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Computer Hacking

By pannarele Jan 19, 2013 6350 Words
The Howard Journal Vol 44 No 4. September 2005
ISSN 0265-5527, pp. 387–399

Computer Hacking:
Just Another Case of
Juvenile Delinquency?
Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent at Canterbury
Abstract: Recent discussions of computer ‘hacking’ make explicit reference to the disproportionate involvement of juveniles in this form of computer crime. While criminal justice, computer security, public and popular reflections on hacking seldom refer to formal criminological analyses of youth offending, they nonetheless offer a range of explanations for the over-representation of young people amongst computer hackers. Such accounts of hacking can be seen to converge with criminological analyses, by stressing a range of causal factors related to gender psychology, adolescent moral development, family dysfunction and peer-group and subcultural association. The homologies between ‘lay’, ‘administrative’, ‘expert’, ‘popular’ and criminological discourses, it is suggested, offer considerable scope for developing a critical, academically-informed, and policyoriented debate on young people’s participation in computer crime.

It has been noted that ‘youthfulness’ or ‘being a teenager’ appears as ‘a constant source of fascination and concern for politicians, media commentators and academic analysts’ (Muncie 1999, p.2), not least when involvement in supposedly ‘criminal’, ‘deviant’ and ‘anti-social’ activities is concerned. Whenever anxieties erupt about new threats to the moral and social order, ‘youth’ are seldom far away from the line-up of society’s ‘usual suspects’. Society’s perennial fascination with ‘youth and crime’ has itself become the object of sociological and criminological analysis, furnishing numerous explorations of the ways in which young people and their cultural commitments have become the ‘folk devils’ in successive waves of ‘moral panics’ about crime and disorder (Young 1971; Cohen 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Pearson 1983; Hay 1995; Springhall 1998). Since the 1990s, academic commentators have observed how the Internet has emerged as a new locus of criminal activity that has become the object of public and political anxieties, sometimes leading to over-reaction (Thomas and Loader 2000, p.8; Littlewood 2003). Yet again, the category of ‘youth’ has figured centrally in discussions of the threat, especially in relation to ‘computer hacking’, the unauthorised access to and manipulation of computer systems. Politicians, law enforcement officials, computer security

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e xperts and journalists have identified ‘hacking’ as a form of criminal and deviant behaviour closely associated with ‘teenagers’ (see, inter alia, Bowker 1999; DeMarco 2001; Verton 2002). This association has been cemented in the realm of popular cultural representations, with Hollywood films such as Wargames (1983) and Hackers (1995) constructing the hacker as a quintessentially teenage miscreant (Levi 2001, pp.46–7). While hacking in general has garnered considerable attention from academics working in the emergent field of ‘cybercrime’ studies (see Taylor 1999, 2000, 2003; Thomas 2000), and some attention has been given to questions of youth (see Furnell 2002), few connections are made with the rich and extensive criminological literature of delinquency studies. On the other hand, those specialising in the study of youth crime and delinquency have largely neglected this apparently new area of juvenile offending (for an exception, see Fream and Skinner 1997). The aim of this article is not to offer such a new account of hacking as ‘juvenile delinquency’; nor is it to contest or ‘deconstruct’ the public and popular association between youth and computer crime. Rather, the article aims to map out the different modes of reasoning by which the purported involvement of juveniles in hacking is explained across a range of official, ‘expert’ and public discourses. In other words, it aims to reconstruct the ‘folk aetiology’ by which different commentators seek to account for youth involvement in hacking. Substantively, I suggest that the kinds of accounts offered in fact map clearly onto the existing explanatory repertoires comprising the criminological canon. Implicit within most non-academic and/or non-criminological accounts of teenage hacking are recognisable criminological assumptions relating, for example, to adolescent psychological disturbance, familial breakdown, peer influence and subcultural association. Drawing out the latent or implicit criminological assumptions in these accounts of teenage hacking will help, I suggest, to gain both greater critical purchase upon their claims, and to introduce academic criminology to a set of substantive issues in youth offending that have thus far largely escaped sustained scholarly attention.

