The Erosion of Hacking Ethics

Mitew (2014) said that hacking culture began in the 80’s with the appearance of the personal computer. During this period, it was the expansion of computer technology, the declining prices of personal computers, and the appearance of modems that allowed this, which excited computer hobbyists because they could now connect with other computers and each other (Thomas 2005, pp. 602-603).

The ethics surrounding hacking at this time are well described by Julian Assange in an article by Raffi Khatchadourian (2010), Assange said, “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.” Thomas (2005) also looks at the early ethics of hacking in its ‘Golden Age’ in deference to Levy, whom says that these ethics have declined since their formation (pg. 605).

Though hacking was built upon noble morals, the actions behind hacker’s motives were viewed as unethical, which led to demonization by the media with the help of incidents like: the accidental release of the first internet worm that froze around 6000 computers; and the Legion of Doom incident where a company employee for Steve Jackson Games was thought to have engaged in hacking from his home personal computer, and because of the nature of the company – a science fiction and fantasy games publisher – the US Secret Service surmised that the company was engaged in hacking too, and thus, raided the company and confiscated equipment, files, game manuals, and other resources (Thomas 2005, pg. 611).

Hackers are now embroiled in the dark side of the web and engage in activities that can be deemed criminal activity. Although, as we have seen, there are some examples of current day hackers that follow the ways of the old, such as Julian Assange.


Khatchadourian, R 2010, No Secrets, New Yorker, 7 June, viewed 7 October 2015,

Mitew, T 2014, Digital Resistance: Hacktivists, Whistleblowers, #AfterSnowden [Part 1], Online Video, YouTube, viewed 7 October 2015,

Thomas, J 2005, The Moral Ambiguity of Social Control in Cyberspace: a Retro-Assessment of the ‘Golden Age’ of Hacking, New Media & Society, Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 599-624.

Image by Almonroth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons –

I have modified the image.


12 thoughts on “The Erosion of Hacking Ethics

  1. Hi Jacob
    The idea that the ethical means of online activism has declined since its arrival is very concerning and you’ve talked about this in a comprehensive manner in which I agree. Perhaps this could be the rise in the dark web and people accessing this for means of criminal activity. I typed into google search dark web news and the first thing that came up was a multimillion dollar drug bust from a dealer using the dark web by means of export and communication. When I think of a hacker I like to think that someone online gaming has enhancements to improve their gameplay score, annoying as it is, it’s better than these modes of which the service is being used. This article ( explores what is the dark web, describing it as the “underbelly” of the internet and how it differs to the one we all have come to experience.

  2. Hi Jacob! Although I do agree with your assertion that many hackers are involved in unethical and illegal online activities, I think that the line between ethics and legality in regard to computer hacking is becoming increasingly blurred. For example, the online collective known as Anonymous used illegal hacking methods to shut down a huge child pornography server (you can read more about it here: Whilst both Anonymous and those in charge of the pornography server have committed illegal acts, I personally feel as though any measure (regardless of its legality) to stop the spread of child pornography should be legally excused. As technology becomes increasingly important in our lives, it is imperative that we consider that actions we may perceive to be illegal and immoral (eg. hacking) can actually be for the greater good.

  3. Hey Jacob
    You’ve taken a really interesting approach here in not providing a ‘hacker case study’ as many other students have, which automatically makes your post stand out! What I like about it personally is how open you’ve left it for debate and development. I’ve noticed you’ve quite heavily referenced ‘black hat’ hacker notions throughout this post, which are quite often the only stories reported on by mainstream media in regards to hacktivism. Although It’s ridiculous to assert these black hats don’t exist, I’d argue that there are still a large amount of hackers who commit these crimes for what they determine to be ‘ethical purposes’. The example of Julian Assange is great! But there is also Edward Snowden, and Anonymous. Each of these hackers can easily be considered as white/grey hat. Take the example of anonymous’ camapign against the KKK
    Awesome work man.

  4. Hi Jacob,
    Your approach to the hacktivist issue has been different, and that is what makes an audience engage with a topic. Your choice of meme strongly relates to what you have discussed in your post regarding ethics and you have raised some great points in your text also. When I have previously thought of hacking I have always considered it a technological evil, but with your post in mind I have changed tune, taking into consideration the ethical debate and noting how hacking can be beneficial. In my opinion, hacking cases like that of AshleyMadison have made the online environment a better place. This article from WIRED magazine examines the process behind Anonymous attacks, you might enjoy the read as much as I did ( This was one of my favourite posts this week, well done!

