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Jul 5 2007   5:56PM GMT

Hacker or cracker?

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Throughout the years I’ve been writing and editing on WhatIs, I don’t think there’s been another issue that’s cropped up as often or been as gnarly to try to settle as the question of whether a person who attacks computers and networks is a hacker or a cracker.

Just about everyone but the serious geeks uses hacker to mean an attacker but anytime we do we get notes from readers to the effect that a malicious hacker is a cracker and a hacker is just someone with mad computer skills. Furthermore, they feel that we should be upholding proper usage and not letting standards slide. On the other hand, when we’ve used “cracker,” we often get notes asking if we don’t mean “hacker” and suggesting that we might want to think about using the same term everone else does.

I’ll admit I’ve often tried to skirt the issue by using “attacker.” But the time comes when an editor has to take a stand. Especially in the wake of several years of wishy-washy, indeterminate indecision. So. Decision time. Let’s see what everyone else says…

Wikipedia has a fairly extensive entry for hacker. The article starts out by defining a hacker as “a person who illegally breaks into computer and network systems” but links to a better page for hacker definition controversy.

Alpha hacker Eric S. Raymond weighs in authoritatively on the topic in his article, How to become a hacker:

There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren’t. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.

The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.

There’s much more in Raymond’s FAQ-style article, including:

The Hacker Attitude
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

On the other hand, you can also find support for the use of hacker as a synonym for cracker. According to wordorigins.org, that usage goes back to the November 20, 1963 issue of The Tech, the M.I.T. student paper, where it was used to refer to breaking into the phone system:

There are those that claim that hacker should not mean someone who maliciously invades computer systems, and that it really means someone proficient in computer use. But this is not the history of the term. Hacking from its beginnings at M.I.T. has always been associated with using technology to subvert institutional systems for personal use. Besides, the meanings of words are determined by usage, not etymology. So if people use hacker to mean someone who breaks into computer systems, that’s what it means.

So, the way I see it, there are a number of fairly compelling arguments for either side, chief among them being:

  • Eric Raymond says a hacker is defined by skill and good intention. And everybody loves Eric Raymond.
  • The earliest reference to skill-based, non-malicious technology hacking that I could find traces it back to ham radio operators in the fifties, predating the MIT paper cited on wordorigins.
  • However, as wordorigins correctly points out, common use is what drives definition. So if people use hacker to mean cracker, eventually that’s what it will mean.
  • And yet… cracker is unambiguous. If one uses cracker in this context, people get it. So if we use “hacker” to mean a highly computer-literate geek and “cracker” to mean an attacker of whatever skill level…

Sigh. ‘Round and round and round it goes. I’m just not sure. I’d love some input. What do you think? ~ Ivy Wigmore

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