Which Hackers Are We Talking About?

By Brett Lunceford

When I received Coleman’s book, the first thing that I did was check the bibliography to find out exactly what kind of hackers we were talking about. Turning to the back, I was surprised to see some seemingly missing entries. Paul Taylor’s amazing ethnography of hackers, Hackers: Crime and the Digital Sublime, was oddly missing. Tim Jordan’s Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism gets a nod, but none of his other books that talk about political activism and hacking are mentioned. What this told me was that we were dealing with socially acceptable (for the most part) hackers rather than the shadowy hackers that concern the rest of the world. A cursory glance at the table of contents suggests that this book focuses heavily on the free / open source software (F/OSS) movement (which it does), but this also illustrates the differences among groups of hackers. This distinction will serve as the focal point for my remark as I consider the question “Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society?”

First, a brief description of E. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. One could quite productively consider this book as a continuation of Stephen Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution or Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. Coleman brings two strengths to the table: the scholarly distance of the anthropologist and the passion of the participant observer. However, Coleman did not begin as a coder; her focus here is ethnographic rather than technical. She provides an extensive account of the Debian project and other facets of the F/OSS movement. Yet she also examines projects that fall outside of legal boundaries, such as DeCSS, which stripped away copy protection on DVDs, and the Advanced eBook Processor, which circumvented Adobe’s proprietary software. What Coleman’s hackers all share is a desire to make software more open, more transparent, and more functional. The problem with this, as Coleman suggests, is that legal structures overwhelmingly side with the idea of closing code rather than allowing individuals to examine and/or reverse-engineer it. In essence, anyone who gets into the code of “closed” software is likely a criminal. Acts such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act expressly prohibit circumventing encryption or copy protection safeguards. Moreover, a cursory look at the End User Agreement for Microsoft Office 2007 reveals that one may not “work around any technical limitations in the software” or “reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble the software, except and only to the extent that applicable law expressly permits, despite this limitation.” Such limitations are significant because, as Sandra Braman and Stephanie Lynch observe, acceptable use policies are being used to shape media law.

There are various facets of the hacker community and this troubles the distinction of what constitutes a hacker. Some have tried to differentiate “hackers” from “crackers,” as illustrated by one of Coleman’s respondents who took issue with her description of Kevin Mitnick as a hacker (p. 16). Indeed, the case of Kevin Mitnick demonstrates the difficulty of not only constructing, but maintaining a coherent narrative concerning hacker identity. Over the years, Mitnick went from celebrated martyr to pariah to elder statesman in the hacker community (for more on this, see “Building Hacker Collective Identity One Text Phile at a Time: Reading Phrack). To illustrate, since we are focusing on a work by an anthropologist, let’s consider the field of anthropology. There are four facets of anthropology: physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and anthropological linguistics. Which is the “real” anthropology? By the same token, there are “black hat” hackers, “white hat” hackers (such as l0pht, mentioned briefly in her book), hardware hackers, software hackers, social engineers, and others. As Jon Erickson states, “There are some who will still argue that there is a distinct line between hackers and crackers, but I believe that anyone who has the hacker spirit is a hacker, despite what laws he or she may break” (p. 4). More to the point, outside of the hacker/academic community the distinction carries little weight. Despite the mystique surrounding hackers, the general public (and certainly the law) sees the hacker as intrinsically problematic.

So are hackers a danger to society or are they activists? Perhaps such a binary question is misguided. Why can’t they be both? As the old saying goes, one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist or, as Saul Alinsky puts it, there “can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father” (p. 34). It seems clear that hackers are attempting to reconfigure the technological landscape in ways that privilege openness and collaboration. The F/OSS movement is a reaction against and a response to proprietary, closed software. As Coleman observes, such initiatives challenge the view that people will not create unless there is a strong financial incentive to do so. Thus, F/OSS also challenges strongly held social and legal assumptions. But the deck is stacked against the hackers no matter how logical their stance may be. DeCSS came about because the DVD copy-protection required that the DVD be played on a Windows or Apple machine, leaving Linux users out in the cold. Copyright law (specifically the Betamax case) upholds the right to time shift, and “time shifting almost always necessarily involves space shifting” (p. 41). Thus, what seems to be perfectly legal (playing a legally acquired DVD on one’s computer), can only be done by a Linux user if he or she illegally circumvents the DRM (digital rights management) scheme. This seems akin to passing legislation declaring that only American-made automobiles can drive on the road.

In spite of the avowed “political agnosticism” of the F/OSS movement, hackers have little choice but to become politically involved. Coleman continually sounds the refrain that “code is speech,” and describes “marches, candlelight vigils, street demonstrations, and artistic protests,” (p. 170) but does little with online protests and hacktivism. Indeed, the Free Kevin Mitnick campaign included traditional elements of social movement protest, but also included acts of hacktivism and website defacement. But like any movement, there will be radical and moderate factions and the F/OSS contingent falls squarely into the moderate camp.

Whether hackers are dangerous criminals or activists depends on the side that you happen to be on and which contingent you happen to be talking about. The Civil Rights movement, for example, included moderates such as Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as firebrands like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Predecessors to that movement ranged from separatist Marcus Garvey to the downright conciliatory Booker T. Washington. To paint them all with the same brush allows one to ignore important differences. Hackers pose a similar problem. Those in the F/OSS movement seem benign enough to outsiders and insular enough to hardly warrant the label activists (this is not to say that they are not activists, but rather to distinguish between public perception and the collective’s internal vision). But then again, these are not the hackers that most people think of when confronted with this label. There is a world of difference between the F/OSS group, Chaos Computer Club, and Iran Hackers Sabotage. This book provides us with the moderate side of the equation and does so quite well.


Alinsky, S. D. (1989). Rules for Radicals: A practical primer for realistic radicals. New York: Vintage Books.

Braman, S., and Roberts, S. (2003). Advantage ISP: Terms of service as media law. New Media & Society, 5(3), 422-448.

Coleman, E. G. (2013). Coding freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Erickson, J. (2003). Hacking: The art of exploitation. San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press.

Jordan, T. (2008). Hacking: Digital media and technological determinism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Levy, S. (1994). Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Penguin Books.

Lunceford, B. (2009). Building a collective identity one text phile at a time: Reading Phrack. Media History Monographs, 11(2), 1-26.

Lunceford, B., & Lunceford, S. (2008). Meh. The irrelevance of copyright in the public mind. Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, 7(1), 33-49.

Raymond, E. S. (1999). The cathedral & the bazaar: Musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly.

Taylor, P. A. (1999). Hackers: Crime in the digital sublime. London: Routledge

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society

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