The article begins with a brief discussion of definitional disputes about computer hacking, arguing in particular that competing constructions can be viewed as part of a process in which deviant labels are applied by authorities and contested by those young people subjected to them. The second section considers the ways in which ‘motivations’ are attributed to hackers by ‘experts’ and the public, and the ways in which young hackers themselves construct alternative narrations of their activities which use common understandings of the problematic and conflict-ridden relationship between youth and society. The third section considers the ways in which discourses of ‘addiction’ are mobilised, and the ways in which they make associations with illicit drug use as a behaviour commonly attributed to young people. The fourth section turns to consider the place attributed to gender in explanations of teenage hacking. The fifth part explores the ways in which adolescence is used as an explanatory category, drawing variously upon psychologically and socially oriented understandings of developmental crisis, peer influence, and subcultural belonging. In

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concluding, I suggest that the apparent convergence between ‘lay’ and criminological understandings of the origins of youth offending offer considerable scope for developing a critical, academically-informed debate on young people’s participation in computer crime.

Hackers and Hacking: Contested Definitions and the
Social Construction of Deviance
A few decades ago, the terms ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’ were known only to a relatively small number of people, mainly those in the technically specialised world of computing. Today they have become ‘common knowledge’, something with which most people are familiar, if only through hearsay and exposure to mass media and popular cultural accounts. Current discussion has coalesced around a relatively clear-cut definition, which understands hacking as: ‘the unauthorised access and subsequent use of other people’s computer systems’ (Taylor 1999, p.xi). It is this widely accepted sense of hacking as ‘computer break-in’, and of its perpetrators as ‘break-in artists’ and ‘intruders’, that structures most media, political and criminal justice responses.

However, the term has in fact undergone a series of changes in meaning over the years, and continues to be deeply contested, not least amongst those within the computing community. The term ‘hacker’ originated in the world of computer programming in the 1960s, where it was a positive label used to describe someone who was highly skilled in developing creative, elegant and effective solutions to computing problems. A ‘hack’ was, correspondingly, an innovative use of technology (especially the production of computer code or programmes) that yielded positive results and benefits. On this understanding, the pioneers of the Internet, those who brought computing to ‘the masses’, and the developers of new and exciting computer applications (such as video gaming), were all considered to be ‘hackers’ par excellence, the brave new pioneers of the ‘computer revolution’ (Levy 1984; Naughton 2000, p.313). These hackers were said to form a community with its own clearly defined ‘ethic’, one closely associated with the social and political values of the 1960s and 1970s ‘counter-culture’ and protest movements (movements themselves closely associated with youth rebellion and resistance – Muncie (1999, pp.178– 83)). Their ethic emphasised, amongst other things, the right to freely access and exchange knowledge and information; a belief in the capacity of science and technology (especially computing) to enhance individuals’ lives; a distrust of political, military and corporate authorities; and a resistance to ‘conventional’ and ‘mainstream’ lifestyles, attitudes and social hierarchies (Taylor 1999, pp.24–6; Thomas 2002). While such hackers would often engage in ‘exploration’ of others’ computer systems, they purported to do so out of curiosity, a desire to learn and discover, and to freely share what they had found with others; damaging those systems while ‘exploring’, intentionally or otherwise, was considered both incompetent and unethical. This earlier understanding of hacking and its ethos has since largely been over-ridden by its more negative

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counterpart, with its stress upon intrusion, violation, theft and sabotage. Hackers of the ‘old school’ angrily refute their depiction in such terms, and use the term ‘cracker’ to distinguish the malicious type of computer enthusiast from hackers proper. Interestingly, this conflict between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ is often presented in inter-generational terms, with the ‘old school’ lamenting the ways in which today’s ‘youngsters’ have lost touch with the more principled and idealistic motivations of their predecessors (Taylor 1999, p.26). Some have suggested that these differences are of little more than historical interest, and insist that the current, ‘negative’ and ‘criminal’ definition of hacking and hackers should be adopted, since this is the dominant way in which the terms are now understood and used (Twist 2003). There is considerable value to this pragmatic approach, and through the rest of this article the terms ‘hacking’ and ‘hackers’ will be used to denote those illegal activities associated with computer intrusion and manipulation, and to denote those persons who engage in such activities.

