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When we think of technocrime, it is immediately “the hacker” who comes to mind, a somewhat mystical figure who can do seemingly magical as well as malicious things with technology. Throughout history, various scholars, including criminologists, have sought to grasp the hacker phenomenon so as to unravel hackers’ techno-culture, identity, and mentality. The current study is one of them, yet it does so from a novel, less anthropocentric angle. Drawing on the cyborg-lens of actor-network theory, which considers the human and the technical as non- separable, this study conceives the hacker as a “cyborgian deviant:” a transgressive blend of human and technology. Such perspective puts the human-technology relationship more on the frontline of the analysis, enabling us to gain a more nuanced understanding of how hackers’ (deviant) relationship with technology can take shape. Based on 10 interviews with hackers, the study revealed that being and becoming a hacker cannot be understood in separation from how they interact with, through, and against technology. Whether engaged in licit or illicit hacks, hackers seek to simultaneously set, explore, and extend the boundaries of technology and themselves, while also blurring the boundaries between good and evil along the way.
Over the last few decades, hacking and other forms of technocrime have become a major public concern. Almost on a daily basis, we are confronted with cyber incidents that lead to severe technological and financial damage for companies, organizations, governments, and people. In 2012 in the Netherlands for example, a 17-year-old hacker was arrested and prosecuted for hacking several servers of a major Dutch telecom company wherein he was nearly successful in making the national emergency number completely unreachable (see NOS, 2012). In 2013, a 19-year-old hacker was arrested for hacking at least 2,000 computers and webcams by means of a so called “remote access toolkit” (RAT), an easy online to purchase tool on the Internet that enables someone to remotely take over a computer. He stole nude photos from the hacked computers and spread them on social media. The involved hacker claimed in court that he was “hypnotized by the opportunities of technology” (see Tweakers, 2014). Apparently, for some youngsters, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has become an interesting new field or toy to play with (Turgeman-Goldschmidt, 2005) and engage in illicit activities. Moreover, the Internet nowadays provides the tools, information, and videos on how to do it anonymously without any restrictions barring the (malicious) usage and exploration of computer technology.
At the same time, a large part, or even the majority of the hacker community, (still) consists of hackers who do not intend to cause any harm (Steinmetz, 2015), and who explicitly dissociate themselves from the above types of “hacks” or hackers (Van der Wagen, Van Swaaningen & Althoff, 2016). For instance, so called “white hat” or ethical hackers search for leaks or “bugs” in security systems in order for them to get fixed and they also have their own specific ethical beliefs (Van’t Hof, 2015). The same counts for those active in “hacker spaces,” offline meeting places where people gather to tinker with hardware, software, and electronics. Hence, it is worth keeping in mind that the hacker landscape consists of different hacker groups with various skills, moral perceptions, and “usages” of computer technology (Holt & Kilger, 2008), both licit and illicit or somewhere in between (Blankwater, 2011; Steinmetz, 2015).
Over time, various scholars, including criminologists, have sought to grasp the hacker phenomenon so as to unravel the features of hacker culture and ethics (e.g., Himanen, 2001; Levy, 1984; Taylor, 1999), hackers’ relationship with technology (e.g., Jordan & Taylor, 1998; Turkle, 1984), and how hackers construct their deviant identity (e.g., Turgeman-Goldschmidt, 2008; Van der Wagen et al. 2016). The current study is one of them, yet it does so from a novel approach. It departs from the notion that hackers—whether they are engaged with technology in a deviant or non-deviant manner—require an approach that puts the human-technology relationship more on the frontline of the analysis. It argues that we can obtain a more nuanced view of their drives, perceptions, and beliefs when we move beyond the anthropocentric lens of existing approaches (e.g., Becker, 1963; Katz, 1988; Matza, 1969), which ultimately place human agency in the center of inquiry and treat technology in a rather passive way (see also Brown, 2006). Against this background, this study uses the cyborg-perspective of actor-network theory (Latour, 2005), which presumes that human actions, decision-making, and sense-making cannot be separated from the objects, technologies, and artifacts they use or engage with. It offers a framework that enables us to grasp the various ways in which the human-technology relationship can take shape. Accordingly, this study conceives and studies the hacker as a “cyborgian deviant:” a transgressive blend of human and technology. In this context, the article builds on the “cyborg-crime” perspective outlined by Van der Wagen and Pieters (2015), which proposes a hybrid understanding of agency in the course of deviant action.1 In the current study, this perspective is used to examine and interpret the manner in which the human-technology relationship manifests itself in the hacker phenomenon. The main question the study seeks to answer is: How do hackers give meaning to themselves and their actions, and how is this co- shaped by their (deviant) relationship and engagement with technology?
For this study, 10 in-depth interviews were conducted with both hackers that were engaged in illicit hacking activities, and those that mainly act(ed) within the boundaries of the law. The findings revealed that hackers - whether engaged in licit or illicit hacks - perceived themselves as actors with a specific skillset and mindset that set them apart from ordinary people and criminals. Through their engagement with hacking, they sought to simultaneously set, explore, and extend the boundaries of technology and themselves, while also blurring the boundaries between good and evil along the way. The interviewed hackers believed to embody various features of the cyborg figure, which was both visible in the way they described their relationship with technology and in regards to how they saw themselves in relation to others.
The article starts with a short discussion on the social construction of hackers, which includes an examination of the inseparability of hackers and the world of computer technology. Hereafter, the article discusses how existing studies capture the hacker-technology relationship and why the cyborg-perspective of actor-network theory (ANT) is a valuable alternative. First, the Methods section provides a description of the data and research method followed by presentation of the research findings. In the final section, the article summarizes the main findings and also reflects on the value and future potential of ANT’s cyborg-perspective for grasping hacking and other forms of technical deviance.
