In regards to ethics, there are two general theories that can be used to discuss the implications of an action, Deontological and Utilitarian ethics: the former is a series of ethical guidelines that override the popular choice (for example, even though the majority would benefit from an unethical action, the right thing to do is avoid that unethical action on the grounds that it is unethical) where the latter is where the moral choice depends on satisfying the most needs possible (for example, something becomes justifiably ethical when a majority of the people can be helped through that action). In regards to “hacktivism”, you must consider both of these theories to understand whether or not Swartz’s actions, along with others, can be considered activism or cyberterrorism. It is also important to understand that in this day of age, information has become a currency and can be deadly.
Today’s society is increasingly reliant on cyber technology and information, which is now becoming much more dangerous than it has ever been. Information online leads directly to bank accounts, Identification, addresses, and even those close to you, though often it is the individual himself who puts out all that information without any worry on whether or not this will lead to any trouble. Malicious individuals have been able to break through security measures and access personal information which individuals have trusted others to protect for them. An easy example would be one of the many attacks on the PlayStation Network, where many credit card and other financial records were stolen by hack groups which caused the entire network to crash. And on that note, you would believe that this attack would inspire other corporations to bolster their cyber defenses, but just last year PSN and Microsoft both went down around Christmas time due to Lizard Squad’s attack, another group of hackers who decided to attack for seemingly no reason but to protest large corporations and paying to use the online features.
This is where hacking and “Hacktivism” becomes morally wrong in both cases, as this does not benefit the majority and invading one’s privacy and stealing their information is wrong on a societal level of ethics. This is however, the only absolute point in hacking that can be wrong in both cases. Information, whether it is idle gossip of government conspiracy, can be accessed by anyone who has the skill and capability to learn how machines think, and this is often left at the hands of the youth.
Information is commonly shared through social media for all to see, but as we found out through Snowden’s actions a few years ago, much of the information shared through telephones and via internet have been carefully recorded and stored by the NSA. Snowden’s actions can be seen as muckraking, and also putting the public in danger by knowing too much or being left in ignorance, as Snowden also revealed many injustices and atrocities committed by the United States on foreign soils. Deontological thinking would suggest that stealing is wrong no matter the case or the repercussions of it, so Snowden is being unethical. On the other hand, Utilitarianism can justify Snowden the same way it justified the Muckrakers of the progressive errors: by showing the flaws of the U.S in front of the public. The government of the United States was actively spying on its own people, using the threat of terrorism as a reason which many Americans felt was enough, but at the same time the government hid this from the public as to not raise any friction. We as a people give up our own rights to our government in order for the larger body to protect the rest of our rights, but as the united States constitution would point out, this is a government that serves its people. Individuals are born with the rights of life, liberty, and property, but even those natural rights may be suspended to protect the interests of the greater whole, implying that the Utilitarian way of thinking most applies in this situation. The American people did not give the government its direct consent to have every communication intercepted after terrorist scares in the early 21st century, but there were loopholes in which the government seized the opportunity without public consent for their own version of the greater good by violating their own ideals. Snowden was wrong in the sense that he put individual’s lives in danger by showing them commit their actions, but his form of activism i s wholly justified because of two facts: first that the American government had been deceiving and working behind the back of the people it protects without the consent of who it protects, exposing corruption and making the government answer for its violation of public rights to information, and second he showed the United States that it is weak to cyberattack and cyberterrorism and needs to upgrade its preventative measures as soon as possible, and to also maintain a certain degree of honesty or an even stronger way to hide its actions, as another attack to expose government secrets could ruin the government’s public image or possibly lead to more catastrophic results if more tech savvy terrorist cells, such as ISIS, get a hold of information.
