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Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom Research Paper

The term “hacker” has been connected by popular culture to mean someone who infiltrates into secure systems to sow chaos and mayhem for their purposes. They have been described as individuals who steal credit card numbers, create computer viruses, attempt identity theft, and all other manners of illegal behavior (Social Network, 2010). It must be noted though that describing all hackers as such is far from the actual truth when in reality such actions are actually from a sub-group of hackers who are named “crackers” (Social Network, 2010).

Hackers are individuals who “program enthusiastically” in that they consider computer language, code, and the creation of new applications as a form of entertainment, something that gets the mental juices running so to speak. The concept of “hacking” for these individuals is similar to a passion similar to individuals who go mountain climbing, play sports professionally, or even write novels. It is an activity that involves aspects of curiosity, creation, and innovation wherein hackers want to know how a particular system works, try to create one of their own, and innovate it to have more features, more functions, and work better than it originally did before (Gilman, 2009).

Open-source systems such as Unix or free programs such as Mozilla Firefox are the result of the hacker culture where curiosity and innovation spawned the creation of programs meant to better assist the general population of computer users (Harrop, 2007). What must be taken into consideration is the fact that the term “cracker” is associated more with the descriptions attached to the hacker culture rather than what popular culture says hackers are. “Crackers”, as they are named, are a sub-culture within the hacker culture that uses their skills to achieve criminal gain either through subverting secure online systems or by stealing user information for identity theft.

The fact of the matter is most hackers are not crackers and use their developed skills only because they find something to be intrinsically interesting and challenging and do not do so to commit a crime. What controls and directs hacking behavior, in general, is strict adherence to the code of the hacker’s ethos which deals specifically with the right to the freedom of information, individual privacy, and a distinct improvement in the overall quality of life of individual users (Castulluccio, 2003).

The concept of ethos can be described as a form of guiding beliefs that are an inherent part of a community of nations’ character. It is used as a guide that influences a person’s behavior to such an extent that by examining the ethos behind a culture you can determine how they will react based on a given situation. It due to this that concepts behind any form of ethos must first be subjected to intense examination before it is shown to have been constructed under a proper ethical and moral framework.

It must be noted that the set of ethical boundaries embodied by the hacker ethos have dictated the course of the hacker culture leading to instances of innovation to give consumers a choice over the software bundles sold to them by corporations at high prices. Another aspect that has developed is the case of hacker vigilantism in which hackers attempt to subvert a system for the “good” of the people. Such instances can be seen where hackers break the proprietary code of various software bundles to distribute them online for free or attempt to reconfigure systems to run in a different manner that allows greater user flexibility and choice.

One example of such an act was the development of a chip that reconfigured the digital reader on a Sony PS2 gaming console which enabled pirated CDs to work on the console itself. The result of such an act was the loss of potentially billions in revenue for various game development companies around the world however for users this resulted in them being able to play games that they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

Aristotle has stated that “law is order, and good law is good order”, in this particular case what the hacker ethos is representing is a distinctly unlawful act and as such could be considered as a method of contribution to disorder. The fact is hacking attempts done by various hackers while being stated as basically harmless, do result in negative consequences. At times such actions are even compared to the act of stealing which makes the ethicality associated with the hacker ethos highly dubious at times.

What must be understood is that Ethos can also refer to how a person portrays themselves in an argument, in a sense that it is a method in which persuaders present an “image” to people that they are attempting to persuade. This particular “image” refers to a persuader’s “character” in the sense that a person is attempting to persuade another person of the righteousness of their statements based on their inherent character. In the case of the hacker ethos, this takes the form of hackers attempting to convince other people of the righteousness of their cause based on the image that they are portraying, namely, as individuals that have a great deal of experience and knowledge regarding computer systems and how they work.

It is this argument based on a projected image that is a cause for concern since basing it on a person’s knowledge and experience alone doesn’t justify the action itself. For example, a person may argue for the righteousness of a cause based on their knowledge of the event yet this attempt at persuasion may in itself be self-serving for the person that is attempting to persuade other individuals. An examination of the motivations behind the hacker ethos reveals that should individuals accept their ethos and implement it, it benefits hackers more so than regular individuals.