Historically, hackers have always been perceived as figures that have a specific relationship with the worlds of objects and computer technologies. In the 1960s and 1970s, hackers were viewed as computer enthusiasts or “whiz kids” who explore and expand the boundaries and potential of computer technology (e.g. Chandler, 1996; Levy, 1984). Hackers were admired for having an almost organic relationship with computers (Skibell, 2002), and to be a hacker was to wear a badge of honor (Chandler, 1996). Hackers were also considered as members of a specific subculture that adheres to an ethic that is also specifically orientated towards technology, e.g., the idea that information should be free, viewing software in terms of art and beauty and an emphasis on skill (Levy, 1984; Nissenbaum, 2004; Thomas, 2005). Their ethic also promoted distrust in authorities and the resistance to a conventional lifestyle (Blankwater 2011; Steinmetz & Gerber, 2014, 2015; Taylor, 1999; Yar, 2005). Although hackers were not part of the mainstream establishment, the public attitude towards them was generally positive in the early days (Nissenbaum, 2004).
This more positive perception of hackers shifted gradually to a considerably more negative one. In the 1980s, hackers were more and more perceived as pathological computer addicts who were better able to socialize with machines than with people (Skibell, 2002; Sterling, 1993; Turkle, 1984; Yar, 2005). Additionally, their “magical” power with computers relatively quickly became a source of fear and danger (Skibell, 2002; Wall, 2008). Of course, there were also developments within the hacker community itself that affected both the meaning of hacking and the public perception. For example, hackers known as “crackers” entered the scene and hacked to break or sabotage systems (Chandler, 1996; Wall, 2007). The term cracker actually emerged in the hacker community itself to differentiate between hackers that create code or use something in an unconventional way, and crackers who break things (see Holt, 2010), although crackers can also be divided in various subgroups as well (see Wall, 2007). However, crackers were (and still are) a minority within the hacker community at large (Steinmetz, 2015; Taylor, 1999). It is important to stress that there are also other categorizations to distinguish “good hackers” from the “bad hackers;” the most known one is the division between white-hat, grey- hat, and black hat hackers to which the current study applies (see Method section).
From the 1990s onwards, hackers were mainly viewed as criminals, an image that was further reinforced by the security industry (Taylor, 1999), the government (Yar, 2005), and the media alike (Halbert, 1997; Nissenbaum, 2004). Indeed, as Churchill (2016) pointed out, the social construction of the hacker shows some similarity with that of the scientific burglar: Their (perceived) skills, intelligence, and sophistication attracts both fear and admiration, and they are also viewed and treated as the representatives of the dark side of technical progress. Paradoxically, hackers have also been important enablers of the same technical progress themselves (Blankwater, 2011; Chandler, 1996; Levy, 1984), and perhaps also (unwillingly) co- produced the construction or “myth” of hackers as dangerous criminals (see Skibell, 2002).
The fact that hackers have a specific relationship with technology is also displayed in studies that seek to understand hacking from the perspective of hackers themselves (Levy, 1984; Taylor, 1999). The work of psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle (1982, 1984), is perhaps most prolific on this topic. She pictures hackers as figures that are deeply engaged with the world of machines and technology. Rather than a gifted and beautiful body, hackers are believed to possess a gifted mind that gives them mastery over technology. Mastery is generally considered as a key element of hacker culture (Holt & Kilger, 2008), but also conceived as a valuable concept for understanding how hackers relate to technology. It refers to “the extensive breadth and depth of technical knowledge an individual possesses that is necessary to understand and manipulate digital technologies in sophisticated ways” (Kilger, 2010, p. 208). According to Turkle (1984), mastery over technology is also strongly intertwined with how hackers view themselves. Some of the hackers she interviewed had an image of themselves as “non-persons” or “non-real people” because they liked to be more engaged with “machine things” than with “flesh things” (humans), which they considered as two separate domains. Hackers feel proud of their ability to master their medium perfectly or by winning the battle with the machines, rather than through their engagement with humans (idem).
The hacker-technology relationship has also been understood through the notion of “craft” (Holt & Kilger, 2008; Nissenbaum, 2004; Steinmetz, 2015). Like mastery, craft deals with the manner in which hackers are able to manipulate technology, although it puts more emphasis on skills, labor, and creativity than on the dimension of control outlined by Turkle (1984). Holt and Kilger (2008) for instance made a division between “tech crafters” and “make crafters.” The first type of hacker is considered as the consumer of existing materials, and the latter as the one that is engaged in producing or creating materials (e.g., new scripts, tools). Steinmetz (2015) conceptualized hacking as “craftwork,” considering hacking as a specific kind of late modern work in which process is more important than the result. The study also showed that hackers are driven by technological challenges, feel the urge to explore and control systems, and also possess a specific technology-orientated mentality. Others underline the importance of ego in relation to mastery and hacker motivation, which refers to the “internal satisfaction that is achieved in getting the digital device to do exactly what one intended it to do” (Kilger, 2010, p. 208; see also Nissen, 1998). Turgeman-Goldschmidt (2005) drew on Katz’s (1988) work on the seduction of crime to grasp the hacker-technology relationship. She considered fun, thrill, and excitement as the most essential features of the hacker experience and argued that all the aspects brought up by her participants e.g., curiosity, power, revenge, and the interaction with machines, can be associated with feelings of fun. Like Turkle (1984), Turgeman-Goldschmidt (2008) also highlighted the fact that hackers feel proud of themselves when it comes to their computer talent. While the outside world views them as deviants or criminals, hackers consider themselves as positive deviants: They have no shortcomings, but something extra (see also Van der Wagen et al. 2016).
