Peeping Into A Hacker’s Mind: Can Criminological

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Peeping Into A Hacker’s Mind: Can Criminological

Theories Explain Hacking?


If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred

battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also

suffer a defeat.

-Sun Tzu, Chapter III, The Art of War


Sun Tzu’s exposition about knowing one’s enemy has emerged as a recondite problem

for legal scholars in the face of lack of efficient rules concerning hacking and continues

to haunt them due to lack of understanding of the operating criminal mind and its

underlying designs and motivations. The information revolution has lead to creation of

‘information highways’ operating across the globe through interconnected computer

networks. The change has been unprecedented but surely not without pitfalls. The rapid

metamorphosis of social values and structures is resulting into a control deficit and the

consequent emergence of new computer crimes like hacking which have transgressed

national boundaries through a burgeoning interconnected cyberspace (which has

amplified opportunities for crimes like privacy violation and the information theft). Given

the presence of the networked computers in almost every aspect of modern life, the

amount of sensitive information stored on networks, and the relative ease with which

computer crimes may be committed, the study of computer crime demands greater

attention from researchers, law enforcement agencies and legislators. Law codes

throughout the world have proved ineffective in curbing the expanding domain of

hacking behaviour and hence a need has arisen to re-look at the strategies for containing

this emergent menace. This paper seeks to make a modest attempt to peep into the

hacker’s mind i.e. to understand the criminal behaviour of hackers and locate the source

of the rot. I seek to deploy the traditional criminological theories based on psychology,

social learning and rational choice to examine how they may be applied to develop an

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understanding of this new deviant behaviour. However, this paper is only a modest

attempt to understand the explanations that these theories may provide for hacking and

thus does not seek to delve into the empirical verifications and other abstract theoretical

or logical contradictions that have been offered by the critics.


In order to explore the working of the criminal mind, it is required to develop an

understanding of different hacking-types so that there can be systematic deduction and

analysis of behavioural differences with varied underlying motivations. Rogers (2002)

argues that hackers are not a homogenous group and granulization and classification is

essential to pin up researches on understanding their behaviour. Generally speaking,

hacking is a successful or unsuccessful attempt to gain unauthorized use or unauthorized

access to a computer system.1 However, a lack of consensus over the connotation of the

term ‘hacker’ has been evident over the years. Originally, the term denoted outstanding

and radical programmers in the computer science fields who hailed usually from Berkley,

Stanford or MIT.2 Later, the concept underwent radical metamorphosis. Hollinger (1988),

based on a progression ranging from less skilled to technically elite computer crimes,

divided hackers into three categories: pirates, browsers, and crackers. Pirates, the least

technically proficient hackers, confine their activities to copyright violations through

software piracy. The browsers, with a moderate technical ability, gain unauthorized

access to other people’s files but do not usually damage or copy the files. The crackers,

the most proficient hackers, abuse their technical abilities by copying files or damaging

programs and systems. McAfee Corporation adopts the classification of hackers into

White Hats and Black Hats.3 White Hats tend to find flaws in security networks for

security corporations and thus contribute to the beneficial improvement of computer

1 Under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2002, a person is said to have committed hacking if he, with the intent to cause or knowing that he is likely to cause wrongful loss or damage to the public or any person, destroys or deletes or alters any information residing in a computer resource or diminishes its value or utility or affects it injuriously by any means. 2 Peter T. Leeson & Christopher J. Coyne, The Economics Of Computer Hacking, 1 J.L. Econ. & Pol’y 511 (2005), at 513.


3 See Cynthia Fitch, Crime and Punishment: The Psychology of Hacking in New Millenium, (Dec 16, 2003), retrieved from <> (Last accessed on July 10, 2007).

