[ISN] Editorial - Hacker Vs. Cracker, Revisited

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Fri May 29 1998 - 21:17:28 PDT

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    Forwarded From: Nicholas Charles Brawn <ncb05at_private>
                       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. 
       ===  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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