The Mainstream Media and That Word, ‘Hacker’

Dear Media,

It would seem that you’re struggling with a teensy bit of semantics—namely, the precise meaning of the word “hacker.” Let’s get this sorted out, shall we?

A cracker. Figure 1 – a cracker

The root of the problem seems to be the distinction between bad hackers and good hackers. Many seem to swallow the qualifier outright, insisting that all hackers are zit faced cyber criminals lusting after AOL passwords. Tut-tut!

So let’s talk about bad versus good. To start, both are bad.

A Hacker is not characterized by any particular action (i.e., a hacker is not someone who plays footsie with Iran’s power grid): “hacker”, as a descriptor, simply implies a particular set of technical skills as coupled with a deeply creative and highly inquisitive demeanor. For this reason, a bad hacker is bad in the same way a bad lover is bad: the adjective serves only to modify the subject’s ability to perform. A bad lover doesn’t club seals on weekends, right? Neither does a bad hacker.

A hacker. Figure 2 – a hacker

Moving on: if a hacker is — simply put — an inspired technologist, then who are these poopie heads that break into eBay and steal all of our megabytes?

Crackers. I know, the word isn’t quite as sexy as its counterpart (and may indeed conjure images of Jerry Springer) — but isn’t it about time we got this right? Think about all the nice hackers who build the technology that you love and cherish: the smiles on their faces as they merrily code your WordPress plugins and Drupal extensions. Get it right for the hackers!

Here’s how: if the subject in question is pubescent, goes by a handle like F1r3N1nj@ and/or reminds you of a character in the 1995 hit film The Net, you’re dealing with a cracker. Incidentally, you should probably change your password, social security number, and underwear just to be sure you’re not a victim of collateral pwnage.

Examples: LulzSec, Captain Crunch, Zer0 C00l, lots of Uzbeks (apparently), most employees of Microsoft.

A cracker. Figure 3 – a cracker (genus: scriptus kiddus)

If — conversely — the subject appears to be a tech savvy individual with a penchant for tinkering or a proclivity toward hackathons: well, that’s most likely a hacker. If it’s got a UNIX beard (… or a casio watch, or a subscription to 2600, or a Tux pendant), it’s a hacker.

Examples: Brian Kernighan, John Resig, Dennis Richie, RMS, Bjarne Stroustrup, Fabrice Bellard (behold this), most unemployed developers.

A hacker. Figure 4 – A Hacker (genus: tuxus maximus)

There you have it: a hacker is a clever techie who thrives on caffeine and code (and fedoras) while a cracker is a sociopath who breaks into your mom’s Facebook account and posts unflattering pictures of you from high school (in a fedora).

Watch those ports n3wbs,

This is a guest post from Brandon Diamond and originally appeared on his blog, Your Startup Sucks