on the meaning of being a hacker

by Valerio "Elf Qrin" Capello (http://www.ElfQrin.com)
Copyright (C) 1999 Valerio Capello
First written: 23JAN2000
v1.1eng 26MAR2000
This is a translation from the original Italian version v1.5 r23JAN2000 (first written: 31AUG1999-09SEP1999)
Supervisor for the English language: SirD.

Latest version available from: http://www.ElfQrin.com/docs/BeingHacker.html
Other language versions: Italian

"But did you, in your three- piece psychology and 1950's
technobrain, ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker?
Did you ever wonder what made him tick,
what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?
I am a hacker, enter my world..."
("The Conscience of a Hacker", The Mentor)

"Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that
shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known"
(Matthew 10:26)


Another idiot has been locked up because of committing a senseless act with little or no thought to the consequences. Law enforcement needs to look good, the news becomes public domain and the press is unleashed, using attention grabbing headlines like: "Computer terrorist busted", or better, a "hacker".

Not only is the term misused, but it is usually only understood to be a mere synonym for "computer pirate", which is not only limitive, but completely wrong. Few people, even those who would define themselves as such, really know what "being a hacker" means.

The WWWebster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com/), at the "hacker" entry says:

Main Entry: hacker
Pronunciation: 'ha-k&r
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 : one that hacks
2 : a person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity "a tennis hacker"
3 : an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer
4 : a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system
Among the various meanings quoted above, (besides definition 1, which is obvious...), definition 4 is the one which generally corresponds to the idea of "the hacker" that the majority of people have, while definition 3, is the one which is actually closer to the real meaning of "hacker", even if it is still rather limiting.

A dictionary rarely gives a definative answer, but it is always a good start.
For a more precise definition we can consult a specific dictionary such as the Jargon File, the most prestigious dictionary of hacker terminology, "a comprehensive compendium of hacker slang illuminating many aspects of hackish tradition, folklore, and humor", begun by Raphael Finkel of the university of Stanford in 1975, and then passed in management to Don Woods of the MIT, up to see the light of the printed paper in 1983, with the title of "The Hacker's Dictionary" (Harper & Row CN 1082, ISBN 0-06-091082-8, also known in the scene as "Steele-1983").

The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 2.9.10, 01 JUL 1992 (part of the Project Gutenberg), at the "hacker" entry says:

:hacker: [originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe] n. 1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
3. A person capable of appreciating {hack value}.
4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a UNIX hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence `password hacker', `network hacker'. See {cracker}.
Since this is a specific dictionary, the definition of hacker here is closer to its original meaning, even if it is necessary to extrapolate it from the varied proposed meanings in order to obtain the closest and most faithfull interpretation.

A hacker is a person that loves to study all things in depth (definition 1), especially the more apparently meaningless details, to discover hidden peculiarities, new features and weakness in them. For example, it is possible to hack a book, by using it to equalize the legs of a table, or to use the sharp edge of one of its pages to cut something. The main point being that it is used for more than it's conventional function of being read. But more than this, a hacker soon learns that the same techniques used for exploiting computer systems can be used to manipulate people. This is the so-called social hacking. With a little skilled psychology, the masters of "social hacking" can convince other people to do what they want (within limits of course, and depending on the abilities of the "social hacker"), in order to obtain the information they require. This may sound like an unusual and unatural practise, but once you take into account that this is performed quite regularly, in everyday life, by girlfriends, friends and teachers etc. to obtain what they want from others, it's not that strange, even if hackers do use a little more skill and technique.
Another way of bringing hacking out from the computer's world, is the so-called vadding (the term is actually rarely used, but the activity is largely practiced) this consists of exploring places where the average person doesn't normally have access, such as basements, roofs of public buildings, maintenance tunnels, elevator wells and similar places. Sometimes, some of these activities born inside the hacker scene, grow and eventually separate, becoming new entities, like phreaking, the term applied to the world of "hacking" telephones and telephone systems, or the term carding, which is basically "techno-credit card fraud",.. very illegal and risky.
In short, a hacker has the tendency to use his skills also beyond of the computer context, and anywhere tends to use the hacking techniques and to discover what is normally hidden to the common man.
For a hacker, the ability to reason, harness his full brain capacity and maintain his mind at maximum efficiency levels, is most important.
With a few exceptions, it is unusual that a hacker would smoke, use drugs, or drink excessively (however beer appears to be the preferred choice, when alcohol is drunk). Speaking of John Draper, (a.k.a "Captain Crunch", one of the most legendary phreaker/hackers, famous for discovering that by sending a tone of 2600Hz over the telephone lines of AT&T, it was possible to effect free calls), Steven Levy says: "Cigarettes made him violent": smoking next to him was extremely hazardous to your health...

