Monday, August 27, 2007

Hackers and Slackers: Hotz's iPhone Hack

Thanks to George Hotz, 17, of Hackensack, New Jersey, we all know how to hack into an Apple iPhone to make it work with at least one cellphone carrier besides AT&T. Of course, not everybody has the combination of manual dexterity, software skills, and access to knowledgeable friends that Hotz brought to bear on the problem. As soon as George got one of the newly released phones in June, he set to work with some fellow online hackers to crack the iPhone's secrets. A week or so ago, he succeeded, and newswires everywhere carried reports about his feat and interviews with him. Despite comments from some of his "slacker" friends that he wasted his summer, I emphatically disagree.

I must confess a fond feeling of spiritual fellowship with Hotz. When I was his age, I spent my summers on similar techie quests that mystified most of my friends and relatives, although none of my exploits gained the publicity Hotz's did. He is no stranger to techno-fame, having competed successfully in Intel's Science Talent Search several times. All the same, we know that Apple and AT&T are probably not thrilled to hear that at least a few people can use their equipment in a manner contrary to their intentions. Is what Hotz did ethical? For that matter, what are the ethics of hacking in general?

From all reports, Hotz is clearly not trying to profit from his endeavors, at least not directly. He saw the hack simply as a technical challenge to overcome, a test of his own hacker skills, and after hundreds of hours of work, he and his online buddies succeeded. The fact that using the iPhone with a network other than AT&T goes against the spirit if not the letter of the law (at least as interpreted by AT&T and Apple) is peripheral to the main issue, which was whether Hotz could make the thing work the way he wanted it to, not the way its makers intended.

Hacking can be viewed as a game. The hacker pits his (or occasionally her) brainpower against whoever or whatever made the objective to be hacked—an iPhone, a Defense Department database, or a bank's credit card system. The rules are of two kinds: technical and moral. The technical rules are determined by the existing structure of the objective, which includes software, hardware, and physical and mathematical laws. The moral rules have to be internalized—there are no moral signposts out there that have to be obeyed in the sense that the law of gravity has to be obeyed. Hotz has expressed no interest in running a business hacking iPhones, but now that his hack is on the web, somebody else may do just that. And at least indirectly, Hotz would bear that responsibility.

Believe it or not, this matter relates to a distinction made by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre between what he calls internal goods and external goods. In essence, MacIntyre asks the question, "Given a practice which requires attention, the development of skill, and devotion over a period of time, what are the goods that we seek in return?" That is, if one wants to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a priest, one has to devote years of life to learning how to do these things well. If human beings seek the good, what are the goods that we seek in learning how to do such practices?

MacIntyre classifies such goods into two categories. Goods internal to a practice are examples of excellence judged according to the rules of the practice itself. A good internal to the practice of surgery is a new and more effective way of doing a gall-bladder operation, for example. People who are really "into" a skill such as surgery, music, or even iPhone hacking get a thrill from doing the practice well and thus creating goods internal to the practice. On the other hand, goods external to the practice are things like money, adulation, promotions, and the other incentives that organizations use to get professionals to do their practice for them. Clearly, there are many ways to get goods external to a practice, but to achieve goods internal to a practice, you have to do the practice itself well.

All right. It looks to me like Hotz's main motivation was a good internal to the practice of hacking. Hacking the world's most famous cellphone was a truly elegant hack, and Hotz did it. The fact that he's not skipping college to go make lots of money hacking cellphones shows that he is not unduly attracted by goods external to the practice of hacking, as some may be.

MacIntyre develops these concepts of goods and practices in the context of his ethics of virtue, which he bases on Aristotle's ideas. Since nobody can put things quite like MacIntyre, I'm going to quote his definition of virtue in its entirety, from his book After Virtue: "A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods." To do his hack, Hotz had to be persistent, patient, attentive to detail, communicative with his hacker friends, ingenious, and self-educated, largely (there are no official hacker schools, to my knowledge). All these are virtues, in MacIntyre's terms, which helped Hotz do his hack. Were he to be tempted by external goods—the money, the fame of being blatted over MSNBC, etc.—he might turn his skills to nefarious purposes. It's interesting that Hotz wants to major in neuroscience—"hacking the brain!" as he puts it in one report. And if he achieves his dream, even partly, of "hacking the brain," there is no need to expand here on what dangers and promises that goal holds.

What Hotz does next depends on not only his technical skills, but the kind of person he is and the kind of circumstances he finds in college and beyond. You may recall that as a teenager, Bill Gates engaged in a similar kind of hacking with a "blue box" that allowed him to make free long-distance phone calls, provoking the ire of what was then the monolithic Bell System. Smart, effective people generally have something of the rebel in them, and suppressing such tendencies too much would lose us some good talent. But judgment comes with age and experience, and let's just hope that in the future, Hotz and his friends use their abilities for internal goods—and the good in general.

Sources: An MSNBC story about Hotz's achievement is found at The Austin American-Statesman carried a reprint of a story about him from by Martha McKay of The Record on Aug. 27, 2007. Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (2nd edition 1984) is published by University of Notre Dame Press.

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