The term “hacker” is one often thrown around the Internet to cause alarm. Anyone who uses social networking sites like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook will most likely have seen some variation of the many messages that circulate warning of the latest trick alleged hackers have conjured up to compromise your accounts and steal your information.
But do you know what the word “hacker” really means, or rather what it is supposed to mean? We’ve all heard the word but many will be unaware that its actual meaning today is a source of heated debate, ambiguity, controversy and confusion. This is a result of various, differing meanings of the word “hacker” which, just like technology, have evolved significantly over the last few decades.
During the 1970s and 1980s, long before desktop computers were a common feature in every household, a community of programmers and developers was beginning to form. Computer networks were taking shape and the IT industry was taking off, but unlike today [- where the software market is dominated by large companies strictly protecting the inner workings of their programs and charging people to use it -] programs, applications and other types of software were being developed by like-minded individuals or small groups and distributed freely, along with their source code so that others could freely modify, and thus progress the software.
Such people were fundamentally against the principle of charging for software, as well as the companies that “closed” their programs to the public, not allowing modifications or to allow any programmer to see the source code that made their software work. This “open source” sharing community is where the first instances of the term hacker became popular; referring to those that belonged in this resulting anti-authoritarian computer sub-culture. Not those with malicious intent, rather those who insist on open source sharing, collaboration, and progressively modifying software written by others. In the 80s and 90s, this was the most popular usage of the term and is still used by many of those individuals today.
Another popular usage of the term began to appear when describing programmers who broke into “closed source” software to modify or improve the software. In these instances, there was no malicious intent by such people. This is not to say malicious programmers did not exist, but these were commonly referred to as “crackers” – those who created malicious software or broke into computer networks with malevolent intent.
Of course this was all about to change, and the media and the movie industry were about to play their part. As the Internet took shape and reached every corner of the globe, the amount of attacks on high profile targets soared as Internet security struggled to keep up with the increasing numbers of highly skilled and capable programmers willing to compromise computer networks for various vindictive motives. Computer security was a popular media story during the 90s and early 2000, and the term of choice – down perhaps to the ignorance of the relevant journalists – was hackers. This was compounded by several movies on the subject appearing, including the Angelina Jolie title from Hollywood, aptly named “Hackers”. The term hacker was now being used to describe malicious users, compromising networks and creating malware.
This new, mainstream meaning for the term hacker quickly became adopted by the general public and is now the most commonly used meaning for the word. Of course this led to much controversy as the hacker sub-culture of the 80s disputed this new, negative meaning, instead trying to push the “cracker” term to refer to those with malicious motives, but this has not caught on.
So now there is a dual meaning for the word. Those “open source” idealists spanning back from the early technology days clinging onto the term, and the new, much negative media induced way of describing malicious users who compromise, steal and wreak havoc.
To cause more confusion, the newer, negative meaning of the term also causes controversy as to what actually constitutes a hacker. Many claim that the term can only be used to describe those that write malicious code and create exploits – i.e. actual coders and programmers that use their skills to their advantage. However many assert that the term hacker encompasses anyone who compromises computer networks, including those who use social engineering techniques such as phishing attacks to trick victims into handing over sensitive information such as usernames and passwords.
Additionally such hacker terminology can be broken down into sub categories based on intent such as black hat (malicious intent) grey hat (dubious intent) and white hat (positive intent) or based on methods used, such as “script kiddies” (hackers who use scripts and tools written by others without an understanding of how they work) or social engineering hackers (hackers that trick victims into handing over information).
The point of this article is to highlight the fact that the term hacker is not a definitive term – but with a colourful past, and just like technology, is a term that is still evolving – not yet discovering its final and ultimate meaning.