Law in the Internet Society

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WyattLittlesFirstEssay 3 - 17 Jan 2015 - Main.WyattLittles
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Hacking as Spectacle

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Ethical Considerations of Hacking for Greater Transparency in Consumer Software


The pace at which the Internet has developed over the past 10 years has certainly been unexpected. As a result of this rapid growth, several ethical questions must be analyzed before moving forward and increasing our reliance on the Internet and the software that accompanies it as our primary means of communication. This ethical analysis must focus on the extent to which a large portion of consumers are unaware of the extent to which software companies are “selling” or giving away their personal information by accepting user agreements found in most major “free” programs like GoogleMail? or Apple’s iCloud. Therefore, the question we must address is not how to reach sophisticated users of technology, but rather in mobilizing the masses or the casual users to push for software that is more transparent. One possible solution is through the employment of responsible user “hacktivism”, or the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends. While the exposure of software deficiencies through hacking, defined generally as the production of unexpected consequences from creative uses of technology, may be an effective means of undermining programs structured to take advantage of it’s unwitting users, this type of activity must similarly be viewed critically as it has the potential to raise equally alarming ethical concerns if not carried out responsibly.

What's wrong with my software and how can hacking help?

Collectively, we have not been able to carve out rights in the web that deserve respect from government officials or corporations. Without an understanding of individual rights in the web as it pertains to privacy and autonomy, most software and popular Internet programs are designed to transform users into tools for these aforementioned corporations and governments. Like fine print or unconscionable contract terms found in many user agreements or contracts, the “real” costs of using programs like Facebook go un-noticed by the masses. Thus, steps must be taken to uncover the process and motives behind certain actions undertaken on the Internet, which is where hacktivism can come in. Hacking as an activity can help expose the way that privacy has been changed from a right that governments and corporations must be justified in violating or taking advantage of, to one that individuals must affirmatively defend. Thus, responsible hacktivism can introduce costs that have long been unrecognized by mass consumers of so-called “free-applications” and re-introduce ethical questions related to how privacy should function in the Internet age. This dialogue will be increasingly important as the “Facebook” generation transitions into positions of influence with a skewed sense of privacy.

Who polices the police?

If done effectively, hacking can increase transparency both on the web and in the software that we use every day. Hacking can both create national dialogues on questions of surveillance and privacy, but may also provide solutions or reform to remedy the privacy issues identified. Hackers and hacking as an activity have long played a vital role in improving both software and hardware issues. For instance, as it relates to open source software development, hackers are indispensible for both innovation and their ability to continually improve and repurpose software code. Even developers of proprietary or copyrighted software hire “white hat hackers” to test the security and functionality of web sites or new software. Moving forward, hackers will play an increasingly important role in bringing to light deficiencies in “privacy” protocols, website surveillance, and other security mechanisms that are purposely hidden from the majority of technology users. Despite these potential benefits, if we do not consider the ethical impact of unrestricted hacking, such practices can stray from political activism to cyber-terror, all depending on the perspective of the observer.

Two recent and very public examples of hacking have demonstrated how hacktivism, when done irresponsibly, can undermine the push for greater transparency in the web. In the first instance, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked documents outlining numerous global surveillance programs being run by the NSA with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. Through these leaks, Mr. Snowden not only brought to light the practices of the NSA, but more importantly, his actions sparked an international dialogue on internet security, privacy, and government surveillance. On a smaller scale, the celebrity nude photo leaks from Apple’s iCloud this past fall have similarly sparked public concern over privacy and the security of cloud computing, with a particular emphasis on their use to store sensitive or private information. While Apple’s iCloud leak did not have the same National Security implications or backlash as Mr. Snowden’s work, these leaks demonstrated the deficiencies of broad based cloud computing to the general public.

One question we may consider is, why not celebrate these initiatives if they produced a result that one can argue is favorable for web transparency? As illustrated in the aforementioned examples, hacking as spectacle can be an efficient means of affecting change because the efforts have low marginal costs. The low marginal costs mean that in theory, the practice cannot be “outspent” by capitalism. Similarly, like open source software, the practice of hacking as spectacle, because of it’s low marginal costs, will be superior to the efforts of capitalism as it will be constantly improved through collaboration. Along with this, the distribution of the information on the practice will also be superior, given the low marginal costs. Although these acts brought the use of internet leaks and the question of web privacy front and center in national and global debate, these actions were not only unethical, especially those which violated individual as opposed to institutional privacy, but will likely result in a greater restriction of personal freedom on the Internet. Similar to the need for a collective definition of individual rights on the web, there must also be a standard of what constitutes ethical hacking behavior to delineate the ethical from the unethical. This definition should be centered on protecting personal privacy, while still being flexible enough to evolve and change as new technology arises.

Revision 3r3 - 17 Jan 2015 - 20:35:16 - WyattLittles
Revision 2r2 - 04 Jan 2015 - 15:54:01 - EbenMoglen
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