While these and other studies provide valuable insights on hackers as a deviant group, including their specific relationship and engagement with computer technology, they continue to examine the hacker-technology relationship from a rather anthropocentric angle. Concepts such as mastery, craft, ego, and fun ultimately place human agency in the center of the inquiry and treat technology itself as a more passive and subordinate element in the deviant process. Existing studies and frameworks also somewhat treat the human-technology relationship in a rather dualistic manner. Goals or intentions are attributed to the human agent and the means to the tools and the technology. It can be argued that this dualism works counterproductive for grasping the various and hybrid modes the hacker-technology can take shape. This brings us to the discussion of the cyborg-perspective of actor-network theory, the central approach of this study.
“If action is limited a priori to what ‘intentional’, ’meaningful’ humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket, a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act. They might exist in the domain of ‘material’ ‘causal’ relations, but not in the ‘reflexive’ symbolic’ domain of social relations” (Latour, 2005, p. 71).
Actor-network theory (ANT) can be regarded as a constructivist and critical approach that explicitly assigns a more active role to non-humans (e.g., technologies, objects, animals) in the course of (inter) action (Latour 1992, 2005). Actor-network theory does not consider humans and non-humans as two separate agents or entities, but speaks of heterogeneous alliances or hybrid collectives of both (Latour 1993; Van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015; Verbeek 2005). In this respect, there is a clear parallel with the more familiar notion of the “cyborg,” the term that is also used in this study. The term cyborg, short for “cybernetic organism,” was introduced in the 1960s as a term for “artifact-organisms” or “man-machine systems” in the context of space travel (see Clynes & Kline, 1960). The cyborg signified the idea that the human body could be extended with technological artifacts in order to accomplish greater things and/or to explore new frontiers, a theme that we can obviously find in many science fiction movies. In her Cyborg Manifesto (1987), Donna Haraway used the cyborg figure as a metaphor to overcome the boundaries or dichotomies between science and (science) fiction, human and animal, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical, which she perceived as Western dualisms that lie underneath the “logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers [and] animals” (Haraway, 1987, p. 32). Hence, she presented the cyborg figure not exclusively as a physical melt of humans and technology, but much more as a post-human2 metaphor for questioning the extent in which we are human or technological (“constructed”) (see Verbeek, 2008). This particular interpretation of the cyborg figure we can also find in ANT’s notion of the “hybrid,” which not only seeks to abandon dualistic modes of thinking, but also offers a framework that can grasp the various ways in which the blend of the human and the technical can concretely take shape. We can roughly distinguish three main ways in which ANT defines the cyborgian relationship between the human and the technical.
First, ANT presumes that interactions between humans and non-humans are not only functional (e.g., when we write, we have to use a pen and paper), but are also intertwined and shape one another’s actions. To give a concrete example, driving a car is seen as a performance of the driver and the car since both enable and complete the action: The driver needs to have the skills and the car the functionality to drive (see also Dant, 2004). This dimension closely resembles the original meaning of the cyborg, the notion that the tool enhances or augments the bodily functions of the human (see also Suarez, 2015; Wells, 2014). Driving also involves an interaction between the driver and the car and a process in which the driver has to gain control over the car. Humans consciously experience both of these aspects when they have to learn to drive, and both change or partly disappear once they are able to drive.3 Accordingly, for ANT, the relationship between humans and non-humans is not merely and continuously one of master and slave. It can be also interactive and mutual (see also Van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015). Latour (2005) himself illustrated a parallel in this context with the manner in which puppeteers interact with their puppets:
Although marionettes offer, it seems, the most extreme case of direct causality—just follow the strings—puppeteers will rarely behave as having control over their puppets. They will say queer things like “their marionettes suggest them to do things they will have never thought possible by themselves.” (pp. 59-60)
This dimension might also be relevant to the manner in which hackers engage with computers. As Turgeman-Goldschmidt (2005) pointed out: “Despite (or because of) the fact that the computer is a machine, it invites play and movement” (p. 20).
Secondly, alongside this principle of “joint (inter)action” or “human-machine cooperation,” Latour (1992, 2005) argues that non-humans are not passive, static, or neutral entities. Based on their “script” or “prescription,” they can provoke certain actions or usage (positive or negative), can make people do things they would ordinarily not do (e.g., shoot somebody when they have access to a gun4), and restrict human action (e.g., traffic lights or speed bumps that regulate traffic behavior) (Van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015; Verbeek, 2005). In other words, for ANT, non-humans (including their material features) can affect human thoughts, morality, and behavior just like other humans do. Also, here the “car-driver hybrid” is very illustrative. Lupton’s (1999) ANT-based study on road rage showed that the car as a physical object also co-shapes the behavior of the (aggressive) driver:
The pleasure of mastery of the machine, of speed, the sense of power and liberation that movement in the car may bring, is conducive to travelling above the speed limit for example, and other reckless driving actions, such as running red lights or travelling too close to others’ vehicles. (p. 63)
The fact that drivers have to move in a heavy regulated space does not completely match up with the emotions and sensations that come along with the act of driving. Both of these aspects are worth consideration in the context of hacking as well, since hackers both interact (or “become one”) with the machine—and act or have to act in a certain legally restrictive context.
