24/08/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Are You A Hacker Or A Cracker?

Getty Images/Vetta

It's always awkward trying to tell your elders where you work. They may know a few big names in the tech industry, but mention a start-up and they'll often draw a blank. So, when you say you work for a startup, and they accept it, be happy that they let you off easy.

My grandmother, on the other hand, didn't let me go. She asked me to repeat the name of my company three times over and then went off with a suspicious look on her face. A few hours later, my father was laughing hysterically, because my grandmother asked him, "Why is your son working for an unethical company? Hacking means going into other people's computers and extracting sensitive information right?"

Over the last 20 years the word has been misconstrued by the media and by those who weren't a part of that culture. Today, the word "hacker" is always coloured by negative associations.

Why is this a problem? Well, to answer that, you must first understand the origins of the word "hack".

What is a hack?

The use of the word hack has existed long before its current computing connotation. In the famous documentation of hacker culture, Jargon File, a hack is referred to as "an appropriate application of ingenuity. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it."

Before the age of computing, many clever things were considered a hack. Here's a story that, according to the Jargon File defines a hack in a non-computer science perspective -

On November 20, 1982, MIT hacked the Harvard-Yale football game. Just after Harvard's second touchdown against Yale, in the first quarter, a small black ball popped up out of the ground at the 40-yard line, and grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The letters 'MIT' appeared all over the ball. As the players and officials stood around gawking, the ball grew to six feet in diameter and then burst with a bang and a cloud of white smoke.

The Boston Globe later reported: "If you want to know the truth, MIT won The Game."

The prank had taken weeks of careful planning by members of MIT's Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. The device consisted of a weather balloon, a hydraulic ram powered by Freon gas to lift it out of the ground, and a vacuum-cleaner motor to inflate it. They made eight separate expeditions to Harvard Stadium between 1 and 5 AM, locating an unused 110-volt circuit in the stadium and running buried wires from the stadium circuit to the 40-yard line, where they buried the balloon device. When the time came to activate the device, two fraternity members had merely to flip a circuit breaker and push a plug into an outlet.

This stunt had all the earmarks of a perfect hack: surprise, publicity, the ingenious use of technology, safety, and harmlessness. The use of manual control allowed the prank to be timed so as not to disrupt the game (it was set off between plays, so the outcome of the game would not be unduly affected). The perpetrators had even thoughtfully attached a note to the balloon explaining that the device was not dangerous and contained no explosives."

Harvard president Derek Bok commented: "They have an awful lot of clever people down there at MIT, and they did it again." President Paul E. Gray of MIT said: "There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I had anything to do with it, but I wish there were."

From all this, the original definition of a hack is something that is clever, fun, harmless and a showcase of great talent.

Who is a hacker?

Hacker culture dates way back to the 1970s, and the first documentation of it, the Jargon File, was written by Raphael Finkel at Stanford in 1975; it was later updated by the Stanford AI Labs (SAIL), up to the 1980s. Post this, the document remained unmaintained till the late 90s, where the current maintainer of the document, Eric S Reynolds picked it up.

As a supporting document, he wrote a piece that describes how to become a hacker. In the document, he defines a hacker in the following way:

"There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term 'hacker'. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker."

In fact, he further goes on to say that the hacker mindset is something that is independent of the field -- "you can find the hacker mindset in the highest form of any science or art."

Hackers vs. crackers

The guide also covers misunderstandings of the word "hacker" and says they are often confused with what are called "crackers".

Reynolds has a very funny description for them -

"There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people 'crackers' and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word 'hacker' to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end."

He even puts out a stern warning to anyone who wants to be a cracker -- "If you want to be a cracker, go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get ready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't as smart as you think you are. And that's all I'm going to say about crackers."

The hacker attitude

To further elucidate the difference between crackers and hackers, Reynolds describes five hacker attitudes. They are:

1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.

2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.

4. Freedom is good.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To be a real hacker, one must adhere to these principles along with strong beliefs about freedom and voluntary mutual help.

So, hacker? Or cracker?

The word hacker has a long legacy, so its incorrect usage is nothing short of an insult to it. From all of the above characteristics that describe the hacker way, one thing becomes very clear: hackers build things, while crackers break them.

Many companies, most notably Facebook, has used the word hacker in its correct meaning. Their fabled hacker way is now almost a blueprint for startups all over the world. And while some sections of the media seems to have wised up, changing a perception is one of the toughest thing to do. The next time you see or hear a person use the word hack or hacker in an incorrect way, educate them!

I will start with my grandmother.

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