Hacker is not a dirty word

Have you ever had to fix a broken item and you didn’t have the right parts? Instead of just giving up, you looked around and found something that would work for the time being. Occasionally, you come back later and fix it the right way, but more often than not, that fix stays in place indefinitely. Or, perhaps you’ve found a novel new use for a device. It wasn’t built for that purpose, but you figured out that it fit the exact use you had in mind.

Those are the actions of a hacker. No, really. If you look up the definition of a hacker, you get all sort of responses. Wikipedia has three separate entries for the word hacker in relation to technology :

Hacker – someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network

Hacker – (someone) who makes innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment

Hacker – (someone) who combines excellence, playfulness, cleverness and exploration in performed activities

Google defines it as follows :

1. a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.

(informal) an enthusiastic and skillful computer programmer or user.

2. a person or thing that hacks or cuts roughly.

And there are more. What’s interesting here is that depending on where you look, the word hacker means different things. It has become a pretty contentious word, mostly because the media has, over time, used it to describe the actions of a particular type of person. Specifically, hacker is often used to describe the criminal actions of a person who gains unauthorized access to computer systems. But make no mistake, the media is completely wrong on this and they’re using the word improperly.

Sure, the person who broke into that computer system and stole all of that data is most likely a hacker. But, first and foremost, that person is a criminal. Being a hacker is a lifestyle and, in many cases, a career choice. Much like being a lawyer or a doctor is a career choice. Why then is hacker used as a negative term to identify criminal activity and not doctor or lawyer? There are plenty of instances where doctors, lawyers, and people from a wide variety of professions have indulged in criminal activity.

Keren Elazari spoke in 2014 at TED about hackers, and their importance in our society. During her talk she discusses the role of hackers in our society, noting that there are hackers who use their skills for criminal activity, but many more who use their skills to better the world. From hacktivist groups like Anonymous to hackers like Barnaby Jack, these people have changed the world in positive ways, helping to identify weaknesses in systems to weaknesses in governments and laws. In her own words :

My years in the hacker world have made me realize both the problem and the beauty about hackers: They just can’t see something broken in the world and leave it be. They are compelled to either exploit it or try and change it, and so they find the vulnerable aspects in our rapidly changing world. They make us, they force us to fix things or demand something better, and I think we need them to do just that, because after all, it is not information that wants to be free, it’s us.

It’s time to stop letting the media use this word improperly. It’s time to take back what is ours. Hacker has long been a term used to describe those we look up to, those we seek to emulate. It is a term we hold dear, a term we seek to defend. When Loyd Blankenship was arrested in 1986, he wrote what has become known as the Hacker’s Manifesto. This document, often misunderstood, describes the struggle many of us went through, and the joy of discovering something we could call our own. Yes, we’re often misunderstood. Yes, we’ve been marginalized for a long time. But times have changed since then and our culture is strong and growing.

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