services for the users. Black Hats, the ill-intentioned hackers who abuse their skills, can

be further subdivided into angry hackers, script kiddies, and agenda hackers. Angry

hackers, motivated by hatred for a particular company or group, dedicate their resources

to harm them. Script kiddies create mischief on the internet for fun and use hacking tools

made by others. Agenda hackers include those disillusioned by political or economic

agendas or engaging in terrorist activities through large scale disruption of computer

networks. Lemos (2002) refers to a third group of hackers called Gray Hats who are

independent security experts, consultants or corporate security researchers and are

essentially reformed Black Hats like Kevin Mitnick.4 Finally, Rogers (2002), using the

findings from works of the computer security industry has categorized hackers into seven

distinct groups on a continuum of lowest to highest technical ability5 viz. Tool

kit/Newbies (NT), cyberpunks (CP), internals (IT), coders (CD), old guard hackers (OG),

professional criminals (PC) and cyber-terrorists (CT). The NTs are at initial stages of

hacking with limited programming skills and use tools and information provided on

internet by experienced hackers. CPs, skilled enough to write their own programs,

maliciously deface web pages and send viruses, worms and junk mails. Disgruntled

employees or ex-employees who hack into or attack their employer’s computer systems

either by abusing their privileges or special knowledge constitute the internal group and

conduct a formidable 70% of all hacking activity. OG hackers have high levels of skill

and understanding of computer systems and programming but are not malicious in their

intent and look upon hacking as an intellectual endeavour. Lastly, the PCs and CTs, the

most dangerous hackers, are highly skilled, use the latest technology and may act as

mercenaries for corporate or political purposes.


Psychodynamic theories of crime were built on the ashes of Cessare Lombroso’s famous

biological theory of crime which had conjured up a ‘predestined actor model’ for the 4 Mitnick had been convicted for a four year term for his hacking spree in US and is presently acting as a security advisor forming his own security company. He is being hired by companies to break into their computer networks, reveal their security system weaknesses, and teach them how to better protect themselves at high pay packages. See Talya Halkin, Legendary hacker Mitnick turns legit, The Jerusalem Post (Feb. 24, 2006). 5 See also Cynthia Fitch, supra note 3.


criminal and explained criminal activity as an outcome of factors internal to human body

creating inherent ‘criminal dispositions’. They brought forth the ‘criminal mind’ as the

force behind crime, operating free from differences of social milieu.6 There seems to be a

natural link between hacking activities and hacker’s psychology as they indicate

premeditated and learnt patterns of behaviour. I propose to discuss three prominent

psychological theories viz. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, B.F. Skinner’s

Operant Conditioning and Hans Eysenck’s EPN theory.

(A) The New Age Hacker & Freud’s Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytic theory, as developed by Sigmund Freud, relies on the hypothetical

fragmentation of human personality into unconscious and conscious forces.7 Freud

proposed that human conduct is governed by three forces viz. Id, Ego and Superego. Id

represents the unconscious impulsive force which includes primitive biological needs like

thirst, hunger and sex etc. He proposed a conflict of Id with Superego, which according to

him, represented the inner moral agency, whose development depends primarily on

satisfying parent-child relationships. The formation of superego depends on the norms

and moral values learnt by the child from his parents and guardians. In this paradigm, ego

represents the conscious part of personality which seeks to balance the above two

opposing forces. Behaviour depends on the balance of the psychic energy system and any

disturbance in this system may produce maladaptive development.8 Thus, he highlighted

two causes of deviant behaviour (1) an inadequate superego formation and functioning

due to impaired parent-infant relationships whereby the individual fails to control the

impulse of Id, and (2) repressed unconscious desires stemming from a failure to express

strong emotional ties with another person, often the parent. August Aichhorn, another

renowned psychoanalyst, stated that there was some underlying predisposition termed

“latent delinquency” which causes the later criminal behaviour. A failure in

psychological development accentuates the initial asocial tendency (latent delinquency)

with which every child is born and thus results in deviant behaviour. Other

6 See Roger Hopkins Burke, An Introduction to Criminological Theory (Lawman Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2001) p. 77. 7See Larry J. Seigel, Criminology (Wadsworth, 7th ed., 2000) p.163.


