Sunday, March 6, 2011

What is a hacker?

When the majority of people hear the term 'hacker' or 'computer hacker' they invariably think of a pale nerdy neckbeard with a face covered in zits and acne, living in a dark basement, surrounded by empty soda cans, trash, and filth.  He is engulfed by numerous computer monitors and is hunched over his keyboard typing away furiously.  His glowing LCD screen resembles the green digital rain a la the Matrix series.
Or maybe you have a more attractive picture of what a hacker is and imagine them as a cyberpunk technocrat, living in a lavish abode, surrounded by state-of-the-art technology and computer monitors displaying long lists of intelligible text and source and code.   He is probably hacking into a government website or some equally important website and uses his hacking abilities for the greater good of mankind.

Everyone's interpretation of what a hacker is varies, but most people's vision of a hacker revolves around two common traits:  intelligence and nihilism.

To most, a hacker is someone with ample knowledge of computers and technology and who uses his/her knowledge to do deleterious things to individuals or organizations for either personal gain or for gratuitous satisfaction.

And that certainly does define a certain kind of hacker, but it in no way is a complete definition of what a hacker is or does or what hacking is.

What is a hacker?

The term "hacker" means different things to different generations.  Computer enthusiasts from the 1950s and 1960s who saw their work as innovative, groundbreaking, and challenging to the old paradigms of computer science, know the term hacking to mean an intellectual exercise that has little or nothing to do with exploitation of devastation.
This contrasts sharply with the definition of the term "hacker" that emerged in the 1980s and has since become the prevailing definition of the term.  The modern definition of hacker, no doubt promulgated by the mainstream media, would instead be referred to as "cracking" by the earlier generation of computer enthusiasts.  One who engages in "cracking" is known as a "cracker."
The very definition of the term "hacker" is fiercely disputed by both people who consider themselves hackers and by people who are not involved in the computer underground and the definition differs from person to person, no matter their area of expertise.

The purpose of this post is not to provide the "correct" definition of hacking/hacker that everyone should ascribe to.  The purpose of this post is to provide insight into the culture of hackers and hacking and some of the philosophy behind the terms, in order to change the preconceived notations you may have about hackers and hacking.

The first generation of hackers

The word "hacker" originates from MIT in the 1960s.  It was used to describe individuals who were extremely skilled in programming and who had limitless knowledge of computers.  The term "hacker" was a positive label used to describe computer gurus. 
Most of the original hackers were graduate students at large universities, because prior to the 1980s, most people only had access to computers in a university environment.  The work done by the first generation of hackers in these university settings would eventually lead to the birth of the personal computer and launch an entire industry that would drive technological innovation.  Many of these hackers would go on to form Silicon Valley start-up companies, lead the open-source software movement, and become some of the most wealthy humans on the planet.  If you are reading this blog, you are more than likely using one or more of their products.  You are using the products and brain children of the original hackers.  Do you think of these hackers as evil people who are only interested in personal gain and disrupting others?  Probably not.  These original hackers are seen by most as computer geniuses, nerds, savvy businessmen, and great innovators.    