The hacker ethos in itself is self-serving towards hackers themselves since it justifies their actions under the basis of a righteous cause yet, in the end, is more beneficial to them than to other individuals. In the case of ethos what must be understood is that it is “artifice”, meaning that is created, manufactured, made, constructed, etc. It can be considered a type of surface image which may have an entirely fictitious relationship to what is true.

For example, a teacher could show up in class one day wearing cowboy boots, a ten-gallon hat, and a long-sleeved t-shirt with a large image of a cactus on the front, the next day he can wear an average suit and tie while the day after that he could wear a Scottish kilt, bagpipes and one of those patterned hats. The reason I mention this is because despite the different outfits he wears the person and the ideas that are being presented have not changed at all however what is changed is the perception of the audience regarding the idea being presented.

The same can be said for ethos wherein the method in which the idea is “packaged” drastically changes the perception of the audience towards accepting the idea itself or the validity of its statements. In the case of the hacker ethos, it can be seen that when boiled down to its very essence it is merely a statement which says the following: “let me do what I want with computer systems and programs”. It is in the way that it is packaged and presented to the public that changes the perception of the public to the idea that is being presented. What the public sees is an argument for freedom and innovation what it is in essence is a statement to be allowed to do whatever they want.

Based on this it can be seen that the ethos of hacking has several different points of view that need to be examined before an adequate conclusion behind the ethicality of all hacking practices can be determined. It must be questioned whether hacking represents a growing positive trend in innovation and open information systems or a negative aspect of modern culture that has negative implications for various industries and governments.

The concept of open access to information is based on rights evident in the U.S. Constitution which specifically states that people have the right to free access to public information especially those concerning the activities of the government. This particular concept was adopted by hacker culture to mean transparency in the development of systems and direct access to information hidden by the government or private institutions (Trembly, 2005). For hackers, open access to systems means being able to analyze the way they are constructed, learn their fundamental aspects and build upon them to either enhance or reinvent the systems in a way that is better in terms of functionality and usability (Carroll, 2008).

It has been shown that open access to information oftentimes leads to greater levels of creativity resulting in the development of better and more efficient information systems and programs. On the other hand, corporations argue their right to maintain the integrity of their proprietary systems due to the sheer amount of expense and investment they devoted towards their creation. These corporations do have a point, the amount of work and money that went into the development of various programs and systems constitutes a multi-billion dollar international industry that provides jobs to thousands of people.

They can make money due to their possession of a particular system or program that is a necessity to a large consumer market. Take for example Microsoft, it is one of the largest software companies in the world and has nearly 90% of the total PC market in terms of overall sales of its software series. Allowing access to the proprietary information that went into the development of its systems is the same as wasting all the time and effort that went into creating that particular operating system. Open access in this case means a high degree of possible replication resulting in the loss of company profits.

The basis of this argument can be seen in the pirated software industry where illegal copies of Microsoft operating systems have resulted in billions of dollars lost in potential profits. Aristotle states that “even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered”, in this particular case it can be seen that the written law is the intellectual property right companies have over software while open source initiatives represent a possible alteration to this “law”. It must be noted that current intellectual property laws, while designed to protect the rights of companies, are inhibiting the progress of software.

Such an argument is based on the fact that open source initiatives have been shown to have a greater degree of innovation and exploration of new methods as compared to isolated developments within a company. While it may be true that for companies the concept of the hacker ethos which beliefs in open access to information is, in fact, bad for company profits it all boils down to a lack of will on the part of the company to innovate itself to such an extent that it could make a profit while at the same time allowing open access to developed information. The argument of hackers, in this case, is that the software sold by Microsoft is too overpriced and cannot be afforded by a large percentage of the global population.

The result is a strange twist in ethics wherein under the belief that there should be open access to information hackers take it upon themselves to crack the various safeguards placed on proprietary systems and software for it to be distributed for free online. This can be seen in the various torrent files available on Piratebay.org where operating systems such as Windows 7 have been sufficiently cracked by hackers to be able to be installed by most users.

This apparent “Robin Hood” like behavior, while based on the concept of the hacker ethos, is for the most part highly unethical in most cases. As such, it can be stated that what is happening right now is a fight between two different kinds of ethos namely the ethos of openness and sharing as advocated by hackers or isolation and integrated development with profit in mind as shown by corporations.

