What is a Hacker?

An Overview of Hacking History and the Evolution of the Term Hacker


The term “hacking” has its roots in a time and place that had no major influence by personal computing. The ubiquitous PC and the Internet were still decades off when people began “hacking” at the Tech Model Railroad Club, in 1946. A “hack” would be an interesting innovation in the model trains the group played with. Such a fascination with trains and things can be seen still today in a less physical way, though the TMRC remains, in games like OpenTTD, which is a hacked extension of a game released commercially in the 1990s. The point is: to “hack” does not have to mean “to destroy.” In contrast, the spirit of the hacker is that of determination to achieve. Whatever the goal and whatever the obstacles, the hacker strives to achieve. One of the most famous hackers in history is Gary McKinnon, whose belief that the US government had evidence of alien life on earth was so strong it drove him to compromise several top secret systems within the US government.

The term has garnered quite a bit of negativity over the decades, as mass media have labeled it to various famous miscreants, be they childish and somewhat benign or outright dangerous. News clips like the following illustrate the point:

For the purpose of clarity, the reader should note that in our age the term “hacking” relates strictly to computers, programming, and the like. Various bastardizations of the term, like “lifehack,” are often met with disdain by members of the security community. Hacking almost exclusively now refers to computer network security, although it is occasionally used to refer to programming with very strict goals in mind. One might say “I’ve been hacking on my Python project all weekend,” and merely mean they’ve been trying to achieve certain goals in their project.

So, what is a hacker? A hacker is someone who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal, particularly in terms of computing. A hacker will learn programming languages in order to write scripts that can compromise an obstacle system. A hacker will stay awake for weeks on end trying different methods to make a given thing work. The spirit of the hacker is that of endless curiosity and spurious determination, or, as Richard Stallman once put it: “Hackers typically had little respect for the silly rules that administrators like to impose, so they looked for ways around.”

Types of Hackers

As humans, we like to classify things in little boxes that can be checked. When we see an automobile, we like to know it’s not just a sedan, but a red 2016 Chevy Impala. Thus, over the years, to distinguish the various types of hackers, both professional and amateur, a few terms have been settled upon.

The black hat hacker is perhaps the most infamous and well-known type of hacker. The black hat hacker can be a mercenary or government-sponsored hacker, or they can just be a maladjusted kid doing it for the laughs. The primary defining characteristic of a black hat hacker is their unwillingness to disclose security vulnerabilities to software vendors or system administrators. Instead, black hats often seek to profit from these, or in the case of particular missions from state agencies, seeks to establish regular access for the purpose of spying or other murky activity. The black hat is often what has come to encompass the meaning of the term “hacker” overall in the popular lexicon. When someone says “hacker” on television, they often mean a black hat hacker.

In direct contrast to black hat hackers, and perhaps most responsible for the persistence of these terms, are “white hat” hackers. These are individuals who do the same type of work as black hats, but seek to inform those who’d be victimized by black hats. Instead of selling exploits, white hats disclose them. Often, they are rewarded for doing so. A whole community is dedicated to this process, called HackerOne, where hackers can submit vulnerabilities and other bugs they’ve found in various commercial applications. Once their discoveries are vetted, they are rewarded with cash. The goal of such organizations is to make it profitable to “do the right thing.”

Lastly, you have the gray hat hackers. Gray hats are somewhere in between. They are not as motivated to “do the right thing” if, for instance, they don’t like the organization they’ve found to be vulnerable. They might engage in white hat and black hat activities during the same week. Some of the most famous hackers have been gray hats, notably the l0pht group, who developed l0pht crack and other software to help less-skilled people achieve their ends. One of their members coined the term in 1997 at the first Black Hat Conference. Contrary to its name, the Black Hat Conference mostly plays host to white hat hackers and professional computer security firms. It is not some gathering of super villains.

Motivations For Hacking

As in all things, the biggest motivator for hackers in the modern age is money. Hackers find and sell exploits to other hackers, to government agencies, and, as previously stated, even to the would-be victims of the exploits. A common compromise of systems in recent years has been the “cryptolocker,” also known as “ransomware,” which makes a computer’s filesystem inaccessible to the owner until they pay a ransom. However, other motivations also exist.

In the early days of networked computing, the simplest motivation was curiosity. What would happen if I did this, the hacker would ask, and then simply do it, regardless if it was against the rules. Government agencies like the NSA hack as part of their mission, which changes with the political atmosphere. Thanks to the hacker Edward Snowden, we’ve learned that they actively seek to weaken security in commercial communication protocols for the purpose of eavesdropping.

Speaking of politics, many hackers have had political motivations. Perhaps the most infamous hacking group of the past decade has been Anonymous, a group which has often hacked in the name of various social justice causes. One of the most high-profile hacking incidents in recent memory is the December, 2014 hack of Sony Pictures, a hack which was conducted by the so-called “Guardians of Peace,” who sought to force the company to not release “The Interview,” a film which made raucous fun of North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. This hack was successful in scope, and the film was canceled in many theaters for security concerns. Instead, it was released directly via Google Play and other online distribution services.

Proper attribution of hackers can often be hard, as most competent hackers are well-versed in the art of remaining anonymous or a few steps ahead of those who would apprehend them. The group “Anonymous,” for instance, could be attributed with all the hacks ever conducted, since the group technically has no center or driving body. Actual claiming of hacks by Anonymous is only verifiable on the basis of reputable sources, such as Twitter handles that are known to have connections inside the actual group. In the case of the Sony Pictures hack, the North Korean government was blamed despite there being evidence that it could have been an inside job.

So, What Is A Hacker?

Like most words in English, “hacker” means different things to different people. The common citizen probably perceives the word with either fear or admiration. In a sense, the hacker is the one responsible for the continued improvement of computer security the world over. He or she is the reason that large corporations you trust with your data have entire departments working to ensure that your data is secured, and often enough, at his day job, also the one finding ways to ensure as much.

The hacker disregards petty rules in favor of actual results. The World Wide Web presented untold intellectual freedom and the hacker is perhaps the last line of defense between power-hungry despots and the elimination of that freedom. Hackers have been responsible for some of the most important involuntary disclosures by the US government in recent years, including the revelation of war crimes and spying on citizens. Without such bold people in the world, as we increasingly rely on technology for nearly every part of human life, liberty might all but cease to exist in practice, with every facet of life having come easily under the control of powerful lunatics.