A hacker is certainly a programming maniac, (definition 2): once a technique has been discovered, it is necessary to write a program that exploits it.
Hackers often spend many day's and night's in front of a computer, programming or experimenting with new techniques. After spending so many hours in front of a computer, a hacker gains a remarkable ability to analyze large amounts of data very quickly.
The ability to program quickly, (definition 4) can be a characteristic of a hacker, but is not always necessarily so. As far as a hacker is concerned, it is faster to type on a keyboard, than it is to write things down, many hackers spend quite a lot of time reflecting over, or analyzing previously written code, while they are programming.
Definition 5 is, in effect, a restrictive meaning of the word "hacker" since it limits it to a single field (as in UNIX), it can however be considered as a specialization.
Actually in these cases, especially when it concerns true experts in a field, the terms wizard or guru are preferred. For example, the definition "UNIX wizard" in the United States is also recognized outside of the hacker environment and it can be included in a resume.

Definition 3 may be considered apart: a person that qualifies for this definition is not neccasarily a real hacker, but a very experienced person with a good knowledge, who is not neccasarily able to develop hacker techniques. To make it clearer, think about the differences between a good author and someone that appreciates a good book.

Definition 7, together with definition 1, are the ones that get closer to the real essence of the hacker. To study a system, to discover weaknesses, the peculiarities and hidden features of it, and then use them to go beyond its limits, with creativeness and imagination. This, in a certain way, brings us directly to definition 8. The person with these skills can use his knowledge to try to access information to which he doesn't have the right to access, and here the discourse gets complicated, because for a hacker there is no information which he does not have the right to access. We will get back to this point later, when we will speak about the "hacker ethic".

Finally, although it has nothing to do with the character of the hacker, I would like to attract attention to definition 6; for a hacker, the term hacker is always positive: if he speaks of a "hacker of astronomy", he speaks of a true expert of that subject. Contrary to this, in everyday language, according to definition 2 of the WWWebster dictionary, a "hacker" in a certain field is a person that is not skilled in that specific field.

After giving the definitions, the Jargon File provides more information on the meaning of the word "hacker":

The term `hacker' also tends to connote membership in the global community [...]. It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic [...].

It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled {bogus}). [...] [or most commonly, the most used term in these circumstances is "lamer", even if next versions of the Jargon File use this term in a slightly different context]

But, perhaps more than anything else, curiosity and above average intelligence are the signatures of a true hacker. The hacker has an almost physical need of knowledge of any kind.
The hacker is most certainly a voracious reader, even if his preference is only for scientific matters or science fiction, and generally one would find many shelves full of books in his room. But a hacker is not satisfied by the "ready made" knowledge, of the information that he finds in the books written for the average person, a hacker wants it all, and collects all possible information.
Schools are institutions that are not able to furnish all the information that a hacker needs. The governments and all the public or private institutions have the tendency to furnish the least necessary information.
About this point, Steven Levy in "Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution" (written in 1984), affirms that the hackers "are possessed not merely by curiosity, but by a positive *lust to know.*"

This idea is even clearer in these excerpts took from what is a considered "the hacker's manifesto": "The Conscience of to Hacker" (sometimes erroneously reported, in a nearly prophetic sense, as "Mentor's Last Words"), written by The Mentor on January 8th 1986, and published for the first time on the e-zine Phrack, Volume One, Issue 7, Phile 3.
This text collects in a few paragraphs, a large part of the hacker philosophy, with touching results for most true hackers (even if it may be difficult to think of a hacker as a person that has a heart as well as a brain).


Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me... Damn underachiever.


we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.


We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.


In these words, you will see the frustration of living in a defective world, that deprives the individuals that wish to rise above the mediocre, of the very information and resources they desire, to know what is kept hidden, and it condemns them hypocritically as criminals.