The second generation of hackers

Starting in the 1980s, the personal computer was introduced to the market and the technology that enabled hacking became widespread in homes and schools.
The proliferation of personal computers in the general public, transformed a culture that was comprised mainly of male, university students into a culture comprised mainly of suburban youth who were mostly still attending high school.  The second generation of hackers were born into a world of computers.  Everything in their daily lives were linked to a computer somehow.  This austere shift in society was made possible by the corporations and products built by the first generation of computer hackers.  Their progeny who had grown up with computers since birth and were immersed in it constantly, began to form their own culture.  Their culture expressed a general dissatisfaction with the world and the ways technology was being used.  Groups of hackers began to meet, to learn from one another, and to form a subculture, which was dedicated to resisting and interrupting "the system."
The popular culture did not let the hacker subculture go unnoticed.  During the early 1980s a new genre of science fiction literature emerged which mirrored the ethos of the hacker subculture.  This was the literature of cyberpunk, which would give hackers a set of heroes (or antiheroes) to emulate.  One of the most prominent writers in the genre of cyberpunk, William Gibson, would coin the term "cyberspace."
As Bruce Sterling points out, it is the ideal model for disaffected suburban youth culture.  Where the suburban landscape provides little of interest for youth culture, the world of computers and networks provides a nearly infinite world for exploration.  The typical hacker is a white, suburban, middle-class boy, most likely in high school.  He is very likely self-motivated, technologically proficient, and easily bored.  Computers became a tool for these youths to alleviate their boredom or angst and explore a world that provided both intellectual challenge and excitement.  Meanwhile, the popular media released books and movies that made the image of a hacker inextricably linked to criminality and mischief.  Hackers were delighted to go along with this image.  What high school kid wouldn't delight in the thought of ruling a universe that their parents, teachers, and most adults did not understand?  Hackers had found something they could master, and unlike the usual rebellious expressions of youth culture, it was something that had a profound impact on the adult world.

My personal interpretation

If someone were to ask me, "when did you become a hacker?"  I would reply, "I was born a hacker."  As outlandish as that may seem, I think it is true.  Every hacker I have ever met or have seen or have read about has had a personality like my own.  They have all had an intense desire to learn how things work.  They have all been individualistic and against unjust authority.  They have all been adventurous.  They have all been innovative.  And they have all had slightly mischievous attitudes.   I have exhibited those traits for as long as I can remember.  I think having those personality traits is what lead me to the hacking subculture, as well as always having an affinity for technology.

A good general definition of  hacking is modifying computer hardware and software to accomplish a goal(s) outside of the creator's original purpose.  At a Defcon presentation, one of the speakers defined a hacker as one who creates, improves, explores, and discovers new technology.  I very much like that definition and that is how I like to think of myself as a hacker.  To think like a hacker means to think outside the box.  To think like a hacker means to push the boundaries and explore new frontiers.  Yes, a hacker can use his/her knowledge for devious purposes, but a hacker can also use his/her knowledge for righteous purposes.  Hackers who use their knowledge for ethical reasons are generally referred to as white hat hackers.  On the other hand, hackers who use their knowledge for malicious reasons are generally referred to as black hat hackers.  Hackers who use their knowledge for both bad and good are generally referred to as grey hat hackers.  Hackers are consistently the forebears of new hardware and software.  Hackers are the ones who transform society.  The products that we use today, such as Windows, Apple, Linux, or almost any other technology you can think of, were envisioned and built by hackers.  I think that viewing hackers as gratuitous criminals who are only concerned with mischief, mayhem, and personal profit, is a huge misrepresentation of what a hacker is.  Viewing hackers as bad people also fails to give proper recognition to all of the achievements that hackers have contributed to society.  Even black hat hackers can improve technology, by figuring out exploits and security issues within a system, which in turn forces the person or people who are being hacked to improve their technology.

How do I hack?

Asking a hacker 'how to hack' is equivalent to asking a chef 'how to cook.'  There is no way to answer that question, as there are limitless ways to cook.  Likewise, there also are endless ways to hack.  You do not hack by memorizing a formula or by following a recipe or by running a program.  People who think of themselves as hackers, but in reality can do little more than run a program, are known as script kiddies (alternatively, skiddies) and it is a pejorative.  In reality, one does not learn how to hack at all.  One gains the ability to hack.  Yes, there is a big difference between the two.
There is no easy way to gain the ability to hack, sorry.  If you want to become a hacker, you must devote a lot of your time to studying.  Study computers and technology.  Read as much as you can.  Learn how everything works.  Master your knowledge and use your knowledge.  Eventually, you will get to a point where you are able to see through and beyond anything related to technology.  Once you have reached that point, you can now (proudly) label yourself a hacker.



  1. Quite the information mate... will remember it

  2. I know many computer savvy people but none rad enough to be called, hackers.

  3. Someone that gets a job by doing something illegal.

  4. im a hacker, you're a hacker, we're all hackers hey hey hey! jk, im not.