stigma (Kusow, 2004). The focus here is on the contested nature of stigma
and show that hackers not only reject the stigma attached to them, but go
further and empower themselves as "positive deviants", regardless of their
specific practices as hackers. Therefore, the theoretical framework that
seems productive for understanding these behaviors is Labeling Theory
(Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1951).
Davies and Tanner
(2003) contend that labeling theory has three different concerns. The
first is secondary deviance: deviant behavior that goes unnoticed,
undetected, or hidden is said to be less generative of further deviant
behavior than behavior that is publicly sanctioned; the second pertains to
the social-psychological effect of labeling, with labels changing the
individual’s self-conception for the worse; the third examines the effect
of labeling on life opportunities, specifically in the area of employment.
These concerns will be addressed in the present paper.
deviance is a controversial term (Goode, 1991), but seems useful for the
construction of deviant identity among hackers. Dodge (1985, p. 18)
defines positive deviance as “those acts, roles/careers, attributes and
appearances… singled out for special treatment and recognition, those
persons and acts that are evaluated as superior because they surpass
conventional expectations.” Heckert (1989), who applies the relationships
of labeling theory to positive deviance by examining the labeling of the
French Impressionists, claims that the genius or an exceptional athlete
should be examined similarly to negative deviants. Becker (1978) has also
utilized labeling theory to show how geniuses were once defined as mad.
Ben-Yehuda (1990) argues that the label of deviant can be negative or
positive, position that is implicit in the labeling approach and more
explicit once we accept the relative view of deviance, the negotiated
nature, its emergent quality, and fluidity.
Hackers are a good
example of Becker's (1963) approach whereby labeling an activity as
deviant is based on the creation of social groups and not the quality of
the activity itself. Becker (1963) uses the term "outsider" to describe
labeled rule-breakers or deviants who accept the label attached to them
and view themselves as different from "mainstream."
This study is based
on interviews with individuals who constitute a subculture by virtue of
their membership in a self-defined subculture. Based on the
phenomenological-interpretive approach (Geertz, 1973), the objective of
this research is not to reveal the actual reality but to describe how
self-defined hackers’ experience, explain, and interpret reality.
The starting point
for this study was the grounded theory (Strauss, 1987; Strauss and Corbin,
1990, 2000), a data-driven method that produces theoretical propositions
and concepts, and systematically processes them. The outcome of grounded
theory is “a social construction of the social constructions found and
explicated in the data” (Charmaz, 1990, p. 1165). In this respect, the
researcher’s text is itself an interpretive structuring of reality. The
hackers' narrative are reconstructions of experience, they are not the
original experience itself (Charmaz, 2000).
reports (one interviewed on TV show, and the rest were interviewed in
hacker conferences (one called Movement, a demo scene party, and the
other called Y2Hack)
conference about information security
the Internet (arranging a face-to-face interview in ICQ)
informants (journalists, a radio broadcaster, and the owner of a
Interviewees approached me when I was lecturing on computer crime
(each at a different lecture)
Acquaintances and family members and friends
or chain referrals; I asked interviewees to refer me to others
interviewees required intensive efforts to establish connections and make
the acquaintance of various informants and of suitable potential
interviewees (see table 1). The interviews were conducted in 1998 and
1999, yet it seems that they are still meaningful as the practices and
perceptions which were reported by the interviewees coincide with reports
on hackers today. The interviews were conducted in the hackers’ homes or
in public places such as coffee shops, according to the interviewee
preference. I took notes during the interviews, recording the words of the
interviewees almost verbatim. Each interviewee assigned an identification
number, without any identifying details.