8Burke, supra note 6, at pp.78-79.

psychoanalytic theorists felt that the inability to postpone immediate gratification in order

to achieve greater long-term gains was a key factor in criminal behaviour.9

Strictly, psychoanalytic theories are more suited for crimes that result from unconscious

conflicts like sexual offences or kleptomania. They are not well equipped to explain pre-

meditated and planned computer crimes. The psychoanalytic theories concentrate mainly

on unconscious factors and the child-parent interactions. A failed bond with a parent is

unlikely to lead a child to acquire computer knowledge and practice hacking. Rogers

(2000) argues that although several of the more infamous hackers had associations with

dysfunctional families, this is not sufficient to explain their choice of the criminal activity

to engage in as hacking does not seem to fit in the traditional view of “repressed desires”

in the unconscious. Hacking is a conscious activity dependent on specific technical skills,

operational knowledge of computers, networks and advanced technological

understanding. To be successful at hacking the individual also has to plan the attack in

some detail i.e. choose victim system or networks based on their security levels or other

interests of the hacker. Thus, Freudian psychoanalytical theory fails to account for the

emergent hacking behaviour due to its inherent structural constraints.

(B) Is Hacking a Conditioned Behaviour?

B.F. Skinner’s has argued that human behaviour is determined by the environmental

consequences it produces for the individual involved. A behaviour that produces

beneficial and desirable consequences multiplies in frequency; which is called

reinforcement of the said behaviour. On the other hand, behaviour, which produces

undesirable consequences, decreases in frequency due to punishment. Behaviour

therefore operates on the environment to produce results that are either reinforcing or

punishing.10 Thus, a rewarding criminal activity leading to increase in prestige, money, or

feelings of adequacy makes the person more likely to engage in further criminal activity.

If the consequences are negative viz. arrest or ostracisation, then the frequency of future

criminal behaviour should be reduced. Operant conditioning can be used to explain

general delinquency as opposed to focusing on specific offences where its application is

structurally constrained due to uncertainty in determination of offence-specific levels of 9 Id, at p.79.


10 Id, at pp.83-84.

rewards and punishments. Penalties for computer crime may have minimal effect as

hackers constitute a counterculture and operate in a world of anonymity where chances of

being caught are miniscule. In such a scenario, penalties might serve more as a challenge

to boast about eluding them. Wible (2003) also argues that punishment alone may not be

the best preference-shaping model in the computer-crime context. Moreover, hackers

who have been caught and repeatedly punished, with no obvious reinforcement, still

continue to engage in the activity as if it was an ‘addiction’.

(C) Hans Eysenck’s Theory: The EPN Criteria

Focussing on influence of both social and biological factors on individual personality,

this theory is based on the notion that through heredity some individuals are born with

certain learning abilities which are conditioned by environmental stimuli. The theory is

premised on two dimensions of personality viz. extraversion (E) and neuroticism (N)

existing on a continuum. The extraversion dimension ranges from high (extravert) to low

(intravert) and neuroticism dimension from high (neurotic) to low (stable). There is a

separate third dimension called ‘psychoticism’ (P) which seeks to measure attributes such

as aggression, preference for solitude, and lack of feelings for others.11 According to the

theory, children learn to control antisocial behaviour through the development of a

conscience which is a set of conditioned emotional responses to environmental stimuli

associated with antisocial behaviour e.g. an act of punishment from a parent for some

antisocial act. The conditioning socializes the child but its nature is integrally connected

with the EPN parameters of an individual’s personality. High E and high N scores

indicate poor conditionability and poor socialization producing an inclination towards

criminal behaviour. On the other hand, low E and low N scores lead to good

conditionability and effective socialization resulting in better internalisation of social

norms and reduced deviancy. High scores on the third dimension psychoticism (P) would

indicate hostility towards others and an inclination to more aggressive, violent criminal


11 Id, at pp. 84-85.


Rogers (2000) points out that Eysenck’s theory is “geared more toward anti-social

behaviour, and has had mixed results in predicting general deviancy”. The development

of conscience in relation to hacking activity becomes irrelevant as parents are unaware of

basics of computers and thus fail to condition the children in the right direction. There are

hardly any crystallised social norms or morals governing use of the new computer

technology. Thus, the proposition that a conditioned moral reflex against hacking can

develop in such a state of absolute moral ambiguity is untenable. Moreover, the theory

would predict that hackers should be high on the extraversion scale i.e. having unstable

personalities. However, Rogers (2000) argues that the majority of the arrested hackers

and those, which have responded to surveys, indicate they are withdrawn, uncomfortable

with other people and are intraverts. The theory fails on certain major behavioural

explanations concerning hackers’ personalities.


