What Does “hacker” Really Mean?

By Dr. Xenia Mountrouidou

cyberWhat does the word “hacker” really mean? If you search for the definition online, you will find that it is “a person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc.: a person who hacks into a computer system” [1]. Today the word hacker means something negative, a cybercriminal. But was it always that way?

I am inspired by Brian Harvey’s essay [2] from UC Berkeley posted, that the word hacker started from MIT students calling each other “names” in the 60s. There were two groups of students, the “tools” that were the typical ‘A’ student that goes to class,  he/she is very professional, and excels in all coursework. Then there were the “hackers” that never went to class and would spend all night on recreational activities, that did not include partying. These were MIT students after all! They could be learning something such as how to interfere in ham radio, reading science fiction, or reading specs for the Solaris system. But, in the end, they were spending whole nights learning something that they loved. Thus, a “computer hacker” should be a person that lives, breathes, and studies computers not only during class time, but during their free time. I like this definition, especially when I think about my weekends sitting in front of the computer, reading technical forums, and try to learn new things about technology… Can you see yourself in this picture?

What do computer hackers do? There are different types: operating systems hackers, network hackers, password hackers, etc. Some are strong coders, they develop in house tools and some are just script kiddies, that put together a few lines of code or use other hackers’ creations.  Nowadays, we also distinguish them by their “hat”. Black hat hackers are unethical; they sell their services for profit. This is not what hacking was about back in the day, and in my opinion, not the right definition. Sure, you can find prohibited information with your hobby, but you are not doing this to make profit…. or illegally change your grades. White hat hackers are the old time definition of hackers, they are the good guys, the ones that try to find weaknesses in a system and then tell other good guys how to fix them. The industry calls them penetration testers (pen testers) and they have permission to hack into systems, to find weaknesses and tell the company.

Hackers may hang out in prohibited or unknown places on the internet. You may have heard of the Darknet?  You can only access Darknet using the Tor onion browser, a browser that hides your identity by bouncing your requests through different sites. Ninety-eight percent of the internet information is in the Darknet and we only access 2% with the current search engines. The Darknet, aside from hosting a large number of illegal businesses also hosts a wealth of knowledge for hackers. There are invitation-only forums where the hackers exchange ideas… and of course these may borderline illegal transactions such as selling attacks or malware.

In the early days of the internet, it was not even a crime to do the things that hackers do today. For example, a Denial of Service attack that deprives legitimate users from access to a medium was not known, and there were no laws to prosecute the attackers. That does not mean that these were not illegal actions, but the laws had not kept up with the technology. By the way, for those that want to play smart, today a DoS attack is a crime. Besides attacking networks, hackers may be very strong coders that write their own malware, or they may be very observant systems engineers that find weaknesses in a protocol or system.

In the end, according to Brian Harvey, a hacker is an aesthete. I, personally, like this word better to describe the good, white hat hackers. They do not hack to harm. They do it because they live and breathe computers and whatever they do has to be beautiful. Create beautiful code that finds a vulnerability, dedicated to passionate study of how a computer network or an operating system works, and be excited to learn anything new about technology. Hackers just need guidance to keep to the ethical path.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hacker

[2] https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/~bh/hacker.html