The contested nature of the terms is, however, worth bearing in mind, for a good criminological reason. It shows how hacking, as a form of criminal activity, is actively constructed by governments, law enforcement, the computer security industry, businesses, and media; and how the equation of such activities with ‘crime’ and ‘criminality’ is both embraced and challenged by those who engage in them. In other words, the contest over characterising hackers and hacking is a prime example of what sociologists such as Becker (1963) identify as the ‘labelling process’, the process by which categories of criminal/deviant activity and identity are socially produced. Reactions to hacking and hackers cannot be understood independently from how their meanings are socially created, negotiated and resisted. Criminal justice and other agents propagate, disseminate and utilise negative constructions of hacking as part of the ‘war on computer crime’. Those who find themselves so positioned may reject the label, insisting that they are misunderstood, and try to persuade others that they are not ‘criminals’; alternatively, they may seek out and embrace the label, and act accordingly, thereby setting in motion a process of ‘deviance amplification’ (Young 1971) which ends up producing the very behaviour that the forces of ‘law and order’ are seeking to prevent. In extremis, such constructions can be seen to make hackers into ‘folk devils’ (Cohen 1972), an apparently urgent threat to society which fuels the kinds of ‘moral panic’ about computer crime alluded to in the introduction. As we shall see, such processes of labelling, negotiation and resistance are a central feature of ongoing social contestation about young people’s involvement in hacking.

Hacker Motivations: ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ Accounts Inquiries into crime have long dwelt on the causes and motivations behind offending behaviour – in the words of Hirschi (1969), one of the most frequently asked questions is: ‘why do they do it?’. In this respect, deliberations on computer crime are no different, with a range of actors

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such as journalists, academics, politicians, law enforcement operatives, and members of the public all indicating what they perceive to be the factors underlying hackers’ dedication to computer crime. Many commentators focus upon ‘motivations’, effectively viewing hackers as ‘rational actors’ (Clarke and Felson 1993) who consciously choose to engage in their illicit activities in expectation of some kind of reward or satisfaction. The motivations variously attributed to hackers are wide-ranging and often contradictory. Amongst those concerned with combating hacking activity, there is a tendency to emphasise maliciousness, vandalism, and the desire to commit wanton destruction (Kovacich 1999); attribution of such motivations from law enforcement and computer security agencies is unsurprising, as it offers the most clear-cut way of denying hacking any socially recognised legitimacy. Amongst a wider public, hackers are perceived to act on motivations ranging from self-assertion, curiosity, and thrill seeking, to greed and hooliganism (Dowland et al. 1999, p.720; Voiskounsky, Babeva and Smyslova 2000, p.71). Noteworthy here is the convergence between motives attributed for involvement in hacking and those commonly attributed to youth delinquency in general – the framing of hacking in terms of ‘vandalism’, ‘hooliganism’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘thrill seeking’ clearly references socially available constructions of juvenile offending and offenders (on ‘hooliganism’ see Pearson (1983); on ‘thrill seeking’ see Katz (1988); Presdee (2000)).

One way in which commentators have attempted to refine their understandings of hacker motivations is to elicit from hackers themselves their reasons for engaging in computer crimes. There now exist a number of studies, both ‘popular’ and ‘scholarly’ in which (primarily young) hackers have been interviewed about their illicit activities (for example, Clough and Mungo 1992; Taylor 1999; Verton 2002). In addition, hackers themselves have authored texts and documents in which they elaborate upon their ethos and aims (see, for example, Dr K 2004). Such ‘insider’ accounts cite motivations very different from those cited by ‘outsiders’. In fact, they consistently invoke a rationale for hacking that explicitly mobilises the ‘hacker ethic’ of an earlier generation of computer enthusiasts. In hackers’ self-presentations, they are motivated by factors such as intellectual curiosity, the desire for expanding the boundaries of knowledge, a commitment to the free flow and exchange of information, resistance to political authoritarianism and corporate domination, and the aim of improving computer security by exposing the laxity and ineptitude of those charged with safeguarding socially sensitive data. However, such accounts ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ do not necessarily furnish insights into hacker motivations that are any more objectively true than those attributed by outside observers. As Taylor (1999) notes: ‘it is difficult . . . to separate cleanly the ex ante motivations of hackers from their ex post justifications’ (p.44, italics in original). In other words, such self-attributed motivations may well be rhetorical devices mobilised by hackers to justify their law-breaking and defend themselves against accusations of criminality and deviance. Viewed in this way, hackers’ accounts can be seen as part of what criminologists Sykes and Matza (1957) call ‘techniques of