Social learning, as Seigel (2000) puts it, looks upon crime as a product of learning the

‘norms, values and behaviours’ associated with the criminal activity. This may involve

the acquisition of knowledge concerning the techniques of crime commission and

achieving moral disengagement by discovering appropriate rational justifications for the

deviant behaviour. Prima facie, hacking appears to be a learnt and acquired behaviour and

thus it becomes a moot question: how the hacker learns to hack? Learning theories may

help in discovering the agencies and social processes (based on interaction through the

internet) through which a predilection for hacking and the knowledge to implement it

may be acquired. In this respect, I propose to examine the Differential Association theory

proposed by Sutherland, the Differential Reinforcement theory propounded by Ronald

Akers and the Neutralization theory of David Matza and Gresham Sykes.

(A) Differential Association and Differential Reinforcement


The explanation of hacking through social learning theory approach is inextricably linked

to one of the core sociological theories of crime i.e. Sutherland’s differential association

theory. Differential association is premised on the notion that modern society contains

conflicting structures of norms and behaviours giving rise to crime which is a learnt

behaviour. Normative conflict at the individual level is translated into individual acts of

delinquency through differential association learnt through communication usually in

intimate groups. In other words peer pressure and peer attitudes influence behaviour. 12

Contact with persons who have favourable definitions towards crime, leads to an

individual learning similar definitions. The theory does not indicate that the group of

association has to be one of criminals; rather the group should express favourable

attitudes toward crime. When criminal behaviour is learnt, the learning includes

techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes

simple and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. When

the criminal contacts outweigh the non-criminal contacts of a person depending on the

frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, he resorts to crime. Ronald Aker’s theory of

Differential Reinforcement stems from Sutherland’s idea that learning is a component of

criminal behaviour and Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. The theory agrees that

criminal behaviour is learnt through the various groups and associations which an

individual maintains. It goes further to state that the behaviour then continues or is

maintained directly by the consequences of the act i.e. operant conditioning. It states that

a criminal act occurs in an environment if the individual has been reinforced for behaving

in a similar fashion in the past, and the negative consequences of the behaviour are very

weak to produce deterrence. However, the learning becomes complex due to differential

schedules of reinforcement and punishment involved in a criminal activity. This may

result in crystallisation of such deviancy into a personality trait or habit.13 The use of

differential reinforcement theory has been historically focussed on stealing and property

related offences as they fit nicely into the theory due to assured positive gains unless the

individual is arrested.

Sutherland’s theory easily applies to hacking as a person learns hacking through online

communities which share such information. However, after the simple learning process is

over Aker’s theory comes into play in a big way to help the individual maintain his

deviancy. It is evident that the hackers are learning their respective criminal behaviour,

12 Sutherland & Cressey, Principles of Criminology (Times of India Press, Bombay, 6th edn., 1968) pp.75- 80.


13 See Burke, supra note 6, pp. 93-94.

and are doing so amongst individuals who hold positive attitudes toward such behaviour.

The continuation of hacking may be due to several reinforcing factors viz. increase in

knowledge, prestige within the hacking community or overall fame by focussed media

attention.14 In some rare cases, prestigious companies have hired hackers who have

penetrated their systems e.g. the legendary Kevin Mitnick which has created an

impression that hackers can acquire good jobs in the computer security industry. Rogers

(2002) gives an example of an Israeli youth charged with attacking US Military networks

who was given a lucrative promotional contract with a European computer manufacturer,

and was praised by the Prime Minister of Israel for his ingenuity. He illustrates the

serious undermining of punitive elements in anti-hacking laws by the lack of stiff

sentences e.g. in Canada, the average sentence for the offence is an alternative measures

for a youth and a conditional discharge for an adult.

The core concepts of differential reinforcement, learned behaviour through various

groups, and maintenance of the behaviour via reinforcement appear to be especially

relevant to hacking. Adamski (1999) has pointed out the existence of popular hacker

cultures and sub cultures through data gathered on internet search engines across 14

countries. Although hackers are thought to be solitary with less developed social skills,

social skills, they still have an empirically proved desire for affiliation and recognition by

peers. Hackers tend to associate with other individuals who also engage in hacking

behaviour in the form of purely electronic associations e.g. online chat sessions, or more

intimately through hacking clubs like Cult of the Dead Cow CDC, Legion of Doom etc.

