The Ethics of Facemash

Let’s consider the ethics of Facemash and computer hacking generally. (We will study the law of hacking at a later time.) Although hackers are often shadowy actors, lurking behind the scenes, it turns out that hacking isn’t always wrong. Among hackers, the rightness or wrongness of hacking depends on some mixture of the hacker’s internal motivation as well as the ultimate consequences or effects of the intrusion. In short, we must ask: why is the hacker breaking into someone’s computer system? Is the hacker trying to expose or identify any hidden weaknesses in the system in order to make the system safer and stronger in the future (a “white hat” hacker)? Or does the hacker just want to inflict harm or steal data for the hacker’s own personal benefit (a “black hat” hacker)?

Now, let’s apply this pragmatic approach or “common sense” ethics to the Facemash Affair. To us, it looks like Facemash was some strange combination of white hat and black hat hacking. On the one hand, Facemash was meant as a prank, one that also exposed just how woefully inadequate Harvard’s security measures were. Further, the Facemash algorithm used to rank the hotness of students was a novel and sophisticated application of the Elo chess ranking algorithm used to rank grandmasters. But at the same time, one could argue that — regardless of the ethics of hacking — the Facemash website was designed to appeal to the user’s basest sexual instincts. After all, should students be openly ranking the hotness of their fellow students? Isn’t the concept of “hotness” shallow and maybe even sexist? In short, ranking people based on their physical appearance (and without their consent!) is just plain wrong! But, hey, what’s wrong with ranking people based on their physical appearance? After all, isn’t “hotness” just another word for “beauty”? And isn’t the pursuit of beauty one of the driving forces of Western art and culture? Suffice it to say that the Facemash Affair is so intriguing to us because it raises more questions than answers …

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 12.33.17 PM

Your guess is as good as ours!

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5 Responses to The Ethics of Facemash

  1. Pingback: The Law of Facemash (part 1) | prior probability

  2. Kathy H says:

    You can analyze Facemash on many levels, but when you boil it down it was a cruel, macho game. There was no honest attempt to exploit the weakness of a system to benefit the system. He just used the weakness of the system because he was able to for kicks. To imply otherwise is an insult to the intelligence.

    • I think you’re right, but at the same time, users LOVED facemash. The site literally went viral in a matter of hours. Of course, the site’s popularity does not excuse its “badness”, but it does raise an intriguing question: why were students so captivated by it? And more fundamentally, why do we judge people by their appearance?

  3. Kathy H says:

    I think it went viral because it attracted a certain population – young college age men. So much identity/curiosity wrapped around sexuality. I highly doubt it was viral with women unless they had a masochistic desire to see how they rated. But your question is great – Why do we judge people by their appearance? For this I have no answer.

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