Psychological Similarities Between Shoplifting and Malicious Hacking

I’d like to better understand what drives people to engage in malicious hacking activities on the Internet. It’s a complex topic, of course, which incorporates the dimensions of money, fame politics and other facets of human life and psyche. One way to gain insight into the psychology of hacking might be to learn about another illegal fringe activity: shoplifting.

Commonality of Shoplifting

Shoplifting is more common than most people realize. According to When Consumer Behavior Goes Bad: An Investigation of Adolescent Shoplifting by Cox, Cox and Moschis, “as many as 60 percent of consumers have shoplifted at some time in their lives.” In fact,

"Although a few shoplifters are professional thieves, the vast majority appear to be amateurs in that their activity is sporadic, they typically have no known history of criminal activity, and they steal for their own consumption rather than for resale."

The situation seems to resemble the malicious hacking scene. Though I don’t have the data to prove it, my sense is that a fair number of people have dabbled in some form of hacking activities that would be construed as unethical or malicious.

Shoplifting as a Cinematic Crime

Some people who engage in shoplifting view it as a “cinematic crime,” as discussed in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Shteir. There seems to be a certain amount of mystique and coolness about shoplifting for some people. Some might even view it as a victimless crime. Some use it as a way to judge others: “I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t shoplifted,” said one former shoplifter according to Shteir.

Some shoplifters report feeling excited from the adrenalin rush when they were preparing for or in the process of stealing merchandise, talking about the crime as a love affair. Shteir explains:

"Shoplifters enjoy stealing. The objects mean something to them, but taking them feels dirty. Shoplifting is a spasm or a seizure. The lesson they learn from the crime—yes, I can!—they might apply to other areas of life. Shoplifting gives them courage to take chances."

The book also brings up examples of shoplifters like the feeling of superiority over the store clerk after a successful run. Even when they know they are doing something wrong—or perhaps because of it—they enjoy belonging to a seemingly exclusive club of shoplifters.

All these aspects: The feeling of excitement, superiority and belonging seem relevant to the emotions associated with malicious hacking activities as well.

Shoplifting Inclinations and Psychological Disorders

Studies suggest that some people who engage in compulsive shoplifting behavior might be diagnosed with psychological disorders. I don’t know enough about such conditions to say much about them, beyond quoting from Shoplifting: A Review of the Literature by Krasnovsky and Lane:

"Whether seen as simply a crime or a multifaceted disorder, shoplifting is an increasingly frequent problem in our society. For many offenders, it seems that shoplifting is just one among a group of antisocial acttivities engaged in, due to anger, excitement, or profit."

Similarly, different people engage in malicious hacking activities on the Internet for various reasons. What drives such individuals, what is their frame of mind and what, if anything, can be done to modify their behavior warrants a closer look. Perhaps understanding the psychology of shoplifting can shed some light on this complex topic. What do you think?

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy Similarities Between Riots and Modern Internet Hacktivism.

Lenny Zeltser


About the Author

I transform ideas into successful outcomes, building on my 25 years of experience in cybersecurity. As the CISO at Axonius, I lead the security program to earn customers' trust. I'm also a Faculty Fellow at SANS Institute, where I author and deliver training for incident responders. The diversity of cybersecurity roles I've held over the years and the accumulated expertise, allow me to create practical solutions that drive business growth.

Learn more