While it is not a representation of all people within the hacker culture it has been noted that various “moral” hackers do attempt to crack into various proprietary systems just for the sake of being able to do so. An examination of famous hackers such as Kevin Mitnick reveals that for them the concept of the hacker ethos is a method of prevention for excessive government or corporate control over the internet or the development of software.

Aristotle states “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”, in this particular case it can be seen that the hacker ethos in which systems are breached or software is de-encrypted is actually under the concept of learning by doing wherein innovation is done through action and in this particular case, it is the development of new systems, attempting to crack software and use it for their end or other similar types of behavior. The fact is in the eyes of hackers the only true way for innovation to drive itself forward is by experimenting and attempting to go beyond what companies seem to users to be capable of.

They state that they mean no harm but the fact remains that cracking a particular system or program is still considered an illegal action. It is due to this that today various hackers are in favor of open source systems since this allows them the liberty to test such systems and implement changes as they see fit. The Unix operating system for instance is an open-source platform used by many of today’s hackers and software developers as a means of implementing new ideas on specific types of programs that cannot be adequately tested nor marketed on Microsoft based systems due to proprietary issues related to unauthorized changes to the program structure of the operating system.

Another interesting development brought about by the hacker ethos of open access to information is the current situation involving barriers to open access to information instituted by various global governments. Government such as those located in the U.A.E., Egypt, and Australia have begun instituting means of blocking websites that contain “subversive” messages aimed against the government. For hackers, this presents a direct assault on internet users’ right to the freedom of information that the internet provides. As a result, various hacking groups have created proxy sites that avoid government censors but allow people to view information that is distinctly negative about the current government in charge.

While such acts of internet vigilantism are in line with the hacker ethos of allowing all users open access to information the repercussions of their actions worry certain segments of various government bodies. Before the start of the recent Egyptian revolution, it was the work of hackers that helped to subvert government controls on information systems that allowed the public to know of the various negative actions committed by the Egyptian leadership. It was the work of hackers that allowed the creation of an integrated online social structure that eventually brought down the Egyptian leadership and instituted democratic reform in the country.

On the other hand, it must be noted that it was due to these actions that mass riots and general mayhem on the streets of Egypt commenced. As such the work of hackers, though supposedly positive in its approach to the right of people to open access to information, can in effect be considered an instrument of violent change. What must be taken into consideration is the fact that open access to all types of information can at times result in negative effects such as profit loss for companies or revolutions in the case of Egypt.

Yet hacker ethos fails to take into account such repercussions and instead focuses on freedoms without considering the possible consequence of such freedoms. In the case of corporations, the “robin hood” like the behavior of hackers results in cutbacks in company spending resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs. For countries the antics of hackers allowing the spread of subversive information about the government can result in violent repercussions for the state which could have negative consequences for that country’s economy.

One of the first principles that define hacker ethos is the rejection of hackers of all notions that state “businesses are the only entities that are entitled to or have access to the use of modern technology”. The term “modern technology” is not just applicable to the various devices you see at home but rather it is also applicable to the concept of processes used in the development of certain types of programs and software.

For hackers, the fact that only companies can be the providers of software is completely against the concept of the freedom of information and open access. The popular culture belief that only companies produce the best kinds of software is what hackers are striving to change, for them the continued isolation of the production process creates the possibility of control and centralization overall future developments of software which could potentially undermine the current freedom accorded to users. The basis of this argument can be seen in the near-monopoly of Microsoft in the operating system industry which has given it significant control and influence in the manner in which it interacts with customers.

One obvious case is the fact that MS Office applications are never freely bundled with the initial purchase of the MS Operating System but rather have to be purchased as a separate bundle. Not only that, computers within the U.S. are not allowed to be shipped abroad with the MS operating system installed unless with the strict permission of Microsoft. While it can be accepted that protecting proprietary information is of the highest concern in most companies the fact of the matter is the methods of operations of Microsoft do not appear to be trying to protect the integrity of its software but rather are utilized as a means of constraining the market.

Unfortunately, there is very little people can do about it since most of the world’s computer systems run off operating systems originating from Microsoft. As a result, the consumers no longer have the power of choice but rather are being controlled by a company’s business model due to consumers having no choice in the matter. Various studies involving the marketing techniques of Microsoft and other software companies reveal that they intentionally try to indoctrinate people into accepting the notion that there are no other alternatives to their products and that they are the only ones capable of producing the type of software that they want.

