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Editorial - Hacker Vs. Cracker, Revisited
OTC 5/22/98 7:28 PM

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, U.S.A., 1998 MAY 22 (Newsbytes) -- By Bob Woods, Newsbytes. If a person talks about or writes a news story regarding a hacker, one creates an image that is perpetuated in a Network Associates TV ad: the heavily tattooed, ratty looking cyberpunk who breaks into systems and posts proprietary information on the Internet for the same reason "why (I) pierce (my) tongue." The big problem, though, is that person is more accurately described as a "cracker," not a "hacker."

ZDTV CyberCrime correspondent Alex Wellen said earlier this week that "cracker" is gaining acceptance in the media -- and quoted an old column of mine in the process. Because of this unexpected exposure, I decided to take a second look at my old work.

First, here's the text of my January 23, 1996 column:

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, but is now turned into a name 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, 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.

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=== Today's Opinion

Okay, so that last paragraph was a bit on the hokey side. Alright, so it was really hokey. But from what I remember, we had been getting quite a few angry e-mails at the time regarding our usage of "hacker," and I was trying to do a bit of damage control. But if memory serves me correctly, we received a couple of "nice try" letters after we published the editorial. Nice try? Well, I thought it was.

But, was it a "safe" editorial? Sure. But it was -- and still is -- also "safe" to just write about "hackers" and offend a few people, rather than use the term "cracker" and leave a bunch of people scratching their heads over what the heck a "cracker" even was.

While I'm seeing "cracker" more and more in computer-related publications (unfortunately, though, not in ours as much as I'd like to see) these days, the term is sorely lacking in the widely read/viewed/listened-to media outlets.

I'll take the liberty of quoting what ZDTV's Wellen quoted me as saying two years ago: "If more people in the 'general public' and the 'mainstream media' read this news service and saw this article, some headway might be made (in accurately calling people crackers instead of hackers)."

Now, I can see a mainstream media-type -- I used to be one of these people, by the way -- wondering how in the heck can they get their average seventh-grade audience to understand that a cracker is different from a hacker. It's easy for us computer/IT journalist types to write to our expectations of our audience, because it is generally pretty much like us.

The answer, though, is pretty easy. Here's an example:

"Two teenage hackers, more accurately known as 'crackers,' illegally entered into the Pentagon's computer system and took it out in an overnight attack." The real trick, then, is to never again use "hacker" in the story. Just use "cracker." Your audience will pick up on this, especially if you do it in all of your stories. I promise.

So there. My unwieldy media consulting bill is now in the mail to all of the non-computing local and national media outlets.

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