The ethical dilemmas around hacking can no longer be ignored in 2020. Of course, many so-called “hacks” are simple and lawful acts of resistance, such as the use of paper travel tickets rather than smart cards by protesters in Hong Kong so their movements cannot be tracked – or the wearing of hats, sunglasses and umbrellas to defy facial recognition systems.
More significant hacks – such as gaining access to classified databases or disabling government hardware – are the preserve of a narrower class of experts acting at the edge of the law or outside it. As coverage of Julian Assange’s arrest has shown, reasonable people may disagree on whether such hacking is morally acceptable, even as they recognise that digital systems are endowing firms and governments with extraordinary new powers of surveillance and control.
In 1963, Martin Luther King observed from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is “nothing new” in civil disobedience: early Christians chose to face “hungry lions” and “chopping blocks” rather than obey the unjust laws of the Roman empire. For King, to disobey an unjust law was not merely permissible; it was a matter of “moral responsibility”.
These words will hold as true in 2020 as in 1963. However, the mere act of illegally hacking an unjust system is not in itself sufficient to meet what King called the “moral responsibility” of direct action. “One who breaks an unjust law,” he urged, “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
How often can that be said of serious hackers, who invariably try to operate silently and in the dark? In non-democratic states, where “political crimes” often lead to savage repression, it is more obviously justifiable for hackers to seek to evade detection or arrest. But where an objectionable digital system is the product of a legitimate democratic process, the position is less clear. A balance must be struck between respecting the law and doing what is necessary to change it.
Clear and simple moral principles are needed to guide such acts of resistance. For instance, it might be said that an unlawful hack can only be defended after efforts to change the system in question have been made in good faith through proper channels – the legislature, the media, or the courts. In 2020, we will start to see efforts to contend with these issues more seriously.
A hack can only be justified by reference to the public interest, and in cases of obvious injustice. Pursuit of personal, commercial or factional interests – or even minor political causes – will not do. Hacks should, moreover, always be proportionate to the injustice they seek to remedy. They should never put people at risk of physical harm or cause irreversible damage to public infrastructure. One criticism levelled at WikiLeaks is that its disclosure of sensitive data about US government personnel was broader than necessary to meet its goals.
Then there is the vexed question of whether hackers should submit voluntarily to arrest and punishment. The answer will surely be different in Europe rather than, say, China, Russia or Iran. But the starting point in a mature democracy is that the rule of law is precious in itself and laws apply to everyone and should be respected – even if some particular laws are unjust. This is especially so in our time, when the rule of law is itself increasingly embattled.
With that in mind, it is one thing to hack in the spirit of King – to “dramatise” an issue so “that it can no longer be ignored” – and another to corrode the integrity of the law by hacking without heed either to the law or to broader moral principles. In 2020 and beyond, we will need moral hackers more than ever.
Jamie Susskind is a barrister and author of Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech
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