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Why Computer Talents Become Computer Hackers

Why Computer Talents Become Computer Hackers, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Start with talent and skills driven by curiosity and hormones, constrained only by moral values and judgment.

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Rafael Anschau

I think this text is absolutely unjust with hackers. Who said "putting hackers on the line"
is desirable ? Yeah, stifle curiosity, stifle their desire to do things their own
way, mold them to the political economical machine! I wonder what would have been of Bill Gates and Steve Wozniack had they been subjected to such attitude. Often, the capacity to do things your way is more beneficial to people on the long term than any preconceived, imposed career path.


they did forget at least one key motive for hackers. Specifically relating to piracy, society and marketing targets young people and yet at the same time, they forget that young people have limited finances. This means that the psychological methods employed by advertisers for various media create hungry consumers without the resources to fulfill their desire through the means that are condoned by the system. These pirates then turn to other methods of satisfying the desires instilled in them by the creators of the content, such as piracy.


The study lumps a lot of things under one roof. There is a difference between "pirating" a song and cracking into a company system to extract industrial information.

Also, I suspect there are some real cultural differences here. The US and China are very different societies, and any assumed similarities must be taken with care.

Further, the PLA and other parts of the Chinese government look for these kids. See
which explicitly fingers PLA unit 61398 as the unit that has been actively stealing from US countries.


I think part of the problem is that these people are geniuses, and they don't want to work in a scenario where the ones in charge are far, far, far from genius. The non-geniuses also lack the ability to remain objective, so when a genius tells them that they can't get 5 from 2 and 1 just because they used 2 last time to get to 5, they're offended. So geniuses are not desired, and sometimes their reputations are ruined. I'm no genius, but this is a constant theme in my life.


There are some major flaws with this study. First off the range in differing environments was far too small. Since much of what people learn is from their environment people in different areas may respond differently to the events that you have tested. Also six subjects seems like too few to draw an accorate conclusion. I think before any school decides to implement any changes to their policy based on this expirement they should try to first recreate the expirement and see if they get the same results.

Also please use the term cyber criminals instead of hackers when you are referring to criminals. Not all hackers are criminals and it is offensive to put them all under one category.

I do appericate the fact that someone is actually looking into this though and hope that your research will inspire further research.

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the July 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Exploring the malicious hacker problem, Zheng-chuan Xu et al.'s "Why Computer Talents Become Computer Hackers" (Apr. 2013) overlooked many motivations for computer talents becoming computer hackers, due, possibly, to cultural differences between China and the West, as suggested in the article, or just to the authors' limited findings, which were based on interviews with only six known computer hackers in Shanghai. Moreover, the article did not distinguish between hackers who ethically go to extremes of computing and malicious hackers willing to do harm to achieve their goals.

My own research at SRI International, 19711995, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Justice, involved interviews with more than 100 notorious malicious computer hackers in the U.S. and Western Europe. That work was documented in case studies in my books Crime by Computer (1976) and Fighting Computer Crime (1983), both published by Charles Scribner's Sons, Inc. Malicious hacking is still motivated in much the same way as it always has been, starting with phone phreaking in the 1960s.

One significant motivation the article clearly overlooked is that some young hackers are looking for shortcuts to a high-paying career in information technology without first undergoing a formal education. Such an irrational strategy typically concentrates on learning from manuals, the Web, personal experimentation, and experienced hackers, as noted in the article, believing that if they engage in sufficiently outrageous but brilliant conduct, with ends justifying means, as was done by some highly publicized malicious hackers before them, they will be noticed by their victims and hired at high pay to protect society from further harm.

My own interviews revealed many kinds of deviant behavior associated with ready access to the powerful, pervasive, vulnerable, fragile information technology at the heart of almost every organization's and user's operations, including negativism, delusions of grandeur, infantile ideals, grandiose, overt behavior, frequent regressions, compensatory mechanisms, peer pressure, fragile ego, irrationality, antisocial behavior, poor grooming and personal habits, unhealthy diet, use of alcohol and drugs, squalid living, disrespect for authority, deception, thievery and burglary, piracy, extortion, endangerment, misuse, abuse, negligence, sabotage, espionage, misrepresentation, intimidation, physical and mental violence, bullying as subject and object, autism, idiot-savantism, sibling rivalry, reaction to parental aberrations and broken homes, hero worship, sexual excess, attention deficit disorder, and more.

I agree with the findings in the article as far as they went, that "...hacker candidates encounter porous security, are tolerated by some academics, and are encouraged by like-minded individuals." They are also sometimes inadvertently encouraged by naive reformers at hacker conferences and by the early success of a few malicious hacker heroes (such as "Cap'n Crunch," "Fiber Optic," and Kevin Mitnick). These hacking mentors and others are described in my books, as well as in others, including Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling (Bantam, 1992), and The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman (Little, Brown and Company, 1996).

Donn B. Parker
Los Altos, CA

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