But the desperate search of knowledge is only one of the characteristics of the hacker. Another sure one is the pursute of extreme perfection. An interesting article, is the one that narrates the history of the first hackers, and of how they developed "Spacewar!" (the first videogame in history, born as a demo for the TX-0, meant as a "killer application" for this computer, with all its features exploitable), is "The origin of Spacewar", written by J. M. Graetz, and published in the August, 1981 issue of Creative Computing magazine.

One of the forces driving the dedicated hacker is the quest for elegance. It is not sufficient to write programs that work. They must also be "elegant," either in code or in function -- both, if possible. An elegant program does its job as fast as possible, or is as compact as possible, or is as clever as possible in taking advantage of the particular features of the machine in which it runs, and (finally) produces its results in an aesthetically pleasing form without compromising either the results or operation of other programs associated with it.
But the elegance and the perfection of hackers is not always comprehensible to the average individual. A hacker can often be in ecstasy reading some code written by another hacker, admiring his ability and "tasting" his style, as if he was reading poetry.

For example, normally to exchange the content of two variables (a and b, in this case), the statement most commonly used is this, which uses a third temporary variable:

dummy = a : a = b : b = dummy
The following method, instead, doesn't need the third variable, because it exploits a mathematical peculiarity of the boolean operator XOR:
a = a XOR b : b = a XOR b : a = a XOR b
Even if this system is at least three times slower than the first one because it requires the execution of three mathematical operations, (however it allows the saving of memory that the third variable would normally occupy), a hacker will surely admire the ingeniousness and the elegance of this method, to him it assumes the taste of a Japanese haiku.

Talking about the perfectionism of the hackers, in "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" written by Steven Levy in 1984, in the chapter 2 ("The Hacker Ethic"), we read:

Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems--about the world--from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.

This is especially true when a hacker wants to fix something that (from his point of view) is broken or needs improvement. Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debug them. This is one reason why hackers generally hate driving cars--the system of randomly programmed red lights and oddly laid out one-way streets causes delays which are so goddamned UNNECESSARY that the impulse is to rearrange signs, open up traffic-light control boxes . . .redesign the entire system.

In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt.

It's just in the name of such principle that the Linux operating system and the Gnu C compiler have been developed, their code is open and available to be changed and modified by anyone.
Lately, many important commercial software producers also started moving in this direction, as Netscape: Netscape Communicator 5, will, in fact be the first software, originally born as a "closed" commercial product, to be developed with this type of philosophy.

A hacker is never satisfied with the default settings of a program or of the custom installations, he always has to open the configuration menu and set the options to get the maximum performance, and to make the product work as close as possible to his "way". A hacker must be able to use, to modify and to check all the possible features of a program.

But after all, what motivates hackers? Why do they create programs that exploit advanced techniques and then distribute them free? And why do they freely distribute knowledge that was incredibly difficult to obtain?
A good answer could be found in the site of the KIN (Klever Internet Nothings, http://www.klever.net), they are not exactly a hacker crew, but a group of people that write programs and release them freely on the Internet:

What makes people write software and distribute it for free? Vanity, you said? Well, maybe.. But after all, what is this business all about? Is it all about money? Ask anyone - it's not. Most people I know in the industry will tell you that.
Their idea is "just leave me alone and let me do what I love to do".
In short, it's not about money. It's about feeling free to do what you want, and, just possibly, to find someone that appreciates your work.


