The Risk Propensity and Rationality of Computer Hackers

By Bachmann, Michael | International Journal of Cyber Criminology, January-December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Risk Propensity and Rationality of Computer Hackers


Bachmann, Michael, International Journal of Cyber Criminology


Introduction

The English verb hacking in the context of computers is commonly described as referring to the act of re-designing the configuration of hardware or software systems to alter their intended function. This act requires that the person hacking the system is not only knowledgeable enough to understand its inner workings, but also possesses the creativity necessary for envisioning a modification that will render the system more efficient or able to perform an alternative function.

When the term hacking was first introduced as a neologism into the specialized and confined language of computer technicians and programming experts during the 1960s, it was used as a positive label for somebody particularly skilled in developing highly efficient, creative, compact programs and algorithms (Levy, 1984). Over the years, this initially very positive label gradually became highly contested. The increasingly mission-critical nature of computer networks for many industries and the expanding popularity of electronic financial transactions began to interest many people in breaking into computer systems, not in an attempt to understand them or make them more secure, but to abuse, disrupt, sabotage, and exploit them. Today, the term hacker is applied to a wide range of computer-savvy persons who differ greatly in their motivations, skills, and usage of their computer knowledge. This variety aside, the general public tends to stereotype hackers as clever, yet sinister computer criminals who essentially live in cyberspace where they go on thrill-inducing missions to exploit vulnerabilities in other networks and systems.

While this greatly oversimplified, stereotypical representation does not even begin to tell the whole story of who hackers are, it nevertheless includes some elements that seem to be indeed wide-spread personality characteristics within the hacking community. First, hackers are generally thought of as having a heightened need for cognitive challenges (Dalal & Sharma, 2007; Holt & Kilger, 2008; Schell & Melnychuk, 2010). They are eager to learn about the technical intricacies of systems and processes, enjoy exploring their details, and thrive on mastering the intellectual challenges involved in altering or circumventing their functions and limitations. Second, they are also thought of as being thrill-seekers who derive pleasure and excitement from the chase, from overcoming barriers, and from gaining access to other systems (Levy, 1984; Yar, 2005). This second personality characteristic applies particularly to so-called black-hat hackers, persons who do not subscribe to any hacker ethic (Levy, 1984), but who use their skills to break into systems without having the consent of the owner. They engage in illicit activities, a circumstance that introduces greater risks, raises the stakes, and increases the excitement and thrill even more.

While the notion of hackers as persons of heightened rationality and risk propensity is rather intuitive, two questions of interest remain unanswered: (1) how pronounced are heightened-need and thrill-seeking characteristics within the hacking community? (2) Do members of this community differ significantly from the general population? A second set of questions in this context is whether the degree to which hackers exert a preference for rational decision-making processes and for the engagement in particularly risky endeavors influences (3) their overall engagement in hacking activities and (4) their self-reported success as a hacker.

The present study, based on a survey study fielded at a large hacker conference, adds to the current literature on hackers by providing answers to all four questions. The survey instrument included newly devised scales for both personality characteristics. The study tests the validity and reliability of both scales and assesses their ability to cleanly measure both concepts via exploratory factor analysis. It examines both characteristics among respondents who admitted to having engaged in illicit hacking activities further contrasts their prevalence among members of this subgroup to the degree that members of the general public exert them, and assesses the relevance of both factors for the prediction of hacking-related outcomes. …

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