You say potato, I say cracker

By David Deere

How many of us are guilty of prejudice, of making assumptions about unfamiliar people and cultures? This article is a little bit about that, and a lot about how hackers get "the shaft" in the media. "Hacker, cracker, what’s the difference?" you ask. Allow me to explain.

First, some definitions. Hackers wear white hats, like the "good guys." Crackers wear black hats, like the "other guys." While this is strictly symbolic within the culture itself, the symbolism should not go unnoticed.

Hackers don’t ever want to be called crackers. That’s like insulting a police officer by accusing him of being "dirty and crooked" just because the media said "If he’s a cop, that means he must be a ‘bad’ cop."

The reality is that hackers and crackers have two very distinct cultures. The difference between the two is more than just poe-tay-to, peh-tat-toe, it’s more like apples and oranges.They each have their own languages, styles, and of course ethics. Anyone in either of these sub-cultures is quite aware of the differences between the two. Anyone outside of this culture seems oblivious to the distinction.

The saddest part is that the media should know better, yet persist to misuse and abuse this terminology. Popular news outlets such as CNN and even tech-friendly publishers like ZDNet frequently misuse "hacker" to describe anyone involved in computer activities requiring above-average knowledge.

They use the buzzword because everyone else uses it, and of course it sells papers. The self-feeding nature of the media has allowed them to slap a disrespectfully inaccurate label on a group of people who have historically pushed, pulled and dragged the human race forward, ready or not, through invention and innovation. Hackers work to make technology more user friendly, more useful, safer and more secure.

Hackers build things and rebuild things for improvement, where crackers just break them. This leads to the rebuilding and refinement cycle and, in an ironic way, crackers help the industry by keeping the hackers hard at work making better, more secure and stable computer systems and software.

Hackers built the Internet. They’re the ones who push the frontiers of computer or any science, if you think about what science really is. That’s why they don’t mind being called hackers, but only by people who understand the term. Hackers have adopted their namesake with pride, and wear it as a badge of honour.

As hackers, we have a long, long way to go to earn back some of the respect popular culture have helped the crackers take away from us.

A perfect example from my own life highlights this point. I told my sister I recently started a club to allow students to explore and learn about computer security in a controlled environment. She gave me a puzzled look, like I had asked her to pass me a self-sealing stem-bolt from on top of the plasma manifold injector. I elaborated: "It’s a hackers club, like in the movie Sneakers." The next thing she said was "Why do you want to go to jail?"

I can’t change the basic thought processes innate to the human mind in a few hundred words in this clued-in publication, but if I can get just one, or maybe even a few of you, the next time you hear either word, to stop and ask: "Are they talking about hacking or cracking?" then this ink and processed wood pulp in your hands is will not have been wasted.

David Deere is a Computer Science student and President of the Frontiers of Information and Communications Technology and Security club.


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