The true hacker doesn't have morals, and he would never censor information or ideas of any kind. An initiative of the Italian priest Don Fortunato di Noto, ([email protected],) who in January of 1998 formed the "Committee of resistance against the Pedophiles", and who asked for the help of the hacker community to unmask, capture and close the sites of the pedophiles on the Internet, failed miserably as it was only supported by self-acclaimed hackers without any skill.
Besides, hackers are tolerant by nature, and rarely get angry, but they are irritated by people and tasks perceived to be wasting their time.
There are however, some things that hackers can be intolerant of. One of these is when lies are told, to, or about them, you can say that hackers are imbeciles (it's an opinion, after all), but you can not say that they steal chickens. And yet, it would still be unusual that hackers would hack a site to remove the lies propogated about them. It would be more typical that they would create another site, refuting the lies against them.
Hacking can be used like as a form of protest, breaking into and modifying the websites of very well known societies and government or military corporate entities, can be a way to make public certain injustices (especially attacks to the liberty of information or expression) or violations of human rights. The hacks, of the websites of the CIA (that became Central Stupidity Agency) and of the Department of Justice, are famous for being hacked with this intention in mind.
In the article "Hacking for Human Rights?" by Arik Hesseldahl ([email protected]) published on the online magazine Wired (http://www.wired.com) dated 14.Jul.98 9:15am, the hacker Bondie Wong, (a dissident Chinese astrophysicist who lives in Canada, that temporarily disabled a Chinese satellite in 1997), a member of the famous hacker crew, Cult of the Dead Cow (which in the beginning of 1999 released the Back Orifice trojan) threatened to attack the computer networks of foreign companies that did business with China, causing them serious damages and huge financial losses.
In an interview conducted by Oxblood Ruffin, a former United Nations consultant, and published on Wired, Blondie Wong says: "Human rights is an international issue, so I don't have a problem with businesses that profit from our suffering paying part of the bill".

Contrary to the complete lack of moral judgement (but, above all, of moralism) of hackers, lies a deep ethical sense, that is something allmost "religious" in most hackers.
About this point, we can go back to the Jargon File:

:hacker ethic, the: n.
1. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.
2. The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.

Both of these normative ethical principles are widely, but by no means universally) accepted among hackers. Most hackers subscribe to the hacker ethic in sense 1, and many act on it by writing and giving away free software. A few go further and assert that *all* information should be free and *any* proprietary control of it is bad [...]

Sense 2 is more controversial: some people consider the act of cracking itself to be unethical [...]
But this principle at least moderates the behavior of people who see themselves as `benign' crackers (see also {samurai}). On this view, it is one of the highest forms of hackerly courtesy to (a) break into a system, and then (b) explain to the sysop, preferably by email from a {superuser} account, exactly how it was done and how the hole can be plugged --- acting as an unpaid (and unsolicited) {tiger team} [The "tiger team" derives from the U.S. military jargon. These people are paid professionals who do hacker-type tricks, e.g., leave cardboard signs saying "bomb" in critical defense installations, hand-lettered notes saying "Your codebooks have been stolen" (they usually haven't been) inside safes, etc. Serious successes of tiger teams sometimes lead to early retirement for base commanders and security officers].


Breaking into a system is not seen by the hacker as a criminal action, but like a challenge. The idea is not to damage the "victim", but to find a way to penetrate its defenses. It's the intellectual challenge, the curiosity, the will to experiment and to explore, this is what moves the hacker, not the will to damage someone or something, and not even to obtain personal profit.

In another writing of The Mentor, "A Novice's Guide to Hacking- 1989 edition", dated December 1988, the author opens the essay with a call to the ethics of the category, to which follows a list of "suggestions for guidelines to follow to ensure that not only you stay out of trouble, but you pursue your craft without damaging the computers you hack into or the companies who own them":

As long as there have been computers, there have been hackers. In the 50's at the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT), students devoted much time and energy to ingenious exploration of the computers. Rules and the law were disregarded in their pursuit for the 'hack'. Just as they were enthralled with their pursuit of information, so are we. The thrill of the hack is not in breaking the law, it's in the pursuit and capture of knowledge.
In a file titled "The Hotmail Hack" written by Digital Assassin of the "United Underground" (or "U2", for short), in which a weakness of the HotMail system is illustrated, through which it is possible to enter into the mailbox of another person, the author, at a certain point interrupts the explanation with these words:
....but before I tell you how to use that line, I'm going to side track for a little theory behind this hack. Because there's NO point in a hack, if you don't know how it works. That is the whole idea of hacking, to find out how systems work.
These are clear examples of what the real intent of a hacker is when he breaks a system. It's very close to the idea of a child that opens a toy to see how it works. The difference is that the hacker tries not to destroy the toy (aside from the fact that the toy is not his own...).

Anyway, let's see the specific definition of the "cracker", according to the Jargon File:

:cracker: n. One who breaks security on a system. Coined ca. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of {hacker} (q.v., sense 8). An earlier attempt to establish `worm' in this sense around 1981--82 on USENET was largely a failure.

