Wednesday, August 08, 2012

No, "hacker" really does mean "hacker"

The earliest known use of "computer hacker" in the press described a criminal act:
Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. … The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. … Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.”
-- 1963-11-20 The Tech, (MIT student newspaper)

This isn't new information (other references from 2008 here and here), but I thought I'd point it out again since people continue to claim that "hacker doesn't mean criminal -- use cracker instead". There is no justification for that claim. Yes, "computer hacker" has always had the non-pejorative meaning "enthusiastic nerd", but it's also always been used to connote something nefarious; it's never been true that the prejorative sense is "wrong".

Although, the first use of the word doesn't matter too much. What matters is what people mean to say when they use the word, and how people interpret the word when they hear it. If people think "criminal" when they hear the word "hacker", then that's what it "means", no matter what the original definition says, no matter what dictionaries say, no matter what ESR says. Since the popular usage indeed implies somewhat criminal behavior, then that's what the word "hacker" means, and there's nothing you can do about it.

The thing is, "hacker" will always carry a negative connotation, in exactly the same way that "banker" or "CEO" has a negative connotation in many people's minds. Those who wield power are distrusted. An even better example is the word "witch", which will always carry a negative connotation despite the J.K. Rowlings attempt to rehabilitate the word. Those who wield "magic" will always be viewed with suspicion, hackers wield magic, hence "hacker" will always carry this special connotation.


Anonymous said...

A nice read!
It should clear a bit the common confusion regarding hackers in the present time!

Thing said...

Not unlike the while Kilobyte v Kibibyte debate :-)

Michael Farnum said...

Dang it. You are going to make me rethink my position. I don't want to do that! :-/

Anonymous said...

That citation clearly implies that they were "hackers" ("so-called hackers") before they were criminals; it was "the hackers [that] have accomplished such [criminal] things as tying up all the tie-lines".

Sure, the two terms are strongly associated now, but it is fallacious to imply that the equivocation of "hacker" with "criminal" has anything to do with the fact that the first published mention the word was in the context of said hackers committing crimes. By the same logic, if the first written text mentioning "barbarians" described them as being "brutish", we would be mistaken to conclude that "'barbarian' really does mean 'brute'" (since, after all, the original connotation meant "whoever is not Greek" – and not "whoever is a brute" despite the fact that we strongly associate the two today).

That being said, there's plenty of justification for pointing out the history or etymological roots of words independently of whether you choose to bow down to their contemporary/popular meanings.

Corey Nachreiner said...

While I have personally accepted that the popular use of hacker today has evolved into a "negative" term for computer attacker, I think this "earliest known usage" argument totally discounts earlier usage of the term by M.I.T.'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC).

This group posted definitions of hack and hacker in 1959 ( Some people argue, "this was a model railroad group, so their use of hacker isn't related to computing." However, this group's interest eventually moved to computing and programming, as they tried to sneak time on a campus mainframe, so the term is related. You can read about this in Steven Levy's book, Hackers (nonfiction).

The example cited is the first "media" use of the word hackers, and many argue it is the media that skewed the connotation of the word.

In any case, it doesn't really matter. I accept that the popular word of hackers today is computer criminals.

Eric said...

Corey Nachreiner is correct about the history. I know of earlier uses in the non-perjorative, non-crominal senses, at the MIT Model Railroad Club and among early PDP-1 hackers. And his cite of the 1959 lexicon is correct.

Thus, the author's claim of first use in this sense is simply wrong.

Timo Mustila said...

Hmm, how about just practicality? Early days they called them 'hackers with criminal intentions' but now the term has shortends to 'crackers'?

To me a hacker is a positive fellow, but a cracker is the mean one...

Kevin Costain said...

Most of this is absurd when the idea of Hacking is simply to understand (and sometimes circumvent) the limits of any system. Definitions change, but when the essence of an idea is understood, the common mass-adopted definitions don't always jive.

The word clearly carries a negative connotation and I would expect more negativity from those "who don't know". That's ok.

We can always choose to qualify our words with "malicious" or "white-hat" or "black-hat" but such thing is unlikely to those who could care less about the nuances of such term. But, the nuances are there, and even in that article as one person is quoted as saying:

"We don't have too much trouble with the boys; we appreciate their curiosity"

To anyone running a phone system in 1963, they might have thought every single person acting on curiosity was a criminal - not realizing that kid might have been the next Steve Jobs. In that time and place, the "hackers" might not have known how dangerous their actions were.

This is unlikely to change, and I think that's ok :)

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Anonymous said...

Really? You're quoting a student newspaper as your source for the definition of hacker?

Katie said...

I forgot to answer this. So, there are black hat hackers and white hat. Only the black hat are criminals.

Not all hackers are criminals.

Sort of like not all rectangles are squares, squares are just a special type of rectangle.

Well, not all hackers are crackers/phreaks/defacers/script kiddies.

I'm not sure when you first encountered the term, but I did somewhere in the early 1980s.