A computer hacker is any skilled computer expert that uses their
technical knowledge to overcome a problem. While "hacker" can refer to
any skilled computer programmer, the term has become associated in
popular culture with a "security hacker", someone who, with their
technical knowledge, uses bugs or exploits to break into computer
2.2 Security related hacking
4 Overlaps and differences
5 See also
7 Further reading
7.2 Free software/open source
8 External links
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Reflecting the two types of hackers, there are two definitions of the
an adherent of the technology and programming subculture.
someone who is able to subvert computer security. If doing so for
malicious purposes, the person can also be called a cracker.
Today, mainstream usage of "hacker" mostly refers to computer
criminals, due to the mass media usage of the word since the 1980s.
This includes what hacker slang calls "script kiddies", people
breaking into computers using programs written by others, with very
little knowledge about the way they work. This usage has become so
predominant that the general public is largely unaware that different
meanings exist. While the self-designation of hobbyists as hackers
is generally acknowledged and accepted by computer security hackers,
people from the programming subculture consider the computer intrusion
related usage incorrect, and emphasize the difference between the two
by calling security breakers "crackers" (analogous to a safecracker).
The controversy is usually based on the assertion that the term
originally meant someone messing about with something in a positive
sense, that is, using playful cleverness to achieve a goal. But then,
it is supposed, the meaning of the term shifted over the decades and
came to refer to computer criminals.
As the security-related usage has spread more widely, the original
meaning has become less known. In popular usage and in the media,
"computer intruders" or "computer criminals" is the exclusive meaning
of the word today. (For example, "An Internet 'hacker' broke through
state government security systems in March.") In the computer
Hacker Culture) community, the primary meaning is a
complimentary description for a particularly brilliant programmer or
technical expert. (For example, "Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux,
is considered by some to be a hacker.") A large segment of the
technical community insist the latter is the "correct" usage of the
word (see the
File definition below).
The mainstream media's current usage of the term may be traced back to
the early 1980s. When the term was introduced to wider society by the
mainstream media in 1983, even those in the computer community
referred to computer intrusion as "hacking", although not as the
exclusive definition of the word. In reaction to the increasing media
use of the term exclusively with the criminal connotation, the
computer community began to differentiate their terminology.
Alternative terms such as "cracker" were coined in an effort to
maintain the distinction between "hackers" within the legitimate
programmer community and those performing computer break-ins. Further
terms such as "black hat", "white hat" and "gray hat" developed when
laws against breaking into computers came into effect, to distinguish
criminal activities from those activities which were legal.
However, network news use of the term consistently pertained primarily
to the criminal activities, despite the attempt by the technical
community to preserve and distinguish the original meaning, so today
the mainstream media and general public continue to describe computer
criminals, with all levels of technical sophistication, as "hackers"
and do not generally make use of the word in any of its non-criminal
connotations. Members of the media sometimes seem unaware of the
distinction, grouping legitimate "hackers" such as
Linus Torvalds and
Steve Wozniak along with criminal "crackers".
As a result, the definition is still the subject of heated
controversy. The wider dominance of the pejorative connotation is
resented by many who object to the term being taken from their
cultural jargon and used negatively, including those who have
historically preferred to self-identify as hackers. Many advocate
using the more recent and nuanced alternate terms when describing
criminals and others who negatively take advantage of security flaws
in software and hardware. Others prefer to follow common popular
usage, arguing that the positive form is confusing and unlikely to
become widespread in the general public. A minority still use the term
in both senses despite the controversy, leaving context to clarify (or
leave ambiguous) which meaning is intended.
However, because the positive definition of hacker was widely used as
the predominant form for many years before the negative definition was
popularized, "hacker" can therefore be seen as a shibboleth,
identifying those who use the technically-oriented sense (as opposed
to the exclusively intrusion-oriented sense) as members of the
computing community. On the other hand, due to the variety of
industries software designers may find themselves in, many prefer not
to be referred to as hackers because the word holds a negative
denotation in many of those industries.
A possible middle ground position has been suggested, based on the
observation that "hacking" describes a collection of skills and tools
which are used by hackers of both descriptions for differing reasons.
The analogy is made to locksmithing, specifically picking locks, which
is a skill which can be used for good or evil. The primary weakness of
this analogy is the inclusion of script kiddies in the popular usage
of "hacker," despite their lack of an underlying skill and knowledge
Sometimes, "hacker" is simply used synonymously with "geek": "A true
hacker is not a group person. He's a person who loves to stay up all
night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship... They're kids
who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional
goals[...] It's a term of derision and also the ultimate
Fred Shapiro thinks that "the common theory that 'hacker' originally
was a benign term and the malicious connotations of the word were a
later perversion is untrue." He found that the malicious connotations
were already present at MIT in 1963 (quoting The Tech, an MIT student
newspaper), and at that time referred to unauthorized users of the
telephone network, that is, the phreaker movement that developed
into the computer security hacker subculture of today.