Adamski (1999) points out how hackers even hold conventions such as the Defcon in Las

Vegas to share their skills, ideas and technical information. Thus, both Sutherland’s and

Aker’s theories provide a highly useful insight to the dynamics behind hacking activities.

(B) Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory states that both deviant and normative human

behaviour is learned through a mix of observed behaviour, communication with others,


14 See Peter T. Leeson & Christopher J. Coyne, supra note 2, at 524, report that hackers may generate instant ‘stardom’ through participation and peer recognition in online communities.

encounters with disciplinary action and cognitive modelling.15 The learning at cognitive

level occurs in the family, subcultures and the social environment through observation

whereby people imagine themselves in similar situations with similar outcomes. The

learnt behaviour may be reinforced or punished. In this respect, Bandura subscribes to

several essential concepts of the operant conditioning theory viz. reinforcement,

punishment, and motivation. He enumerates three aspects to motivation viz. external

reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, and self-reinforcement. External reinforcement is

similar to Skinner’s concept of reinforcement. Vicarious reinforcement is derived from

observing other people’s behaviour being either reinforced or punished. Self-

reinforcement refers to one’s sense of pride or self image or self expected standards of

behaviour. Criminal behaviour is maintained through a complex schedule of

reinforcement and punishment throughout the life of the individual. If criminal behaviour

has been reinforced in the past, there is expectancy that it will be reinforced in the future.

The theory has primarily been used to understand aggressive behaviour and violent

criminal offences such as assaults or robbery.16

This theory can be successfully used to understand the behaviour of hacking. The theory

states that criminal behaviour is acquired through observational learning, and the

reinforcement from the behaviour comes from external and internal sources. As

previously stated, hacking is a behaviour where imitation and modelling seem to play an

important role. It has been likened to a subculture, which reinforces adherence to its own

moral code. In case of computer activity, the peer group or social circles which influence

the deviant behaviour of hackers are virtual. Hacking is a matter of expertise as it

involves knowledge of inter-connected cyber information highways and their functioning

which cannot be within the exclusive domain of anyone individual. The new age

computer culture has changed the nature of physical association and interaction to cyber-

interaction which is not limited by boundaries of physical locations. Thus, hackers learn

and improve their skills through exchange of information mainly on the Internet Relay

Charts and special forums. Cynthia Fitch (2003) points out that the lengthy existence of 15 Alfred L. Mcalister & Albert Bandura, Mechanisms Of Moral Disengagement In Support Of Military Force: The Impact Of Sept. 11 , Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2006, p.141, at 142-147. 16 Ibid.


hacker groups like cDc (Cult of the Dead Cow) and L0ph for many decades and closely

knit work culture points out to a more personal relation between elite hackers. The

existence of hacker subcultures justifies the application of social learning theory.

Bandura’s social learning constructs have also been successfully applied to music piracy

through peer-to-peer networks.17

(C) Neutralization Theory & Hacking

David Matza’s and Gresham Sykes’s Neutralization Theory regards process of becoming

criminal as a learning experience.18 They argue that all criminals have conventional

values and attitudes like normal people but what distinguishes them is their uncanny

ability to drift from the normal life to existing parallel subterranean values19 through

certain neutralization techniques like denial of responsibility, denial of injury and denial

of victim.20 This helps criminals to cleanse their moral conscience and remove the feeling

of guilt. Spafford (1990) lists three major ethical justifications for hacking as

improvement in security by discovering loopholes, knowledge acquisition by students

and protection of society against corporations by ensuring free access to information. The

peer groups contribute in such moral disengagement by lavishing praise on the hacking

exploits of individuals and creating an impression that the activities are justified. Rogers

(2001) has reported that:

“Self censure can be disengaged or weakened by stripping the victim of

human attributes, or shifting the blame onto the victim…Blaming the

victim or circumstances allows the perpetrators to view themselves as

victims who were provoked. The perpetrator’s actions now become

17 Nathan W. Fisk, Social Learning Theory as a Model for Illegitimate Peer-to-Peer Use and the Effects of Implementing a Legal Music Downloading Service on Peer-to-Peer Music Piracy, A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of the Department of Communication (September 14, 2006), retrieved from <> (Last accessed on July 10, 2007). 18 See Seigel, supra note 7, at p.232. 19 Matza and Sykes define ‘subterranean values’ as the morally tinged influences that have become entrenched in the culture and are privately practiced and admired but are publicly condemned.


