Meanings That Hackers Assign to Their Being a Hacker

By Turgeman-Goldschmidt, Orly | International Journal of Cyber Criminology, July-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Meanings That Hackers Assign to Their Being a Hacker


Turgeman-Goldschmidt, Orly, International Journal of Cyber Criminology


Introduction

Computer-related 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).

The computer 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 nuisance crimes.

Hackers developed 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. …

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