  5. Hacking is important because it is a means ensuring governments and large corporations remain transparent.

    I believe hackers/ hacking provides a balance of power by virtue of the hackers creativity and technical skills. We need to protect and recognise the social utility of and find ways of working together in order to protect citizens from abuses of power by governments and large corporations.

    The work of Edward Snowden clearly demonstrated that governments are engaging in unethical activities. Whilst it may be argued that hacking is at times unethical, when applied in an ethical fashion it can be an extremely useful tool for exposing flaws in the system.

    Great post.

  6. Hi Jacob,

    I think it is important when discussing the ethics of hacking to identify the different facets of ethics at play. While the person doing the hacking might be ethical, the hack they are doing without the consent of the target in question is ethically questionable. This is also the case with ‘ethical hacking’. While controlled tests to find out whether a system can be hacked is legal (and thus, ethical), using the tools provided by an organisation for other purposes, such as to hijack computer systems and commit a crime, are indeed unethical. This is due to possibility that these acts can cause actual harm.

    An interesting article I found ( actually examines the issues surrounding the term ‘ethical hacking’ itself. The author expresses concern that people misunderstand the phrase “ethical hacking”. People seem to think that it gives them a license to hack computer systems in an uncontrolled way to prove something can be done or to reveal the holes in a security system. This was the case when an ethical hacker named Chris Roberts allegedly hacked a commercial airplane, tapping into the on-board entertainment system and making the plane climb and move sideways (you can read more about this here: Some ethical hackers appear to be abusing their position (and power) in ways which are unethical, and this is indeed a serious concern.

  7. It was very interesting how you briefly mentioned how hackers like Julian Assange are left in this weird position of morally releasing documents that the public ought to know but also that of a criminal. Along with Snowden it shows that governments are engaging in unethical activities. so in my view it allows governments to have this transparency in mind with all of their future actions. Well done.

  8. Hi Jacob,

    Really great post – like many others have said, you have taken a really interesting approach to this topic and have focused on a Hacker’s Moral Code of Conduct. I will however, have to disagree with you to a certain extent, as I don’t always feel that the inception of ‘Hacking’ was based on morally righteous terms, but rather, on some occassions, for the bragging rights of the information that they had exploited. This is not to say that this does not happen now (as we have seen with the leaking of many celebrity nude images etc.). I have found a really interesting article on the origins of Hacktivism that you may find interesting. It gives a good example of an early ‘Hactivism’ organisation W.A.N.K and their social initiatives. You should check it out here:

  9. Great work, definitely like your approach taken in this blog post. It describes the beneficial approach to hacking but argues it’s ethics which can be sometimes difficult to assess. Your research proves to be extensive with lots of references to various articles which demonstrates a very extensive research. It’s weird how previously, the word hackers was already deemed as a negative thing. Assange is an excellent example that turned that view; but I definitely believe that ethics will always be argued and Assange will always be examined for his efforts even if they are evidently beneficial. Read this article: where WikiLeaks leak was considered ‘malicious’. Great Job!

  10. Woah so many comments on this post great work.
    Like all the others have mentioned, you have made great and justified points about both sides of hacking ethics.
    People will always have this debate and point of view as the line is quite blurred between what one person may think is ethical, another may disagree and you have pointed this out.

  11. I feel like everyone needs a superhero in life that we can count on to deliver the truth and the best maximum of interest that benefits our life. But as we all know, nothing comes without a price. For instance, the case of the Anonymous misidentified Kathie Warnack’s stepson as the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. It turned the lives of innocent people around. The family was subsequently harassed and badgered by local society and had to keep weapons to protect themselves.


    However, will the society be much better place without the Anonymous hacktivist group since their vision is to advocate the freedom of speech; giving people the rights to access the actual truth? It might be selfish for Anons to claim that they help more than they hurt. But still it is unfair for innocent souls to be robbed of their lives and be punished for a crime they did not commit. Sadly this is how the world look like, nothing is perfect and ideal. There are always two sides to each coin. Hence, I feel like hacktivism play a crucial role and is significant in forming a better society by reassuring that the internet is not a playground for corporations and governments to take advantage on as technologies continues to advance with more database being stored online as time goes by.

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