A hacker is anyone who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations, primarily in their fields of interest, namely programming or electrical engineering. As will be discussed below, there is a trend in the popular press to use the term to describe computer criminals, and others whose motivations are less pure than the traditional hacker, which trend greatly annoys many of those old-school computer/technology enthusiasts.
Origin of the term at MIT
The term originally developed at MIT long before computers became common; a “hack” meant a simple, but often inelegant, solution. The term hack came to refer to any clever prank perpetrated by MIT students; the perpetrator is a hacker. To this day the terms hack and hacker are used in that way at MIT, without necessarily referring to computers. When MIT students surreptiously put a police car atop the dome on MIT’s Building 10, that was a hack, and the students involved were therefore hackers.
Computer culture at MIT developed when members of the Tech Model Railroad Club started working with a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 computer and applied local model railroad slang to computers. In modern computer culture, the label “hacker” is a compliment, indicating a skilled and clever programmer. In the media, however, it has negative connotations and has become synonymous with “software cracker”.
The term hacker is used in five senses in common use:
- Someone who knows a (sometimes specified) set of programming interfaces well enough to write novel and useful software without conscious thought on a good day.
- Someone who (usually illegally) attempts to break into or otherwise subvert the security of a program, system or network, often with malicious intent. This usage was annoying to many in the developer community who grew up with the primary meaning in sense (1), and preferred to keep it that way; they preferred the media used the term cracker. However this wound up causing even more problems as simply creating a new word did nothing to dispel misconceptions. “Black hat hacker” is a phrase that wound up with the same problems as the word “cracker”.
- Someone who attempts to break into systems or networks in order to help the owners of the system by making them aware of security flaws in it. This is referred to by some as a “white hat hacker” or sneaker. Many of these people are employed by computer security companies, and are doing something completely legal; and many were formerly hackers within sense 2.
- Someone who, through either knowledge or trial and error, makes a modification to an existing piece of software, made available to the hacker community, such that it provides a change of functionality. Such change is normally a benefit. Rather than a competition, the exchange of improvements is most often experienced as a cooperative learning effort.
- A Reality Hacker or Urban Spelunker (origin: MIT); someone who enjoys exploring air ducts, rooftops, shafts and other hidden aspects of urban life, sometimes including pulling elaborate pranks for the enjoyment and entertainment of the community.
“Script kiddie” is reserved for a computer user of little or no skill who simply follows directions or uses a cook-book approach without fully understanding the meaning of the steps they are performing.
“h4x0r” (pronounced Hacks-Or) is a script kiddie in the context of a computer game (i.e. someone who uses a program to modify a game giving them special and unfair advantages). “h4x0r” is often used jokingly or as a term of endearment between gamers.
Note that while the term hacker denotes competence, the noun hack often means kludge and thus has a negative connotation while the verb hack generally shares the same competent connotations.
The hacker community (the set of people who would describe themselves as hackers, or who would be described by others as hackers) falls into at least three partially overlapping categories. The word hacker probably derives from the somewhat derogatory hack, used in the newspaper industry typically to refer to a Journalist who types his stories without checking his facts first.
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