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Never stop Grokking

Friday, June 30, 2000

Hackers are Not Crackers

First written: 30-June-2000
Updated: 6-Nov-2000

My name is Philip Tellis and I love playing with computers. I have written this small primer on hackers and hacking meant to inform people of the correct terminology to be used. Much more information is available at the references mentioned in this article.

The Internet in India is growing rapidly and with it, several new business models, entertainment avenues and educational opportunities. The Internet has also exposed us to security risks that come with connecting to a large network.

The media has always latched on to stories of so-called `hackers' breaking into computer systems and wreaking havoc. This article is a sincere attempt to set the record straight as far as the terminology and process of `hacking' is concerned.

The hacker culture as it is known, actually started way back in the 1950's when computers were huge and bulky, and programming them meant connecting wires to electrodes. Although they didn't call themselves hackers then, that pretty much explains what a hacker is.

The new hacker's dictionary defines a hacker as:
hacker n.
  1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
  2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
  3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
  4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
  5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
  6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
  7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding the `Tech Model Railroad Club' (TMRC) and the MIT AI Lab. It was probably used in a sense close to this by teenage radio hams and electronics tinkerers in the mid-1950s.

All computer systems that we use today are based on research done by early hackers. Much of this research was done out of love for the subject, with no personal gain other than fame amongst the community. Hackers built the internet. Hackers built and maintain usenet. All internet related
business today owes its origin to hackers.

The hacker community is a 'meritocracy based in ability'. Membership must be earned. One does not call oneself a hacker until other hackers recognise one as such. There is a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker.

Some of the more famous hackers of lore are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak - the founders of Apple Computer, Bill Gates - more of a hacker during his teens than later, Linus Torvalds - the guy behind linux, Richard Stallman - founder of GNU, Larry Wall - author of Perl, Bill Joy and James Gosling from Sun Microsystems, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson from AT&T, Bjarne Stroustroup - author of C++. Many of these hackers have reached demigod status in the community and are still active hacks.

Around 1980 or so, a new breed of computer fed kids came up. With easy access to the internet in the US and Europe, they soon realised that they could easily break into other people's systems and do what they wanted. They called themselves hackers too. This was really unfortunate, because the name kind'a stuck.

Real hackers do not consider such security breakers to be hackers. The term preferred for such persons is cracker:
cracker n.

One who breaks security on a system. Coined ca. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of hacker (q.v., sense 8). An earlier attempt to establish `worm' in this sense around 1981-82 on Usenet was largely a failure.
While it is true that many hackers posess the skills for cracking, anyone past larval stage is expected to have outgrown the desire to do so except for immediate, benign, practical reasons.

Contrary to popular belief (amongst non hackers), there is far less overlap between hackerdom and crackerdom. Very often it has been thought that there is a very thin line between being a hacker and being a cracker. Several debates have been initiated on usenet and in geek media.

The basic difference between hackers and crackers is this:
hackers build things, crackers break them.
As a hacker, I build software programs for others to use. There is nothing illegal or shameful about the hacking I do. Most of my software is given away with the freedom to modify, reuse and redistribute with the only restriction being that these freedoms are always included. My hacks are meant to help other people, not hurt them.

With the introduction of the IT Bill, it is important that these facts be made public so that the culture of hackers in India do not have to be ashamed to admit who they are. It is also important to ensure that they are not seen as criminals in the eyes of the law. The law must clearly define what a `cybercrime' is and state clearly that hacking is not one of them. Cracking is. Make hacking a crime and one will have to charge every single proficient and competent computer programmer in this country.

This article seeks only to introduce the proper terminology. There is far more information available on the Internet, and I urge you to read through it. For starters run through Eric Raymond's essay on `How to become a hacker' Read through the jargon file and `A Brief History of Hackerdom' also at the same site. Then, browse down to GNU and read the philosophy of free software. You may also want to get hold of a copy of `The New Hacker's Dictionary' and `Open Sources' from O'Reilley.

Hackers have a bad name primarily because of the way the media spreads reports of `hacking'.

In April 1988, ZDnet was conducting a survey. They use the word `hacker' to mean `cracker', but their readers don't. Greg Lehey reports that he found approximately 80% of the responders agreed that a hacker is as defined above and not the same as a cracker. I wonder how much that has changed in the last 12 years.

We request that you try to make things right. From now on, when you say hack, make sure you mean hack and not crack. You owe hackers an apology for spoiling their name, but most of all, you owe them respect.

Parts of this article have been taken from sources mentioned here, most notably, the jargon file and the hacker-howto by Eric S. Raymond. Please do read the originals.

Check out Greg Lehey's The term ``hacker'' as well.

The jargon file can be found at: http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/html/Introduction.html

The hacker howto can be found at: http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html