It is this very behavior that hackers detest and as such the reaction from the hacker community has been the creation of open source-based platforms that encourage diversity in the choice of software types and options people can utilize. For hackers, it is this decentralization that enables a far better method of innovation, creation, and freedom of expression as compared to the isolated manner in which corporate giants develop their software applications.

The second principle behind the hacker ethos is what hackers consider the use of hacking in a fight aimed against the encroaching behavior of computer technology. All of us one way or another utilize some form of technology in our daily lives whether in the form of credit cards, cell phones, email accounts, etc.

Unfortunately what most companies fail to mention whenever someone does sign up for an account is the fact that information collected about account holders is often used by the company to know more about a person to convince them to buy more of a particular type of product. For example, most people are not aware of it but using the search engine “Google” actually causes the parameters of your search criteria to be recorded along with your IP address and stored in the company’s servers for its advertising campaign.

The more information you input into a Google search engine the more the company’s advertising algorithm gets to know more about you as a customer. The result is that the company’s advertising platform, from which it draws a majority of its revenue, can develop a personality profile of you as an online user which it utilizes to display specific ads that target users based upon an amalgamation of their online searches. For hackers, this represents a gross violation of the rights to privacy since a person’s online search history may contain various tidbits of information that he/she would have preferred to keep quiet.

Another encroachment of technology on users can be seen in the case of the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates) where the government strictly controls which websites a person can visit. Before, it was not within the capability of ISP (Internet Service Providers) to specifically block users from visiting a particular site however with advancements in networking software the current tools available to ISPs have greatly increased which as a result encroaches on the concept of freedom most users tend to associate with the internet. For hackers, the continued encroachment of technology acts as a deterrent to privacy, the open-access of information, and the freedom of expression normally associated with the internet.

It is due to this that activities related to “Hacktivism” or “Cyberactivism” have occurred around the internet which specifically target websites associated with countries or corporations that supposedly violate the hacker’s ethos. It must be noted that while hackers do not condone behavior that “crackers” do which is either destructive or self-beneficially the hacking community does condone behavior associated with the illegal penetration of systems when it is in the form of a protest against activities which it considers unjust and immoral by its standards.

The final principle behind the rationale of the hacker ethos is the increasingly high cost of software that many people within the hacker and non-hacking community can ill afford. The price of software has long been a matter of contention between hackers and corporations with hackers justifying their action of cracking open software as the only method in which they and other types of consumers can utilize such overpriced bundles.

The inherent problem with this action is that the act of cracking the software and allowing it to be distributed online constitutes an illegal action. For hackers, their actions are supposedly justified under the hacker ethos of the freedom of information wherein everyone has the right to information. The problem with their actions is that under most ethical and legal standards what they are doing is wrong. Yet the response from the masses has been largely positive, individuals that would normally not be able to afford the various types of software cracked by hackers can now enjoy the same benefits as those that can. For hackers, it is the spread of computer literacy that drives such behavior in that they do not do it for the sake of profit but rather do so because it is under their belief, their ethos so to speak.

Further Examination

While it has been established that the basis of the hacker ethos argument is one based upon the inherent skills, talents, and knowledge of hackers the fact remains that such a basis is inherently flawed. For example, before he was sentenced to 125 years of jail time Bernie Madoff was once considered to be one of the best investors in the world. While there were people who sometimes stated that there was something wrong with the various facts and figures that he presented he justified the accuracy of the numbers based on his tenure as a well-respected investor as well as a former board chairman of NASDAQ.

Yet as it can be seen this apparent basis of trustworthiness is based on a projected image since it is possible to present one image yet be another. In the case of the hacker ethos, its justification is based on the knowledge and experience of hackers yet nothing is stating that the various principles that it is composed of, though appearing ethically sound, were created based on ethics alone. An examination of the historical nature of ethos has shown that in one way or another despite the apparent ethical appearance of a certain type of ethos there is always an underlying reason behind its creation which does create a beneficial effect for the individuals that created it.