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neutralisation’. According to Sykes and Matza, ‘delinquents’ will make recourse to such techniques as a way of overcoming the inhibitions or guilt they may otherwise feel when embarking upon law-breaking activity. These techniques include strategies such as ‘denial of injury’, ‘denial of the victim’, ‘condemnation of the condemners’ and ‘appeal to higher loyalties’. The view of hackers’ self-narrations as instances of such techniques can be supported if we examine hacker accounts. A clear illustration is provided by a now famous (or infamous) document called The Conscience of a Hacker authored by ‘The Mentor’ in 1986, now better know as The Hacker’s Manifesto. In the Manifesto, its author explains hackers’ motivations by citing factors such as: the boredom experienced by ‘smart kids’ at the mercy of incompetent school teachers and ‘sadists’; the experience of being constantly dismissed by teachers and parents as ‘damn kids’ who are ‘all alike’; the desire to access a service that ‘could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons’; the desire to explore and learn which is denied by ‘you’ who ‘build atomic bombs, [. . .] wage wars, [. . .] murder, cheat and lie’ (The Mentor 1986). Such reasoning clearly justifies hacking activities by re-labelling ‘harm’ as ‘curiosity’, by suggesting that victims are in some sense ‘getting what they deserve’ as a consequence of their greed, and turning tables on accusers by claiming the ‘moral high ground’ through a citation of ‘real’ crimes committed by the legitimate political and economic establishment. Again, we see an inter-generational dimension that references commonplace understandings of ‘misunderstood youth’ and the corrupt and neglectful nature of the ‘adult world’. Thus young hackers themselves invest in and mobilise a perennial, socially available discourse about the ‘gulf ’ between ‘society’ and its ‘youth’. Discourses of Addiction: Computers, Drugs and the ‘Slippery Slope’ A second strand of thinking about hacking downplays ‘motivations’ and ‘choices’, and emphasises instead the psychological and/or social factors that seemingly dispose certain individuals or groups toward law-breaking behaviour. In such accounts, ‘free choice’ is sidelined in favour of a view of human actions as fundamentally caused by forces acting within or upon the offender. From an individualistic perspective, some psychologists have attempted to explain hacking by viewing it as an extension of compulsive computer use over which the actor has limited control. So-called ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ is viewed as an addiction akin to alcoholism and narcotic dependence, in which the sufferer loses the capacity to exercise restraint over his or her own habituated desire (Young 1998; Young, Pistner and O’Mara 1999). Some accounts of teenage hacking draw explicit parallels with drug addiction, going so far as to suggest that engagement in relatively innocuous hacking activities can lead to more serious infractions, just as use of ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana is commonly claimed to constitute a ‘slippery slope’ leading to the use of ‘hard’ drugs like crack cocaine and heroin (Verton 2002, pp.35, 39, 41, 51). Notably, biographical accounts of ‘computer-addicted’ teenage hackers simultaneously feature references to those individuals’ indulgence in use of illicit drugs such as acid and pot,