Thirdly, although Latour (2005) did not explicitly mention it in his work, we can also add here a more subjective or intimate relationship between humans and non-humans. For instance, when people (mostly men) speak about their car, they often speak in terms of love, passion, emotion, and character, perhaps in a similar vein as hackers speak about their computer or technology in general. This dimension is also strongly present in the work of Turkle (1982, 1984) discussed earlier. To sum up, ANT does not view tools, objects, and technology in merely functional or instrumental terms. Instead, it views them as an integrative element of human action, capabilities, (self) perception, meaning giving, and even one’s intent. Drawing on ANT, this study conceives and studies the hacker as a cyborgian deviant: a transgressive blend of human and technology. By adopting this approach, it aims to gain a more nuanced understanding of how hackers’ relationship with technology takes shape, functionally, experientially, and intentionally too.
The current study is part of a larger study on cybercrime, offenders, and victims, which primarily draws on ANT and its notion of hybrid agency or actorship (see Van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015; Van der Wagen, 2018). Actor-network theory’s methodological assumptions generally reflect viewpoints from both (symbolic) interactionism and ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), which also assert that social reality is composed of interactions and should be studied as such (Latour, 2005; Law, 2004). Actor-network theory also prescribes an ethnographic approach that aims to grasp “the world-making activities” of the actors under study, and to express and report their words, self-reflections, and “own theory of action” as much as possible (Latour, 2005, p. 57). In that sense, ANT’s view also closely connects to the notion of “verstehen” within the cultural criminological approach (Ferrell, 1997). However, ANT adds an extra theoretical and methodological dimension. As pointed out, ANT is also interested in the non-human participants of social reality, especially in the manner in which humans and non- humans interact and form alliances.5 For this study, this theoretical (cyborgian) element is used to gain a more profound understanding of how hackers give meaning to themselves and their actions.
For this study, 10 semi-structured interviews with hackers were conducted in which the participants were asked to reflect on their definition of hacking, their drives and motivations, their skills, their experiences with hacking, and how they viewed themselves. Of these interviews, eight interviews were face-to-face, one was conducted by email, and one took place through Skype.6 All face-to-face interviews, except for one, were recorded and transcribed. The interviews generally lasted one to three hours. The interviewed hackers were found through hacker spaces, student-contacts, and by means of “snowballing.” As the small group of participants reveals, it was extremely difficult to find hackers willing to participate in an interview. The members of hacker spaces mentioned that hackers are generally tired of journalists and researchers that approach them for interviews, and also fear being associated with cybercrime or cybercriminals. Persons that declared to know some hackers personally also mentioned that hackers generally have the feeling that: “Ah, again a researcher who does not understand our world.”
The (small) group of participants that was willing to engage in an interview consisted of (mainly Dutch) adult males participating or have completed an education program, mostly IT related. Although participants shared commonalities in that they viewed themselves as hackers, they differed in terms of their hacking activities, motives, normative position towards hacking, and criminal record. Half of the participants considered themselves as ethical or white hat hackers. They searched for vulnerabilities in systems/networks (for example those which hold privacy-sensitive information) and reported it the company. The other half of the participants perceived themselves as (ex) black hat or grey hat hackers (or crackers). They also searched for vulnerabilities in systems (which can be a website, a server, public Wi-Fi, or a program), but did/do not inform the owner. Two of these five participants had been imprisoned for their engagement in hacking and were employed at a security company at the time of the interview. Two other hackers had been active in the black hat scene, but indicated that they did not hack illegally anymore. The last participant was involved in virtual theft involving the spread of malware for four years and had never been caught. He was the only participant who pointed out that he was motivated by financial drives.
Having such a small and differentiated participant group makes it hard, even impossible, to produce general statements about the hacking community at large, which this study does not proclaim to do. The material however is rich and does enable us to acquire a feeling and understanding of the world of (rather different) hackers, how they perceive themselves as actors, and how they define their relationship with technology. In light of the theoretical approach of this study, the diversity of the participants can also be beneficial for exploring whether the hacker- technology relationship varies across different types of hackers or hacks. The analytical or coding approach in this study can be considered as a combination of both inductive and deductive techniques (see Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2011). The concepts emerged throughout a structured though flexible and creative approach (Charmaz, 2006) in which the narratives of the interviewees were coded and interpreted in light of ANT’s conceptualization of the human- technology relationship. In turn, this interactive cycle or process produced themes, categories, and concepts, which reflect and highlight certain aspects on how hackers give meaning to what they do and who/what they are. In the analysis that follows, I sought to represent the reality, thoughts, and perceptions of the hackers as thoroughly as possible. In order to safeguard the anonymity of the participants, I assigned pseudonyms to each of them. To provide context for participants’ words, the findings section indicates what type of hacker the interviewee “generally” considered himself to be or in what type of hacking activities he was involved.
The interviewed hackers provided different definitions or descriptions of hacking, ranging from narrow to broad. For example, the more narrow definitions include: “Taking over someone else’s computer” and “breaking into a system without informing the owner,” definitions that also stress the illicit character of hacking, which not all interviewees considered as hacking. Rather, they preferred to call it “cracking.” “Moving beyond existing patterns,” a “state of mind,” or “assigning a different functionality to an existing object or technology” can be regarded as more broad and neutral definitions, and were shared by most interviewees. Whether engaged in licit or illicit hacks, they immediately dissociated themselves from the criminal image - which they believed to be predominant in the public discourse. Instead, they viewed themselves as (male) hobbyists who possess a very specific mindset and skillset, which set them apart from ordinary people and criminals. We assess how they gave meaning to their hacker reality in the following five sections: cyborg mind, cyborg performance, cyborg identity, cyborg body, and cyborg transgression. Each section highlights a different but complementary dimension of how the hacker-technology relationship takes shape.