unstructured, in-depth, face-to-face interviews were conducted with
Israeli self-defined hackers using the narrative interview technique
(Rosenthal & Bar-On, 1992). The interviews lasted an average of three
hours (the shortest was two hours, the longest eight). At the end of the
interview I asked whether there was anything they wanted to add or felt
that they had missed, then thanked them and ended the session. Later,
usually the following day, I sent them a thank you note (by email). Many
of the interviewees responded positively. For example, Eran (all names are
fictitious) said, “One of the reasons for sitting here and talking to you
today was the opportunity to recall, think, and understand. Each of these
conversations is an introspection, which eventually helps me understand
a robust set of categories that covered the hackers’ self-perceptions and
behaviors, and uncovered their life stories, a series of theoretical
propositions was generated (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). These propositions
started from a conjecture or an idea (jotted down as memos), based on
relationships between categories and sub-categories, for example between
general behavior patterns and hacking activities. I tested these
theoretical propositions by constantly referring back to the data for
socio-demographic characteristics of
5.5%, Male 94.5%
14-49 years, Avg. age 24
age group 20-30
78%, married 13%
years and above 74%
European or American 74%
Fifty-one of the
fifty-four interviewees were men (see table 2). Only six reported having a
criminal record, five of which were computer related. The interviews
provided an opportunity to study successful lawbreakers outside an
institutional context (uncaught deviants). The interviewees tended to be
young, single, educated, above average income, of European or American
origin, and secular. This profile is consistent with the literature, which
reports that hackers are mostly non-violent, white, young, middle or upper
class men with no criminal record (e.g. Hollinger, 1991).
Different Meanings that
Hackers Assign to their Being a Hacker
hacker in this study is someone who commits any of the 12 computer
offenses in one or more of the following three areas:
Software piracy: unauthorized duplication of pirated software;
unauthorized distribution of pirated software, cracking software or games,
selling cracked-pirated software
Hacking: unauthorized accessing of computer systems, using illegal
Internet accounts; development and/or distribution of viruses, browsing or
reading other users’ files, stealing computer-stored information, causing
computer systems to crash, using stolen credit cards from the Internet
Phreaking: cracking the phone network mainly to make free
long-distance calls. These offenses are similar to those identified by
Hollinger (1988), who differentiated between pirates, browsers, and
crackers who had the most technical ability and were the most serious
abusers, as well as to the offenses studied by Rogers, Smoak, and Liu
(2006). These offenses match the attacks detected by the 2006 CSI/FBI
survey (e.g., unauthorized access to information, system penetration,
theft of information, and sabotage).
assign different meanings and interpretations to operating as a hacker.
They showed different self-presentation according to differences in the
variety and extent of their hacking activities. The reported differences
are manifest from early childhood through adulthood. Those who reported
mischievous behavior since childhood (not related to computers), and
presented themselves as talented and gifted since childhood, committed
statistically significantly more numerous and diverse computer offenses
(practicing piracy, hacking and phreaking) than those who reported
normative good behavior and who did not report as
diagnosed with high intellect (for the full analysis see Turgeman-Goldschmidt,
2002). In other words, the "bad" hackers (also referred to as crackers)
were much more likely to present themselves as having a wild and gifted
persona, than the "good" hackers who reported good behavior since
The hackers’ report
of computer-related or hacking activities fits their basic self-image.
Kevin Mitnick, perhaps the most famous hacker, also describes his
desire and ability to learn and discover going back to his childhood (Mitnick
& Simon, 2002). The actor fits “his/her self into the dominant character
of the situation or structure: adjusting to an obdurate reality” (Fine,
1993, p. 78). These moral constructions are precarious social
constructions rather than essences. Gad, for instance, portrayed himself
as the eternal iconoclast, mentioning having quit his BA studies and an
advertisement course, and frequently changed jobs. He states, “I don’t
like to do things that I have to”. However, a careful look into his life
story reveals that he successfully completed several serious undertakings
like, schooling, a scriptwriter course, and military service as an
officer. Gad, as others, chooses to construct his life story around a
certain theme, as a non-conformist and eternal iconoclast. As Stryker
(1968) contends, individuals with highly salient identities enact these
identities over others that are less salient, even when both may be
appropriate in a given situation.
