Hacker vs. hacker: a war over a word

Hacker vs. hacker: a war over a word

When someone initiates a virus, defaces a Web page, breaks into a system or commits another computer crime, everyone knows what to call the perpetrator: a hacker.

The media and much of the general public use the term, and even cybercriminals call themselves by that name.

'It offends the crap out of us,' said Eric S. Raymond, an Internet developer based in Malvern, Pa., and a member of the Hacker Anti-Defamation League.

Raymond, who has been doing this work since 1976, is a hacker in the original sense of the word: a skilled programmer and developer who is adept at exploring systems' inner workings. But real hackers, Raymond says, eschew the theft, alteration or destruction of data. Their stated goals are knowledge and the sharing of information.

'There's a cultural implication' to the term, Raymond said. 'It means that you identify with the culture that produced the Internet and the World Wide Web.'

The culture that exploits the Internet to do damage is another thing altogether, which is why real hackers don't want cybercriminals to be called by the same name.

The hacker term for them is cracker, which was coined around 1985 to prevent misuse of the term hacker. It's been an uphill battle ever since. But Raymond and other hackers think the distinction is important. 'The one-liner I have for this is: Hackers build things; crackers break things,' he said.

Raymond said he and other hackers will keep trying to educate people, no matter how bleak the prospects. 'I will never give up.'

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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