Both these neologisms reflected a strong revulsion against the theft and vandalism perpetrated by cracking rings. While it is expected that any real hacker will have done some playful cracking and knows many of the basic techniques, anyone past {larval stage} is expected to have outgrown the desire to do so.

Thus, there is far less overlap between hackerdom and crackerdom than the {mundane} [the term "mundane" is taken from the Sci-Fi fandom and identifies everything outside the world of the computer science, or the hacking] reader misled by sensationalistic journalism might expect. Crackers tend to gather in small, tight-knit, very secretive groups that have little overlap with the huge, open poly-culture this lexicon describes; though crackers often like to describe *themselves* as hackers, most true hackers consider them a separate and lower form of life.

Ethical considerations aside, hackers figure that anyone who can't imagine a more interesting way to play with their computers than breaking into someone else's has to be pretty {losing} [on the other hand, they have the same consideration for the people who use the computer in an absolute conventional way, such as only to write documents or to play] [...]

Furthermore, about the "cracking" itself, the Jargon File says:
:cracking: n. The act of breaking into a computer system; what a {cracker} does. Contrary to widespread myth, this does not usually involve some mysterious leap of hackerly brilliance, but rather persistence and the dogged repetition of a handful of fairly well-known tricks that exploit common weaknesses in the security of target systems. Accordingly, most crackers are only mediocre hackers.
However, This is a superficial and reductive vision. In fact, as it is easily imaginable, there exist people, that are as experienced with computers and as thirsty of knowledge, that however don't have any respect of the hacker ethic and don't hesitate to perform actions meant to damage computer systems or other people.
They are the so-called Dark-side hackers. This term derives from George Lucas' "Star Wars". A Dark-side hacker, just like Darth Vader, is "seduced by the dark side of the Force". It has nothing to do with the common idea of "good" and "bad", but it's closer to the idea of "legal" and "chaotic" in Dungeons&Dragons: In substance, the dark-side hackers are accorded the same dignity and recognized as having the ability of a hacker, but their orientation makes them a dangerous element for the community.
A more common definition, reserved for those that damage someone else's computer systems without drawing any benefit from it, (therefore for pure stupidity or evilness), it is that of Malicious hackers.

More recent versions of the Jargon File (in which some most obsolete terms have been removed), as the version 4.0.0, 24 JUL 1996, makes clear, not only the distinction between hacker and cracker, but also between the entire hack scenes and other parallel realities, like piracy, and the "warez d00dz", who collect an impressive amount of software (games and applications, or better said "gamez" and "appz"), that they are never likely to use, and whose greatest pride is to get software, break its protections, and distribute it on their website before their rival crew, where possible, within the same day it was released ("0-day warez").

One could think that the Jargon File speaks only in theory, and that it describes the hacker ethic in a fantastic and utopian way. This is not so, hackers really are attached to their principles. The following is a practical example concerning one of the most famous hacker crews, the LOD (Legions Of Doom, that takes its name from the group of baddies in the series of cartoons of Superman and his Superfriends), of which The Mentor was also a member during the years 1988-89 (the already cited author of "The conscience of a Hacker").

In "The History of LOD/H", Revision #3 May 1990, written by Lex Luthor (founder of the crew, from the name of the baddie in the movie Superman I), and published on their e-zine "The LOD/H Technical Journal", Issue #4, released on May 20, 1990 (File 06 of 10), we can read:

Of all 38 members, only one was forcefully ejected. It was found out that Terminal Man [member dof the LOD/H in 1985] destroyed data that was not related to covering his tracks. This has always been unacceptable to us, regardless of what the media and law enforcement tries to get you to think.
Yet, not all agree upon the same principles, and there are some "grey areas": for example, taking possession of objects that allow you to access information, or pursuing a personal purpose, can be considered "ethical" by some. A specific example could be "grabbing": the theft of things like keys, magnetic cards, manuals or technical schemes, anyway this is a debatable activity, since a hacker prefers to copy rather to subtract, not only to not damage the "victim", but also to avoid leaving traces of his intrusion. A more acceptable and legal variant is "trashing", that consists in looking inside the garbage of the subject, searching for objects and/or useful information.