The hacker term was originally defined as:
1. A person
who enjoys learning the details of computer systems and how to stretch
their capabilities, as opposed to most users of computers, who prefer to
learn only the minimum amount necessary.
2. One who
programs enthusiastically or who enjoys programming rather than just
theorizing about programming (Raymond, 1991). Ami, a 19 year old,
third-year student of computer science, working at the computer help desk
of a university, describes what it is like to be a hacker:
myself as a hacker. A hacker can cope with technical details… A hacker is
someone with: a knack for the technical, usually having something in
connection with computers, someone who has the ability to improvise and be
resourceful... It’s not a matter of breaking the law. It’s a fact that
there’s this system and you can manipulate it.
clearly sees himself as a hacker, he does not perceive hacking to
necessarily include unauthorized penetration of computer systems
(break-in) or viewing others’ files without permission, but as having
technical capabilities. He says, “It is not just the end result - the
maximal change in improving software, but how you got there.” By referring
to programmers who demonstrate virtuosity in their ability to overcome
obstacles, his usage of the term "hacker" differs from the prevailing
definition and matches the previous usage (Levy, 1984).
hobbyists, the good hackers described their development and progress in
computers as the natural outgrowth of their basic good identities. Ami
suggests a positive connotation of the term hacker: a computer technology
expert who "does the impossible," proves his/her ability and superior
expertise, and belongs to an elite subculture of experts in the field who
are leading society toward a better technological future. According to the
metaphor used by Na'ama, who practiced only authorized hacking,
hackers see themselves as deviants who ultimately became leaders: “I like
the image of ants; there are those that join a trail and those that leave
the trail. That’s always been my image of the marginal types, who are
actually those who discover alternative paths, and thanks to them the rest
of society discovers alternative paths.”
Good hackers have
been involved primarily in copyright violations such as copying and
distributing software. Although they negotiate their label by using a
moral construct, they are usually involved in software piracy to a higher
extent and with a greater commitment than non-hackers individuals. As Ami
said, “I feel a moral commitment to screw Microsoft.” In Idan’s words,
“It’s the way to a better world not letting companies like Microsoft
control the market.”
their narratives reveal, they have usually tried both hacking and
phreaking, but were not interested in ongoing break-in career.
“Technically, I know how and could actually penetrate a remote computer
belonging to someone else, but I have no reason to do so. I’m not
interested,” says Ami. Yoni tells of a break-in he committed once just to
see what it was like. “Before I knew what it was like, like lots of kids,
I thought it was cool.” This sheds light on the process of becoming a
hacker, which is not only a matter of technical learning but one must
learn to enjoy it. As Becker (1953, p. 235) said about marijuana users,
“the motivation or disposition to engage in the activity is built up in
the course of learning to engage in it and does not antedate this learning
process.” Yoni, who also reported having written viruses to learn a new
skill, says: “What made me stop [break-in] was not because I cared what
people think, I simply lost interest in it. I can laugh afterwards at
someone who wasted his time, when I didn’t.” In Becker’ words, during the
sequence of his social experiences, Yoni has not acquired a conception of
the meaning of break-in activity, which makes it desirable.
sometimes touched upon morality. Udi, who talked about the fun in doing
the impossible with computer systems, was raised as an orthodox Jew. “Much
of my religious life still remains in me with respect to values. The fact
that I’ve never committed a crime may be related to this. I’m a good boy,
in whom the good side survived.” Udi did not acquire the perceptions and
judgments of unauthorized hacking that make the activity desirable. Rogers
et al. (2006) found that self-reported computer deviants scored lower on
social moral choice than non-computer deviants, yet when Rogers, Seigfried
and Tidke (2006) replicated Rogers’s study they failed to find any
significant effect for moral choice.
