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The term "hacking" has more than one meaning. It's root meaning comes from the normal meaning of hacking; that is, to cut or slash in a disorganized fashion. Hackers were once people who constructed hardware at home on the kitchen table or workbench.

Today, hacking is used in two senses. The first is to describe someone who creates code rapidly (with a strong hint of unstructured programming). The second is to describe someone who enjoys (as an intellectual challenge) getting around the rules and accessing computer systems that are supposed to be protected from unauthorized access. It is this definition of hacking that we use when we discuss the ethical issues raised by hacking. Some also use the term cybertrespassing to describe this activity.

One of the images of the hacker is that of a community-spirited public defender who protects us against the unreasonable power of large corporations. This hacker gets into systems by cracking passwords and reveals to us all the company's dark secrets. This hacker is an investigative journalist for our age.

Another version of the hacker is someone who accesses systems and wreaks havoc, not for the greater good of the community, but for his or her own malicious pleasure.

The Hacker Toolbox

Traditional hacking involves breaking into a system; an operation now called cybertrespassing.

Once a hacker has entered a system, the hacker may leave a so-called Trojan Horse behind. This is a mechanism that allows the computer to be accessed more easily in the future.

Two activities associated with hacking are the virus and the worm. A virus is a self-replicating program. Some definitions of virus state that this self-replicating program is destructive or causes damage. That is not necessarily so. A virus is simply a program that moves from one machine to another by replicating itself at each machine. The virus may carry a payload that performs a malicious act. A virus is normally stored on a computer's hard disk.

A worm is also a self-replicating program. However, the worm is specifically designed to attack networks rather than computers by multiplying to such an extent that all available bandwidth is consumed and normal traffic comes to a halt. Worms are transient objects and normally reside in immediate access memory rather than on disk.


Hacker - Friend or Foe?

Hackers have been described by Hollywood films and the press as a sort of modern Knight Errant that rights the wrongs of a corrupt technological society by exposing the machinations of the bad guys. The hacker is seen as more Robin Hood than Al Capone.

The hacker can enter a website and change its contents. He or she can enter a database and change its contents.

Such potentially malicious hacking contradicts Kant's "categorical imperative" that says an action is good if it contributes to a universal law. If hacking were part of a universal law, all systems could be hacked, all computer users could be hackers, and the Internet would be inoperable.

An extreme example of the dangers of hacking is the denial of service to a computer in a hospital. Suppose a computer is disabled either directly by hacking or indirectly by a virus. The life of a patient may be directly affected; for example, the result of a vital test may be delayed.

Hackers who do harm by creating viruses or worms sometimes use the defense that they are acting in the public good by exposing potentially dangerous loopholes in the system. This argument is rather like shooting a policeman and then claiming that you were really trying to promote better body armor.   

Ethical Issues - Hacking