Hacking, childhood, and rules

From an article via security reports to cyberwar and back
On October 25, 2012 the New York Times published an article about the financial situation of Wen Jiabao that had several consequences, among which the blocking of the New York Times site in China, and David Barboza, the author, receiving a Pulitzer prize on April 16, 2013. The article about Wen Jiabao’s fortune accumulation is furthermore related to the subsequent hacking into the New York Times reporters’ emails at the end of January 2013 (and earlier): “Security experts hired by The Times to detect and block the computer attacks gathered digital evidence that Chinese hackers, using methods that some consultants have associated with the Chinese military in the past”. A security report by the cyber security company Mandiant on February 18, then, ‘exposed one of China’s espionage units’. And towards the end of April the Akamai’s State of the Internet Report stated “that China is the source of 41 percent of all of the cyber attacks in the world in the fourth quarter of 2012 — that’s more than the rest of the top ten combined”, as does the Verizon’s 2013 Data Breach Investigation Report. These reports led to even more reporting about Chinese hackers attacking the U.S. (and Chinese reports about how they are victims of hacking, too) and words like “cyberwar” in relation to hacking are not uncommon. Some reporters, however, try to stress that it is not correct to talk about ‘an army of hackers’ or about a ‘cyber cold war‘.

The hacker and his culture
Some believe that Chinese hackers are ‘made in the USA’: “Chinese authorities demanded some technology as the price of access to their market. Yet most transfers were made voluntarily to Chinese partners. China’s hacking prowess makes clear that, as critics warned, the government and military benefited from widespread sharing of know-how directly applicable to spying, sabotage and theft of business secrets”. Needless to say, hackers are people, although rarely identifiable, who are studied as a part of the internet culture as those “whom the hacker culture recognizes as such” (Castells 2001: 41). And the ‘hacker culture’ “refers to the set of values and beliefs that emerged from the networks of computer programmers interacting on-line around their collaboration in self-defined projects of creative programming” (ibid: 42). The hacker culture thus is defined by openness and sharing of know-how, combined with the “joy of creativity” and a “reputation among peers” (ibid: 46).

The age cohort of hackers is defined to be consist of those between 18 and 30 (which correlates roughly with the age group of men in the army); furthermore, hackers are mostly male in China as well as elsewhere. Images in relation with hackers are ‘the Matrix’ as well as Guy Fawkes’ mask from the movie ‘V for Vendetta’.

Hackers, childhood and rules
Gabriella Coleman, who did fieldwork among hackers in the early 2000s finds that

“Although the exact details vary, many hackers reminisced about their technological lives using a relatively standard script that traces how their in- born affinity for technology transformed, over time and through experience, into an intense familiarity. A hacker may say he (and I use “he,” because most hackers are male) first hacked as an unsuspecting toddler when he took apart every electric appliance in the kitchen (much to his mother’s horror). By the age of six or seven, his actions ripened, becoming volitional. He taught himself how to program in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (“look, look our little Fred is sooo smart”). When a little older, perhaps during adolescence, he may have sequestered himself in his bedroom, where he read every computer manual he could get his hands on and—if he was lucky enough to own a modem—connected to a bulletin board system (BBS). Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world where there was a real strange brew of information and software to ingest,” (Coleman 2013: 25)

Indeed, now more than ever, hacking is found to start in childhood, when children are taught programming at school and elsewhere, and the antivirus company AVG warns that “children must be educated on coding “rights and wrongs””. Such a moral education about programming (hacking) will be found to be culturally defined and by no means clear-cut. Some of the sixteen rules under the entry ‘hacker’ in baidu (the Chinese Wikipedia), for example, sound like lessons from Orwell’s 1984: do not confide in untrustworthy friends; do not discuss your hacking activities on bbs, do not post any writings in the net with your real name; do not discuss your hack activities over the telephone; store your diary in a save place. Furthermore, the rules also provide a list of subjects that the hacker needs to be good at: programming and mathematics [skills that are promoted and demanded by national educational programs worldwide, while lessons in the arts and humanities, which would promote ethical and moral development, are more and more reduced], as well as some of the TCPIP protocol, systems theory; the hacker also should gather theoretical knowledge! And emphasizing again: a hacker who cannot program is not a good hacker, says rule no.14. Rule no.15 points out that a hacker is not a thief. And, according to rule no.16, a hacker is not somebody who [merely] attacks [other] users (or ‘consumers’), but who, by attacking, studies loopholes [in the system], and based on that will greatly advance the security of that system.

Noteworthy in the Baidu entry is the English-language definition of ‘hack’: “(1)Persons who have enough knowledge about language of coding. And they can create useful applications without long-time thinking. (2) Persons who love coding and enjoy it. Then they will do it better and better. (3) Persons who like freedom and are not easy to be constrained. But they think that if they are constrained for the things they love, they will accept it.”

Thus, what defines a hacker is the hacker culture, which is defined by hackers acknowledging others as hackers, but which is mostly defined by creativity and freedom. However, although freedom appears to have an universal understanding according to Baidu, a hacker might put ‘the things he loves’ (for example his Nation) first (an idea with which both Nations, China and the US seem to work with).

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