The way hackers perceive their usage of technology is one of the key aspects that defines the hacker practice and mindset. Firstly, the interviewed hackers did not consider themselves as passive “users” of technology, but claimed to be interested in the underlying processes that operate a system; what makes it work or not work. To illustrate this point, Jan explained: “Restart your computer. I find the most deadly and annoying comment you can get because then you still don’t know what is going on.” In this context, participants also highlighted their ability to see through and scrutinize a system and their “investigative attitude.” Paul (grey hat hacker) emphasized that you have to be very analytical when you want to become a successful (black hat) hacker:
You need to be able to estimate a network, to map a network, to map its employees, what they do, how they behave, before you actually start, if you don’t do that and prepare yourself, you won’t manage the hack.
In this respect, a hack also shares some similarity with the system of robbery, involving “discipline, preparation, planning and conspiracy” (Churchill, 2016, p. 864). Ex-black hat hacker, Eric framed the analytical ability pointed out by Paul as “empathy.” The word empathy is usually associated with being sensitive to the emotions of other people, yet Eric used the same word in relation to technical systems. Understanding the technical system so well that it can result in empathy for technology very clearly illustrates the deep and almost inner connection some hackers believe they have with technology.
Secondly, most of the interviewed hackers pointed out that they enjoyed the interplay with the goal-means-end rhetoric of devices or technologies, an aspect that is also stressed in the definition of hacking as: “The use of systems or equipment for purposes for which they were not originally designed.” Jack, a hacker who was active in a hacker space and a skilled programmer, pointed out that hacking is not merely about being technically advanced, but much more about unconventional thinking, creativity, and imagination:
There are many kinds of hacks, for example using a cd-tray as coffee stand, using plastic sealers that they use for bread as a way to clip cables. When you have these small playful things in your room, I will call you a hacker.
Actor-network theory’s notion that the functionality of objects merges with or connects with the human actor who uses them also manifests itself here. Hackers seem to be consciously aware of the features and functionalities of the objects that they use or engage with, and are also sensitive to their construction. They do not see the object (e.g., a computer) as a singular and fixed entity, but consider it and treat it as a network of different interacting elements and mechanisms. Hackers are therefore engaged in the almost scientific practice of what ANT denotes as “reversible blackboxing” (Latour, 1992). They do not only think outside of the box (see later), but are also able to deconstruct the (black) box (see also Forlano & Jungnickel, 2015), which in hacker terms is often called “reverse engineering” (Nikitina, 2012, p. 143). Moreover, they are able to change the functionality of the object in accordance with their own desire. This suggests that hackers not only strive to master their machine perfectly (Turkle, 1984), but also seek to establish the perfect master-slave relationship in which they are in control and the master of the object and every single component of it.
Apart from their non-instrumental usage or relationship with technology, the interviewees stressed the explorative and interactive nature of this relationship. They not only acted alone, but somewhat cooperated or formed an alliance with technology in the process of becoming a skilled hacker. Firstly, some participants pointed out that they learned from other hackers, but also while they interact with technology, as a sort of trial and error or “trying and trying again.” ’Paul described the learning process as an interplay, and also pointed out that he received “feedback" from the system:
I learned things from school and the Internet, but the majority was experimenting. At home I had several servers, I then downloaded software, installed it and just looked what would happen, to try things and check what will happen. I cannot break it anyway, or yes, I can, but then I can install it again. Playing-wise you have to learn it.
A deeper understanding how technology works—referred to before as “technical empathy”—requires constant concurrent exploration and interaction with technology. This aspect demonstrates (again) that the interviewed hackers consciously experience an interaction with the technology rather than merely consider themselves as users of technology, perhaps in a similar vein as the puppeteers mentioned by Latour (2005) who also received input from their puppets. For them, the interaction with technology also seems to have a permanent nature. Unlike (most) drivers, hackers never stop learning and never want to stop learning. Learning to hack is a continuous process and the opportunities are endless. As Daniel (white hat hacker) stated: “The more you get to know, the more there will be to learn.” In other words, the earlier mentioned master-slave relationship occurred alongside or in alternation with a more cooperative, interactive, and mutual engagement. The interviewed hackers seemed to experience and to enjoy both of these processes.
Secondly, some interviewees mentioned that the tools and technologies they used co- shaped their abilities and possibilities. For instance, they did not continually proclaim to “invent the wheel” by themselves, but rather depended on the abilities or functionalities of the tools they used. According to Jeffrey (ex-black hat hacker), there was always a combination of existing tools and some personal input: “Every hacker has his weapons tank with his own tools he has chosen to use. Usually you use an already created and existing code someone else has written and you adapt it to your problem.” This aspect also aligns with Nikitina’s (2012) claim that hacking is more a process of recycling and “rearranging the givens of existing systems” (p. 144) than true creativity. Gunkel (2001) spoke in this context in relation to the parasitical nature of hacking in order to emphasize that hackers draw their “strength, strategies and tools from the system on which and in which it operates” (p. 6), a claim that is rather similar to ANT’s view that not all the credits should be granted to the human agent.