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thereby furthering the association between hacking and other forms of ‘delinquent’ behaviour (Verton 2002, p.110). This ‘medicalisation’ of hacking as a psychological disorder has gained sufficient purchase so as to have played a role in the prosecution and sentencing of a number of young hackers: in the US, Kevin Mitnick was ordered by the sentencing judge to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous-style ‘12 step’ recovery programme for his purported computer addiction; and in the UK, 19-year-old Paul Bedworth was acquitted of hacking charges on the grounds of computer addiction (Grossman 2001, pp.1–13). The framing of teenage hacking in terms of addiction has thus clearly influenced law-enforcement responses, promoting therapeutic and rehabilitative rather than punitive strategies. ‘Boys will be Boys’? Gender, Masculinity and Hacking

Accounts of hacking have given considerable attention to issues of gender and masculinity, since hackers appear to have a distinctive gender profile. Studies reveal it to be an overwhelmingly male activity, with some authors estimating a male:female ratio as high as 99:1 (Taylor 1999, p.32) (this gendered distribution is consistent with the general findings on offending, which indicate that females are far less likely to engage in criminal activity than males – see Graham and Bowling (1995); Flood-Page et al. (2000)). Explanations for the massive over-representation of males amongst hackers variously emphasise psychological and/or socio-cultural factors. Some commentators attribute the appeal of hacking for males (and its lack of appeal for females) to innate psychological differences between the genders, claiming that males are more oriented toward, and fascinated by, mathematical and logical problem solving (Taylor 1999, p.35). An objection to such approaches is, however, that they conflate ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’; that is, they attribute to individuals’ innate biological heritage what in fact may be socially learned behaviours, dispositions and inclinations. Consequently, others instead view such psychological differences as the outcome of cultural influences. Thus Turkle (1984) claims that males are culturally socialised into a desire for what she calls ‘hard mastery’, seeking to impose their will and control over machines, thereby furnishing them with attitudes particularly suited towards hacking (see also discussion in Taylor (2003)). A slightly different aspect of gendered psychology is stressed by those who emphasise the ways in which teenage boys turn to hacking in order to satisfy a desire for power in the face of their actual powerlessness in ‘real world’ social relations (Sterling 1994, p.19). Such explanation mirrors sociological and criminological accounts of the domination in our culture of what Connell (1987) calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’. This is seen as an ideology that presents being a ‘real man’ in terms of the ability to exercise authority, control and domination over others (see also Messerschmidt 1993; Jefferson 1997). Given the pressures and expectations placed upon boys to demonstrate their ‘manliness’ in such terms, hacking (and crime more generally) may thus be seen as an appealing avenue for those striving to negotiate their way towards a socially recognised status as ‘real men’. A final strand of explanations places less

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emphasis upon factors disposing males to engage in hacking, and instead focuses upon those factors that actively discourage female participation in such activities. Taylor (1999, pp.36–40; 2003, pp.136–8) notes how the culture of hacker groups, websites and online forums exhibits strong sexist and misogynistic dimensions; the flow of sexist and demeaning speech and harassment of women issuing from male hackers may also be actively encouraged by the anonymity of online interaction which loosens inhibitions which may apply in ‘real world’ settings. This ‘locker room’ culture may discourage women from involvement in hacker circles and activities in spite of any genuine interests they might have. The Juvenile Hacker: Explaining a ‘Youth Problem’

Allied to the focus on the gendered dimensions of hacking, there is considerable attention directed to the age of hackers. Studies again reveal hackers to be predominantly young males, often adolescents and teenagers. Thus Sterling (1994, p.76) claims that ‘most hackers start young’, and ‘drop out’ by their early-20s (again consistent with the findings of more general criminological studies of youth offending, which demonstrate a clear age-related pattern of desistance – see Graham and Bowling (1995); Maruna (2001)). Taylor (1999, p.32) found that those who continued to hack into their mid-20s complained of being viewed as ‘has-beens’ by the youthful majority of the hacker ‘underground’. This over-representation of the young inevitably raises questions about the relationship between age and the disposition to participate in computer-related offences. As with discussions of gender, reflections on youth and hacking take a range of different approaches, some psychological and some more socially oriented. One tendency in explanations of hacking departs from the widely held view of adolescence as a period of inevitable psychological turmoil and crisis (Muncie 1999, pp.92–3), suggesting that such disturbance helps account for youthful participation in hacking alongside other forms of ‘delinquent’ and ‘anti-social’ behaviour. In particular, it has been suggested that ‘juveniles appear to have an ethical deficit’ which disposes them toward law- and rule-breaking behaviour when it comes to computer use (DeMarco 2001). This view is backed up by citation of surveys about youth attitudes towards computer crimes, which claim that significant numbers of young people participate in computer-related offences and that many deem it acceptable to do so (see, for example, Coldwell 1993; Bowker 1999, p.40). Such accounts may be seen to implicitly side with theories of developmental psychology that claim that individuals, as they move from childhood to adulthood, pass through a number of stages of moral learning; it is only with ‘maturity’ that individuals are fully able to appreciate and apply moral principles to regulate their own and others’ behaviour. As such, juveniles occupy a space of moral ‘immaturity’ in which they are likely to act upon their hedonistic impulses with limited regard for the impact of their actions upon others (Hollin 2002, pp.159–60). When applied to computer crime, such understandings attribute youthful participation in hacking to a combination of adolescent ‘crisis’ and ethical

