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Black Hat vs White Hat Hacking


This paper explores hacking from the perspective of ethics. The ethicality of hacking depends on the motive of the hacker, which also forms the basis for the definition of the different forms of hacking. White hat hackers are ethical according to utilitarianism as they bring utility to the greatest number of individuals. In this paper, white hat and black hat hackers are the ethical players and their actions will be tested for ethicality. Utilitarianism will be used as the test, and the utility approach will be applied as the provision for the test. The paper concludes that white hat hacking is pro ethical while black hat hacking is con ethical.

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Hacking involves compromising computers’ systems or networks to access information. The difference between the several forms of hacking hinges on the hackers’ motives. For instance, a white hat hacker will breach a system or network to expose weaknesses to the owners of such systems with the aim of averting such occurrences before they happen. On the other side, black hat hackers compromise a system for personal gains.

This paper starts by defining hacking together with giving its brief history. The paper then explores white hat and black hat hacking by using an accounting firm as an entity that can be hacked. White hat and black hat hackers are identified as the ethical actors in this case. White hat and black hat hacking are the actions being tested for ethics, and the ethical test is utilitarianism. The specific provisions of utilitarianism are given and incorporated in determining whether the ethical test is pro ethical or con ethical.

What is Hacking?

Hacking is the act of manipulating computer systems and networks to gain access. In most cases, hacking is illegal. The history of hacking goes back to 1965 when William Mathews working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) could be compromised to display system password to anyone logged into the system (Erickson, 2008). This discovery, albeit accidental, laid the foundation for hacking as known today.

However, the first known hacker was John Drapper, who invented “a method of making free long distance calls, with the help of a toy whistle given away with his cereal” (Sample III, 2006, p. 254). The method was nicknamed ‘blue box’, and it was mainly used for communication purposes. The first known computer hacker was an employee at the National CSS, who developed software to steal passwords from clients.

Currently, there are two common forms of hacking, viz. black hat and white hat hacking. The difference between the two is based on the motive behind the exercise. Black hat hacking involves compromising computer systems and networks to access information for personal or malicious gains. On the other side, white hat hacking is carried out for non-malicious purposes like exposing system vulnerabilities to improve security.

The ethicality of hacking depends on the motive behind it. For instance, white hat hacking can be termed as ethical because it helps in the improvement of the systems’ security, which is a good cause. White hat hacker is the ethical actor identified in this case. On the other side, white hat hacking is the action being tested for ethics.

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Brief History of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a normative ethics theory, which holds that a “morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people” (Mill, 2002, p. 14). In 1780, Jeremy Bentham coined the term “utilitarianism” to address the issue of moral actions that would bring happiness to the majority of people in a given set up. Later on in 1861, John Stuart Mill enhanced this theory by introducing qualitative measures, which digressed from Bentham’s quantitative approach in the definition of the term utility. In the 20th Century, G.E. Moore broadened the definition of utilitarianism by arguing that other values could be maximized as opposed to focusing on pleasure. Utilitarianism is the test being applied in this case.

The ethical standards of a Utilitarian Society

The first ethical standard of a utilitarian society is the utility approach, whereby the best course of action is the one that brings utility to the majority in society (Rosen, 2003). The right approach focuses on the most ethical action that protects, in the best way possible, the moral rights of individuals in that society. Another standard is the fairness or justice standard, whereby individuals living in society should be treated equally or fairly in case inequality is necessary.

The common good ethical standard emphasizes that any action should promote the well-being of everyone in a given setup. Finally, the virtue ethical standard encourages actions that will lead to the development of humanity in different merits like honesty, prudence, self-control, and compassion among others (Singer, 2011). The utility approach will be used as the specific provision of the test.

Ethical hacking

Any form of hacking that seeks to promote the fidelity of a system can be termed as ethical. For instance, white hacking is ethical because it seeks to help system owners to improve security, which ultimately leads to the common good of protecting the users of such a system or network.

Hacking an Accounting Firm

A hacker can breach the systems of an accounting firm to access the clients’ data for different reasons. A hacker can use stolen laptops or backup drives to access an accounting firm’s data. In other scenarios, a hacker can use pilfered passwords.

A black hat hacker hacking an accounting firm

A black hat can install malware in an accounting firm’s system software. The malware is then used to provide access to the system’s software like Oracle or SAP. After gaining access to the system, it becomes easy to steal clients’ information. The most common information that can be stolen includes the clients’ full names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and bank account information among others.

This information can be used in tax fraud, identity theft, or steal money from the affected individuals. One advantage of black hat hacking is that firms can hire the hackers to expose system vulnerabilities. The greatest disadvantage of black hat hacking is that most perpetrators are doing it out of malice, and they can cause huge losses to the company. Clients can quit that company and sue it for damages hence huge losses.

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A white hat hacker hacking an accounting firm

A white hat hack can use system passwords or backup data to breach the security of an accounting firm’s system software. Besides, white hat hackers can plant malware in the accounting system software just like their black hat counterparts. White hat hackers can access all the information available in the system. However, when they get the information, they pass it to the firm’s data security team to work on ways of averting such attacks in the future. The advantage of white hacking is that firms improve their security after the exposure, which prevents data breaches before they happen. The downside of this practice is that the hackers can turn against the firm and share information with third parties who then use it to compromise the systems (Mitnick & Simon, 2005).

Pro or con ethical

White hat hacking seeks to bring utility to the highest number of individuals using the hacked system. The ultimate beneficiaries of white hat hacking in an accounting firm are the clients whose information is protected from the activities of black hat hackers seeking to use it for malicious goals. Therefore, according to utilitarianism, white hat hacking is the best course of action that can be taken in an accounting firm faced with the threat of security breaches. In this case, the ethical test is satisfied; hence, it is pro ethical. On the other hand, black hat hacking brings utility to the minority (only the hacker), and thus it fails the test of utilitarianism. Hence, it is con ethical.


In the light of this paper’s discussions, it suffices to conclude that white hat hacking is pro ethical while black hat hacking is con ethical. According to the utility provision of utilitarianism, an action is termed ethical if it brings utility to the greatest number of people. In this case, the accounting firm’s clients, which are the majority, derive utility from white hacking as it secures their information from being stolen by black hat hackers. On the other side, black hat hacking is con ethical because only the hacker, the minority, derives utility from his/her actions, and thus this act fails the utilitarianism test.


Erickson, J. (2008). Hacking: The art of exploitation (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press.

Mill, J.S. (2002). Utilitarianism (2nd ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Mitnick, K., & Simon, W. (2005). The art of intrusion: the real stories behind the exploits of hackers, intruders, and deceivers. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing.

Rosen, F. (2003). Classical utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Abington, UK: Routledge.

Sample III, C. (2006). PSP Hacks. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.

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Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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