The good hackers
remain open to finding alternatives to penetrating computer systems, in
order to achieve their desire for recognition (Taylor, 1999). Good hackers
do not feel the desire to engage in computer break-in because they are
usually engaged in other activities that yield the same results,
recognition and esteem for their abilities. They are engaged as gamers or
as demo sceners. Demo is a short, computer-generated multimedia production
that demonstrates its creator’s talent and creativity in computer music,
graphics, and animation. For example, Yoav, an 18 year old, who is about
to be drafted into the army’s Intelligence Corps, achieved recognition for
his activities as a gamer when he invented and produced a network game
that gained inspired admiration: “We eventually turned it into a film with
a plot and an ending, we released it, and people liked it. It made us very
The bad hackers
described themselves as having a wild and gifted persona. They described
their computer-related activities as a natural outgrowth of their
childhood behavior. Their mischievous image followed them through
childhood, school, military service, work, and so forth. Hackers, like
others, seek to have their identities verified by others, whether the
identity is positive or negative (Swann, Wenzlaff, and Tafarodi, 1992).
Whereas good hackers are involved as gamers or demo sceners, the bad
hackers are members of hacking or cracking groups.
Meir, a 24-year-old
founder of a high-tech start-up, reported committing eight types of
computer offenses in the areas of software piracy, hacking, and phreaking.
He mentioned testing into genius range as a child, his effortless
science-related capabilities, and his ability to “rapidly assimilate
information is a gift from God if there is one, or maybe from my parents”.
Meir portrayed himself in various contexts as mischievous. At school “they
were always sending notes home to my parents. I was considered as one of
the troublemakers. Not disturbed but misbehaved. I wouldn’t do my
homework, I would cut classes or make a mess in the computer lab or hack
into the school’s computers.” In the army too, “I was a terrible
conscript. I blew off my commanders, and there was nothing they could do.”
He attributed his being different and special both to original thinking
(“Lots of people think I’m strange”) and to original actions, such as
having a tattoo in an unusual place on his body. He wanted to convey that
he was not an ordinary person. “I like the fact that I’m different, I’m
more in love with myself for having done the impossible”.
Neli, a sixteen
year-old, describes the process of becoming a hacker as part of the
progress he made in computer knowledge, describing achieving a university
degree and hacking into a website in analogous terms: “My approach has
always been that, if someone else can do it, so can I. That’s been my
motivation ever since I can remember. If others can finish university in
three years, so can I. If others can hack into Web sites and sabotage
them, so can I. After a while, the excitement fades and you go on to
something else.” Neli moved on to cracking computer systems as a ‘sneaky
thrill’ (Katz, 1988, p. 53). Katz views young property criminals as
committing sneaky crimes for the thrill; hackers take on hacking as a
social entertainment that usually excites them (Turgeman-Goldschmidt,
2005). Hacking becomes just another skill to acquire, if not the most
exciting one as far as they are concerned. Neli first expressed his
excitement in building websites, then studying programming, and eventually
hacking. According to him,
the thing that’s taken me the longest to learn. The nicest thing was
simply finding the answer. That’s the thing that excited me the most, and
for one reason: HTML. You create and change things that are yours, you
recreate yourself. You control something outside yourself. It creates a
feeling. It’s incredible. You have access and the door’s wide open. The
possibility to change and destroy others—you, yes, you! It’s a turn-on. It
is the exact opposite of being in a mall where you want a certain store to
open and another one to close. You can, and it’s soooo nice.
Like others, Neli
disavows the label of deviant and negotiates his identity by portraying
hacking as just another realm to conquer, that is, demonstrating mastery
and knowledge. Neli chooses to portray himself as a troublemaker (“the bad
boy, the wild child, whatever you want to call it”) who is academically
successful without even trying. But beyond disavowing the label of
deviant, Neli negotiated his identity as morally "better" by choosing the
target, which is penetrating computer systems of Israel’s enemies, such as
the Hamas and neo-Nazis. He portrays himself as a guardian of the state.