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‘underdevelopment’; and, conversely, they can be used to explain why most individuals ‘drop out’ of hacking as they reach psychological ‘maturity’ in their 20s.
A more socially oriented explanation of youthful involvement in hacking stresses the problematic family backgrounds of offenders. There is an established tradition of ‘developmental criminology’ that claims strong correlation between youth offending and experiences of parental neglect, parental conflict, and family disruption and breakdown (see, for example, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 1986). While accounts of hackers and hacking seldom make explicit reference to such scholarly literature, they nonetheless can be seen to reproduce its association between offending and familial problems. Thus, for example, Verton (2002) in his study of teenage hackers makes repeated references to the ‘troubled’ family backgrounds of his subjects, citing biographical details relating to parental conflict, divorce, ‘dysfunctional family environment’, parents’ alcoholism, and physical abuse (pp. xvii, xviii, 37, 86, 102, 105, 142, 145, 170, 188). Of one hacker, dubbed ‘Explotion’, he notes that: ‘his mother died when he was 13, and his father liked to practise his left jab on his face’; of another, Willie Gonzalez, Verton opines that: ‘Willie was heading down a dangerous path that a lot of teenage hackers . . . find themselves on. He was an outsider, a loner with no escape from a dreadful home life’ (Verton 2002, pp.105, 146). The clear implication here is that involvement in hacking, like other forms of ‘delinquent’ behaviour, is explicable by the teenagers’ lack of ‘caring, loving, stable families’ (Verton 2002, p.188). However, such reasoning can be criticised for falling prey to what Felson (1998) calls the ‘pathological fallacy’, the idea that forms of ‘pathological’, ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour must be explained by reference to some other ‘pathology’ or ‘abnormality’ in the individual’s personal and social circumstances. Writers on hacking such as Fitch (2004, p.7) also contest this view of hackers as ‘alienated, angsty teens’, seeing them instead as ‘normal kids, muddling through everyday life issues’, and hence largely indistinguishable from their peers.

An alternative socially oriented explanation for youth involvement in hacking converges with ‘subcultural’ and ‘differential association’ perspectives on delinquency. Subcultural criminology starts by rejecting the depiction of offenders and offending in individualistic terms. Rather, analysts stress that crime and delinquency is situated in the context of social group membership; the groups to which ‘delinquent’ individuals belong will have distinctive shared beliefs, attitudes and values, and it is this distinctive ‘subculture’ that both licences and rewards behaviour that may be at odds with ‘mainstream’ social norms and rules (Cohen 1955; Cloward and Ohlin 1961). Similarly, ‘differential association’ theory views crime and delinquency as socially learned behaviour, and sees close personal groups and peer milieux as the main context for such learning. Through association with others, individuals will learn not only the techniques for carrying out crimes but also the attitudes and values that support and validate such behaviour (Sutherland and Cressey 1974). Social-psychological perspectives such as ‘social learning theory’ also stress how individuals

