back to article While Reg readers know the difference between a true hacker and cyber-crook, for everyone else, hacking means illegal activity

Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you – the reader – choose the winning argument. The format is simple: a motion was proposed this week, the argument for the motion was published on Wednesday, and the argument against is published today. During the week you can cast your vote …

  1. Tweetiepooh

    Looking at the vote, this is a bit of a lost argument. I guess because you are writing to readers of "The Reg" who do know the difference and tend to like precision in terms. They are also bloody minded enough to want to keep the terms for what they should mean rather than what the general usage is.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      exactly .

      Ship has Sailed.

      No way can ethical hackers reclaim the word.

      No matter how many "life hacks" are put on youtube.

    2. Anonymous Coward


      Language changes constantly, for better or worse. When was the last time anyone here thought of bird noises when they saw the word tweet; or of looking at something when they saw the word Google?

      We do it ourselves. When I started, this field was called Data Processing, DP, and we changed it to Information Technology, IT, but it's still processing data at heart.

      Right now, the best we can expect is a recognition that there are both bad and good hackers but that is only within the context of attacking computer systems or preventing attacks. What most of the coders among us do was called hacking but we've lost that term.

      1. Someone Else Silver badge

        Re: Language

        [...] or of looking at something when they saw the word Google?

        Methinks you mean "ogle". Google (or its progenitor, googol) never had anything to do with looking at anything (except, perhaps, a metric buttload of 0's)

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Language

          You actually believe their cover story? A bunch of computer nerds that didn't know how to spell "googol"? Pu-lease. The name is clearly "go ogle".

  2. 0laf Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    I know the real meanings of 'Hacker' and 'Hack' and know the history back to Ol' Captain Crunch days.

    But you've lost that word, it's gone and you're not getting it back.

    Maybe you need to think of a new one or bring back and even older one - tinkerer, modder etc

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Maker? Isn't that the word these days?

  3. ThatOne Silver badge

    > the media should stop using 'hacker' as a pejorative

    As my esteemed colleagues noted above, that horse has bolted, and even died of old age since. There is little point in running to close the stable door now.

    It's just language and how it evolves, "hacker" isn't the only term which changed meaning over time.

    1. tfewster

      When you see how inaccurate the popular media (Newspapers, movies, TV) are about topics you know something about, you have to wonder if they're just as sloppy about "dramatising" other areas, e.g police procedures.

      But hack/hacker/hackneyed were used as pejoratives before computers were invented, so to some extent it's our own fault for appropriating the term and misusing it to mean "a clever kludge".

      Which doesn't stop my blood boiling whenever I hear a "Technical" term (mis)used by knowlessmen.

      1. Mark 85

        When you see how inaccurate the popular media (Newspapers, movies, TV) are about topics you know something about, you have to wonder if they're just as sloppy about "dramatising" other areas, e.g police procedures.

        I think you hit it. Current media, etc. doesn't seem to hire the best qualified but the cheapest which are usually the cheapest and consists of those fresh out of school (if they actually pursued a degree is questionable). It's getting worse do to "influencers" (hate that term) who just get followers of the same mindset. But the language is changing, for good or bad and usually "bad".

        I am an old "hacker" and proud of it having spent many years hacking away at the IT coalface.

        1. nijam Silver badge

          > When you see how inaccurate the popular media ...

          It especially worries me when I see a supposedly serious documentary (e.g. BBC's Horizon) covering a subject I know anything about.

        2. Anonymous Coward

          Popular Media

          You could even say that they're hacks.

      2. ThatOne Silver badge

        > how inaccurate the popular media

        You don't need any special knowledge to publicly speak about something, just enough chutzpah. And given peoples' mentality ("As seen on TV"), once it's out there, it's official...

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      RE: "hacker" isn't the only term which changed meaning over time.

      Sure, as a kid I loved faggots - my mum used to cook them and they always tasted great! But these days that would be considered a crime, both my parents would be jailed because my dad tied up bundles of sticks in the garden and then threw the faggots on the fire. Go back a few hundred years and all the European royal families were marrying children - we're happy banning the use of "hacker" for someone just fixing things but we're OK with their ancestors behavior.

      But this is all an illustration of the stupid media world these days - language is not evolving, it's becoming corrupted because people start applying words incorrectly and they tell everyone that their views are wrong because a new view has just been posted on TwitBookGram.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: RE: "hacker" isn't the only term which changed meaning over time.

