Friday, May 3, 2013

What Is Hacking?

It seems pretty cut-and-dry, but on the margin the laws regarding how we define hacking and computer-mediated consent become tricky--and fascinating. James Grimmelmann has a must-read article evaluating the legal theory of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA; the government's big anti-hacking law), and some possibilities for improvement. The comments section also contains further excellent analysis.

The politicization of this issue has played out in a strange way, with many conservatives pushing for a more expansive definition of hacking and liberals criticizing what they see as an unacceptable government capacity for prosecutorial capriciousness. I tend to think the particular history and culture associated with hacking and computers explains these battle lines (i.e. young idealistic liberal nerds vs. The Man), but I'm not convinced stronger hacking rules would actually be worse for the little guy.

The popular conception of hacking still emphasizes the exploitation of big institutions by small groups. But as technology continues to democratize and spread, the exposure of average households to hacking risks will surely increase. Information asymmetries mean large organizations have huge opportunities for exploiting small gaps in uninformed individuals' increasingly computer-mediated lives.

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