Hacker culture is an idea derived from a community of enthusiast
computer programmers and systems designers in the 1960s around the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Tech Model Railroad
Club (TMRC) and the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The
concept expanded to the hobbyist home computing community, focusing on
hardware in the late 1970s (e.g. the Homebrew
Computer Club) and
on software (video games, software cracking, the demoscene) in the
1980s/1990s. Later, this would go on to encompass many new definitions
such as art, and Life hacking.
Security related hacking
Main article: Security hacker
Security hackers are people involved with circumvention of computer
security. Among security hackers, there are several types, including:
White hats are hackers who work to keep data safe from other hackers
by finding system vulnerabilities that can be mitigated. White hats
are usually employed by the target system's owner and are typically
paid (sometimes quite well) for their work. Their work is not illegal
because it is done with the system owner's consent.
Black hats or crackers are hackers with malicious intentions. They
often steal, exploit, and sell data, and are usually motivated by
personal gain. Their work is usually illegal. A cracker is like a
black hat hacker, but is specifically someone who is very skilled
and tries via hacking to make profits or to benefit, not just to
vandalize. Crackers find exploits for system vulnerabilities and often
use them to their advantage by either selling the fix to the system
owner or selling the exploit to other black hat hackers, who in turn
use it to steal information or gain royalties.
Grey hats include those who hack for fun or to troll. They may both
fix and exploit vulnerabilities, but usually not for financial gain.
Even if not malicious, their work can still be illegal, if done
without the target system owner's consent, and grey hats are usually
associated with black hat hackers.
Four primary motives have been proposed as possibilities for why
hackers attempt to break into computers and networks. First, there is
a criminal financial gain to be had when hacking systems with the
specific purpose of stealing credit card numbers or manipulating
banking systems. Second, many hackers thrive off of increasing their
reputation within the hacker subculture and will leave their handles
on websites they defaced or leave some other evidence as proof that
they were involved in a specific hack. Third, corporate espionage
allows companies to acquire information on products or services that
can be stolen or used as leverage within the marketplace. And fourth,
state-sponsored attacks provide nation states with both wartime and
intelligence collection options conducted on, in, or through
Overlaps and differences
The main basic difference between programmer subculture and computer
security hacker is their mostly separate historical origin and
development. However, the
File reports that considerable
overlap existed for the early phreaking at the beginning of the 1970s.
An article from MIT's student paper The Tech used the term hacker in
this context already in 1963 in its pejorative meaning for someone
messing with the phone system. The overlap quickly started to break
when people joined in the activity who did it in a less responsible
way. This was the case after the publication of an article
exposing the activities of Draper and Engressia.
According to Raymond, hackers from the programmer subculture usually
work openly and use their real name, while computer security hackers
prefer secretive groups and identity-concealing aliases. Also,
their activities in practice are largely distinct. The former focus on
creating new and improving existing infrastructure (especially the
software environment they work with), while the latter primarily and
strongly emphasize the general act of circumvention of security
measures, with the effective use of the knowledge (which can be to
report and help fixing the security bugs, or exploitation reasons)
being only rather secondary. The most visible difference in these
views was in the design of the MIT hackers' Incompatible Timesharing
System, which deliberately did not have any security measures.
There are some subtle overlaps, however, since basic knowledge about
computer security is also common within the programmer subculture of
hackers. For example, Ken Thompson noted during his 1983 Turing Award
lecture that it is possible to add code to the
UNIX "login" command
that would accept either the intended encrypted password or a
particular known password, allowing a backdoor into the system with
the latter password. He named his invention the "Trojan horse".
Furthermore, Thompson argued, the C compiler itself could be modified
to automatically generate the rogue code, to make detecting the
modification even harder. Because the compiler is itself a program
generated from a compiler, the Trojan horse could also be
automatically installed in a new compiler program, without any
detectable modification to the source of the new compiler. However,
Thompson disassociated himself strictly from the computer security
hackers: "I would like to criticize the press in its handling of the
'hackers,' the 414 gang, the Dalton gang, etc. The acts performed by
these kids are vandalism at best and probably trespass and theft at
worst. ... I have watched kids testifying before Congress. It is clear
that they are completely unaware of the seriousness of their
The programmer subculture of hackers sees secondary circumvention of
security mechanisms as legitimate if it is done to get practical
barriers out of the way for doing actual work. In special forms, that
can even be an expression of playful cleverness. However, the
systematic and primary engagement in such activities is not one of the
actual interests of the programmer subculture of hackers and it does
not have significance in its actual activities, either. A further
difference is that, historically, members of the programmer subculture
of hackers were working at academic institutions and used the
computing environment there. In contrast, the prototypical computer
security hacker had access exclusively to a home computer and a modem.