20 Matza and Sykes offer five such techniques (viz. condemnation of the condemned and appeal to higher loyalties) out of which only three may correctly apply to hacking behaviour.

construed as defensive. The victims are blamed and accused of bringing

the actions upon themselves.”21

Hackers often blame the system administrator for improperly securing his system or for

denying access to sites that they legitimately think they should be allowed to access e.g.

university’s system administrator denying access to movie download sites is used as a

pretext to hack the administrator as low cost entertainment is considered as an essential

ingredient of student life by the hackers. Hackers also blame software vendors for

restricting access to free flow of information and thus morally justify their activity as

being conducive to ensure information to everyone acting as self proclaimed knight-

errants. This behaviour reflects the popular ‘Robin Hood’ syndrome by which individuals

neutralize their ethical judgments.22 Hacking sub-cultures entrenched on the internet offer

examples of the parallel subterranean culture which appreciates the publicly illegal

hacking activities. Thus, it is safe to conclude that Matza’s and Sykes’s Neutralization

theory succeeds in explaining hacker behaviour to a certain extent.


Cognitive theories, though a subset of psychological theories, have a basis different from

psychodynamic theories. They focus on the dynamics of mental process and the cognitive

schemes through which people perceive and represent the world. In this section, I propose

to utilise the major theory falling in the moral development branch viz. Kohlberg’s Moral

Development Theory.

Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory

Grounded in the belief of an indispensable link between social and moral development,

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development postulates that moral reasoning develops in a

sequential manner as the person matures. Broadly, Kohlberg divides the moral

development of a person into three stages. The lowest stage is called the preconventional

stage which typifies criminals i.e. stage where people put their desires first and obey law 21 Marcus Rogers, A Social Learning Theory and Moral Disengagement Analysis of Criminal Computer Behavior: An Exploratory Study (2001), University of Manitoba, Canada, p.40.


22 See Susan J. Harrington, Software Piracy: Are Robin Hood & Responsibility Denial at Work?, cited from Ali Salehnia, Ethical Issues of Information Systems ( IRM Press, Hershey, USA, 2002) p.179.

only for the fear of punishment. Beyond this lies the convention stage where people learn

to obey law and accept it from the viewpoint that it ought to be followed and finally the

post conventional stage of a fully morally developed character where individual can test

the law against abstract concepts such as justice, fairness and respect for human beings

and their rights. Criminal behaviour arises when an opportunity to offend occurs and

there is a delay in the development of moral reasoning in the individual. The individual

cannot control the temptation to engage in the activity and commits the crime. Siegel

argues that the structural constraints of the theory limit its application to understanding of

general delinquency and possibly white-collar and corporate crime.23 Rogers (2001)

proposes that moral development theory is useful only in understanding a subset of

hackers. He points out that documented anecdotal accounts of the lack of concern by

hackers over the systems they have attacked and written interviews with convicted

hackers portray them as being more concerned with fulfilling their own material needs

regardless of the consequences and Kohlberg’s lower pre-morality stage of hedonism

perfectly explains this behaviour. Contrary to this, there is a strongly held view that

hacker cultures are governed by certain universal ‘ethical norms’ like (a) access to

computers should be unlimited and total, (b) all information should be free, and (c) No

intentional damage to any system. The internet is replete with hacker manifestos claiming

that they subscribe to a higher moral code wherein the authors claim that hacking is

actually benefiting mainstream society by exposing the weaknesses of the multinational

corporations which is positive social behaviour. Himma (2005) calls this ‘hacktivism’ or

value based hacking. However, it is believed that hacker ethics are never followed and

are only put forward as pretensions to present hacking as a socially beneficial activity.

Spafford (1990) describes all hacking activity as unethical, immoral and disruptive

despite its contribution to security improvements. Wible (2003) believes that while a

cohesive hacker community bound by ethical guidelines is no longer dominant, remnants

of the old hacker ethic remain and emphasizes on an effort to help rebuild a community

of hackers, through rewarding contests, in which a body of positive social norms can be

sustained. Still (2006), however, portrays the motivations ‘hacktivism’ in a positive light

23 See Siegel, supra note 7, at p.167.


and states that all hackers are not merely thrill or fame seekers; rather hacktivists are an

“organized, technically skilled, politically conscious and socially aware individuals who

seek to challenge the authority of oppressive nation states” like China which are engaged

in providing state-sponsored information to citizens and curbing the freedom of speech

and expression. Thus, the moral development theory provides mixed results.