He says, “I see myself the state’s guardian. If the government isn't doing
anything, I feel I should, and I do something.” His story was in the
papers, and received a lot of attention:
all, I didn’t go to school on the first day because I was all over the
papers. When I went to school everyone asked, “How’s it going?” even
though they knew all about my whereabouts and what I had been up to.
Students pointed at me stating, “I saw you on television. It was like a
party. The whole school was really nice to me. I had to turn the kids
away, they were all over me”. Their admiration was deserved because I did
something unique, I learned something specific, so why not? I know it
probably sounds like I’m full of myself, but according to the Walla [an
Israeli portal] poll, they admired me for it. Except for a scathing
article against me in Ma’ariv l’Noar [a teen magazine], most of the
coverage was supportive. I like to make a scrapbook of all of the
articles. After the publicity I got, it gained momentum.
Neli’s story is an
excellent example of the experienced fame and recognition that go with
hacking in the hackers’ eyes, even when it crosses the publicity line from
being news among hackers to the general public domain. Neli, who regularly
committed computer offenses, won fame for his hacking activities. He also
succeeded in translating fame and recognition into a different type of
prestige by accepting an after-school job at a leading computer company.
Arik, a 22 year old
student, who learns how to write viruses “only as a technical part of
understanding,” says, “Another common denominator of this underground is
that what motivates us is not money. We despise commercialism. What
motivates us is the fame and prestige that one receives.” It seems that
this motivation distinction enables hackers to feel superior tin
comparison to traditional criminals.
Indeed, the manner
in which hackers’ activities should be treated has become blurred and
uncertain. Sometimes, society functions as a reinforcing spawn factor of
deviance for which at least the informal sanctions are more positive than
negative (as in Neli’s example). Occasionally, even formal reactions are
positive. Yaron, the 30-year-old owner of a successful information
security company, says, “The judge saw things the right way, unlike the
police. A successful, talented kid who committed a prank, not for
profitable gain,” letting Yaron off with no punishment, and with a
“recommendation from the judge.” Yaron explains, “Compared to the other
less sophisticated criminals, computer criminals get more sympathy.
There’s a certain favor for sophistication.” It seems that Yaron’s
experience with labeling enabled him to succeed later in life, and to
avoid secondary deviance, although he was initially labeled as a deviant.
Israeli Analyzer (Tenenbaum) penetrated the Pentagon, the headlines
labeled him “The Israeli Computer Genius,” and a degree of admiration and
awe was discernible even amongst journalists. Israeli leaders also viewed
him as a hero. The then Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called him
superb, Industry and Trade Minister then, Dalia Itzik, said he is a wizard
who should not stand trial because his knowledge could aid the state.
Exit (or Semi-Exit) from the "Bad" Hacking World
In most situations
of loss, such as a change related to a loss of personal ability,
individuals look for means to preserve their former identities or to
establish new ones in order to regain a sense of continuity (Charmaz,
1994). Studies conducted on individuals who were "exiting the deviant
career" focus on identifying the process whereby deviant individuals
abandon certain behaviors, ideologies, and identities by replacing them
with occupations in professional counseling (Brown, 1991). Brown claims
that 'ex-deviants' do not 'leave it all behind' (p. 227) in order to
replace their lifestyles with more conventional lifestyles, values,
beliefs, and identities, but rather use remnants of their deviant
background as explicit strategies for their occupations. In this regard,
ex-hackers also suggest that ex-deviants tend not to shed or forget their
pasts but reinvent them by transforming them into social capital that is,
proclaiming membership in a group – which provides each of its members
with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital. A "credential" which
entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word (Bourdieu 1986,
p. 248). Meir, an ex-hacker, certainly does not "leave it all behind"
know that everything’s possible, it takes your desire away. The fact is
that it no longer excites me… Hacking grew out of a high degree of
expertise, from an attitude of “as hard as you try, you’ll never be able
to do it.” It’s truly a war. A lot of respect is at stake. It’s
competitive, the most competitive of people competing against each other.
