http://www.jsonline.com/bym/career/dec02/101856.asp J. Robert Parkinson jrp@@parkinson.com Dec. 8, 2002 In early October, I wrote a column about how words influence the way we view and act upon situations. I made specific reference to the word "hacker" and how the word seems innocent, even cute. But I said it actually describes an action that is criminal. I said hackers are guilty of "breaking and entering" because they intrude into computer systems that are the private property of others. There was more to the column, of course, but that was one of the main points. Well, did I get reactions from readers! I received dozens of e-mails telling me I didn't know what I was talking about. Hackers, I was told, don't do those things. Real hackers provide a valuable service by checking and assuring the security of many computer systems. The people who wrote to me, the good hackers, informed me in no uncertain terms that the people I was describing are "crackers," and I should be more careful to distinguish between the two labels. I've never heard the label "crackers" used in this context. "Computer cracker" is a new term to me, and I'll bet most of the general public have never heard this meaning of the word, either. Along with chastising and correcting me, readers sent long definitions from a variety of sources to help educate me on the important distinctions between hackers and crackers. For that I say "thank you." It's always important to continuing learning, and I'll be aware of the distinctions in the future. Perception is reality There is another broader lesson here, however, for all of us, and it relates to the old adage, "Perception is reality." Words mean what people think they mean. Most of us in the non-computer community consider anyone who breaks into, or tries to break into, a secure computer system to be a hacker. So in our minds, that is a valid and accurate label. For the "good hackers," however, our label and definition doesn't fit them. It describes that other group. The definition that the general public understands is very different from the one the computer community accepts. Each perception is accurate for each of the respective groups based on their experience and information. The "good hackers" told me the media is to blame for the misunderstanding by spreading inaccurate information about what the computer experts actually do. That may be partially correct, but it seems to me that those same computer experts carry some responsibility to educate and inform their various detractors. They certainly did it to me when they felt unjustly attacked. They might be able to provide simple definitions such as: Hackers test computer systems to determine how secure they are. Hackers often are employed by companies to test their systems in order to protect them and the public at large. Mischief makers Crackers, on the other hand, break into secure systems just to see if they can do it, and sometimes they create mischief. There is a clear distinction between these two motivations. One is honorable, valuable and legal. The other isn't. All of us in business know what we intend when we send messages to our clients and customers. What is really important, though, is what our clients and customers think we mean. Their thoughts and interpretations dictate their feelings and reactions. Sending the right message If, somehow, they misunderstand our message, it isn't their fault; it's our fault. We didn't craft the message accurately. Because words mean what people think they mean, we must consider not only what we believe our words to mean but also how our words might be interpreted by others. That's the real lesson for all of us behind the strong reaction to the hacker column. Once again, to all of you who took the time to write and educate me I say thank you and keep writing. I hope we all learned a good lesson not only about computer labels, but also about the need to pay close attention to all the words we use in business and how others might interpret what we say. - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email email@example.com with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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