As it was stated earlier, ethos is not inherent but rather something that has been created and manufactured with a surface image to fulfill a particular purpose. It is often utilized as a method of convincing people or justifying a particular set of actions and as such, it is crafted in such a way to be convincing, believable, and thus adaptable. For example, when order someone to go into battle you do not tell them that the possibility of them dying is high rather you tell them to fight for national pride, democracy, freedom, etc., even though the fact of the matter is that person will most likely die. In a sense ethos is a device utilized to manipulate public perception regarding truth in such a way that it promotes a particular idea based on the common good but in fact, it was created to carry out a particular action.

Ethos in Rhetoric

Rhetoric can be described as the use of language to achieve a persuasive effect on people in other words it is a form of delivery that entails being able to convince people of the validity of the argument being given (Holiday, 2009). On the other hand under Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric, the concept of ethos is thus defined as the credibility of a speaker in which through this credibility they can convince people that he/ she is believable in what he/she is saying (Nichols, n.d.).

In the case of the hacker ethos, the principles that define it namely open access to information, freedom of access, and information sharing, are justified by the experience hackers have had in their current lifestyle. What must be understood is that hackers have a great deal of understanding regarding what constitutes progressive behavior both in the creation of software and on the internet as such there are often considered to be a reliable source of information regarding what changes should be implemented.

What must be understood is that in this particular case the use of rhetoric by the hacker ethos can be seen in their various campaigns regarding freedom of use, open access to information, and information sharing. They are trying to justify their actions by stating that through their own experiences in this current field of interest they know what works as an effective means of ensuring progressive attitudes in development.

What must be taken into consideration is the fact that upon examination the hacker ethos does indeed promote a distinct degree of progressive behavior. If Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric is to be used then it can be said that the position the hackers are taking in trying to be persuasive in their message is one based on the concept of ethos in which they justify their request based on their expertise in their field. What must be understood though is that while such a method of argument is rather effective in the case of hackers one cannot help but think their ethos is rather self-serving in terms of allowing them to justify their future actions in terms of what they believe is right (Zittrain, 2008).


Based on the presented information it can be seen that ethos can be manufactured and created for a certain purpose and in the case of the hacker ethos it basis is one which advocates the freedom to let hackers do what they want. The fact remains that due to the reasoning of the hacker ethos that keeps on justifying itself based on the knowledge of hackers regarding certain systems, programs, and methods of operation it shows itself to be inherently flawed.

The ethical flaw in this particular case is the fact that basis a system of ethos on inherent knowledge and expertise creates far too many risks in terms of the ethical principles behind the creation of the ethos itself. Further examination of the hacker ethos reveals that it seems more self-serving to hackers than to the general public. As it was established earlier the concept of ethos can be shaped and molded to entice greater public support for a particular issue.

That is what is being seen right in the hacker ethos wherein the justification for actions is based on an ethos that has been molded to create positive public opinion but in fact, is nothing more than a method of allowing hackers to do what they please.

Other findings of this paper show that hackers react in response to the actions of the environment that they find themselves in. This is about their assumption of the unjustness of corporate practices, the suppression of information by the government, and as a result to act out against these perceived injustices in a manner that conforms to their hacker ethos. Unfortunately what they consider unjust and immoral by their standards also holds for several aspects of their activities which are also unjust and immoral by other standards.

While hackers may state that true “moral” hackers only attempt to crack a system based on curiosity the fact remains that the person who did such an action committed a crime. While hackers may state the moral ethos behind a lot of their actions such as concepts about the freedom of information and innovation in the software industry the fact remains that for some of them, their curiosity and desire to promote the tenets of the freedom of information and access to it has caused various negative consequences both in the political and economic realm.

While the concepts of free information and open access are admirable goals the fact remains that based on the principles behind the hacker ethos it can be seen that this particular type of ethos simply promotes vigilante-type behavior which if remained unchecked could have potentially dire consequences in the future.

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"Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom." IvyPanda, 28 Dec. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/hacker-ethos-as-a-framework-protecting-freedom/.

1. IvyPanda. "Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom." December 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/hacker-ethos-as-a-framework-protecting-freedom/.


IvyPanda. "Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom." December 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/hacker-ethos-as-a-framework-protecting-freedom/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom." December 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/hacker-ethos-as-a-framework-protecting-freedom/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Hacker Ethos as a Framework Protecting Freedom'. 28 December.

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