15 July, 2014

Ethical quandaries presented to hackers

Understand I use the term "hacker" in the MIT sense of the word.

As hackers, we are presented with ethical and moral quandaries quite often. There's a neat profile in Wired this month about Morgan Mayhem, who I only know from Twitter. As it happens I know at least a couple countersurveillance researchers and this sort of thing comes up a lot.

Basically there are very few people on the planet (I promise this isn't puffery) – some few thousands – who are able to create the software and hardware required to spy on individuals (or indeed countries). So for those of us who are able to do this, there are a lot of very lucrative opportunities working for organisations like Blue Coat and similar. Some of us go it alone and wind up with notoriety on the conference circuit but not a lot in terms of financial compensation.

So here's the trick: if you are a hacker, you are necessarily pretty protective of your own privacy. Accordingly, working towards defeating privacy does not serve your interest. Furthermore, I have yet to meet a hacker who is not really into their own privacy.

Consider the case of a physician who is superlative at creating winning drug cocktails for racehorses. He can run around giving out these cocktails to other stable owners, but in so doing, he loses any edge he has. He will be compensated, and the work is interesting, but ultimately it is self-defeating.

With privacy and hacking, there's the additional moral problem of it being frankly kind of rude to break into other people's stuff. Be it homes, emails, body, et cetera.

Lots has been written on this, of course. What got my attention this morning is the fact that Morgan has been really something of a champion for people who are under immense scrutiny in the Middle East, where people are subject to comprehensive, near-total surveillance, with repercussions that include torture and death (and of course he is not alone in supporting these people). We often hear governments of the Middle East speaking of the need to support their people, to defend them against the evils of The West and so forth. What might they say, though, of someone who has worked hard to ensure the freedom of the people they are quite specifically and brutally oppressing?

These issues are so very thorny. I wish we could open a discussion about what true liberty from interference or surveillance looks like.