25 February, 2008

Hacker/Cracker/Phraker...What's the difference?

As my interest for computers and computer networks are expanding, so is my understanding of certain words and phrases used in these environments.

I've used expressions wrong in the past, concerning computer crime, intrusion, misuse and words describing the methods, etc. I even used the word "cracker" wrong, claiming it was the new official word for a criminal hacker, which it (as explained below) isn't.

Things that really pisses me off, are the uses and abuses of the words "hacker" and "cracker". But i won't go into detailed specifics on the subject. I'm more interested as to how the expressions originated, and how they have BEEN used in the past, to the present, to better understand the heritage.


The hacker subculture spun from the "phreaking" period in the 60's, according to The Jargon File (now an online reference for computer jargon). Phreaking was basically tampering with, or finding "hacks" in public telephone systems to initiate free transmission over the Public Switched Telephone Network. John Draper realized that a toy flute from boxes of the "Cap'n'Crunch" breakfast cereal, could easily be modified to generate a 2600 Hz tone when blown, this allowed operation of AT&T's telephone lines that used SF, or Single Frequency, controls. It also gained Draper his handle "Captain Crunch". When phreaking was introduced to the masses, Bell Labs had published a technical journal, describing their MF, or Multi Frequency, control-system. This was not intended for the masses, but found it's way to various colleges anyway. Draper acquired a copy, and as a result "The Little Blue Box" was created. And following this, Esquire Magazine published "Secrets of the Little Blue Box".

Then, by the 70s, computers had become popular amongst hobbyists. Especially when the
MITS Altair saw the light of day (an early personal computer, of which Microsoft actually created the first programming language for: "Altair BASIC", which later became the base for their founding company product at the time: "Microsoft BASIC"). Since these activities were sub-cultures, or "special interests", phreaking was often associated with hacking. This led to the term "H/P culture" (H standing for hacking, and P for phreaking).

By the 80's, breaking of computer security had already been used in computer jargon. But the 80's also saw it's own form of hacking, with the microcomputer and BBS scene.

With the introduction of "free software" in the 80's (most prominently GNU), open source also saw a form of hacking. But this form of hacking was deemed as "aestethical and playful cleverness", which was also by coincidence the original meaning of the word coined by the MIT students in the 70's. A hacker in these terms, was a person who enjoys designing software and building programs, or tinkering with technology, making it do things it was not designed to do, or do the thing it was designed to do in another way or approach.

Nowadays, "hacking" is usually used in situations where the actual individual doing the "hacking" is a person focused on security-mechanisms in computers or computer networks, and the word has been heavily abused in the media, defining hackers, as "cyber criminals". What is not commonly known about hacking, is that it has two sides: White / Black, or so-called White-Hat hackers and Black-Hat hackers. Black-Hats use their knowledge to break or bypass security mechanisms with malicious criminal intent, while White-Hats use it to prevent Black-Hats from exploiting security holes. Thus showing that like all other human-related culture, it's all about HOW you use the knowledge, not IF you use it.

Wanna learn more? https://www.black-hat.com

Update 29.02.2008:

A friend of mine, who's actually a frequent gamer (WoW) and fellow computer enthusiast, claimed that a hacker, in his own words; was a person that modified software-code. And that a person trying to break a security system was a "cracker". Well, yes and no. This is the most common misconception out there today... The term "cracker" was an attempt to create a definition for criminal hackers (CR-iminal h-ACKER). Though this term IS used today, what I've seen and read using the word, describes a "cracker" as an individual that "cracks" protection mechanisms in software (mainly copy protections, password protections and the like), so, most cases I've found actually refer to software piracy. There's so much diffusion between the two expressions, that I'm actually not sure which is the right one for the specified acts. But from my understanding, "cracker" never took on as the de-facto definition for criminal hacking. At least not in the computer communities, mainly because the phrase is very frowned upon.

Update 01.03.2008:

Actually, the term "cracker" was coined by the founder of FSF: Richard Stallmann, the self-proclaimed prophet for "free software" to oppose the already-existing term "hacker", which he deems as a positive term in all regards from his experience at the MIT A.I. Lab / Computer lab where "hacker" originated back in the 70's.

Update 03.03.2008:

After further investigation in the matter, I've found another criminal definition, "Grey-Hat", referring to those with ethical and moral values, but who are more lenient towards criminal techniques, to for example get things done more effectively, faster/optimized, or generally just complete a task at hand. The different jargon definitions "Black/
Grey/White-Hat" and "cracker" were all coined by people in the computer community to distinguish these modus operandi from the (proclaimed) legally correct term "hacker", which is NOT the definition for criminal computer acts as indicated in the media and press.


Conclusions about the matter seem to lean against the word hacker being a shibboleth:

[...] any language usage indicative of one's social or regional origin, or more broadly, any practice that identifies members of a group.


Should be considered a descriptive word for identifiying members of a practice-/social-group.
Update 04.03.2008:

The Hacker Manifesto:

A hacker definition:

1 kommentarer :

Olti said...

Well written my friend! And I could not agree more! :D

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