        Absolutely, but I also think it's important to mention that many media-types—especially of the social variety—are also interested in covering up or tearing down that history and supplanting it with more PC ideals, which I believe bleeds into word use as well. So for the bit about marrying children, it isn't that it's OK, it's that oh no we need to demonize those people while ignoring the state of the world at the time and never speak of it again. Doesn't matter the context, doesn't matter if it was socially acceptable at the time, doesn't matter if there are things to be learned from such history. That person did a naughty. Burn it all down. Cancel them on the Tweeter.

        Personally, I think it runs deeper than "hacker" being commonly seen as a pejorative. I see it as part of an attack on jargon as we know it.

        As a minority, it has always irked me that it is no longer "correct" to use the word "slave" to describe a programmatic process that derives its being and is designed to precisely follow the directions of the "master" process, even though there's not really any other way to cement that meaning into any other set of words. Child/parent? Leader/follower? Those still do not impart the rigidity of the relationship between the processes, and in the former set may even inpose an idea of OOP that may not be present. Are we just supposed to invent new words and thrust them into the industry? Am I supposed to walk on eggshells because, oh no, I might hurt someone's feelings by saying a word that might hurt them despite having no malicious intent behind it? I really don't want to have to pick up a thesaurus just to demystify the meaning of the code I'm looking at just because it's now desireable to use whatever the word of the day is, instead of the politically-independent jargon that has been used for decades; more so I don't want to be demonized for daring to utter something I had zero idea would offend someone.

        When does it stop being the natural evolution of language and start being censorship and socially acceptable language control?

    4. TRT Silver badge

      The horse has bolted

      You means the hacks have hacked at the hack until hack now means jack?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      An alternate take.

      Stopping the world from thinking hacking=evil hoodie, yeah that horse has bolted.

      Giving up on how we use the term is a separate thing. If they need an evil digital boogeyman, so be it. If we give up the useful single word for a non-criminal hacker we are also weakening the idea of one in our own community. It's the idea that their can only be one "winner" in the definitions that's the problem.

      Besides, isn't the coded language part of the fun? That and the delicious cringe when Hollywood butchers it?

  4. disgruntled yank

    Ah, well

    The usage that sets me to grinding my teeth is the back-formation "mentee". Were I a hacker/cracker/malicious person, I would loose on the world a bit of code to turn every occurrence of "mentee" to "manatee".

  5. Chris Evans

    Badly worded motion

    I'd expect almost all ElReg readers to agree with "Hacking is not a crime, and the media should stop using 'hacker' as a pejorative." The real question has the shipped sailed or it is recoverable? IAIN THOMSON seem to be more resigned to the situation than arguing against the motion .

    1. Tom 38

      Re: Badly worded motion

      I purposefully didn't vote yesterday in order to hear the argument against, but I agree, this was a weak argument. - "give up, the meaning of words change".

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Badly worded motion

      Both sides of the argument aren't well-argued. There is one side calling on people to go to a lot of effort to make hacker a single-meaning term which is about building things for good or ill, and another side which was supposed to argue to make it a single-meaning term for criminals breaking into computers but instead argued to just give up. If either side gets my support, it's the "just give up". Last time, I listed 11 things hack and hacker mean. People provided several more. It will never be a single-meaning word and going to effort to try to convince people to make it one is a complete waste of time and energy. Nobody's really going to get confused by "hacker" being used to mean "person who broke the law with a computer", nor will there be much problem with them understanding that it can also mean "person who built something technical without ill intent". They'll figure it out from context just like we do; now let's let them do it.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Badly worded motion

        But 'hacker" does have a single meaning in the context of computers and networking, and technology in general. If the terminally lazy and ignorant hacks in the Mass Media had used it properly in the first place, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

        Besides, we already have a word to use instead of perverting hacker: Cracker.

        Shirley using two words, the meanings of which already exist, to describe two different things, is vastly preferred to overloading an already overloaded word to describe two concepts that are in many ways diametrically opposed? Just for clarity, if nothing else.

        El Reg should be leading this correct usage, not following the ignorant. It's not as if the editors don't know any better, and are incapable of making the change ... article by article, if needs be.

        1. Keven E

          Re: Badly worded motion

          "But 'hacker" does have a single meaning in the context of computers and networking, and technology in general."

          Just keep in mind when saying that... apparently, my hair shampoo uses "technology" these days.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Badly worded motion

            At a certain level all technology is chemistry though isn't it? (and below that is either turtles or particle physics?)

        2. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Badly worded motion

          "But 'hacker" does have a single meaning in the context of computers and networking, and technology in general."