But breaking into computer systems is only a small activity amongst the many things that hackers are involved in, and the aversion against the virtual vandal actions are a small part of the hacker ethic.
The hacker ethic is something greater, almost mystic, and draws its origins from the first hackers, those that programmed the TX-0, using the first available computers in the big American universities like MIT or Stanford.
From the already cited "Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy:

Something new was coalescing around the TX-0: a new way of life, with a philosophy, an ethic, and a dream.

There was no one moment when it started to dawn on the TX-0 hackers that by devoting their technical abilities to computing with a devotion rarely seen outside of monasteries they were the vanguard of a daring symbiosis between man and machine. With a fervor like that of young hot-rodders fixated on souping up engines, they came to take their almost unique surroundings for granted, Even as the elements of a culture were forming, as legends began to accrue, as their mastery of programming started to surpass any previous recorded levels of skill, the dozen or so hackers were reluctant to acknowledge that their tiny society, on intimate terms with the TX-0, had been slowly and implicitly piecing together a body of concepts, beliefs, and mores.

The precepts of this revolutionary Hacker Ethic were not so much debated and discussed as silently agreed upon. No manifestos were issued ["The Mentor"'s one, very polemic, was written only about twenty years later]. No missionaries tried to gather converts. The computer did the converting [...]

Shortly, Steven Levy sums up the "hacker ethic" this way:
Access to computers -- and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works -- should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On imperative.

All information should be free.

Mistrust Authority. Promote Decentralization.

Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

You can create art and beauty on a computer.

Computers can change your life for the better.



From "The Hacker Crackdown - Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier" by Bruce Sterling, Bantam Books, 1992. (ISBN 0-553-08058-X, paperback: ISBN 0-553-56370-X, released as free electronic text for non-commercial purposes)

There are hackers today who fiercely and publicly resist any besmirching of the noble title of hacker. Naturally and understandably, they deeply resent the attack on their values implicit in using the word "hacker" as a synonym for computer-criminal.


The term "hacking" is used routinely today by almost all law enforcement officials with any professional interest in computer fraud and abuse. American police describe almost any crime committed with, by, through, or against a computer as hacking.

If the differentiation between hacker, cracker and dark-side hacker can result a very tiny distinction for the ones who live outside of the computer scene, nobody, especially a journalist, should confuse a hacker with the poor idiot that was locked up for using, with no thought to the consequences, programs that he found somewhere. (even if using the term "hacker" does sell more newspapers... The difference between hackers and journalists is that the aforementioned have ethics, the latter, not even a sense of modesty... but this is often simply mere ignorance).

Let's take as an example the following article published on the Italian newspaper "L'Unione Sarda" (http://www.unionesarda.it/), by Luigi Almiento ([email protected]).


The arrested hacker is a surveyor, aged 25

Files were stolen from the computers of internet "navigators", with the aid of a virus
spread on the Internet

Many people from different national service providers, recently learned to their own detriment, that it is better not to stay and chat to strangers on the chat-lines of the Internet. This occured when a hacker aged 25, obtained the user names and passwords of their dial up accounts, while they were on-line.


"Harris", explains the lieutenant Saverio Spoto, commander of the Police Station [actually they are "Carabinieri", not the normal Police, because in Italy there are two different polices, don't ask why], � contacted his victims through Icq, a "talking place", offered by many Internet providers�. During these "written talks", using an access key he acquired that gives false information, G. F. sent the Netbus virus to the computers of his victims. This allowed him to "navigate" the hard drives of the computers of these people while they were connected to the internet. Harris also had a site, which offered pornographic pictures, pirate-programs and files of every kind, and whenever someone connected to his address, they were immediately infected by the computer virus.


In a few words, lieutenant Spoto succeeds in showing his complete ignorance of the subject: he gives an abominable definition of ICQ, defines Netbus as a virus rather than a trojan (which means he doesn't have any idea of how it works), and still not being satisfied with this, attributes it with a contagiousness similar to the Ebola virus: to be infected simply by connecting to an Internet address sounds like something supernatural. Then, he shamelessy concludes with the invitation "If anyone has had contact with Harris, and thinks that their files may have been forced, they can come to us at the Police Station". If everyone at the Police Station are as experienced as he is, it would be preferable to keep the Harris' "virus" rather than allowing them to put their hands anywhere near your computer.

