n January 22, 1999, then US President Bill Clinton warned the National Academy of Sciences about the nation’s need to bolster their defenses against two new terrorist “tools of destruction” - biochemical warfare and computer hacking (Clinton, 1999). In the most explicit terms, computer hackers were catapulted to the same level of dangerousness as those terrorist groups who might use chemical or even nuclear weapons against the West. In his speech, Clinton stated:

The enemies of peace … are working on two new forms of assault … cyber attacks on our critical computer systems, and attacks with weapons of mass destruction … Scientific advances have opened the possibility of longer, better lives; they have also given the enemies of freedom new opportunities …

Clinton’s rhetoric continuously portrayed hackers as a unified, malevolent class of cyber terrorists, labelling them as both “enemies of peace” and “enemies of freedom”, at a time when digital infrastructures were experiencing rapid expansion (Hillebrand 1999; US Census Bureau 2010). His use of the terms cyber “attack” and cyber “assault” are also telling, as Clinton sought to place hacking activities in the domain of militarised warfare. However, not only did his speech incorrectly homogenize all hacking activities (which, as will be shown, can be extremely complex and varied), it also simultaneously avoided granting legitimacy to the majority of domestic hackers who saw digital infrastructures as a means to express their own liberal ideals.

Coleman and Golub (2008) have argued that the concept of a homogenous hacker ethic – whether viewed as malevolent or altruistic - is mere fiction. In their analysis, the authors show how three hacker archetypes all use different (and occasionally contradictory) motives and tactics in order to promote their own versions of the ideal liberal self and state. As Coleman and Golub note, hackers’ (disobedient) engagement with digital infrastructures can serve “as a cultural case in which long-standing liberal ideals are reworked in the context of interaction with technical systems to create a diverse but related set of expressions concerning selfhood, property, privacy, labor, and creativity” (267).

The first hacking group the authors cite is cryptographers, exemplified by the now infamous creator of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) Phil Zimmerman, who sought to provide the general public with access to military-grade encryption software in order to protect personal privacy over the internet (an act which earned him a lengthy FBI investigation) (Coleman and Golub, 2008: 259). Zimmerman, and those who subscribe to a similar ethic, can be seen as promoting a liberal ideology that both endorses personal privacy and seeks to end the government’s monopoly over it.

The second hacker ethic Coleman and Golub document are the developers of free (or open source) software. Counter to the cryptographers, the free software ethic rejects the ideal of personal privacy and supports the contradictory notion that all information on the internet should be public. Open source software allows coders to freely review and improve each other’s code, and thus also undermines the proprietary nature of corporate computer programs. Although this may run counter to traditional Lockean liberalism, which advocated for stringent government protection of personal property rights (Locke, 1689 [1993]), it is not inconsistent with modern conceptions of liberalism that view private property as a driving force of inequality; freedom of information is therefore paramount.

The third ethic Coleman and Golub (2008) reference is the hacker “underground,” which denotes a space characterized by the “politics of transgression” (p. 263). Those hackers who operate amidst the underground recognize the futility in seeking either absolute privacy or total freedom within the internet. Instead, they view hacking (and thus transgression) as a form of pleasure – perhaps desiring to beat the state at its own game rather than desiring to change the rules. Coleman and Golub write:

… the hacker underground attempts to defy institutions of consolidated power such as the CIA, FBI, and AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph), even as it identifies with their desires for control and power. The underground seeks to remind those in power that there are individuals in an unknown, cavernous ‘out-there’ who can and always will unsettle …” (264, emphasis in original).

It would of course be naïve to say that hackers do not pose any physical threat to the general public or Western society. Although not discussed in the article by Coleman and Golub, state militaries are employing teams of hackers in order to launch cyber attacks against their enemies (Hopkins 2012; Iasiello 2014). As my colleague Jack Galligan discusses in this symposium, state-sponsored cyber warfare is not likely to be grounded in any obvious or defensible liberal paradigm and instead may be tied to notions of sovereign power. That said, the majority of non-state-sponsored hackers do appear to utilise predominantly liberal reasoning to promote or defend their unrestricted movement through digital infrastructures. Furthermore, the remainder of this paper will argue that Western state governments also use their own liberal arguments to directly counter those espoused in the liberal hacking paradigms noted by Colmun and Golub. In this way, digital infrastructures have become a battleground for warring liberal ideals between the state and various cyber deviants.

As Locke argued during the early development of liberal thought, any sovereign restriction on individual autonomy must be justified since humanity’s natural condition is a state of perfect freedom (Locke, 1689 [1993]). Security - both of person and property - thus becomes one of the most obvious means for the state to defend its infringement on personal liberty through the liberal (and utilitarian) notion of safety and security for the collective. In this tradition, President Clinton’s 1999 speech on cyber terrorism can be viewed as an example of the application of the liberal notion of collective security through its attempt to vilify the practice of non-state-sponsored computer hacking (a practice that was framed, contrary to Coleman and Golub, in very illiberal terms).