The rational choice theory gives primacy to opportunity of crime commission and the

willingness of the individual to flout legal norms when he views the outcome as

beneficial. However, it is distinct from Akers’s reinforcement theory in portraying crime

as a ‘seduction’ i.e. activity capable of producing a natural ‘high’ like drugs in certain

individuals. Ferrell (1997) describes it as the “exhilarating, momentary integration of

danger, risk and skill” which motivates a person towards criminal behaviour.

Hacking as Entertainment: Does Crime Really Seduce?

Professor Jack Katz (1988), in his revolutionary work Seductions of Crime, transgressed

the normal social constructs used in formulation of learning and psychological theories to

portray crime as the ‘forbidden fruit’. Katz argues that individuals involved in criminal

activities actually are engaged in broader efforts to transcend their social environments

and though the ‘transcendence’ may be transitory yet it produces a strong seduction for

evil.24 A scintillating example is proffered by the account of the well known hacker

Kevin Mitnick, presently the CEO of Mitnick Security Consulting.25 Graobsky (2000)

describes the seduction for hacking, from the hacker’s perspective, ‘as an act of power, be

gratifying in and of itself’ and beset by the adventure of the ‘exploration of unknown’.

Foster (2004) offers anecdotal evidence of computer crime offenders suggesting that the

typical computer offender is “almost always male, aged from mid-teens to mid-20s,

lacking in social skills, fascinated with technology, an underachiever in other areas (e.g.

education)- who sees the computer as a means of being important or powerful”. He also

24 John Hagan, The Pleasures Of Predation And Disrepute, 24 Law & Soc’y Rev. 165 (1990).


25 Mitnick once said “I guess I was curious. I was a very curious kid. I was into like magic. When I was young I was fascinated by magic. I always liked to learn how to do particular illusions and how all these tricks worked.”, retrieved from <> (Last accessed on July 10, 2007).

proffers evidence that such offenders are generally “unusually bright, eager, highly

motivated, courageous, adventuresome and qualified people willing to accept a technical

challenge.” Leeson & Coyne (2005) argue that economics of fame-driven hacking is a

reality and operates as a “market”; one side of which has the producers of hacks who

desire fame. When hackers are better known within the hacker community, they tend to

supply a greater quantity of hacking and thus notoriety acts as a prime driving force. An

empirically informed study conducted by Orly Turgeman-Goldschimdt(2005) presents

the positive attractions of hacking through hackers’ own accounts. She concludes that

hackers do not live in a vacuum and equates hacking to a “play”. After an analysis of

primary accounts of hacker motivation, she notes:

“For the hackers, then, hacking is a new form of entertainment based on

the play-like quality that characterizes the use of digital technology and is

a new form of social activity. Hacking can be considered a new form of

entertainment that could not have existed before the development of an

adequate technology.”

Goldschimdt stresses on the values of individualism viz. individual choice, freedom, and

happiness, and argues that being a part of the Western civilization, hackers seek pleasure,

fulfilment, and knowledge. The study seems too culture specific and takes a myopic view

limited to western civilization only. However, the following salient conclusions from the

accounts are noteworthy:

(I) Economic Accounts: Goldschimdt’s accounts, as a rule, focus more on

ideology and sideline profit motive which patently is a lopsided conclusion as

the desire to make money is associated with specific software piracy offences

like trading protected software for profits and such financial motivations are

far from hidden.26

(II) Deterrent Factor: The probability of being caught and the severity of

punishment, if high, may act as effective deterrents. However, she finds that in

case of computer related offences both components are low and thus

deterrence is negligible.


