Hackers have been demonised by the media and authorities alike as crazed cyber-geeks hell-bent on destroying society. Sociologist Paul Taylor disagrees and views hacking as a legitimate pastime. Adam James reports
Are computer hackers malicious vandals or technological pioneers? Cyberpunks or cybergeniuses? It depends on whom you ask.
Government security organisations and corporations such as Yahoo and Amazon might argue that hackers are techno-criminals. "Dangerous when armed with a keyboard" was how jailed US hacker Kevin Mitnick was described after he cyber-tunnelled his way, during the 1990s, into hundreds of high-profile commercial websites.
Through such language, the media has forged a collective perception of hackers as miscreants. Politicians have reacted with the introduction of legislation such as the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, forcing hackers further underground.
But Paul Taylor, senior lecturer in the sociology of technology at Salford University, has an altogether different analysis.
Via a series of email and face-to-face interviews with dozens of hackers - including Mitnick - he has gained unparalleled insights into their world. Over the past two years, he has, in a sense, become their intellectual mouthpiece and defender. He believes most hack through curiosity rather than malice, and it is the fault of commercial and state organisations if they are unable to keep up with the hackers' technological prowess.
In his 1999 book, Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime , Taylor suggests that by criminalising such people, we as a society are guilty of gross over-reaction and moral panic and of denigrating one of the founding principles of the worldwide web, that it should be a space without regulation and control.
Examples of such scaremongering include former Tory MP Emma Nicholson's comments that hackers could try "to kill patients in hospital by accessing their drug records and altering their prescription on computer", or recent predictions that the Code Red worm would destroy the internet. Taylor argues that hackers have generally been misunderstood and that it could be argued that most fulfil a positive function by pushing the boundaries of online technology.
"There has never been a problem caused to public utilities such as those put forward by the scaremongers," Taylor says. "Most of the hackers I have met have been very intelligent and technologically gifted. They could work for commercial firms, but do not want to be controlled. They are free spirits with intellectual curiosity. The majority are exploring computer systems where working 'hands on' is imperative. Part of me respects this attitude of wanting to know about the things they are using.
"Moreover, behind the whole history of hacking are the Bill Gateses of this world - people who built personal computers in their garages and started experimenting with computer technology. It is difficult to differentiate them from the hacking community."
Taylor believes that there are still few, if any, examples of hacking that justify five-year prison sentences - as received by Mitnick, whose hacking into websites did not bring him any financial gain.
He admits to "shedding no tears" if hackers disrupt huge money-spinning online firms such as Yahoo. "No violence is being committed. These are big businesses and they should have the security to deal with it," he says, adding that the extent to which hackers are seen as "a nuisance element" completely depends on a person's political perspective. "You could argue that some businesses are themselves the nuisance," he says.
In line with such views, Taylor's attention has most recently moved onto cyber-political protest, dubbed "hactivism", and he is working on a book on the subject. With its virtual sit-ins, email bombs, computer viruses and worms, hactivism acts as a complement to protest activities taking place in the "real" world.
During the Kosovo war both Nato and Yugoslav file servers were targeted, and last year Israeli and Palestinian groups hacked into each other's sites.
But it is the anti-globalisation hactivism that most interests Taylor - the protests against corporate influence and the increasing private "commodification" of offline and online space.
"DNA is being patented, making it no longer ours. And universities are becoming little businesses, selling information. Such massive commodification of information is disturbing. I find it hard to get worked up about what terrible criminals hackers are supposed to be," he says.
He also argues that cyberspace is becoming an arena for anti-globalisation protestors through circumstance as much as choice. During this year's May Day protests in London, police were widely reported to have surrounded and contained many peaceful protestors. "People who came to legitimately protest were stopped from doing so," Taylor says. "If it was still easy to protest in the conventional way, on the streets, they would. But if this opportunity is taken away they will find other ways, such as on the internet."
Despite Taylor's academic interest in the antics of some of the world's most prolific computer wizards - both legitimate and illegitimate - he has little interest in the technology itself and argues strongly against the tendency to describe computers as if they were extensions of users' bodies or homes. He says this type of language - which leads to hacking being described as "invasions" or, in the case of a security breach of academic network Janet, "rape" - makes it easier for hackers to be demonised.
Taylor also believes that there is a fundamental difference between a burglar and a hacker. "When someone breaks into your house, they will physically remove something. But a hacker does not even take information - instead they will take a copy of it. It is a different notion of trespass and theft - it is something very abstract."