Besides, these self-acclaimed hackers are almost never bust because of a police operation, (unless they caused a lot of trouble), but because they have the stupid habit of boasting of their actions in chatrooms or even in real life. Often in front of total strangers, that are often police officers or people close to the law enforcement environment, (such as the child or the girlfriend of a police officer).
In fact, the conclusive part of the article regarding "Harris" says: "The investigators did not explain how, but only that they had succeeded in identifying the surveyor": obviously the law officers would like people to think that they identified the guilty person by means of some complicated technique, pursuing the information packets or something in this line, rather than admitting that they only had to make a few enquiries on IRC channels.

The hacker is the one that develops the exploit, and eventually creates a program based on this expoit. People that blindly use these programs because they found them on the Internet, or even worse, because a friend passed them on to them, are merely lamers, that only have a vague idea of how to use the tool they have in their hands and they know nothing about computer systems, programming, or how to cover their tracks. Often these self-acclaimed hackers, self infect themselves with a virus or a trojan they just downloaded, due to their incapabilities.
Putting these programs in the hands of the average person is like giving a loaded gun to a five year-old.

The fact is, that up to the early '80s, computers were only intended for hackers, specialized personnel or students. Only later did they appear on the desks of offices and in houses. The first home computers replaced the primitive consoles of videogames like the Atari 2600, the Intellivision and the Colecovision (the revolution was lead by the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum), but still across the whole world there was a "computer culture" throughout the '80s, there were published magazines that taught programming (mainly BASIC, as well as Machine Code) and very advanced techniques worthy of the best hackers. Then during the '90s, Apple and Microsoft's dream started to come true, "a computer on every desk and in every home". The computer became a common appliance available to almost everybody, the general level of the magazines started to drop, and almost all were confined to publishing articles about the latest hardware and software, or advice on how to use commercial applications.
This change in the computer world that made computers not only the sole domain of the hackers, but for everyone, has certainly had some positive general effects, but it proved to be a double edged sword, especially with the advent of the Internet. These days anyone can have powerful tools that inflict damage on other people, real "digital weapons", without having a clue about how they work or how they should be "handled". The average guy can get locked up just for perpetrating what he thought was a "cool" joke, even if it was in bad taste.

All those lamers-wannabe-hackers should better satisfy their needs with APEX v1.00 r10/8/91, a nice program written by Ed T. Toton III (however the original idea is older) that simulates the connection to different US government and military computers (like those of NORAD, or of NASA), among other things it is also possible to pretend that you are the President of the United States of America, and enter the system that controls the nuclear weapons.
With a bit of ability and practice, it is possible to convince some friends that you are really trying to force the US computer systems, and pass the time having good clean fun, without hurting anybody, risking a jail sentence and/or offending the hackers by trying to pretend to be what you are not.

But besides this, outside of the "criminal" context, something that bothers hackers is the ever increasing mass of self-claimed computer "experts", that actually don't know much more than how to turn on a computer and launch a program, and they fill their mouthes with loads of technical words about which they know nothing.
At this point, it is very interesting to read this text from the already quoted home page of the KIN:

I remember [...] When writing software was closer to art and magic than to business and/or just coding. I miss that now. What happened after that? Well, tons of fast graduates appeared who could only do Basic or Clipper/DBase programming, who pretended to be the best. They could wear suites and had money and relatives... I called them nephews. How many times were you in the situation when you gave the best offer, and you simply feel you HAD to write this software - but in the end your client says something like: "I'm really sorry, but I just got a call from my wife and her nephew works for this company in Nebraska who are certified Basic engineers so we'll have to give the contract to them?" The nephews produced terrible software which led to terrible disappointments in the industry ('I've invested so much money in computers and it's not really working for me').

[...] The Net gives you a chance to be first creative and then think about business. Let's use it now - before nephews will get their certified degrees....

Sadly, a crowd of nephews are already working, with or without certified degrees, and armed with programs like Front Page or Publisher creating websites, filling their big mouths with words like FTP and client-server application, even if they don't know what they mean or what they are talking about.
Luckily, the Net is large and, - at least for the moment, - it generates its own rules by itself. There is room for everyone.