Make Believe and Computer Crime: The Players and the Script.



By Peter Timusk, B.Math, Carleton University, presently studying in a BA in law and philosophy.


Computer crime is played out in the everyday media and in the frustrating moments of victimization of our computers. Yet, it is also the players, the hackers, the police and the computer owners who imagine and define this crime. Looking at the hacker history from the perspective of a reformed hacker, this paper and presentation then analyses, the people, and the roles involved. Roles and social groups both actual, and imagined in Cyberpunk fiction are investigated. A conclusion is attempted with respects to access to computers and the digital divide and this paper attempts to fit the hacker into this social injustice issue.

      For most people, the notion of breaking into a computer is somewhat difficult to relate to.  A majority of the world's population has yet to own, to use, or even to see, a computer.[12] Thus, not everyone is enjoying the "information revolution" if indeed such a revolution even exists.[7] But for many people in the computerised world, hacking is well-known and has tended to become more so as computer use increases. It is not only through an increasing number of computers that have been designed, built, owned and used but also through an increasing number of news articles, books, and movies that an understanding of hacking is growing. There is a particular motivation for the hacker: It is safe to say that this motivation is now influenced by the entertainment media and its effect on computer users.

Hacking is a role, and like any role in modern society has its own set of obligations, functions and associated behaviours. Hacking is illegal, yet it is a role that evolves from legal computer use that has developed into a crime, partly through imaginative thinking, and partly through the portrayal that the role has experienced in Cyberpunk stories and other entertainment media.[1]

 A rough and brief history of films about hackers reveals that computer fiction left behind the moral stories portraying computers as malevolent machines out to destroy the human race, in the late seventies. As hackers became a reality, the film industry moved to presenting hackers as heroes or anti-heroes. The film War Games is often cited as a first look at a hacker. This film's character has developed into the hacker stereotype in the Western information security press[6] and also seems on the surface to be a very true stereotype.[2] But further digging into the 1980's research about personal computers[9] shows that people who were doing these remote break-and-enters in Britain did not represent the stereotypical teenager interested in playing computer games, but instead were for the most part early personal computer owners, typically engineers and scientists.[9] These were people for whom the computer was intended as a tool. Because of the supposed neutrality of the majority of science and engineering information, and the resulting knowledge spheres of these early computer owners, it appears that this type of hacking did not lead to reported crimes in many cases. This seems also to remain in the written computer law concerning hackers in Great Britain. The Computer Misuse Act defines a computer break and enter as a summary offense. It does, however, define it as an indictable offense when it is coupled with a further offense.[4]

 So what is it about engineers and scientists that allows them, without thinking it wrong, to commit what the police now define as a break and enter?[9] Let's assume that engineers and scientists are not taught values, that is, they are not taught to distinguish right from wrong. They do not respect privacy. It is privacy that is invaded when someone cracks into a computer. On the other hand, when people crack software, that is, "pirate" software, it is commercial interests that are negatively affected.

 So we see that one of the major players in the issue of computer crime is the associated commercial interests. Just like the security guard works for the private owner of property, the computer security officer works for the private computer system or computer network owner or corporation.

The role of hacker, it is claimed by the computer security press, can be filled by anyone.[2, 6] In Level Nine, a prime time TV show, hackers are portrayed (as criminals are in most prime time detective shows), as extremely dangerous and violent people. No TV show about hackers seems to have become popular: Shows such as The Net, Level 9 and the Lone Gunman have not been broadcast for long, and none are being broadcast these days.  But these shows have introduced numerous, sensitive and non-sensitive audiences to the concept of a computer break and enter.

The actions required to commit a computer break-in[Canadian Criminal Code, Section 342.1] are now as simple a clicking and pointing with a hand and finger, rather than, say, climbing through a window or opening in a building as in a traditional break in[Canadian Criminal Code, Section 348]. Perhaps less time for the consideration of right and wrong is involved because there is less physical effort and time required to commit to criminal action, compared to traditional break-ins. The fact that hacker tools (software) are widely available means that anyone can now hack computers.[2] Like handguns in the USA, computers are everywhere and there are even libertarians pushing[10] for their rights to own and do whatever they want with computers. The computers themselves are being protected to protect capital and commercial incomes.[2] What is missing, however, especially in the case of networked computers where the hacking can occur, is a public socially conscious agenda.

The invasion of privacy is a hot topic in far too many books written about cyberspace. Privacy is not a paramount right.[5] In fact, Kantian deontological ethics can not even defend privacy as a right.[11] But libertarians can not accept that the public or a majority of the public can be right in some cases. Better to be undefined and free than accept the tyranny of the majority.  On it goes. Cyberspace theorists are ignoring important public agendas,[5] and with the current political negativity towards special interests, our society gets hurt. Most books about cyberspace in the academy are now lacking originality, as each covers basically the same history-the story of the Internet. This has become the script.

Access to computers is being further limited, as newer and better systems become available to only the few. According to computer ethicists, this trend is also contributing to hacking.[3] Will the hackers still break into these valuable systems? I think they will. They will continue to act like the underprivileged robber in our archetypes. But will they steal anything of value in all cases? No they won't in all cases. Will everyone have access to computers? No they won't in majority of cases. We can provide access in the public sphere, and this may reduce the amount of hacking that goes on. Yet there will always be people outside of the set of computer users, and there will always be people whom we would not want to have access to our computers.

But what will cause those who are normal computer users, at whatever age or level of status, to become or wish to become hackers? I think, entertainment media influences many of today's hackers to become engaged in criminal behavior.


1. Cavazos, E. A. and Gavino M., "Cyberspace and the Law: Your Rights and Duties in the On-Line World.", Cambridge, Mass.; MIT Press, 1994.

2. Crume, J., "Inside Internet Security: What Hackers Don't Want You to Know.", Toronto, ON; Addison Wesley, 2000.

3. Denning, D., "Concerning Hackers Who Break Into Computer Systems.", 13th National Computer Security Conference speech, <>(cited March 12, 2002).

4. Elbra, T., "A Practical Guide to the Computer Misuse Act 1990.", United Kingdom; Department of Trade and Industry-NCC Blackwell, 1991.

5. Etzioni, A., "The Limits of Privacy.", New York, NY; Basic Books, 1999.

6. Icove, D., Seger, K., and Von Stroch, W., "Computer Crime." Sebastopol, CA; O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 1995.

7.  Hakken, D., Cyborgs@Cyberspace, New York, NY; Routledge, 1999.

8. Perelman, M., "Class Warfare in the Information Age.", New York, NY; St. Martin's Press, 1998.

9. Shotton M. S., "Computer addiction?", New York, NY; Taylor & Francis, 1989.

10. Sterling, B., "The Hacker Crackdown", 1992, (electronic version)updated July 1998.<>. (cited March 12, 2002).

11. Timusk, P. O., "Computers: Ethical and Unethical Actions.", 2000. <>(cited March 12, 2002).

12. Whitaker, R., "The End of Privacy.", New York, NY; The New Press, 1999.

Last updated April 18th, 2002. Copyright Peter Timusk © 2002

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