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Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Is there such thing as Honorable Hacking?

I am a long-time hacker. But why do I hack? Is it an honorable activity?

I do NOT think it's honorable. But I do think it's ethical and socially beneficial.

The pure form of the word did not originally apply to people who break into security systems. Those are "crackers."

Interestingly, the historical context (canon by Steven Levy's 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution) of hackers are people who have an ethic. See http://www.echonyc.com/~steven/hackers.html

These ethics included:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Promote decentralization.

(there are more)

Of course, that was the 1980's, and in fact Levy's book was more reflective of the "old guard" of hackers from the late 1970's and early 1980's. Later, the hacker movement became more about being anti-establishment, destructive, and for profit. Here's an interesting overview of this thinking: http://www.emtech.net/source/vol3no2/ethics2.htm

My own view of hacking was as a learning experience, and I feel this is the traditional form of hacking. Take for example the Apple Macintosh. It was poorly documented, but did very interesting things. You could not discover the methods by reading a book (there were no technical books about it at the time) or research literature (mostly about Smalltalk, which was related but different.) You had to reverse engineer the system to learn about it. Even technical specifications were often incorrect, as the writer was not the engineer. Reverse engineering was the most direct way to learn about how a system actually worked. And this was the slippery slope into hacking of all forms.

In many cases, industrial, for profit companies attempt to hide the engineering of their systems under obfuscation or security methods. Hackers start to be crackers when they subvert these systems in order to educate themselves, or to learn about how these defense mechanisms work.

I hacked several systems on the Macintosh. In many cases the understanding I gained from hacking, versus merely reading Inside Macintosh, was deeper and more fundamental. Many of the system internals were undocumented, often just because it was unecessary (or dangerous) to expose those internals to application developers. But I was able to write all kinds of interesting "hacks" on the Macintosh. Fortunately the programming community of Apple (at that time) supported and encouraged this. In fact they would have "Mac Hack" competitions, and it was usually essential to understand undocumented internals of the Macintosh to be competitive.

I also hacked Unix machines, which had more sophisticated operating system internals. I learned more this way than through any course.

I recently have hacked several subsystems in the XBox, and some related games.

In all cases, I was open about sharing my hacks, code, documentation, and so on.

I believe my hacking has been non-malicious. There was no intent, nor desire, to steal or deny revenue to any company. Although I may believe that access to computers and information should be unlimited and total, I also understand that it's important to generate revenue for companies and universities (funded from tax money) to continue to advance computing and product progress. I also understand that a fully documented computer system is one that will be misused, or impossible to upgrade, because application developers may use internals in ways that are improper.

Rather than steal or to make an anti-corporate statement, my desire has been to learn and teach. I will also confess it is to look cool to the rest of the hacker community, a form of competitiveness, but I would do it even if there were nobody around. Just to satisfy my curiousity.

Is this honorable?

Probably NOT. I am not defending somebody who is oppressed. I am not righting a wrong, although others may feel that way. I am merely satisfying curiousity and educating people. In many cases, my hacking has stimulated interest in computers for young minds. The kind of hacking I did does not let them go off and steal programs. It makes them learn how something works. They have to understand, and program, and work to make use of what I do. I think that's useful and even socially beneficial. But not honorable.