Hacker vs Cracker

Okay, I’ve already misplaced the thread that brought this question to mind, but I’m curious about something. Computer enthusiasts, sometimes known as “hackers”, have made claims for quite some time now (probably most of us are familiar) that “hacker” properly refers to someone who is skilled with computers in the sense of writing programs and similar activities. “Cracker” is, in their opinion, the proper term for folks who try to compromise computer security for nefarious purposes.

Now, aside from the basic linguistic truth that words have meanings and it makes little sense to talk about what they “should” mean, is there some sort of historical basis for this? The word “hacker” with both of the above meanings (and, as depicted in popular culture, usually a hacker engages in both practices) has existed for quite a long time, while the word “cracker” is generally a mild pejorative to refer to white people. I’ve only heard it used in the computer exploit sense by computer geeks, and I never heard it until long after “hacker” was mainstream.

Is there any historical validity to the notion that these words at some point had the meanings that the geek community imputes to them? Because it appears to me to essentially be a computer geek PCism, some attempt to commandeer the language to push a certain viewpoint and to decide upon the “proper” terms to apply to any group of people. Am I right in this? Or is there some reason to believe that the word “cracker” has some sort of historical precedent for this use.

The thread where this was discussed is here.

It most definitely is an attempt at one sub-group of computer geeks to force their definition on all.
Of the 5 university Computer Science departments where I have worked, at 4 of them “hacker” was usually/always used to mean a bad programmer. Similar to the term “hack writer”. At only one was “hacker” used by a noticable number of people to mean a good programmer. Those people had MIT LCS roots. Since the MIT “Hacker’s Dictionary” is commonly available, some people take it as “gospel” when it really only applies to old-time MIT types and their terminology doesn’t generally get used elsewhere. These MIT types get very unhappy about alternate uses of “hacker” which is just plain tough nouggies.

So, be aware in using such terms the various meanings your audience might have for them.

Historically, people used the term Hacker to mean what a geek would like you to use it as first, before Hollywood started using it to mean “Cracker.” They invented the word, thus, it means what it mean.

Gosh, I could swear I asked for actual information in my question. We can prattle about the inadequacy of your understanding of language at another time.

What bothers me is when people try to redefine hacker to mean anyone who does something clever or new . . . I’ve heard self-proclaimed hackers claim that Beethoven was a great hacker and what not. This seems roughly analogous to if I (a vegetarian) were to redefinine vegetarian to mean “anyone who is so confident and self-assured as to be able to go against a widely held practice or belief”, with not eating meat as just one example. Then I could go around talking about what a great vegetarian Copernicus was for postulating the heliocentric universe. Of course, I’d just be redefining a word so that it lumps me together with past luminaries with whom I have no real connection.

The people who use “hacker” as a compliment tend to use it in a way that isn’t limited to computers. A hack is any clever solution, and a hacker is someone who does it well, so you might hear someone say “their lawnmower was broken so I hacked together a replacement using an RC helicopter and a fishing pole”. From this use, it’s not that big a stretch to look back in history and identify people whose creativity you admire as being “hackers”. This isn’t an attempt by the hacker making the statement to connect themselves to these luminaries, it’s simply complementing them using the best word in the hacker’s vocabulary. Just because most self-proclaimed hackers are programmers doesn’t mean their slang can only apply to programming.

For the OP, I have no linguistic expertise, but in my experience “cracker” is a new term created by a certain subgroup to try to keep other people from (mis)using a term they wanted to mean something different. It was created from thin air to provide an alternative to using “hacker” in contradictory ways but that doesn’t give it any special validity. I know groups who are adamant on both sides of the issue. I tend to use the terms that match the group I’m in just like I’d adjust any other slang. If you can’t manage to adjust your internal definition of “hacker” to suit the group you’re dealing with, how do you interpret words like “sick” and “mad”?

What about alt.hackers? ISTR that clever ways of doing things, especially if it had the air of high tech done on the cheap as being lauded on that group, and many posts included the obHack (obligatory hack to make an off-topic post on-topic)?

The woods, outside Gettysburg, 1863:

“Hey Billy-Bob! I done hacked inta the Union Army’s quartermaster’s tent with ma hatchet! We done got us some shoes! They all left uns, but dang! We’s slicker 'n goose grease now!”

I think there’s a strong parallel here with another subset of geeks. For years Star Trek fans were proud and happy to be called Trekkies. Then they started to become aware that among the general population the term was becoming synonymous with “weird spaced-out freak.” Then, all of a sudden Trekkies were the lunatic fringe of Star Trek fandom, and the fans with both feet planted firmly on the ground were Trekkers.

I think the same thing has happened with the Hacker community. Some bad apples have made a bad name for the others, so the outcasts are now branded with a different name.

::ducking phaser blasts::

You are incorrect.

Hacker was in use among data processing groups with the meaning “hostile invader” or “crappy code breaker” in the mid-1970s, long before Hollywood ever played with the term (or the concept).

And the moans of the MIT crowd that “their” word has been misappropriated do not persuade me in any way. As noted in this exchange from an earlier discussion of the terms, the notion that a hacker is a less than honorable person arose from the actions and self-identified practices of (some) hackers.

