HACKER.

People may be teasing me or they seriously mean it when they call me a “hacker.” They call me that since I am a Computer Science student who has a knack for computer ciphers. Unfortunately, being called a hacker connotes thievery. Furthermore, hackers are often portrayed as mysterious and strange. Still, the question remains: is it really bad to be a hacker?

I find it funny when disputes arise about a word’s real meaning, since words are used figuratively and often improperly. But since my profession totally involves computer, I can’t help but be affected by the long-standing negative connotation of hacking.

There are two ways to define hacking: by usage and by etymology. Sadly, its usage as both verb and noun denotes an indecent act; it means undermining computer programs, systems, and networks.

But the etymology is another story.

The hacking culture began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1960s, when students were classified as either “tools” or “hackers.” A “tool” was everybody’s bright kid: he attended class religiously, treated books as companions, and got straight A+ grades. On the other hand, a “hacker” was someone who missed classes, slept all day, and spent the night in dissipation.

In the Information Technology (IT) field, there developed criteria for hackers. Actually, a true hacker never lets a night pass without doing something with dedication and skill. Hackers literally live and breath computers and programs. They treat computer programming more as a hobby than as a duty.

Hackers produce “hacks”—computer programs that range from practical jokes to new software. For example, VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for personal computers, is a great hack. It turned computers from an ordinary push-button for software enthusiasts to a serious business tool for commercial and industrial use.

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But back in the ‘60’s, the word “hack” was a local slang in MIT that had many meanings. It could be a simple, practical solution to a problem, or a clever prank perpetrated by MIT students. Logically enough, the perpetrator was called a hacker.

Along with IT’s development is the donning of “hats.” “White hats” are, of course, the good guys. Also called “sneakers” and “ethical hackers,” they use their skills to secure computer systems, uncovering flaws through authorized hacking attacks. Even Macintosh, a computer line deemed to be virus-free, has white-hat hackers who test and fix their operating system so that it could be invulnerable to attacks.

On the other hand, “black hats” use their hacking knowledge for unlawful profit, attempting to gain unauthorized access to computer systems; they use their advanced programming skills to perpetrate crimes. Under the fame of black hats are “script kiddies,” who rely on semi-automatic software developed by others without really understanding the software’s functions. No matter what means they use, they aim for the same goal: intrusion.

Richard Matthew Stallman, an acclaimed software freedom activist, hacker, and software developer, even coined the term “cracker” to provide an alternative to hacker, which is a neutral term.

However, the use of cracker is limited to a few controversial areas of the IT field. Although IT activists assert that system and network intruders must be called crackers rather than hackers, the common usage remains, and the moral ambiguity hounding hackers endures.

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