          No, it doesn't. You would like it to. In the other article, people listed not only "person who breaks into system" but also "person who comes up with innovative solution", "person who comes up with innovative solution with the proviso that they have to be working inside an existing thing", "person who ignores any conventional solution whether good or bad", and "person who does shoddy work which functions now but is poorly documented and will fall apart". They all thought there was a clear winner too, but they didn't agree what it was. The article itself listed that "ignores conventional solution" one as having been written down in the 1950s, so that must be the clear definition that must never be changed. Except that's not the clear definition you're thinking about, is it? Words sometimes come to have multiple meanings, and there's nothing you or I can do about it.


          Re: Badly worded motion

          "Besides, we already have a word to use instead of perverting hacker: Cracker."

          Cracker could be a computing miscreant, just as well as it could be someone of particular pale complexion. It could also be someone that makes it a habit of beating people up. Depending on where you live and the vernacular used, all are valid.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Badly worded motion

            Because that version of the "C" word totally doesn't raise other concerns with the PC culture? I have a long memory, the crackers were hackers before they were rebranded, and cracking was more likely to involve removing copy protection then breaking other peoples boxes.

            Iain's article speaks to the fluidity of language, and to pre-internet history's use of the word, but it misses another point entirely. Who cares what the mainstream uses hacker for? The mainstream does not hack anything in either sense of the word. Yes, hacker as a term has been appropriated by the masses for their own purposes. The only problem in that is if they think other peoples use of the term is wrong because it differs from their own. Much like the term cracker means different things in different contexts. A Hack isn't a standard unit of measure, it has no objective definition the intrinsically matters across communities.

            I will fight people that get to loose with terms that have real definitions, like what cat-6a cable is, or a gigabyte(Sorry HDD company marketroids, computers are binary systems, and if your definition of a TB differs from from the DRAM manufactures it because you are greedy lying idiots, no mater how much you edited wikipedia). Our self consciousness aside, the term hacker doesn't make the cut.

            There is another thing that changed since the way-back. We collectively have drifted more and more into being a bunch of criminals. Piracy was called sharing with your broke friends once upon a time, not a way to make money, back when software came on floppy disks and half of it wasn't even protected. Then people started getting dial up and running up their phone bills on the BBS scene. People started WAR dialing and playing around in other peoples yards, partly for fun, and partly because no one could afford a mainframe or a mini-computer at the time. So if you wanted to learn, you did it on someone elses gear. A lot of the time people weren't even messing with or stealing things, just screwing around.

            In my case I had some friends at the local software store. The started carding to pay for the phone bills, for late night pizza runs, and eventually for speed to stay up later and code more(and badly). The also enacted the hacker right of passage of getting busted and informing on each other.

            Over the years I have seen those two sides in conflict with each other, both in words (hacker-cracker-hacker-whitehat-blackhat-blah-blah-blah) and for the mantle of the community. Was it about learing, and clever hack, and a fun prank, or was it for vindictive trolling, wrecking systems and data, or crime? Did the suffering of victims matter, or was that the point. Was it for a political agenda, or ego, or to put food on the table? Or to prove that what was thought impossible was possible? (Like the first wormable .bmp root hack, or beating ASLR or the TPM the first time)

            I am sad to say that over the years my side lost. While like so many I played around in my day, I was never out for money or for blood. But I still respect a clever hack, and those in my circle get it. So we know what each other means when we use the word, and what the straight public does. But there is a deep point to make.

            The infosec community may want to sell a cleaner image for themselves, but DEFCON or Blackhat isn't the real hacking world(Never was, but never less than now).

            The real game has moved on. Moved on to black market sites and over seas crime forums. English is the language of programming, but Russian and Chinese are the new languages of hacking. The infosec world and old hacking scene is on the outside, and either navel gazing or looking in the windows from the outside now. Fighting over how and what other people call us doesn't matter to me, as long at that's not irrelevant. But pretending that the rest of the world hasn't moved on is sticking your head in the sand.

  6. lordsandwich71

    Too Far Gone

    It absolutely makes my teeth itch whenever I see what should be called a TIP called a HACK, i.e. '7 top HACKS for creating a better whatever' So I'm fairly certain that it's too far gone be restored to it's former glory.

    1. Marshalltown

      Re: Too Far Gone

      Ah, but the use examples don't describe the action as an inherently criminal action. That is the issue. They do tend to trivialize the idea, but they don't criminalize it. There's a serious difference.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Too Far Gone

        Maybe because one has yet to write "Top 10 hacks for getting money quickly"?

        [and yes, the phrase "life hacks" makes my blood boil, especially the number of things that ought to be obvious to anybody with a functioning brain]

  7. Claptrap314 Silver badge

    Any engineers here?