Another example to consider would be those groups that use hacking for protest or personal enjoyment, such as groups Anonymous or LulzSec. Anonymous is most likely the internet’s most infamous hacker group, and though they have been at the head of several internet stories and hijinks, there are some arguably morally strong actions they have done using their skills. Again, invading someone else’s privacy is wrong no matter who you are in a deontological manner, but at the same time there comes a point where there seems to not be any significant violation of both ethical theories, and those exist in the form of Gray Hat Hackers, or those who hack to satiate their own needs. Anonymous went out and attacked the Church of Scientology in 2008 because they felt that the church was denying its members and those who criticized it the freedom of speech, a right the group holds in high esteem. This resulted in the attack of the church’s website and social media, and actual p hysical protests until the church had to take stronger legal action and effectively destroy its reputation among the public. This action is fairly grey because though Anonymous went through back channels and stole and disrupted the property of another entity, it did so to uphold the values of freedom, but in contrast those characteristics of freedom are what anonymous perceives them to be. Another case of moral ambiguity would be Anonymous’s work in creating an open space for those individuals of Iran to defy the government’s cyber laws and access the larger government, which is true in that it promotes free speech which would benefit all, but it defies the same laws that are used to govern that same group of all. And then there’s cases that seem to be severely insignificant in of themselves, such as the Habbo raids in 2007, or when LulzSec hacked several government websites (such as the CIA) and changed the homepages to something humorous, or a combined effort to shutdown webs ites all together for petty reasons such as 9Gag. Finally, there are actions that have been too recent to truly judge as many of these actions require hindsight to effectively criticize. Anonymous and other Hacker cells have pledge support against ISIS and have been actively working to destroy their media and recruitment campaigns, which can be argued either way.
The true problem with groups such as Anonymous or LulzSec is the fact that this group of belligerents and pseudo-anarchists maintain a hold on such an ability that even governments themselves are unable to truly challenge. This puts absolutely anyone at risk, from governors to presidents to modern dictators, and that being said, all individuals can have their information shared. There are many cases where personal information was shared such as addresses and phone numbers where hostility was directed in the form of threatening letters and pranks. These groups operate much like mafias, except they are leaderless and consist of smaller organizations under a single banner to improve their collective security. That said, groups such as these are capable of destroying and ruining individuals on a whim on our increasingly cyber-driven society, and putting that much power into a youthful organization, as these cyber tactics are still largely committed by the youths of society, places a strain on the amount of damage that can be done for absolutely no particular reason, and evasion tactics make it extremely difficult for these hackers to be tried or arrested; justice cannot always be served by the law, and the justice these self-impose vigilantes serve is what they themselves fancy, regardless of what any government says. Information, as stated earlier, is dangerous, and with those who can manipulate or drive information, it becomes a weapon or a tool to make gains.
What Aaron Swartz did can be fully analyzed by understanding the organizations he had targeted and from drawing from these certain examples. When Swartz attacked the FBI and stole court cases, he can be compared to Snowden in that the possibility exists that there was information the government may had tried to hide from the public in its court cases, such as injustices and corruptions, or maybe some issue he was trying to bring to light. In the view of the public, Swartz was a Muckraker and the FBI was vulnerable and weak, and it is more shocking that a hacker could get into the FBI’s data base in the first place. On the other hand, when Swartz attacked MIT, he attacked a private organization which is generally treated as a legal entity much like a person or business would be treated. That said, what Swartz may have taken was information the belonged not only to MIT, but also every single student that had contributed to the collection, and there was no corruption or f ilth to be exposed from these research paper, and in fact stealing those papers could be seen as a violation of the Freedom of Speech, if that was Swartz’s intention, which I personally do not believe was. I believe that those papers may have been stolen to share research and knowledge with everyone, but at the same time the knowledge in those research papers may have already been circulated in journals, or already rejected, and in attack MIT Swartz effectively attack an individual who did not have any particular reason to try to defend itself. The target was not all powerful, though one would expect MIT to be on the breaking edge of security systems, and It did not have any violations of human rights to speak of, and so Swartz’s attack seems to be one of personal interest, maybe in the general Quest for Knowledge, or maybe there was something there to expose. Without any reason, I have to say that what Swartz did was not ethical, though I do not say that without stating that it is a fairly weak ruling as there is very little evidence that he did so for nefarious purpose, for personal gain, or for the human rights of the individual.
I do have to state however, that regardless of my thoughts on Swartz’s actions, I still hold a great amount of respect for his talents and achievements. Aaron Swartz left a large contribution to the internet and to cyber technology in general, and the world lost a brilliant mind when he passed away.