What is a hacker?

What is a hacker?

Summary: The definition for the term hacker is as elusive as those who earn the moniker. Find out from the accepted source what a hacker really is.

TOPICS: Security

If you don't know exactly what a hacker is, join the club. Many people don't understand the term or its true implications. The meaning has changed a bit over the years and through the evolution of the Internet. In the most familiar sense, a hacker is anyone who attempts to break into computer systems by surreptitious means. But, as you'll see, there's more to being a hacker than simply trying to steal a password or break into someone's Facebook account.

There are hackers who work for large companies whose purpose is to protect the companies for whom they work. There are hackers who hack for the pure pleasure of hacking. There are hacktivists who hack to protest corporate or political policy. There are hackers who get paid to hack accounts, passwords, CAPTCHA and other lucrative targets. And, there are those hackers who just want to exploit, embarrass and expose. They're all hackers.

The word hacker still carries negative connotations because good hackers are never profiled in movies, TV, book and other media forms. To deflect some of this negative perception, hackers attempted to create a related term: cracker. Hackers coined cracker as a reaction to journalists who misrepresented all hackers as criminals. You hardly hear the term cracker anymore related to computer system compromises. It never really caught on as an alternative term for those with unsavory intentions.

Hacker now refers to anyone, regardless of intention or perspective, who attempts to compromise computer systems.

Perhaps the best place to glean a definition of this obscure term is from Eric Raymond's now famous Jargon File:

hacker n.

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

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. RFC1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

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 hackernetwork hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The term ‘hacker’ also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net (see the network. For discussion of some of the basics of this culture, see the How To Become A Hacker FAQ. It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic (see 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). See also geekwannabee.

This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab. We have a report that it was used in a sense close to this entry's by teenage radio hams and electronics tinkerers in the mid-1950s.

After seeing the definition, do you want to be a hacker?

As with any specialized field, hacking has its own language and culture. To be brought into that culture, you have to prove yourself worthy. It's the same for any IT-related field. Everyone thinks of himself as an expert and everyone else is out to prove him wrong. The hacking subculture is more harsh than mainstream IT in the "prove yourself" category.

If you don't want to risk your freedom to prove yourself, my advice is to study ethical hacking at one of the online sites or to purchase a book on the topic. In an ethical hacking course, you'll learn the tools, techniques, methods and ethics of a true security professional. By learning in a formal atmosphere, you'll gain experience without the risk associated with certain types of penetration (pen) testing.

Remember that the only difference in ethical hacking and unethical/illegal hacking is that person who performs the attacks does so with authorization by the target. Always do so with authorization. There's money to be made doing so and the only time you'll spend behind bars is when you're moonlighting as a bartender working your way through the Ethical Hacker coursework.

See also:

Topic: Security


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: What is a hacker?

    Even the "malicious" form of hacker that everyone associates the word with has been dragged through the mud. I still remember Zack Whittaker's reply to me that yes, sitting down at somebody's untended computer and messing with their still open Facebook is hacking. It's a word that has lost any and all meaning it once had.
    • So True :(

      Gone are the days of "enhancing" a program you bought or the ability to get into and out of a system undetected.
      No malice intended. ;)
    • RE: What is a hacker?

      So Interestingly http://adf.ly/2tGXK :)
      Student from Bosnia
  • Hacker or Cracker?

    Hacker used to mean someone that tried to work the system (as in hacking away at it). This type of person would know all the ins and outs of a system. Then the bad hacker came along and besmirched the moniker. They used to call them crackers to differentiate between evil doers and someone trying to understand a system at a level most would not. Hackers way back were the most successful IT guys you'd find. Too bad the name was ruined.
    • I probably should have read the rest of the article

      @happyharry_z Sorry Ken. This was all in there. Most of us hackers have ADD ;)
  • "cyber criminal" seems to be taking

    moments ago I posted a reply to a tech republic article lamenting that I tried in vain to get people to use "cracker."

    But I have had good luck with the newish media term "cyber criminal." Try that one, people seem to take to it, and I always try to mention in relation to some news that it was a white hat, talented and civic minded <b>hacker</b> that discovered this or that risk, or found an exploit in action and took measures to alert interested parties and/or fix things.
  • Even older definition of &quot;hacker&quot;

    When I first entered the programming workforce in the 1970s, a "hacker" referred to a person who wrote poor-quality computer programs, exercised poor programming discipline, and was poorly educated in the art/science of programming. I believe this was derived from the term "hack writer"--find that on Wikipedia. I think people often spoke pejoratively about a poor-quality writer by referring to him/her as a "hack." In the programming world, I remember people referring to someone like this: "He's not a real programmer, just a hacker." I don't know why this older definition of the term seems to have been largely forgotten. Does anyone else remember this usage?
    • RE: What is a hacker?


      I remember it. Yes, it came from the term 'hack' which is someone who kind of muddled their way through and threw things together.
    • RE: What is a hacker?

      @kellycarter I remember the same usage of "hacker" as an untalented programmer doing ad-hoc programming and using brute force until it worked. No planning, no documentation unless he had to. "Do you want documentation, or do you want the program finished?" he'd say. He'd sit at a timesharing terminal and hack away.
    • Back in the 1960's it was an MIT thing....

      @kellycarter This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the <a href=http://www.csail.mit.edu/>MIT AI Lab</a>.
      • RE: What is a hacker?