    Yeah. I remember when Certified Engineers threatened lawsuits to try to stop folks from calling themselves "software engineers". It's practically hypocritical to call yourself a software engineer and complain about "hacker".

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Any engineers here?

      To be fair, most of us call them "Paper Engineers", and treat their commentary with all the respect that that entails and deserves. This has been true since Netware ruled the networking roost with their CNEs ... Much later, Microsoft's laughable MCSE program didn't help any.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Any engineers here?

      One of the first tech companies that I worked for called me a "service engineer" but when they moved me to the USA they had to call me a support person because I don't have a degree. Since then I've spent most of my life helping Engineers and PhDs fix their problems - I think the major factor in my abilities is that I'm not an engineer - LOL.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Any engineers here?

      What about electricica / electronic engineer?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Any engineers here?

        Not that lot, with their sad insistence that computers continue to operate on base 2 instead of base 10. They clearly don't know what they are talking about.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Any engineers here?

          Indeed.. How many fingers do those stupid people have anyway?!

  8. uro

    "It's a matter of some frustration, and we do what we can. But expecting the mainstream media to differentiate between a cracker, hacker, skimmer or script kiddie is asking a lot of education in the small sound bites their viewers depend on."

    It could be argued that its a complete failure on the part of mainstream media in such that in order to create the controversail headlines they use to actively drive sales (which they do with with everything), they have completely failed their readers & customers by not fully explaining in non-technical terms the differences between, hacking, cracking, scripting, skimmer, black-hat, white-hat, etc.

    While I agree that hacking is not a crime, due to the "small sound bite" sales driven bias in mainstream media and the complete lack of explanatory content within each article, it has been widely projected as a criminal act rather than a cause for good.

  9. cosmodrome

    Well, first of all, we already have plenty of words for "ethical hackers": "Clown", "l4m3r", "kiddie", "netcop"... The same goes for crooks - online or offline.

    Second: language is never unambiguous. If you're a hacker, you'll know. Also you you should have better things to do than participating in a pointless meta-discussion that has been going on since the 1990.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Did you open up a dusty copy of the jargon file or are you just that our of touch?

      I don't think anyone has seriously used the term "lamer" or "netcop" in common parlance in at least a decade or longer.

      Language can and will change, whether it's good or bad, and whether people like it or not.

  10. I code for the bacon

    Yes, we the lectores of El Reg know the difference

    Between a true hacker and a cyber crook. As much as the readers of other tech sites. But, is someone really compromised with changing the wider public's use of the term? It is going to require a lot of campaigning, polling and many other activities that will need a lot of time, effort and even money. Is anyone willing to endure the pain?

  11. trindflo Bronze badge
    Big Brother

    It isn't the word 'hacker', it is the concept

    If you consider yourself a hacker, you can do things with a computer that most people cannot.

    If you're nerdy enough to master odd details about computers, most people will have problems guessing your motivations.

    Cue fantasies about a mad scientist up on skullcrusher mountain. Who knows, you might even feature as an avenging angel in some of the fantasies. See the movie: Brazil.

  12. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

    What does it mean?

    Everything depends on context.

    When programming, when I think "what does it mean?", the answer I care about is not what it means to *me*, but what it means to the *compiler*. But some people take the Humpty Dumpty view: 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.' For people (or eggs) like that, the meaning changes from one day to the next.

    If the person you are talking to is technical, use words one way. If they are not technical, use them a different way. If they are Humpty Dumpty, just string together random sentences. Yes it's annoying to be careful with words when others are not. Annoyances like that have an obvious solution.

  13. Someone Else Silver badge

    Sometimes, the language doesn't change....

    Since the 18th century, authors have used the word 'hack' to refer to a scribe who could write to order, the term evolving to mean someone willing to knock out sub-standard work for a fast buck [Emphasis added]

    Pretty much what it refers to today, in this arena of endeavor, too.!

    Oh, and "brilliant hack" is an oxymoron.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Sometimes, the language doesn't change....

      "Oh, and "brilliant hack" is an oxymoron."

      Horse shit. How else would you describe SCO's port of Version 7 UNIX to the brain-dead 8086/8088? (You know that port as SCO Xenix.)

  14. Martin

    The problem is that the motion is badly worded.

    Hacking is not a crime, and the media should stop using hacker as a pejorative.

    I agree with the first part, and disagree with the second. So how do I vote on this motion?

    Hacking, in itself, is not a crime. That goes without saying, and it may well be the case that we should be fighting that particular corner.