In this context, Vincent’s story is also relevant to consider. He was involved in hacking the accounts of counter players in a virtual game. As these virtual goods have real value, he was able to earn large sums of money with the theft. Vincent explained that he (initially) made use of “ready to use” tools. He pointed out that he never really was a “computer nerd” who had this born fascination for computers and technology. He was merely curious about what he could accomplish with certain programs rather than unraveling how they work. He came across so called RATs, which relatively easily enabled him to control someone’s computer and webcam. Vincent asserted that: “If these RATs would not exist, I would not be bothered to get involved in hacking in the first place.” Over time, he became skilled in various malicious cyber activities, including phishing and the use of botnets. This example illustrates that certain tools can bring new options and opportunities, and eventually also new skills. At the same time, something is occurring on the intentional level. Without the easy access to and existence of these tools, Vincent would, as he claimed, not have been engaged in hacking. Like ANT’s example of guns, a RAT seems to be not merely a “neutral” tool to use, but might also, at least for some youngsters, invite or encourage their engagement in cyber deviant conduct (see also Van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015).
In the previous sections, we discussed how participants perceived their usage of technology, which is an important part of their specific mindset and how they view themselves. However, there are also other elements that are important to consider, which particularly highlight how they viewed themselves in relation to others. Firstly, most of the interviewed hackers explained that they had a rather natural connection with technology, which gave them the feeling of being different than other people. They had an extreme fascination for how computers, systems, or devices work, an interest they developed at a young age. For example, Jan, who considered himself to be an ethical hacker, explained that:
As a child I wanted to push all kinds of buttons just to see what would happen. I think that there is an innate need involved when it comes to dealing with technology, that you have a certain connection with technology.
This affinity or special connection was also considered to be essential in the process of learning to become a (skilled) hacker. As some of the interviewees pointed out, hacking requires quite some time, energy, and discipline. Participants were only willing to invest this time and energy if they were truly dedicated to it and loved computers. They seemed to say that not everybody can become a hacker, even though he or she wants to or has the (technical) recourses and knowledge to do so. Technology needs to be your “second nature,” an affinity you have to possess naturally.
Secondly, the interviewees not only highlighted their ability to unravel the inner workings of technology, as discussed already, but also defined themselves as actors with the ability to think outside of the box or beyond existing patterns. For example, Eric explained:
You need to be this kind of person who can come up with something weird, vague and new that no one ever thought about before. You need to think in a different way. I can sometimes enter a room and then immediately I know how to open the doors, while other people don’t see it.
Although they generally dissociated themselves from criminals, some interviewees explicitly drew a parallel with professional burglars to describe hacking. To rob a house by finding the key under the doormat does not require skill and applies to “wannabe” hackers or so-called “scriptkiddies” who merely use existing tools. A real hacker would find an inventive way of breaking the lock and would not even need a key to be able to open it up. Moreover, in assessing whether a hack(er) can be qualified as a (good) hack(er), cleverness ultimately seemed to be more vital than whether the act was legal or illegal. Jan for instance explained: “Some criminal actions are also quite brilliant. If you in a smart way rob a store, for instance, by digging a tunnel underneath, that is what I find funny. It is a cool hack, even though it is illegal.” As pointed out by Nikitina (2012), hackers somewhat seem to “blur the line between the creative and the criminal on the way” (p. 150).
Thirdly, the ability to think differently also applied to non-technical issues. Some of the interviewed hackers expressed that they were critical and sensitive about “the system,” society, and the government in general. This aspect was highlighted by participant Jan who perceived ethical hackers as whistleblowers who bring major abuses in society to light. He argued that many companies or organizations hold privacy sensitive information, yet have extremely poor security. According to Jan, they are actually the real “violators,” while the hackers who expose their misconduct are treated as the criminals. This can lead to major feelings of frustration among hackers: “Why don’t you see that the grass is green? Why don’t you see it?” By stating that hackers “pick up signals” other people do not, Jan seemed to stress that hackers hold an extra “sense,” sensor, or pair of glasses that enables them to see certain things other people are blind to. We could interpret this particular image of the self as another representation of the hacker as a cyborg-figure in terms of imagining oneself to have extra-sensory abilities. Hackers are not only gifted with a brilliant mind or a mind than enables them to master technology (Turkle, 1984), but perhaps also have an extended mind/body that enables them to track down injustice.
Connected with the ability to see certain things or wrongdoings, some participants also highlighted some heroic features of the hacker. The most prolific example was again provided by Jan, who compared hackers with members of the resistance movement in WWII who killed the Germans. He stressed that certain problems require extraordinary measures and ultimately those actions would be rewarded and appreciated. In a different vein, doing more good than bad or being a “savior” or “helper,” was also mentioned by some of the black hat hackers. For example, Dylan, who was involved in breaking into systems mentioned that “I did quite some bad things in my hacker career. Yet, the companies would be eaten alive, if we low or mid-tier hackers would not exist to educate them.” Whether engaged in licit or illicit hacking, hackers generally adhere to their own moral rules or principles in which they strongly believe. This also suggests that you can break rules or “rip off the system” when you do not agree with it7 or find it unfair. In this context, Kevin (ex-black hat hacker) provided a rather different example:
There was this “free-to-play” game where users could receive in-game advantages by paying money. I really hated the idea that someone can be better in a competitive environment just because he has money. So I’ve used what should really matter in gaming—skill. I’ve hacked into the site and generated retrievable codes for the in-game currency/advantages.
The notion of breaking rules and having personal ethical standards is something that can also be connected to what Blankwater (2011) referred to as “an attitude of everything is possible: Do not let barriers (like security, laws, copyrights) hold you back, but take it a step further” (p. 47, emphasis in original). Hackers generally seek to explore new frontiers and go against existing frontiers. For them, “boundaries are seen as unnatural” (Turgeman-Goldschmidt, 2005, p. 20). According to Jan, hackers also feel the strong urge to prove that they are right, even if this requires that you have to do something illicit. In this context, he referred to an example in which a hacker informed a web shop about a leak, which enabled it to order goods for free. When the company refused to listen, the hacker ordered one of their couches and sent it straight to the office of the company. Jan reflected on this example by saying: “As a hacker you want to be the master and ruler of the system. This is what I call: releasing the hacker inside of you.”
