Aug 012012

A pet peeve of mine, for a while, has been the misuse of the term “Hacker” when people are in fact referring to a “Cracker”.  This has been going on for years, and I believe if unjustly fuels a prejudice against the hacker community; and by vilifying honest members of academia, allows governments to unjustly outlaw and prosecute otherwise upstanding members of society.

What’s the difference?

There’s a fine line between a Hacker and a Cracker.  A Hacker is someone who explores, studies, researches, and learns.  Through any subject of study, the majority of innovators are Hackers in the simplest terms.  A culinary student who explores mixing two unprecedented flavors is Hacking away.  A programmer who develops new algorithms, or explores closed systems is a Hacker.  A sysadmin who builds a new service by cobbling two old services together is a Hacker.  An automotive technician who sticks a Ford engine into a Chevy is a Hacker.  It’s simply a matter of pushing the boundaries of accepted wisdom and knowledge.  Trying something new.  Ignoring the documented facts and saying “We can do more”.

A Cracker, on the other hand, may do some or all of these things.  A Cracker is usually a computer hacker.  Most specifically, a rogue hacker.  A Cracker is a person who uses their hacking skills to “Do Evil”.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hacking into the Playstation Network, for example.  You explore the systems, learn how their security works, and how you might make your own better.  When you cross the border and download databases, publish exploits, or steal real money or information, however, you’ve now done something “evil” and have crossed the boundary into being a Cracker.

What’s the big deal?

As I said previously, the ubiquitous use of the term “Hacker” instead of “Cracker” has allowed governments, notably the US, to drastically inhibit legitimate innovation, development, and research under heavy-handed legislation like the DMCA and our outdated Patent Laws.  If you want to learn more of what’s wrong with the status quo, I’d highly suggest that you watch the movie “Freedom Downtime”.

How can we fix it?

As with anything derogatory, the best way to change it is to speak up about it.  Bring attention to your beliefs.  When you catch someone using Hacker in a slanderous way, ask them nicely to use the word Cracker instead.  Explain that the use of Hacker in that way is derogatory, and hurtful to innocent people everywhere.

When you find institutionalized misuse, speak up!  For example, the PBS Kids show, Cyberchase has prominently featured a villain named Hacker for a long time.  Shows like this are extremely harmful because they instill the derogatory meaning of the word in young, impressionable children.  I have personally written them a number of times asking them to change the villain’s name, but they’ve yet to respond.  I’d ask all of you to send them a politely worded e-mail explaining that the use of the term is derogatory and asking them to change it.

If you find other prolific, derogatory uses of the word Hacker, where Cracker would be more appropriate, please feel free to post them in the comments below, and I’ll update this article with more information!

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