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HACKER ETICS: HOW TO TEACH THEM, AND WHAT THEY ARE by Hal
Session overview
  • Goals of the talk
  • Notions of hacker ethics
  • How hacker ethics are learned
  • Instrumenting your ethics
Goals of the session
  • To suggest a definition of personal ethics for hackers. This will reject fixed cultural ethical definitions.
  • Why do ethics matter? This will help set some larger goals for hacking.
  • Teaching and learning ethics. How hacker ethics are communicated.
  • Bringing about ethical outcomes by hacking. How to translate your ethics as a hacker into outcomes you believe in (rather than letting others decide).
Notions of Hacker Ethics

Many definitions of ethical behavior...

  • "Don't hurt others"
  • "Pursue higher goals"
  • "Do the right thing"
  • "Follow the golden rule"

  • These are personal definitions
  • Ethics often transcend norms and laws

  • People may disagree about what is ethical. For example, civil disobedience may be considered unethical, as may direct action, or questioning authority.
  • Ethics is hard to define unambigiously, and very difficult without a cultural context.
  • A personal definition of ethical behavior might not be consistent with action, or even self-consistent. Think of the environmentalist who doesn't recycle, or the teacher who can't listen.
  • Ultimately, it's up to individuals to decide what behavior is ethical, and what is not.
  • Ethical behavior is thoughtful and reflective, not thoughtless and erratic.
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Teaching and Learning Hacker Ethics

Ultimately, we learn from others

  • Hackers are often self-taught
  • But we learn from others: their code, writing and actions (as well as face to face communication, at HAL, etc.)
  • We've learned what is right and wrong in many situations, but the background we get from parents, school and friends might not apply directly to online environments.
  • So:
    • We can make up our own ethics, based on feelings and past experience. (We can interpret without much input from others, but originally it was other people who taught us how to make ethical judgements).
    • We can assume ethics doesn't apply to the online world. (After all, it's not real).
    • We can look for signals for ethical interpretations of behavior. (For example, reading what people have to say who are in similar situations.)


  • This last situation is something that all hackers can help to happen: we can communicate our beliefs about ethical behavior through our writings and our code.
We can help bring about ethics of the sort we desire
  • "Instrumenting" means we're implementing some sort of mechanism to bring about ethical thought or behavior:
    • Through writing (in code and in natural language)
    • By carefully selecting options and default behavior in our code
    • By providing value-laden documentation

There are some excellent examples of instrumented ethics. Some include:

Great examples of modern hacker ethics:

  • 2600 magazine (and Website). Read the letters, and see how ethics are conveyed consitently and tirelessly -- while freedom of information is stressed above all.
  • cDc's Hactivismo, a geek implementation of the UN's human rights documents. Look at BackOrifice as an example of ethics implemented in code and documentation; Peekabooty is an even stronger example.
  • ESR's writings, including On Socially Responsoble Programming and The Art of Unix Programming. Clearly, hacking is an activity of curiousity, drive and skill -- not one of destruction.

Examples of where ethics could have been added

  • Freenet. In addition to adding a little ethics, this is a fantastic platform to educate about copyright.
  • Most viruses, worms and trojans. We don't really need to be told that Outlook has security holes (and the people that do need to be told don't listen...).
Towards Instrumented Hacking
  • Choose a goal. Social change ... education ... impressing your friends ...
  • Engage in hacking behavior consistent with that goal: write some code, learn, explore, evangelize
  • In your actions (writing, coding, complaining...) communicate the ethics behind your behavior
  • Make it easy for people who want to learn from your example (or just analyze it) to see what you consider to be ethical behavior, and to think about it.

  • Remember that ethics are learned through communication and example. By communicating your ethics more clearly, you can help to bring about (your definition of) ethical thought and behavior in others
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