USA: EDITORIAL - HACKER VS. CRACKER.
By Bob Woods
December 30 1996
Our readers have their hackles up when hacker is mentioned in our stories. Hackers, they argue, are good people who just want to learn everything about a computer system, while crackers are the ones who are breaking into computer systems illegally.
The problem arises when the public and people who shape society get a hold of terms like "hacker" - a word once viewed as non-threatening turns into one that conjures up visions of altered World Wide Web pages and crashed computer systems.
"Que's Computer and Internet Dictionary, 6th Edition," by Dr. Bryan Pfaffenberger with David Wall, defines a hacker as "A computer enthusiast who enjoys learning everything about a computer system and, through clever programming, pushing the system to its highest possible level of performance." But during the 1980s, "the press redefined the term to include hobbyists who break into secured computer systems," Pfaffenberger wrote.
At one time hackers - the "good" kind - abided by the "hacker ethic," which said "all technical information should, in principle, be freely available to all.
Therefore gaining entry to a system to explore data and increase knowledge is never unethical," according to the Que dictionary.
These ethics applied to the first-generation hacker community, which Que said existed from roughly 1965 to 1982. While some of those people do still exist, many other people who describe themselves as "hackers" are a part of the current generation of people who destroy, alter, or move data in such a way that could cause injury or expense" - actions that are against the hacker ethic, Que's dictionary said. Many of those actions are also against the law.
Today's hacker generation - the ones bent on destruction - are more accurately called "crackers." Que defines such a person as "A computer hobbyist who gets kicks from gaining unauthorized access to computer systems. Cracking is a silly, egotistical game in which the object is to defeat even the most secure computer systems. Although many crackers do little more than leave a "calling card" to prove their victory, some attempt to steal credit card information or destroy data. Whether or not they commit a crime, all crackers injure legitimate computer users by consuming the time of system administrators and making computer resources more difficult to access."
Here's the rub: whenever the media, including Newsbytes, uses the term "hacker," we are hit with complaints about the term's usage. E-mails to us usually say "I'm a hacker, yet I don't destroy anything." In other words, the people who write us and other media outlets are a part of the first generation of hackers. But the media reflects society as much as, if not more than, they change or alter it. Today's culture thinks of hackers as people who destroy or damage computer systems, or ones who "hack into" computers to obtain information normal people cannot access. While it's probably the media's fault it started the trend, there's no going back now - hackers are now the same people as crackers. Besides, if a person outside of the computer biz called someone a cracker, images of Saltines or a crazy person or an investigator in a popular British television series would probably come to mind. For most people on the street, the last thing they would think of is a person they know as a hacker. So, what's to be done about the situation? Not a whole heck of a lot, unfortunately. The damage is done. If more people in the "general public" and the "mainstream media" read this news service and saw this article, some headway might be made. But even if they did, cultural attitudes and thoughts are very difficult to change. For those people in the US - remember New Coke? Or the metric system? If you're outside the US, can you imagine calling football "soccer"?
And to the first generation of hackers - those of us "in the know" in this industry do know about you. When we report on hackers nowadays, we're not talking about you, and we do not mean to insult you. Honest. Newsbytes News Network, Copyright 1996.
NEWSBYTES NEWS NETWORK