Do hackers help make the world a better place? I learned today that the hacker group Anonymous revealed the person that they think is responsible for the online bullying that caused teenager Amanda Todd's suicide. People paid attention and the person named is being severely harassed and attacked by the populace at large. If they are right and the nailed the person responsible should we credit Anonymous with being helpful or freak out that cyber vigilantes are running around doing things the police should be doing instead? Obviously if they are wrong then it is a massive disaster all around but don't we all cheer a bit inside when vigilantes nail the bad guy? Hell, pretty nearly the entire action movie genre is based on mavericks taking down evildoers outside the bounds of the law using extreme violence.
In the book The Better Angels of our Nature it was fairly convincingly proved that a major factor in violence declining in our society is the Leviathan (the state). The Leviathan breaks the cycle of retribution because people believe that the government will intervene to right wrongs and that both prevents them trying to get revenge themselves and also convinces them that they should not wrong others in the first place. When your victim does not have to rely on themselves for protection you gain nothing by getting the first strike in and can expect to be punished regardless of who you are. This mostly works on the basis of confidence: In countries where people believe that the justice system is effective and fair and when they think the government can be trusted with a monopoly on the use of force crime is extremely low. The trick is that people must believe in the Leviathan for it be effective regardless of its actual actions.
Given these facts I think we should not celebrate the victories of groups like Anonymous. They generally support things I believe in (including tracking down pedophile internet stalkers, say) but by their very actions they undermine the confidence people have in the Leviathan and the benefits that generates. When people think that vigilantes are necessary and that the police cannot get the job done themselves then those things become true and crime gets worse. Much as we love to cheer for the selfless hero who goes after justice regardless of the rules we have to recognize that the police operate under many constraints because those constraints are necessary. We don't want the cops of yesteryear and we don't want to have vigilante justice, even cybergeek vigilante justice. The system isn't perfect by any stretch but that means we need to work on improving the system, not breaking down the public confidence that lets it be effective.