        Yeah these guys are no joke. I have been recently reading about the fake virus hacks these guys in Russia are involved with. And the infection they spread are meant to trick people into buying fake programs. Here are the 2 latest ones and where you can see what i mean. <a href="http://www.ihowtoremove.com/open-cloud-security-virus/" target="_blank" >open cloud virus</a> and <a href="http://www.ihowtoremove.com/data-recovery-virus-how-to-remove/" target="_blank">data recovery</a> from what it looks like they are all kinds of hackers but these guy have no ethics and they are simply out to put money in their pocket. what the world comiong to?
  • A Hacker is a PROGRAMMER...

    A Hacker is a PROGRAMMER and<br>a CRACKER is what is normally
    deemed as a Hacker in the Media...<br><br>The Media Needs to Get it Right!
    • RE: What is a hacker?


      I agree. Which is another reason I'm doing this series. Hopefully media types will find my articles and use them as reference.
  • RE: What is a hacker?

    Truth be known, the use of the work "hacker" to mean somebody malicious is the word everybody seems to be using now.

    "Remember that the only difference in ethical hacking and unethical/illegal hacking is that person who performs the attacks does so with authorization by the target."

    I'd say there's also the difference of a criminal mentality, a few loose screws, and malicious intent.
  • RE: What is a hacker?

    When I started in this business 35 years ago as a programmer, a hacker was anyone who spit out code for a living. Now the term hacker has morphed into a malicious person who loves to screw with everyone for fun or profit.
  • RE: What is a hacker?

    Hack the planet!
  • Hacker definition:

    It seems like the definition of a "computer hacker" has really taken so many twists even the current best definitions leave out the original intent of the term.

    Originally, "Hacker" was a term initially used to describe people who were not just simply people who were able to break into computers and networks, many experts were always capable of that. A "Hacker" was someone who wasn't necessarily any kind of accredited expert but was more of an amateur, usually a relatively if not completely unknown individual, often with only average computer related formal education but someone who takes a personal interest in computing and has done a lot of their own education on the subject and had made themselves at least some what of an expert on breaking into computer systems.

    A true hacker was not someone who would have ever been seen as a well known expert, far from it, they were the unknown rogue factor on the internet. And the term was really more related to the fact that the person in question could break into computer systems AND they were a largely self taught amateur. The funny thing was that doing it for good or bad reasons wasn't initially the big focus at all. Although of course unless you were doing it for bad reasons it was seldom anyone would ever know about you.

    Those who used the phrase originally might have had a conversation much like as follows:

    "Someone just broke into our computer network"

    "Was it a pro?"

    "I don't think so, it has the earmarks of a hacker"

    Or it might have went like this:

    "I think I can get your computer up and running again"

    "Great, are you a expert?"

    "No, I'm just a hacker but I'm pretty good"

    Maybe its just that modern operating systems and computer security apps have just gotten so good that it would be pretty hard these days for an old school style true hacker to get very far without a lot more formal training and education as well as hands on experience.

    Well thats obviously changed...a lot. Now a days if you seem to have any capacity for breaking into computer systems you can feel free to call yourself a hacker.
  • All of the definitions sort of fit together.

    It looks to me like there's a possible connection between the various 'hacker' definitions. If to 'hack' something means to make it do what the 'hacker' wants it to do, especially when a typical user wouldn't be able to, then the various meanings sort of fit together. Considering the extremes, a programmer who writes a software program to make a computer do something the hardware designers never imagined, and an attacker who hacks a system to steal credit card details, are both making the objects of their hacking work in ways they want them to, and in ways average user couldn't make them work. In that sense, they're both hackers.

    The ability to hack something, whether software, hardware or systems, would generally require detailed knowledge of the thing being hacked (or at least a relevant part of it), so hackers would tend to be experts in the areas where they do their hacking. The 'expert' meaning naturally follows from this. At the same time, the nature of programming hacks means that they're often inelegant and/or undocumented, hence the association of 'hacker' (and 'hack') with poor programming practices -- particularly amongst those who program for a living (for whom the long-term effects of undocumented hacks are all too evident).

    A closely related definition to the 'expert' one is that of a 'computer/programming enthusiast', who may or may not be an expert as such. The etymological path from expert to enthusiast is fairly straightforward: becoming an expert in something typically requires working extensively with it, so most experts are enthusiasts, even if the reverse isn't true.

    The Oxford English Dictionary includes the two most widespread IT meanings of 'hacker', namely 'computer/programming enthusiast' and 'systems attacker'. In both cases, the etymological entries go back to 1976, and suggest that the meanings were well understood within the relevant communities at that time. As such, the idea that the term was originally positive, but was somehow hijacked by the media from the 'hacker community', doesn't strike me as very credible.
  • etymonline.com (Online Etymology Dictionary)

    a chopper, cutter," perhaps also "one who makes hacking tools," early 13c. (as a surname), agent noun from hack (v.1). Meaning "one who gains unauthorized access to computer records" is attested by 1983, agent noun from hack (v.2). Said to be from slightly earlier tech slang sense of "one who works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programming for its own sake," 1976, reputedly a usage that evolved at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (however an MIT student from the late 1960s recalls hack (n.) being used then and there in the general sense of "creative prank," which clouds its sense connection with the "writing for hire" word, and there may be a source or an influence here in hack (v.1)).
  • Breaking into

    Someone who programs outside a formal, academic or corporate framework, no matter how talented, creative or knowledgeable, and whether or not he or she tries to break into computer systems, is breaking into the monopoly of those inside that formal framework. Thus, a hacker is over and above anything else someone who breaks into an established social system, an outsider, a profane who challenges and breaks established power structures and makes a mockery of formal knowledge, and therefore is looked down as uneducated and even demonized as a criminal.