Are Hackers Heroes?

On the last day of June of this year, a tech website called Redmond Pie posted two articles in quick succession that, on their face, had nothing to do with each other. The first, with the headline “Root Nexus 7 on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Unlock Bootloader, And Flash ClockworkMod Recovery,” was a tutorial on how to modify the software—mainly in order to gain control of the operating system—in Google’s brand-new tablet computer, the Nexus 7, a device so fresh that it hadn’t yet shipped to consumers.

Paul Grover/Rex Features/AP Images
Jake Davis, alleged to be the hacker known as Topiary and a member of the hacker collective LulzSec, leaving a court appearance in London, August 1, 2011. Davis, now nineteen, pled guilty to some of the hacking charges against him earlier this year.

The second headline was slightly more decipherable to the casual reader: “New OS X Tibet Malware Puts in an Appearance, Sends User’s Personal Information to a Remote Server.” That story, which referred to the discovery of a so-called “Trojan horse” computer virus on certain machines in Tibet, pointed out that Apple computers were no longer as impervious to malicious viruses and worms as they had been in the past and that this attack, which targeted Tibetan activists against the Chinese regime, was not random but political. When the Tibetan activists downloaded the infected file, it would secretly connect their computers to a server in China that could monitor their activities and capture the contents of their machines. (The Redmond Pie writer speculated that the reason Apple computers were targeted in this attack was that they were the preferred brand of the Dalai Lama.)

In fact, the Nexus 7 story and the Tibetan Trojan horse story were both about the same thing: hacking and hackers, although the hacking done by the Nexus 7 hackers—who contribute to an online website called Rootzwiki—was very different from that done by the crew homing in on the Tibetan activists. Hacking and hackers have become such inclusive, generic terms that their meaning, now, must almost always be derived from the context. Still, in the last few years, after the British phone-hacking scandal, after Anonymous and LulzSec, after Stuxnet, in which Americans and Israelis used a computer virus to break centrifuges and delay the Iranian nuclear project, after any number of identity thefts, that context has tended to accent the destructive side of hacking.

In February, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg observed in his letter to potential shareholders before taking the company public that Facebook embraced a philosophy called “The Hacker Way,” he was not being provocative but, rather, trying to tip the balance in the other direction. (He was also drawing on the words of the veteran technology reporter Steven Levy, whose 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution was the first serious attempt to understand the subculture that gave us Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak,…

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