HACKER VS. CRACKER, REVISITED
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
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.
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.