by Mike Dailey on October 6, 2011

As we read and discuss the subject of computer hacking and related nefarious uses of the Internet, we focus for the most part on the Information Technology and Information Security side of the topic.  There is another side, however, one dealing with the moral and ethical aspects of hacking, approached from a religious viewpoint to draw the parallel between what many consider innocent computer play, and others see as common greed, theft, and malice.

When we discuss the harm caused by hacking, we are talking about hacking in terms of the unauthorized access, modification, or removal of a web site or associated data: the activities of a “black hat” hacker.  In this context, “hacking”, “cracking”, “cyber crime”, are all interchangeable terms for what we all know to be an illegal act, and it is when an individual embarks on this type of illicit activity that we can begin to associate sin with the activity of hacking.

Hackers often classify themselves in one of three ways.  A “white hat”, or ethical hacker, who use their knowledge and skill to increase the security of computer networks, web sites, etc.  A “black hat” is just the opposite, an individual using their skill to break into computer systems or to access data without authorization.  A “gray hat” hacker is an individual whose activities fall somewhere in between, often blurring the line between the two. 

As Nicholas Negroponte said, “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.” When we choose to negatively impact a computing system somewhere on the Internet we are, in fact, choosing to negatively impact the lives of an unknown number of people involved with that system. This negative impact can harm people personally, financially, and emotionally. The impact is not as remote and anonymous as one would imagine, but can literally touch every aspect of a persons life if the harm caused is great enough. Knowingly and willingly causing such harm, however innocent a hacker may consider their actions, is the very basis of sin.

The hacking community will be the first to defend their actions as harmless, stating reasons why hacking is beneficial to society as a whole.  Some argue that they have a right to access systems without authorization, and defend their belief that all information should be free.  These beliefs echo those of the white collar criminal who feels that theirs are “victimless” crimes, or the bank robber who defends their crime as not harming anyone, since banks are insured by the government.  It is easy to convince one’s self that their actions are harmless, but in reality the repercussions vary in degree and impact, just as with actions that meet the common definition of “sin.”

Pastor Steven Winterhalter, an inner-city outreach minister since 2004, and also a tech savvy member of the global Internet community, has seen the best and worst of people and how technology has been used to harm.

“When we think in terms of sin and righteousness, sin in one sense could be considered the lack of right standing, or the lack or right doing in the eyes of God. Hacking, in its negative sense, in a very real and tangible way portrays behavior that lacks rightness, and in its very essence is a reflection of the untoward human heart; that is, a reflection of the human heart seated in its own lawlessness, willfully ignoring and breaking civil law and in the same way willfully ignoring and breaking God’s law. Hacking is only a particular outlet for this type of lawlessness.”

Pastor Winterhalter has seen first hand the impact of the “dark side” of the Internet, including “black hat” hacking, theft of copyrighted works, and even the hijacking of domain names.  These types of issues are rarely given a second thought when compared to real-world crime such as theft or robbery, even though they are rooted in the same basic types of sin.

“The problem of a lawless heart existed long before the Internet, intranets, or interconnected computer systems were even conceived of, but the pattern remains the same. We, in a civil Judeo-Christian society, govern ourselves with a rule of law system, and as more and more laws come into play because of hacking, more and more power is taken by the government from the people to control public and private networks, and overall the freedoms we enjoy as a people are ultimately subjugated and negated by the very governmental mechanisms meant to stabilize and protect, not by hackers, but because of hackers. So, in the end hackers do not win, they pull every one else down to lose with them.”

In his view, Pastor Winterhalter sees the direct correlation between hacking, as a form of cyber crime, and the loss of our civil liberties and freedoms, as new laws are enacted in an attempt to stave off the continual rise in illegal Internet activity.  The negative impact that cyber crime has on society is just as tangible when compared to similar forms of illegal activity that occur in the real world.  The difference is that, because the victim of the crime is remote and faceless, we see it as somehow less impacting or less sinful, when in reality an act of harm has occurred in either case.

Those that defend the act of hacking, touting it as a means to serve the greater good, or a way to ensure that information remains free to all, seemingly ignore the fact that their actions are not ethical or moral, and arguably, rooted in a sinful desire or goal.  As Pastor Winterhalter goes on to state:

“Do the ends of a ‘greater good’ justify the cost incurred to those who have had crimes committed against them? An ethical end can never come from an unethical means. In an extreme example, using slave labor to build a children’s hospital lacks a certain ethical rightness, even though the end result, helping children, seems to be good. The means of how you get to the ends does matter, therefore the argument of hacking for the greater good is bunk.”

Regardless of your views on technology, religion, or the intertwining of the two, the fact remains that hacking, as a form of cyber crime, is no less a sin than comparable crimes committed in the real world.  Whether classified as sinful against man, society as a whole, or God, hacking remains a sinful act.  No more defendable as a form of social activism as the robbery of a bank, attempts to justify this type of cyber crime as anything necessary for the public good is an assault on moral and ethical behavior, and an affront to those that walk the path of the straight and narrow, both in the real world and online.

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