However, since the mid-1990s, with home computers that could run
Unix-like operating systems and with inexpensive internet home access
being available for the first time, many people from outside of the
academic world started to take part in the programmer subculture of
Since the mid-1980s, there are some overlaps in ideas and members with
the computer security hacking community. The most prominent case is
Robert T. Morris, who was a user of MIT-AI, yet wrote the Morris worm.
File hence calls him "a true hacker who blundered".
Nevertheless, members of the programmer subculture have a tendency to
look down on and disassociate from these overlaps. They commonly refer
disparagingly to people in the computer security subculture as
crackers and refuse to accept any definition of hacker that
encompasses such activities. The computer security hacking subculture,
on the other hand, tends not to distinguish between the two
subcultures as harshly, acknowledging that they have much in common
including many members, political and social goals, and a love of
learning about technology. They restrict the use of the term cracker
to their categories of script kiddies and black hat hackers instead.
All three subcultures have relations to hardware modifications. In the
early days of network hacking, phreaks were building blue boxes and
various variants. The programmer subculture of hackers has stories
about several hardware hacks in its folklore, such as a mysterious
'magic' switch attached to a PDP-10 computer in MIT's AI lab, that
when turned off, crashed the computer. The early hobbyist hackers
built their home computers themselves, from construction kits.
However, all these activities have died out during the 1980s, when the
phone network switched to digitally controlled switchboards, causing
network hacking to shift to dialing remote computers with modems, when
pre-assembled inexpensive home computers were available, and when
academic institutions started to give individual mass-produced
workstation computers to scientists instead of using a central
timesharing system. The only kind of widespread hardware modification
nowadays is case modding.
An encounter of the programmer and the computer security hacker
subculture occurred at the end of the 1980s, when a group of computer
security hackers, sympathizing with the Chaos
Computer Club (which
disclaimed any knowledge in these activities), broke into computers of
American military organizations and academic institutions. They sold
data from these machines to the Soviet secret service, one of them in
order to fund his drug addiction. The case was solved when Clifford
Stoll, a scientist working as a system administrator, found ways to
log the attacks and to trace them back (with the help of many others).
23, a German film adaption with fictional elements, shows the events
from the attackers' perspective. Stoll described the case in his book
The Cuckoo's Egg and in the TV documentary The KGB, the Computer, and
Me from the other perspective. According to Eric S. Raymond, it
"nicely illustrates the difference between 'hacker' and 'cracker'.
Stoll's portrait of himself, his lady Martha, and his friends at
Berkeley and on the Internet paints a marvelously vivid picture of how
hackers and the people around them like to live and how they
Script kiddie, an unskilled computer security attacker
^ "Internet Users' Glossary". Archived from the original on
2016-06-05. RFC 1983
^ Yagoda, Ben. "A Short History of "Hack"". The New Yorker. Retrieved
November 3, 2015.
^ "Internet Users' Glossary". Archived from the original on
2016-05-16. RFC 1392
^ DuBois, Shelley. "A who's who of hackers". Reporter. Fortune
Magazine. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
^ "TMRC site". Archived from the original on 2006-05-03.
Alan Kay quoted in Stewart Brand, "S P A C E W A R: Fanatic Life and
Symbolic Death Among the
Computer Bums:" In
Rolling Stone (1972)
^ a b Fred Shapiro: Antedating of "Hacker" Archived 2007-10-25 at the
Wayback Machine.. American Dialect Society Mailing List (13. June
^ "The Origin of "Hacker"".
^ London, Jay (6 April 2015). "Happy 60th Birthday to the Word
"Hack"". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
^ Raymond, Eric (25 August 2000). "The Early Hackers". A Brief History
of Hackerdom. Thyrsus Enterprises. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
^ Levy, part 2
^ Levy, part 3
^ "What are crackers and hackers? Security News". www.pctools.com.
^ Lloyd, Gene. "Developing Algorithms to Identify Spoofed Internet
Traffic". Colorado Technical University, 2014
^ phreaking. The
Jargon Lexicon. Retrieved 2008-10-18.
^ a b cracker. The
Jargon Lexicon. Retrieved 2008-10-18.
^ Thompson, Ken (August 1984). "Reflections on Trusting Trust" (PDF).
Communications of the ACM. 27 (8): 761.
^ Richard Stallman (2002). "The
Hacker Community and Ethics: An
Interview with Richard M. Stallman". GNU Project. Retrieved
^ Part III. Appendices. The
Jargon Lexicon. Retrieved
^ A Story About ‘Magic'. The
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Hacking at Wikibooks
The dictionary definition of
Hacker at Wiktionary
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