The news recently  has reported a story that a website which promotes and enables extramarital affairs has been hacked. The hackers are threatening to make millions of users names, personal details  and sexual preferences public. This story raises several questions about ethical hacking.

At its most simple level, hacking is breaking and entering – breaking one’s way through the “door” (the security measures) of a website. If the hackers then take the data of people who have signed up to the website, that is stealing  – taking something without permission which does not belong to you.

There are clear cases where hacking is unethical and indeed criminal. Hacking into a banking system to steal people’s bank account details and eventually their money, is unethical. Hacking into one’s own government system to, for example, hinder the collection of taxes, is unethical.

However, there could be some circumstance where it is claimed that hacking is ethical. If a government agency hacks into the computers of another country, is that unethical? If so, does this not mean that all spying is unethical? If another country is trying to destroy us with cyber attacks are we not entitled to retaliate? I suppose this is the general argument for going to war, not just hacking.

There is another perspective. Is it ethical for the police to hack the websites of criminal gangs to stop them committing crimes and to retrieve some of the ill-gotten gains? The same question is this: Is it ethical to break into another’s website to expose those people who are cheating on their spouses? More generally, is it ethical to use unethical means to expose and stop other unethical behaviour? Clearly much more philosophical analysis  of “ethical hacking” is needed. Perhaps here are degrees of ethicalness.