The hacker-technology relationship also manifests itself in a competitive way in the sense that hackers feel the urge to explore and extend their mental and physical capabilities and limits (e.g., “Am I able do it? “How much power do I have on the Internet?”), as well as the technical ones (e.g., “What can it do?” and “What will happen when I do this?”). For most of the interviewed hackers, challenge was a necessary condition to enjoy hacking, which explains why they consistently set loftier goals for themselves. For example, Paul stressed that he always selected the more challenging targets to hack rather than the easy ones. According to Eric, the challenge can also fade away once you are able to hack everything you already wanted to hack. Yet, he still considered this challenge to be important in his work in the field of incident response. Eric explained:
If something goes wrong and managers stress out, I perform perfectly. I like the feeling when you are in the middle of it, everything goes wrong, everything collapses, people cry and go home. Then you know, it is no time for joking, now it is serious. You are not allowed to make mistakes.
The example that Eric provided clearly resembles Lyng’s (2004) proposition that edgeworkers have to and like to rely on their body to “instinctively” respond to evolving and overwhelming circumstances. Yet, in the case of hackers, they generally rely much more on their mind than on their physical body. In this context, we can also draw a parallel with the robbers described by Katz (1988). He pointed to their “ability to always know what to do” when facing chaos (p. 235). Robbers also have a superior ability in terms of using street smarts rather than physical force to conduct their “work,” which similarly applies to hackers. In addition, Katz spoke of game-like and sport-like features in the context of robberies, elements that are also highlighted by some of the interviewed hackers. Paul always took, what he called, a “cooling down period” after he managed a hack, a term used in sports. In relation to sports, the capabilities of the physical body are still important to hacking as well, e.g., hackers often exhaust their body without proper sleep (see also Turkle, 1984). Like sports and gaming, hacking also has a strong element of competition with peers: to be better and faster than other hackers. Paul stated that he was proud of the fact that he was able to hack one of the largest companies in the world: “Then you really think: I did it. There are hundreds of them out there, but I did it. Pride yes, victory.” Eric pointed out that he always left a sign on the servers that he hacked: “I wanted to let others know that I was there, that they would think, ah him again. That is the feeling I wanted generate.” Here, we see similarities with graffiti writers who also seek to leave lasting marks and images (see Ferrell, 1996).
Yet, as Nikitina (2012) and Turkle (1984) also argued, hacking also entails the desire to “beat the system” rather than merely another person. In that sense, hackers do not merely compete with themselves and with other hackers, but also with the machine. This aspect can be also found in Paul’s description: “You can be busy for weeks and still realize that you won’t manage, but still you keep looking for that one spot you might have missed.” The importance of challenge and competition allows for a different conceptualization of the proposition that for hackers, the process is more important than the result (see e.g., Steinmetz, 2015). Perhaps for hackers, at least for those mainly active in illicit hacking, process and result might be of equal importance or could be intertwined.
The interviewed hackers also referred to their relationship with technology in the context of emotions, decision-making, and intentions. It is this (interactive) process that generated many aspects of the hackers’ experience, feelings, and emotions. Kevin for example explained:
When I hacked the first time I was very well aware that it was illegal. However, when you do this the first few times you get in a sort of trance. You forget everything and are just amazed and pumped with adrenaline because you have just entered a system which might hold information you are not supposed to see, or the system has very big specifications (big hard drive, a lot of memory etc.) which you have never seen before.
The quote suggests that there is not merely “the invitational edge” of doing something illegal, which produces the thrill, but that the features or “beauty” of the system also co-produces the adrenaline rush. For Paul, managing the hack was actually more important than doing something illegal per se. He explained: “You dedicate yourself to one particular thing you are good at [hacking], that is your passion. Whether it is legal or illegal, it did not bother me at all that time.” Paul frequently used the expression of “going (completely) wild on the system,” which, as he explained, gave him a feeling or sensation that nothing else can resemble. He also mentioned that there were periods in which he was not able to sleep without the sound of the computer on in the background. Hence, also through sound, the hacker can become one with the machine.
While black hat hackers are not always aware of the boundaries between licit and illicit hackers and do not care or like the thrill of doing something illegal, white hat hackers are more cognizant and respectful of rules and regulations. According to Jan, for instance, one must strictly follow the rules of “responsible disclosure” when reporting a security issue—that a person should do nothing else than necessary for exposing the security leak. Yet, after you are (finally) able to enter a server, you have to stop and really need “to control yourself,” something that, according to Jan, is difficult for many young hackers. He explained that once you are able to enter the system, you can become “too curious,” e.g., by reading all the information on the server you encounter. In other words, the original intention (to expose a leak) might change or, to speak in ANT terms, “translate” into something more illicit once a hacker crosses the technical edge of entering the system. At the same time, like driving a car, the feeling that a hack generates does not match with the rules that you need to follow. Paul, who did not seek to hack illegally after he got released, also brought up this issue.
I want to do it good now, but I did it wrong as well. But I have to say that, I am often seduced to do it again when I look at certain systems. ‘Breaking in’ is still in my way of thinking, but I try not to do. Once I will start I will drown in it again.