It’s like two opposing countries’ armies. Once I worked for an antivirus
company. It was for my own interests, since I liked being the bad guy and
engaging in [viruses]. At one point in time it was for fun. Now I just
crack stuff that I need. I hack, but lawfully. I try to find the
loopholes. The law places obstacles in my path, so I go around them. There
are levels of risk that I used to take, but I don’t today, and there are
principles that you don’t violate. Occasionally I’m tempted to hack into
the Interior Ministry to see if the owner of my friend’s apartment is the
real one because certain things there look suspicious. But it’s not out of
evil intent, I do it only when there’s no other recourse. Today, it’s a
profession. I do it because I need to, not for the same reasons I used to.
Meir explains this
change in motivation as a moral responsibility that he did not feel
previously, but it is also the result of a lack of interest that follows
from the status definition of his role and from the burnout that now
characterizes hacking. To this day, he perceives various hacking
activities as legitimate, and therefore has not undergone a serious
transformation. Ex-hackers occupying professional positions carefully
consider the risks involved in hacking activities. There are, says Meir,
“levels of risk that I once took but don’t anymore.” Moreover, the
pleasure that accompanied committing computer offenses diminishes with
time, particularly as hackers feel that they have reached the apex of
their technical abilities: “There’s no longer the fun of ‘I can do it.’ At
the same time, their computer expertise remains. Hackers treasure this
expertise, and sometimes check that it is still up to date. Ex-hackers
still use their hacking skills when the need arises, albeit for different
purposes, such as obtaining information that others cannot, or gaining an
advantage over a competitor.
hackers who grew up, joined the establishment, and hold respected, lawful
positions, in most cases owing precisely to their hacking abilities. Their
crossing over to lawfulness is external and structural. They perceive
themselves as especially gifted people whose acts, branded by the law as
computer crimes, do not cause damage and fall under the definition of
pranks or mischief. They have no moral problem with hacking itself or with
their status as ex-hackers. Consequently, their life stories are not those
of reformed criminals but of heroes who gained the type of social
recognition that places them at center stage. Fine (1986) maintained that
as children grow older they view their former "dirty play" (such as
aggressive pranks, sexual talk, and racist remarks) as morally offensive
rather than fun. Contrary to claims by Arluke (2002) and Fine (1986), none
of the ex-hackers present themselves as feeling guilty about their former
As Hollinger (1993)
assumed, outsider hackers eventually become inside workers. The
distinction between criminal hackers and hired ones is based on the
perception that hired hackers are employed “to conduct hacking attacks to
test security, while criminal hackers literally violate the law” (Jordan
and Taylor 1998, p. 771). The computer security industry benefits from the
hackers’ technological knowledge, which motivates hackers to act. They had
pursued and found social recognition and status in the hacker subculture
(see also Holt, 2007), which had won them a coveted place in its
hierarchy. Now they seek and obtain recognition in society, which offers
them a profession with a high socio-economic status as ex-hackers. Says
Omer: “You still look for and receive recognition, but in a different
Shared Meanings that Hackers
Assign to their Being a Hacker
Regardless of the
number and severity of the computer offenses they had committed, I found
that both good and bad hackers explain their practices in terms of:
"breaking boundaries", "shattering conventions" and "doing the
impossible". It is known that hackers do not view themselves as criminals
but as adventurers (c.f., Jordan and Taylor, 1998, 2004; Taylor, 1999).