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are socialised into rule-breaking behaviour through peer association (Bandura 1977). Again, while accounts of teenage hackers seldom make explicit connections with this body of literature, we can nonetheless see the ways in which they implicitly converge with criminological understandings (there are some notable exceptions, such as Fream and Skinner’s (1997) use of ‘social learning’ theories). Studies of hacking repeatedly note how such behaviour takes place in a distinctive socio-cultural context and ‘communal’ structure (Taylor 1999, pp.x, 26). Peer association in the hacking subculture supposedly takes places in both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds (Fitch 2004, pp.8–9). In the ‘terrestrial’ world, hackers participate in organised conferences, such as the annual DefCon hacker gathering, at which knowledge, tools and tales are exchanged; similarly, chapters of the ‘2600’ hackers organisation meet weekly in towns and cities across the US (Rogers 2000, p.12; Furnell 2002, pp.70–7). Some of the most significant instances of teenage hacking have involved organised activities taking place within a group context, and hackers have an established history of participation in groups or ‘clubs’ which often engage in fierce competition to ‘out-hack’ each another (Clough and Mungo 1992; Sterling 1994; Slatalla and Quittner 1996). In ‘virtual’ or online settings, peer groups are formed and sustained via computer mediated interaction in ‘chat rooms’ and via ‘bulletin boards’. Such groups are held to provide not just opportunities for novice or would-be hackers to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’ from their more experienced counterparts, but also to socialise new ‘members’ into the distinctive ethos and attitudes of hacker culture (Denning 1991). This culture includes those values (noted earlier) which legitimate hacking, and counter ‘outsider’ accusations of deviance and criminality; it also includes broader ‘lifestyle’ codes about dress, speech and leisure pursuits that serve to symbolically unite hackers and demarcate them from the despised non-hacker culture. Moreover, such groupings provide social and symbolic rewards for their members in terms of the peer recognition and esteem granted to those who successfully carry off ‘hacks’ (Taylor 1999, pp.59–60); such recognition becomes crucial in sustaining members’ ongoing commitment to the hacker ideology and lifestyle. From a subcultural perspective, participation in and identification with hacking culture may be viewed as a strategy of ‘boundary formation’ through which ‘youth’ is produced as a distinctive and oppositional category of social membership, one which its participants experience as a form of ‘resistance’ to ‘mainstream’ adult society (Muncie 1999, pp.158–69). Conclusion

In this article, I have examined the ways in which a range of primarily non-academic and/or non-criminological accounts of computer hacking attempt to explain young people’s disproportionate involvement in this kind of computer crime. Despite the general absence of connections with formal criminological analyses of youth offending and delinquency, I have suggested that they in fact converge with such accounts in significant ways. In particular, I have noted how non-criminological accounts mobilise

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conceptions of adolescent personality and development, inter-generational conflict, familial dysfunction and subcultural association as explanatory tropes. This apparent homology between non-criminological and criminological perspectives makes it all the more surprising that the academic literature on crime and delinquency has been so conspicuously neglected by those commentating on teenage hacking, and equally that criminologists of youth crime and delinquency have given so little attention to a form of behaviour that has exercised policy makers, law enforcement agents and media in recent years. By illuminating the convergences between ‘lay’, ‘administrative’, ‘popular’ and criminological understandings of the roots of youth offending, it may be possible to bring criminologists and wider social constituencies into a fruitful dialogue. Moreover, critical reflections on both the explanatory efficacy and limitations of different criminological accounts of youth offending may help to refine and sometimes challenge the kinds of accounts of teenage involvement in computer crime that circulate in political, law-enforcement and public domains (accounts which inevitably inform crime control, crime prevention and punitive strategies that are aimed at addressing hacking and associated forms of offending behaviour). As computer crime continues to move up the legislative and law-enforcement agenda, we would be remiss not to bring criminological expertise about juvenile crime and delinquency to bear on these issues.1 Note

1 Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Janet Jamieson and Rodanthi Tzanelli for their helpful comments and suggestions on an early draft of this article. The usual caveat nonetheless applies, and any errors, omissions, lapses and lacunae are the sole responsibility of the author.

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Date submitted: June 2004
Date accepted: October 2004

r Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005

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