Law in the Internet Society

Hacking as Spectacle


At current, 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. From this perspective, the exposure of software deficiencies as spectacle through hacking may be an effective means of undermining programs structured to take advantage of it’s unwitting users. Despite the fact that the practice of “hacking” means and functions in many different ways for many different people, over the years, the term “hacker” or “hacking” has become increasingly demonized. As discussed in class, hacking can be characterized as the ability to use creative means to make power move or be shifted in directions it was not originally intended. In a more positive light, hacking can also be described as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with a current system or a form of civil disobedience. Applying Henry David Thoreau philosophy from his 1848 essay on Civil Disobedience and applying it to consumer software, users should not permit systems to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable said systems to make them the agents of injustice. Most importantly, hacking as spectacle can provide an effective means of advertising the necessity for greater open-source software to improve the dissemination of information in a more transparent manner. It is not enough to merely undermine the system, but hacking as spectacle should illustrate how unconscionable many programs and systems are to both privacy and autonomy.

The significance of spectacle

Hacking as spectacle has the potential to serve multiple purposes. It 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 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. Two recent examples have demonstrated how strategic hacking and the use of internet leaks can bring the question of privacy front and center in national and global debate. 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, 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 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 were an effective means of demonstrating the deficiencies of broad based cloud computing to the general public.

As illustrated in the aforementioned examples, hacking as spectacle can be an efficient means of affecting change because the efforts have low marginal costs. This 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. With this in mind, if attacking sites and programs like iCloud, Gmail, or the Facebook server become pervasive enough, less consumers would use them. If this is to happen, there will likely be changes in these programs that will address the concerns of users, or free/open source alternatives will be created to satisfy the new demand for more secure applications.

Redefining and repossessing rights

Under these circumstances, hacking can help expose the way that privacy has turned from a right that the government must be justified in violating, to one that individuals must affirmatively defend. As stated by Edward Snowden in an interview as a part of the New Yorker Festival, people say they don’t have anything to hide and when that happens, the model of responsibility for how rights work is inverted. “When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.” Hacking can also introduce costs that have long been unrecognized by mass consumers of so-called “free-applications” and re-introduce questions of 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, as a premium is currently being placed on the ability to volunteer your location, activities, relationships, spending habits, job experience, and other personal information to the general public. The movement from the era of the written word to the era of technology is an ongoing trial, which hacking as spectacle may improve down the road, although no one can truly be sure of what social results will come from this hap hazardous experiment with social media and internet surveillance,

-- WyattLittles - 16 Oct 2014

I think the central idea, that publicly compromising technology to show its dangers for ordinary people is a "spectacle" beneficial to public education, is interesting. But it seems to me that the essay would benefit from a little further analysis about the ethical structure of such activity. Deliberately spreading infectious disease in order to demonstrate the fragility of for-profit health care would not be acceptable to you, I suppose, as a form of public educational spectacle. Nor would stealing large amounts of money to demonstrate weaknesses in bank security.

I don't happen to think "hacking" is a category. As an activity, the production of unexpected consequences from creative uses of technology (which is how I would define "hacking") is neither essentially ethical nor unethical. Only when further facts about specific situations are available can we determine whether we are facing crime, education, engineering, or art, to name only a few of the possible conclusions, all of which may occur also in various mixtures.

So what differentiates "hacking spectacle," whatever we decide that is, from other forms of experience of the new human state, networked society, that our course is investigating? The reference to Thoreau, which seems to lead naturally to "hacktivism," or digital civil disobedience narrowly defined, doesn't take us there.

It seems to me that the next draft of this essay, if there is one, would benefit from clearer definition of its subject. Arson teaches us about fire safety, but at a socially unacceptable price and in an immoral fashion. Lighting a fire in a trash can may be part of a political demonstration, but to say that the "spectacle" is relevant to the political expression requires demonstration rather than assertion. Robbing banks as a form of protest against capitalism has been tried many times, but it is only not crime to the criminals themselves. Mr Snowden may be a spy, a whistleblower, a hero or a traitor, depending on the viewpoint of the observer, and he has used computers extensively to do what he has done (being in my somewhat different terms, a skilled hacker), but he is not engaged in civil disobedience, and the "spectacle" he has created is not the same as either the ethical or unethical forms of vulnerability disclosure that you are discussing here.


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r2 - 04 Jan 2015 - 15:54:01 - EbenMoglen
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