Yet, they all portray themselves in the same manner; as technological
wizards, who break boundaries, adding new contribution to our knowledge
regarding the differences between hackers. Both good and bad hackers
perceived themselves positively, capable of insight into what "regular
people" cannot grasp about that mysterious box called computer.
talk about the positive reaction their computer hobby has produced. Some
even aspire to be hackers mainly to gain the prestige and mystery that
surround hackers. Individuals learn how to classify the objects they come
in contact with from interaction with others. In this process, they also
learn how they are expected to behave in reference to those objects
(Stryker, 1980). Dan says, “Maybe the drive [to learn computers] came from
the environment. It contains a dimension of uniqueness. Also with in the
milieu they treated those who dealt with computers as geniuses.”
hacking or penetrating computer systems as "pushing outside the envelope"
or "breaking boundaries." Yif'at, a 19 year old female soldier, perceives
hackers as ambassadors of intelligence, with the ability to oppose the
establishment in a proactive manner. She can teach us about the desire to
become a hacker, as she believes that,
about hacking is the excitement, the adrenaline, the fun of doing
something illegal, unlawful. Like when we were kids, a group of us friends
would wait together outside a mini-market and steal hot buns and cartons
of chocolate milk. The fun is in the subversive act, in rebellion for its
own sake. I don’t think that governments and institutions should keep
secrets and information from the public. Information should be free. So
it’s also a matter of principle. It’s showing that I’m smarter, I’m
in control, and I’ll triumph over you. Learning hacking is the cutting
edge. It’s where the world is going, it’s important. It counts as it’s a
good job, and a great living. It’s knowledge. Today, women are learning
computers because it’s good money. The information is all there. It’s for
real. For example, the Analyzer, look what a good job he has. Hacking is
doing the impossible, the unexpected, and the fun stuff. It’s also a
matter of proving that you can. In every area of my life, I like to test
the limits, to go as far out on the edge as I can, and not bend to
exemplify three of the general characteristics of symbolic interactionism
(Blumer, 1969). Yif’at interacts with friends who feel and behave alike.
Her response to this behavior is based on meaning and interpretation, in
this case attributing positive meaning and interpretation to hacking
activities. Hacking is perceived as a way not to bend to external
restrictions, as the cutting edge, a good job, and “also a matter of
principle” (information should be free). Ami, a good hacker, explains why
hackers perceive themselves as capable of doing the impossible. It is,
"Because of the breaking of boundaries. It’s almost mystical, like a
secret society with a certain aura. Security captures the imagination of
the public. It is all about being smarter than the next guy ".
Their ability to
hack is the key to a secure career path that promises status and respect.
Indeed, the Analyzer is now a founding partner in a high-tech company that
specializes in computer security. While labeling may restrict access to
legitimate job networks (Davies and Tanner, 2003), hacking may be a rare
instance in which a criminal record serves as a "resume" for gaining entry
in legitimate, profitable, and respected occupations. This "occupational
retrofitting" seems to support the idea that the line between hero and
criminal is thin (Ben-Yehuda, 1992, p. 80).
This study focused
on the entire life story of the participants in a holistic way rather than
on the object matter alone (hacking). The study enables us to learn the
way in which hackers perceive themselves and how they think that others
perceived them since childhood. The bad hackers (also referred to as
crackers) presented themselves as having a wild and gifted persona, while
the good hackers reported good behavior since childhood. The present study
advances our understanding by showing that hackers base their current
hacking practices (good or bad, authorized or not) on the way in which
they perceive themselves and on their notion of how others perceived them
since childhood (good vs. wild and gifted).
advances our knowledge on the differences between those hackers who
practiced unauthorized penetration to computer networks and those who do
not. As a social identity, the process of becoming a hacker could
therefore be seen as a socially negotiated passage from primary to
secondary deviance (Lemert, 1951). Cooley (1902) said that individuals’
feelings about themselves are products of their relationships with others
that have affected them since early childhood. This study has shown the
importance of the informal early labeling of deviant individuals in
addition to the formal labeling process.
Yet a process of
social learning must take place in a context of social interaction to
commit a computer illegal act (Skinner and Fream, 1997). The social
construction of reality among hackers results from a process in which “the
person develops a new conception of the nature of the object” (Becker,
1953, p. 242). The Analyzer said on a talk show, “Hacking is not something
in your personality, it’s a hobby.” Not all those who possess the
technical knowledge to hack have learned the "fun" of break-in, therefore
they refrain from doing it.