Finally, alongside the legally restrictive context, hackers maneuver in an online environment where a different set of rules applies or where there is an absence of any rules. Eric explained how it worked in the black hat scene: “There are borders but they get blurry fast. If you are raised in a group where everybody carries guns, then you will find it normal after a while to carry one yourself.” According to Jeffrey (ex-black hat hacker), young hackers often do not know what to do with their computer talent. He said:
They are physically not in the right environment and there is no one to tell them that their actions might be malicious after all. There is no one to help them in their development and growth and to guide them in the right direction.
Hence, intentions and moral perceptions cannot be understood in isolation from the digital (anonymous) environment in which the hackers are “flowing” and “acting.” Some interviewees also pointed out that they considered their online life or identity as something secretive, or a “hidden side” of themselves. In other words, digital technology enabled them also to be released from the body and to explore multiple identities simultaneously. Also, this aspect can be linked to the notion of cyborg (see also De Mul, 2002).
What people do with computers weaves itself into the way they see the world [and … ] see themselves (Turkle, 1982, p. 173, 183).
This study aimed to shed light on how hackers give meaning to themselves and their actions by drawing more explicit attention to the hacker-technology relationship. By employing the cyborg-perspective of ANT, this study was able to illustrate and explore the various ways in which this relationship takes shape, ranging from directive, functional and cooperative to more intimate, emphatic, competitive, and mutually affecting. In accordance with Turgeman-Goldschmidt (2008), this study also found that the “good” and “bad” hackers, as far as you can make this division, have more similarities than initially expected. The interviewed hackers generally perceived themselves as non-criminal actors who possessed a very specific skillset and mindset which set them apart from others. They pictured themselves as figures who possessed an “extended mind” or “extra sense” that enabled them to see and move through, beyond and against systems, not only technical ones. Whether black, grey, or white, the participants all explored the boundaries and capabilities of technology and themselves simultaneously, and each believed to do more good than bad. To some extent, they also viewed themselves as superior and somewhat superhuman, almost like the cyborgs we encounter in science fiction movies: Superhuman rebels fighting evil (Wood, 1998). Yet, rather than relying on the force or strength of the body, hackers seem to count on their “innate” technological, mental, and creative skill, and consider themselves (or imagine themselves) as being equipped with certain abilities that most people do not possess. Hacking also seems to involve some hybrid type(s) of (embodied) experiences of its own, e.g., visible in the example of “not being able to sleep without the sound of the computer.” Despite their (perceived) differences, hackers also resemble other deviant groups (e.g., professional thieves, robbers or graffiti writers), and other non-criminological phenomena such as gaming and sports. Hence, we should perhaps also not over-exaggerate their uniqueness, although they would probably not mind.
This study also aimed to make a contribution to the conceptual understanding of hackers by applying the cyborg-perspective of ANT. It explored whether ANT’s way of looking at the human-technology relationship enables us to unravel aspects of hacking more comprehensively than a traditional criminological (anthropocentric) lens. While valuable studies have been conducted to grasp the hacker phenomenon, ANT’s cyborgian lens certainly brought a new layer to the conversation—theoretically and methodologically. Firstly, ANT draws attention not only to how humans relate to and learn from other humans, but also to how they interact with or relate to their device, computer, and technologies, and what such an interaction entails and means for them. Rather than looking at the hacker as a human actor, ANT enabled us to look at the “hybrid” capacities in which a hacker can act, ranging from the “hacker-tool,” “hacker-software” and the “hacker-gun” hybrid. By adopting this perspective, this study was able to reveal that interacting with technology is intrinsically linked to becoming a hacker and experiencing hacking, and the associated intentions, perceptions, and emotions. Secondly—like Haraway’s (1997) broader notion of cyborg—ANT provides a perspective that seeks to eliminate dualistic thinking, an approach that particularly fits well with hacking as both a practice and a particular type of transgression. This study revealed that hackers somewhat drift across several boundaries simultaneously: the human and the technical, the online and the offline, the real and the virtual, the creative and the parasitic, the rational and the irrational, the licit and the illicit, the good and the evil, and so on. At the same time, hackers seem to be engaged in establishing boundaries themselves. For instance, participants had a clear view on who/what can call himself a (skilled) hacker and to which rules they should obey. The complexity and co-existence of boundary breaking and boundary fixing we were/are only able to capture more comprehensively if we do not a priori maintain any such boundaries, and only look at the boundary performing activities of the actors that we study.
To conclude, if we criminologists want to explore and understand the world of hackers and other high tech cyber deviants more deeply and profoundly in the future, we have to extend our focus beyond the human, gain more criminological knowledge on the (deviant) human-technology relationship, and seek to dismantle existing dualism and dichotomies that still prevail in criminology. The cyborg-lens of ANT provides a valuable and thought-provoking framework that can contribute to such endeavor. Future research could further enhance this perspective by conducting additional and more extensive fieldwork among different groups of hackers. The perspective is also worth considering in the context of other forms of technical deviance. As mentioned in the introduction, many tools that can be used to cause severe damage (e.g. RATs or tools for launching a DDoS attack) are ready at hand for the current young generations. It would be worthwhile considering whether the accessibility and commodification of such tools truly contribute to youth’s engagement in technocrime.
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Wytske van der Wagen recently completed her PhD project "From cybercrime to cyborg crime: an exploration of high-tech cybercrime, offenders and victims through the lens of actor-network theory" at the University of Groningen (Netherlands). She currently works as an assistant professor at the Erasmus School of Law (Department of Criminology) in Rotterdam. Here she will continue doing criminological research on cybercrime, particularly qualitative research on cyber offenders and theoretical issues.
I would like to thank René van Swaaningen, Martina Althoff, and the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive and valuable comments on the earlier draft of this article.