Now, I have no problem with certain subcultures using their own jargon in their own way to selectively identify the players in that subculture. However, it was not “Hollywood” or some nebulous and clueless “media” that caused the word hacker to become an epithet in the world of serious data processing. That use of the word arose among professionals who took umbrage at having their multi-million dollar equipment brought to a halt in the middle of a payroll run, month-end processing, or an astrophysical computation because some clueless “hacker” forgot to close the loop in a subroutine.

Hacker has meant a bad guy for nearly as long as it has existed in the industry, so outside the tiny MIT-related subculture, the word now has that meaning. (The verb hacking as a more neutral form is a bit more than 40 years old, but the noun hacker is quite a bit younger and it took on a negative connotation with no help from outside the data processing community almost as soon as it was coined.)

You are coming to the conclusion that because you interpret things one way, that is correct.

Your link takes me to post 16, a discussion of ethical hackers, meaning those who break into systems with the intent of exploring only. It is not a cite proving that it was used for “hostile invaders”. Passive explorers of a database with the intent to look only. Hardly what a Hollywood hacker does.

You missed the point. Any unauthorized access to a computer is malicious. If I gain access to your house and wander around without vandalizing any of your belongings, but I look at everything in the house, I am still tresspassing and it is still a wrong action.

Given that hackers discussed such invasions and described them as hacking (however innocuous they wished to see those actions), it is clear that the meaning of the word as an intruder did not arise from Hollywood or the media.

Also check out the ancient thread Is it CRACKER or HACKER? in which several ancient programmers support my contention that the “bad guy” usage of the word preceded any reference by Hollywood. Hacker took on its pejorative meaning within the computer industry long before non-programmers ever heard the word.

I think tomndebb is right on target here.
Attempts to linguistically separate playful, non-malicious “hackers” from nefarious “crackers” are not going to gain much traction these days.

Seeing the proliferation of viruses, spyware and theft of information that is going on, the public is not going to be sympathetic to anyone that tries to gain illegal access to a computer. “Hacker”, “cracker” and similar jargon have merged in public perception into a single term: criminal.

No, it is not. (malicious: deliberately harmful; spiteful) If I gain access to your house and wander around without vandalizing any of your belongings, but I look at everything in the house, I am still trespassing and it is still a wrong action. Wrong action? yes. Willful? Yes. Illegal? Yes. Malicious? No. You can not just go around, substituting one negative concept for another, just because they are both negative concepts.

Also, while this cite is better then your last, it still doesn’t say what you would like it to.

Perfectly correct. However, that still doesn’t mean it is not correct to do so. A waste of time, perhaps, but otherwise, correct.

Well, in this case it could only be described as “correct” because, apparently, a small number of ‘hackers’ at MIT wish us to use a new definition for the term. Ironically, in comparison to other PC terminology, they don’t wish to decide which terms are acceptable in reference to themselves, but in reference to others (these “bad guys” that they wish not to be associated with.)

I’m sympathetic to folks who wish not to be referred to with a term that has a negative connotation. But I’m not all that sympathetic to these guys, who wish to convince us that the actual, real-life meaning of the term is somehow “wrong” and force a more substantial change in language. Especially since I don’t buy ‘hackers’ as a community that frequently falls victim to abuse. This is the sort of weird attempt to redefine language that ought to have the anti-PCism folks giddy with fury.

Personally I find it nothing but silly right up until someone decides to make proclaimations about what’s “correct” and “incorrect” (my hot button issue, obviously); those terms are always suspect in reference to language use but in this case are doubly ridiculous because they’re not describing formal, academic, or standard English usage; they’re not referring to historical forms of language; in short, they don’t have anything to do with even the usual tenuous justifications for prescriptivism. There’s no criterion you could develop to describe “correct” and “incorrect” language use that would define this as incorrect; frankly, it just gets on my tits when some tiny group of people takes it upon themselves to tell the rest of us that we’re “incorrect”, whether it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses or these idiots.

You do not appear to actually be reading, but are instead inserting how you feel things are. The facts are as follows: [ul]
[li]“a small number of 'hackers” invent the word hacker./engineers use the term to mean an unusual way of doing something.[/li][li] Some of them use it to mean illegal, non-harmful behavior.[/li][li]Hollywood gets a hold of it, and uses it to mean illegal, harmful behavior.[/li][li]As a result, everyone and his dog uses hacker to mean what Hollywood thinks it means.[/li][li]Since hacker means something negative, people start wondering why all these nerds want to people to use it in someway other then what they “know” it means.[/li][/ul]

I recall a few years ago among geeks the ones who broke into systems primarily for learning purposes were called white hackers and the ones who did so to wreak havoc were called black hackers. What happened to those terms? Did someone claim they were racist or something?

All irrelevant. Coining a word renders no future proprietary rights to that word’s definition. Once the word gets used outside of the initial circle to which it “belonged”, proper definition of the word is determined by a simple “poll” of those that use the word: How is the word being used by the majority of those that use it? Then that’s the definition of the word.

If it so happens that a given media helped popularize a given definition, so be it – the definition is still totally legitimate if it happpens to eventually gain popular acceptance. A connection with Hollywood, or comic books, or rap music, or whatvever does nothing to call into question the accepted definition of a word.

The Joe Averages and Bob Laymans of the world accept the “malicious” connotation of “hacker”. The MIT crew are hopelessly outnumbered – therefore, the ayes have it.

That’s just how it works … with every word in the English language.