[ISN] Hacker Semantics

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Sat Sep 05 1998 - 01:36:47 PDT

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    Hacker Semantics                       
    By Kevin Poulsen  May 7, 1998          
    The 13th annual Hackers Conference took place last weekend, continuing a
    tradition that began in 1984 when past and future computer pioneers--
    including some of the biggest names in the industry-- first gathered
    together. But, unlike the first conference, Hackers 13.0 will not be
    covered by the mainstream media.  There were no press releases, no photo
    ops, no media day. 
    Why so media shy? These days the word "hacker" has too many different
    meanings, and no one wants to be attached to the wrong one. 
    The confusion began in the early 1980s after the movie War Games came out,
    and the public became fascinated with the image of young, nerdy outlaws
    breaking into massively powerful computers. Prosecutors were smitten, too. 
    It was around this time that the media started to use the term "hackers"
    to describe the defendants in the earliest computer intrusion
    prosecutions. Up until then, "hacker" was an industry reference to the
    brilliant and iconoclastic pioneers of the computer revolution. It was a
    word with a proud and noble tradition that was held in high esteem by a
    new generation of computer programmers hoping to carry that tradition into
    the future. 
    The original hackers and their progeny were understandably displeased when
    the first public exposition of their title was in the crime page of the
    local newspaper. Suddenly, calling yourself a hacker was tantamount to a
    criminal confession. They fought back by creating a new paradigm, a simple
    model of good and evil:  Hackers don't break the law, crackers do. 
    This was a model the original hackers thought everyone could live with.
    Programmers could claim the prestigious title "hacker" without taking on
    the stigma of criminality, while computer outlaws would enjoy the slick
    anti-hero image of a sophisticated safe-cracker. And, as "hacker" and
    "cracker" sort of sound alike, the media could make the adjustment easily. 
    So much for the new paradigm. 
    The good-hacker, bad-cracker model was unceremoniously rejected by the
    computer underground. Cyberpunks didn't like being compared to a thin,
    crisp wafer; and they suspected more than some hypocrisy in the notion
    that the original hackers were clean-cut, church-goers who revered the law
    and respected authority. 
    Their suspicion was well founded. 
    The original hackers were characterized not just by their talent for
    expanding the limits of technology, but also by an ethic that held that
    information should be freely available and centralized authority
    mistrusted. Let's not forget that some of the same people who pioneered
    artificial intelligence and the personal computer also ushered in phone
    phreaking, lock hacking, and computer intrusion. Ironically, under the new
    paradigm, many of the original architects of hacking would be dismissed as
    "crackers"-- a paradox that leaves "hacker" a word without clear meaning. 
    The media continues to label "hacker" with its own meaning of "computer
    criminal." This definition is even more at odds with the original than the
    squeaky-clean one promoted by the revisionists-- the information that the
    computer pioneers wanted freed was information about how things work, not
    people's personal email or credit card numbers. By denying the anarchistic
    elements of the hacker experience, the old-school hackers may have
    undermined their efforts to set the record straight-- and lost the war of
    If you ask me, the original definition of the word is still the best.
    Hackers are people who are intrinsically interested in how technology
    works, and striving to make that technology work in new ways. They do not
    rip-off automatic teller machines. Then again, they don't avidly pore over
    the Congressional Reporter to avoid running afoul of the latest Get Tough
    on High Tech Crime law, either. 
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