Although shame is a
key element in the labeling process (Hayes, 2000), the present study shows
that hackers feel no shame, and this applies both for good and bad
hackers. Even their crossing over to lawfulness is external and
structural. They hold respectable positions, in most cases owing precisely
to their hacking abilities, and none of them profess any guilty feelings
about their former hacking activities. Indeed, the “possible relevance of
labeling theory to behaviors that are not highly visible or easily
stigmatized, challenges social scientists to discover how, if at all,
labeling theory evokes social definitions of deviance and illuminates
self-definition and feelings of potentially stigmatized individuals”
(Hayes, 2000, p. 29).
themselves as positive deviants. They do so by portraying themselves as
"extraordinary people" who are smarter than others, display unusual or
superior behavior or a trait that is rewarded as such (Heckert, 1989), or
see themselves as agents of social change (Ben-Yehuda, 1990). The manner
in which hackers construct themselves as positive deviants is likely to be
based partly on the historical change in the connotation of the hacker
label, but also on their backgrounds. Hackers come from the established
stratum of society, and social status mediates stigma differentially (Riessman,
2000). Furthermore, hackers contend that deviance constitutes a challenge
to social conventions, leading to a legitimate debate about moral
boundaries. As Bar says, “If there is a software that can make someone in
the world do something good, why should he be deprived of it?” Perhaps
this is why it is difficult to view them as criminals in the negative
sense (Weisburd, Waring & Chayat, 2001).
The finding, that
all the respondents portray themselves as technological wizards, breakers
of boundaries, regardless of the number and severity of the computer
offenses they had committed, is very intriguing and shows that
hackers assign the "computer expert" label as "master status" (Becker,
1963) rather than the deviant label. Gil says, “In my eyes everything adds
up, I mean between playing computer games, and being a Linux hacker, and
being a cracker. Actually, all of these acts stem from the same place, the
will to learn, to know, and the good feeling and satisfaction that this
knowledge gives me.” Future research could benefit from following quantity
examination of the sociological differences between computer deviants and
Thus, the current
study has shown that hackers, who are not easily stigmatized, succeed to
avoid the effects of labeling and manage to avoid secondary deviance.
Contrary to labeling theory, their self-conception does not change for the
worse (if anything, it changes for the better), and their life chances in
the domain of employment do not decrease (if anything, they increase).
This particular kind of deviance illustrates that the labeling process is
more complex than its portrayal in labeling theory and requires further
inquiry. Of special interest are the conditions under which the process
takes place and the directions it can take. Hacking, for example, seems to
be a type of deviance where the labeling process works in the reverse
Some of the
limitations of the present study can be addressed in the future. The study
was carried out in Israel years ago. Voiskounsky and Smyslova (2003, p.
173) claimed that hacking is a universal activity, showing few (if any)
differences. The Israeli hackers’ characteristics seem to be similar to
those of hackers in other western societies. For example, Kevin Mitnick,
perhaps the most famous hacker, also describes his desire and
ability to learn and discover going back to his childhood (Mitnick and
Simon, 2002). Holt (2007) found that a hacker's identity is built on
knowledge and devotion to learn. Although the nature of cyber-crime is
constantly changing, the basic characteristics of this kind of hackers,
such as their not-for-profit motivation persists and are similar to those
described in the present paper. Woo, Kim, & Dominick (2004) found that 70%
of the web defacement by hackers was pranks, while the rest had more
political motives. We frequently hear about hackers who attack computer
sites for ideological reasons. Recently for example, Russian hackers are
attacking Georgian websites, and another hacker used a Trojan horse to
hack into the computers of Bloomsbury Publishing to discover text of the
new Harry Potter book before its publication.
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