26 See Peter T. Leeson & Christopher J. Coyne, supra note 2.

(III) Lack of Malicious or Harmful Intentions: One of the recurring accounts

among the hackers is that they did not have any malicious intent or no harm

was actually done. Goldschimdt concludes that many hackers pretend to be

morally justified and absolve themselves of harbouring any harmful


(IV) Intangible Offences: Computer related offences are part of the new breed of

offences which are intangible i.e. there is a lack of physical sense of their

commission. Thus, the offender cannot feel that the damage has been done, in

the physical sense, as the electronic information in computer systems can be

stolen without physical interaction. This weighs against the probability of

guilt generation.

(V) Nosy Curiosity and Voyeurism: The hackers’ accounts point to a voyeuristic

curiosity i.e. one driven by seduction of the unknown, the desirable secrets or

the confidential. This account is mostly given for offences involving

unauthorized browsing through other’s files, and justifies Katz hypothesis to a

certain extent.

(VI) Revenge: This is a common excuse for offences of virus spreading and

crashing computer systems. Revenge is explained, as pointed out below, by

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) in terms of lower degree of self control in

crime-conducive situations.

(VII) Ease of Execution: Hackers, bent on presenting their genius, ability and

proficiency, sideline the ease of execution as an explanatory account as it

negates their uniqueness. However, the advantage of digital pseudonymity of

offender surely reduces the chances of detection.27

Thus, a range of multifarious factors is involved in triggering hacker motivations. Lastly,

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) have linked crime with offender’s personality and

resultant degree of self control. According to the self-control hypothesis, persons with

low self-control are driven away by opportunity of crime commission. Criminal

behaviour is therefore mediated on an individual level by the presence of criminal


27 See Neal Kumar Katyal, Criminal Law In Cyberspace, 149 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1003 (2001).

opportunity. Individuals low in self-control have a tendency to ignore the long-term

consequences of their actions in their decision-making process as well as to be reckless

and impulsive, which leads to a greater likelihood of engaging in crime when presented

with the opportunity as they cannot resist the seduction of crime. This hypothesis differs

from Katz’s proposition of commission of crime offering positive rewards like fame and

certainly seems applicable in cases of hacking by internal groups.



There can never be a perfect ‘accounting for all reasons’ theory for a new unconventional

crime like hacking. As Katsh (1995) puts it, the emerging legal landscape in relation to

cyberspace is not very easy to see and thus to understand the changes, it is necessary to

“look beyond the surface of law” to recognize “so much that is hidden from view”. These

latent elements may contribute in structuring the laws and increase their efficacy by

providing the missing policy links. A common thread running through all theoretical

explanations is the system of ‘rewards’, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, to the

hackers. It is necessary to efface this system by limiting the ability of big corporations to

hire notorious hackers for hefty benefits. Secondly, there is an urgent need to somehow

regulate hacker communities operating on the internet. A separate online world has come

into existence and governments need to divert their resources to check the growth of

hacker cultures through prohibition of hacker magazines and websites. Though such a

step may be accused of overreach but ultimately the social benefit will far outweigh the

minimal inconvenience caused and in fact, right to speech and expression is subject to the

need for social order and classes like ‘hacktivists’ who claim to represent the voice of

subalterns in majoritarian societies cannot claim immunity from general law on moral

grounds. Social learning theories emphasize on proper law enforcement as learning

essentially takes place through imitation and reinforcements through rewards. Thirdly,

there is a need to shed the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in devising punishment schedules

as hacker motivations differ over a wide spectrum. Legal responses to crime are

ineffective or prove to be worse if they do not account for the social context in which

they are applied and are not careful about the social meaning that a particular penalty

may convey in that context. A differential targeting of hacker classes, as Leeson & Coyne

(2005) put it, will make the punitive law more effective and rationalized. Lastly, we live

in an age of absolute moral uncertainty where no consensus exists about the definitions of

right or wrong and the judgmental criteria to place any behaviour in either of the

categories. Hacking produces rewards and seduces the youth and the lack of internal

controls in form of ethical standards facilitates the commission. Thus, a suggested

alternative strategy may include education concerning computer ethics at early stages of

school to condition young minds. Active teaching through proper channels induces

‘differentiation’ capabilities paving way for responsible behaviour. On the whole, there is

a need for behavioural sciences to focus more attention on hacking and uncover the

distinct motivations for hacking through empirically verified propositions, which

traditional criminological theories may not completely explain, and thus contribute

towards increasing the efficacy of existing legal regime.


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