Exploring the culture of the computer underground

Overview | Course Content | Debates | Essential Reading | Websites | Bibliography | Printable Reading List | Example Essay Questions | Marking Criteria


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Level 2; Semester 2; Mondays 2pm-5pm from 30/9/02; David Kreps d.g.kreps@salford.ac.uk

This module provides a detailed account of both the origins and contemporary practice of hacking. Using both theory and empirical examples the culture of the computer underground is explored in relation to the broader context of the Information Revolution. The module examines the implications of hacking for such traditional concepts as deviancy and property rights and suggests that the activity highlights important aspects of the more general relationship between society and technology. The module shows that hacking is a hotly disputed phenomenon and our understanding of it is more a result of actively contested interpretations than any essential meaning.

Expected Learning Outcomes

On completion of the module students will have a sophisticated understanding of the cultural and technical context of the hacking phenomenon and its relationship to the wider computing environment. The module will provide students with detailed knowledge of the way in which seemingly technical issues such as computer security are inextricably linked with social processes that structure our understanding of such issues.

Methods of† Assessment & Teaching

Assessment will take the form of two 3,000 word assignments each worth 50% of the total course mark. Teaching will take the form of a mixture of lectures and structured debates.

Course Content

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Week 1††††††††††† Introduction

Read Kapor, M., (1991) 'Civil Liberties in Cyberspace: When does hacking turn from an exercise of civil liberties into crime?' Scientific American, September, 1991, available at: http://www.eff.org/pub/Legal/cyberliberties_kapor.article. and Hannemyr, G., (1997) 'Hacking Considered Constructive', Position paper for the 1997 Oksnøen Symposium on Pleasure and Technology, available at http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue4_2/gisle/ as an introduction to the issues in the course.

Week 2††††††††††† The hack

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The hack, the technical basis of hacking is defined and illustrated with reference to practical examples. The "true" hack is shown to apply to technology and technological systems in general rather than just computers.

Week 3††††††††††† Hacking in Fiction

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Cyberspace, the environment in which hackers operate, was first popularised as a concept in William Gibson's Neuromancer which also provided a fictional portrayal of some of hacking's psychological aspects. Such portrayals are examined as exaggerated examples of real world hacking issues.

Week 4††††††††††† Hacking culture and motivations

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The fictional analysis of hacking is grounded in a description of the main elements of the contemporary computer underground. The psychological and social factors lying behind hacking are explored.

Week 5††††††††††† The Gender issue

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A key aspect of hacking culture is its overwhelming dominance by men. Statistical and documentary evidence is provided of this gender gap and explanations based upon psycho-sexual and cultural theories are assessed.

Week 6††††††††††† Them & Us: the Hawks & the Doves

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A central part of the development of hacking has been the increasingly negative connotations it has attracted. This is shown to result from an active process of stigmatisation carried out by various interest groups in opposition to those who argue for a more ameliatory approach to hackers.

Week 7 ††††††††††† Reading Week

A reading relevant to the course and its assessment will be assigned in this week - watch this space.

Week 8††††††††††† The professionalisation process

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A direct corollary of the stigmatisation process is shown to be the increasing distinction between those involved in the legitimate computer security industry and those who remain part of a self-styled computer underground.

Week 9††††††††††† The construction of computer ethics

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The socially constructed nature of hacking's deviant status is illustrated by showing the various ways in which the perceived illegality of hacking activities has evolved over time rather than as a result of any absolute qualities.

Week 10††††††††††† Early hacker politics

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Some of the earliest hacking activities were closely linked with an anti-authoritarian ethos.

Week 11††††††††††† Technolibertarians, Cypherphunks, & Nerverts

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One strand of hacker culture has closely associated the right to access information with neo-libertarian politics. This conflation is explored to explain the advent of Cypherphunks and as a further example of the female-unfriendly nature of some hacking culture.

Week 12††††††††††† Conclusion

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The above lectures will be of 90 minutes duration, followed by questions, and then a twenty minute break. After the break, from Week 3 onwards, there will be a debate on a topic already covered by the lectures. In Week 2 students will have a chance to select the topic they wish to debate, and whether to debate for or against the 'motion'. The list of motions for debating is available as a pdf document.

Essential Course Reading

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Coupland, D. (1995) Microserfs, London: Flamingo.

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer, London: Grafton.

Taylor, P.A. (1999) Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, London: Routledge.


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Due to the hi-tech nature of hacking a large body of material relevant to the course can be found on the Web. Detailed advice and suggestions about Web source materials will be given during the appropriate classes. Here are a few. (Each link opens a new browser window.)
www.mi2g.com - IT consultancy specialising in Web hacks and security. Check out the News section for some very up-to-date info.
http://www.securityfocus.com/ - Another consultancy with useful info and statistics.
Phrack online Hacker magazine.
2600 - the website of the phreakers newsletter.
Computer Underground Digest [CuD] There are also a number of links listed below.


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Barlow,† J. P. (1990) 'Crime and Puzzlement', Whole Earth Review, Fall 1990, 44-57.

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Boorsook, P. (2000) Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through theTerribly Libertarian World of High-Tech, Little, London: Brown and Company.

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Dann, J., and Dozois, G., (1996) Hackers, New York: Ace Books.

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Gibson, W., (1984) Neuromancer, London, Grafton.

Gibson, W., (1986) Burning Chrome, London, Grafton.

Gilboa, N., (1996) 'Elites, Lamers, Narcs and Whores: Exploring the Computer Underground' in Cherny, L. and Weise, E. R., (1996), 98-113.

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Kapor, M., (1991) 'Civil Liberties in Cyberspace: When does hacking turn from an exercise of civil liberties into crime?' Scientific American, September, 1991, available at: http://www.eff.org/pub/Legal/cyberliberties_kapor.article.

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