    However, hacking has always had a slight whiff of pejorative about it - from a journalist who just hacks out a few words, to a horse that is known as a hack (meaning an easy or tolerant ride), to a software engineer who hacks together a useful little script for his own use.

    In a software sense, there really is is a significant difference between hacking and doing decent software engineering. The decent solution may have started out as a hack to solve a problem, and then been taken aside (by that same hacker, possibly), properly tested, debugged, and put into production with change control and everything.

    Let's be fair - if you come up with a solution to a problem, and other members of your team say "Well, it works, but it's a bit of a hack, isn't it?" - you don't normally take that as a compliment.

    And, plagarising myself from yesterday - if I have a piece of fragile equipment that needs to be repaired or modified, do I want someone who will meticulously unscrew everything and neatly prise off the side before carefully investigating, or do I want someone who is just going to hack into it?

    That's why hacking is somewhat pejorative, and so I can't blame the media for using it in a pejorative sense.

  15. John Savard

    My Understanding

    When I first encountered the term "hacker", its meaning was clear.

    It meant an individual with an obsession, sometimes unhealthy, and sometimes leading to illegal activity, with understanding fully the internals of computer systems.

    On the one hand, the original meaning was at least somewhat pejorative, and being a hacker was strongly correlated to some degree of unauthorized use of computer systems.

    On the other hand, the term in its original definition definitely does not apply to script kiddies. Or, indeed, most of the cyber crooks out there today.

    While I am in favor of precise use of language, I also think that it will be an uphill battle to get the general public to use another term for virus and ransomware writers and users. I just wish they'd make our computer systems secure, so this stuff wouldn't be a thing any more.

    1. scasey

      Re: My Understanding

      I say, let them have our word. After all, we are all 'makers', so we can make new words.

      So, as there are Black Hat and White Hat hackers, how about we use 'Blackers' and 'Whackers', respectively? Myself, I'm a whacker.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: My Understanding

        "After all, we are all 'makers'"

        Speak for yourself. I'm a hacker, and proud of it.

        My 10 year old grand daughter has been labeled a "maker" ... but she's trying to convince her teachers to call her an Inventor instead. She finds "maker" demeaning, and reserves it for "kids learning to cut with scissors and figuring out how to put glitter on everything" (her words, not mine).

        "Myself, I'm a whacker."

        If your 45T drive array is nearly full, you too might be a Whacker.

  16. The Aussie Paradox


    These days, hacking for the great unwashed, is ANYTHING to do with the computer. Even entering a password is "hacking".

    And when did "hacks" become synonymous with "tips"? (These 300 twist tie hacks to live longer, read here for more ...)

    ARG! brb. Feeling old and going to shout at clouds.

  17. Danny 2

    In a state of flux

    I'm a former CNE and MCSE, but before that I was a paper electrical, electronic and software engineer. I don't care if I'm considered a hacker in the court of public opinion, unless it's a jury trial. "In my defence, let me start by explaining the word to you morons"...

    Five words that have changed meaning over time


    Original meaning: Diarrhoea or dysentry

  18. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Increased suspicion and distrust

    ISTM that since 9/11 the western world (as that is all I have personal experience of) has become a less tolerant and trusting place. In particular, a distrust of people who know more than an average person. That time has also seen a massive increase in the dependency on technology and scare stories about scams, thieves, fraud and loss.

    And a growing disquiet about how technology is used to monitor people, control them and invade their lives.

    Who better to blame than a technological elite? People who know stuff. People who use words that your average person doesn't understand. People who make ordinary folk look and feel like idiots by doing things that are beyond ordinary people's capabilities. And how better demonstrate that hostility than to group them all together with a generalised description. After all, that is historically how society deals with groups they feel uneasy about.

    1. Keven E

      Re: Increased suspicion and distrust

      "People who make ordinary folk look and feel like idiots by doing things that are beyond ordinary people's capabilities."

      "Make" seems a bit over the edge.

      Yet this issue is one that is still being stretched to its limit by marketing... *making it seem as if the simple act of using technological advances moves the user one step close to... capable.

      The fear of the unknown is, indeed, in play and being played (with and upon) by certain politica.

  19. Uberarchangel

    People are too stupid?

    Your main argument is that people will not understand and that the route of the word is incorrect. First off you do not give people enough credit. Secondly butt and butter. Because Butter has to do with butts right? Your argument is so flawed it is hilarious. Also, when does the media ever explain anything fully. Use the correct terminology and it will work itself out with time. We are not expecting the media to sit there an explain everything to everyone. Just use proper terminology and the meaning of the word as it was derived originally.

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