This concept of cyber security became a major political issue in the 1990s. In his speech Clinton warned that “[w]e must be ready - ready if our adversaries try to use computers to disable power grids, banking, communications and transportation networks, police, fire, and health services, or military assets” (Clinton, 1999). He then pledged government spending of $1.46 billion to combat the new threats of both cyber and biochemical warfare. Yet even this state security ethic was not without its own liberal contradictions. At the same time that he was equating computer hackers with terrorists, Clinton was also pressuring Congress to increase public access to the internet, including implementing aggressive liberal policies to connect impoverished communities to the World Wide Web (Hillebrand 1999; Weil 1999). In 1997, only 18% of the US population had internet access in their homes (US Census Bureau 2010). By 2000, one year after Clinton’s speech, the number of internet-connected households rose to 41.5%. In what could accurately be viewed as conflicting (rather than contradicting) ideals, the government was seeking to secure the internet while simultaneously seeking to expand it.

Although increased internet security and greater public internet access may seem somewhat counterintuitive, both ideals were mobilized and justified through liberal means in order to promote this state agenda. Michel Foucault’s (1977-1978: 18-20) analysis of the development of traditional, physical infrastructures of mobility in the modern city serves as an analogy for Clinton’s liberal internet security and increased public access agenda. As described by Foucault in his collection of lectures titled “Security, Territory, Population”, modern towns needed a wide array of interconnected roads in order to ensure growth in trade, which simultaneously created more points of insecurity. This growth in insecurity also had the corollary effect of restricting the state’s ability to know or predict all that was happening (or would happen) within their jurisdiction. A new form of government rationality, what Foucault (1977-1978) originally called the “apparatus of security”, and later “governmentality”, was needed in order to successfully regulate the unpredictability that arose within the modern city.

Foucault also describes security in the liberal state as having three main traits: it deals with possibilities and probabilities (for example, through the development of statistics) rather than absolutes; it conducts cost-benefit analyses in order to determine courses of action; and it avoids binary markers of the accepted and the forbidden, instead electing to create a broader spectrum of the permissible (Gordon 1991: 20). Like the physical infrastructures of the modern city, the expansion of cyber space during the Clinton administration created similar tensions between the need for economic growth and the potential for increased points of insecurity. Furthermore, the lack of any “real” physical or spatially demarcated borders in cyber space undoubtedly created additional challenges for national security.[1]

At first glance, the Clinton government’s equation of hacking with militarised terrorism seems to go against Foucault’s analysis of liberal governance and appears to be more in line with conceptions of discipline and sovereign power. However, when one considers the government’s increased expansion of internet access, even this draconian security rhetoric can be seen as serving a liberal function. Not only was the US government trying to extend internet access to the broader public during the late 1990s, but official government infrastructures were also becoming increasingly digital (Clinton 1999). This contradiction draws reference to the first two traits of modern security outlined by Foucault – the possible and the probable, and the cost-benefit analysis. In 1996, a US Senate hearing on cyber security framed these traits in overt terms. In his opening remarks Senator Nunn stated, “Although the information age offers great promise, and we all know that and we all know that we are not going to roll back the clock, our rush to connect must be tempered with a desire to protect” (Security in Cyberspace 1996). During testimony, after asking if the internet would “exist” without the US, Senator Levin stated:

So we don’t have to play … We don’t have to have any web sites if we didn’t want to have web sites. The implications would be huge … But nonetheless we have chosen to participate [in the internet]. It would exist if we didn’t participate, but if we didn’t participate, our web sites would not be available and that would deny us huge benefits (Security in Cyberspace 1996).

The government not only recognized the inherent unpredictability of the internet, they explicitly accepted it so as to not lose out on its “huge benefits”.

The lack of any true, distinct authority to govern the internet likely caused great fear for the US government since (as Locke noted centuries earlier) a strong, central government is often seen as a necessary prerequisite for security in traditional liberal ideology (Locke 1689 [1993]). The rhetoric of personal security, such as connecting hackers to terrorists, became a way for the state to justify its policies regarding the criminalisation of hackers and securitisation of the internet, as well as their desire to restrict the principle of freedom of information. In this sense, not only do the varied ethics of hackers form a basis for analyzing conflicting liberal ideals, but the state’s own interactions with the internet and domestic hackers is itself a complex domain that can and should be examined through this conceptual lens. 


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[1] The complexities created by physical, linear borders – including their significance to state territorial control - was discussed in Zannah Mae Matson’s article “A Geometry of Borders: The infrastructural points that construct the line” published in the 2017 “Investigating Infrastructures” forum by Society and Space.