Word Watch: Hacker

Friday, September 23, 2011


This year we've heard stories about hacking, from The News of the World scandal to the exploits of groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec. But the way the media uses the word hack diverges sharply from the way it's used by actual hackers. On the Media Producer Alex Goldman explores the history of the word and how its meaning has shifted over time. 

Comments [4]

HunterJE from Kirkland, WA

Half of me says "THANK YOU, that irritates me every time I turn on a news story about computer security." The other half says "What prescriptivist hogwash -- language exists in its general usage, and if the language as a whole uses a word differently than its originating jargon-community, that's what the word means in general English."

Oct. 08 2011 01:12 PM
Edward from NJ

Putting together a set of Ikea bookshelves doesn't make you a carpenter. Similarly, not everyone who employs a hack is a hacker. Regarding "phone hacking", the first time that someone figured out that you could get into a voicemail account by faking the caller ID, it was definitely a hack. It was a clever exploit that made an existing system work in a way that was not expected or desired by its designers. When a NOTW reporter uses the voicemail/Caller ID exploit by running a program, it's still a hack but they are not a hacker.

Sep. 28 2011 10:01 AM
Ross Freeman Levin from Portland, Oregon, Cascadia

OTM staff and listeners may find this recent New York Times article entertaining in light of your recent show's content: Companies See Opportunity in Stopping Cellphone Hackers http://nyti.ms/nUX4SN

Sep. 28 2011 05:39 AM

I first encountered the word "hack" at MIT in the mid-80's, and it was generally understood to be a prank involving great technical skill (though not always with computers... sometimes physics, chemistry, electronics, etc).

It was never meant to be malicious, though since its nature often incurred runaway one-up-manship from geek hubris, it did occasionally get carried well past the realm of 'reasonable' and 'responsible'.

The term 'cracker' was first intended to mean malicious intent, and was almost always synonymous with trying to break into a secure computing facility for nefarious purposes (though sometimes just to post a calling card saying, "I broke into your system just because I could"... i.e. to cause someone sleepless nights).

As an underground grew where crackers would swap recipes for breaking into computers--to the extent that anyone could repeat those steps without technical expertise, but merely the means and the ability to follow instructions--the implication of technical expertise was shed as the cognoscenti became diluted with 'tourists' and 'amateurs'.

At that point any vestiges of respectability associated with the term 'cracker' (more for technical savvy than moral authority) was shed and it became a purely derogatory term.

The hacker community has always understood the difference between a true hacker and a cracker, but the press doesn't seem to distinguish between the two.

Sep. 25 2011 07:58 PM

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