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HackersA 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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”.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Notable Hackers

  • Richard Stallman — A hacker of the old school, Stallman walked in off the street and got a job at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. Stallman is a legendary hacker, the founder of the free software movement, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and a programmer capable of prodigious exploits.

  • Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie — The driving creative force behind Bell Labs’ legendary computer science operating group, Ritchie and Thompson created UNIX in 1969.

  • Steve Wozniak — The co-founder of Apple Computer got his start making devices for phone phreaking.

  • Linus Torvalds — Torvalds was a computer science student at the University of Helsinki when he wrote the Linux kernel in 1991.

  • Eric S. Raymond — He is one of the founder of the Open Source Initiative and he wrote the famous text The Cathedral and the Bazaar and many other essays. He also maintains the Jargon File for the Hacker culture, which was previously maintained by Guy L. Steele, Jr..

  • Larry Wall — The creator of the Perl programming language.

  • Johan Helsingius — Operated the world’s most popular anonymous remailer, the Penet remailer (called penet.fi), until he closed up shop in September 1996.

  • Tsutomu Shimomura — Shimomura outhacked and outsmarted Kevin Mitnick, the United States’s most infamous hacker, in early 1994.

Notable Crackers

Here are a few of the more famous crackers (many of whom have since turned to positive hacking):

  • Eric Corley (a.k.a Emmanuel Goldstein) — Long standing publisher of 2600 the Hacker Quarterly. He has been part of the hacker community since the late 70’s.

  • John Draper (a.k.a. Captain Crunch) — Figured out how to make free phone calls using a plastic prize whistle he found in a cereal box.

  • Mark Abene (a.k.a. Phiber Optik) — Inspired thousands of teenagers around the country to “study” the internal workings of the United States’s phone system. One of the founders of Masters of Deception.

  • Robert T. Morris — This Cornell University graduate student accidentally unleashed the first major Internet worm in 1988.

  • Kevin Mitnick — The first hacker to have his face immortalized on an FBI “Most Wanted” poster.

  • Kevin Poulsen — In 1990 Poulsen took over all telephone lines going into Los Angeles area radio station KIIS-FM to win a call-in contest.

  • Vladimir Levin — This mathematician allegedly masterminded the Russian hacker gang that tricked Citibank’s computers into spitting out $10 million.

Licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses materials from the Wikipedia.

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