While Reg readers know the difference between a true hacker and cyber-crook, for everyone else, hacking means illegal activity • The Register


Reader debate 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 using the embedded poll, choosing whether you’re in favor or against the motion. The final score will be announced next Tuesday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular. It’s up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.

This week’s motion is: Hacking is not a crime, and the media should stop using ‘hacker’ as a pejorative. On Wednesday, we published an argument for the motion.

And now, today, arguing AGAINST the motion is IAIN THOMSON…

First of all, full disclosure: I sympathize with those in favor of the ‘for’ argument. I know how you feel from personal experience: pretty much every journalist has been called “a hack” in a pejorative sense at some point in their lives.

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. It was used to tar whole professions, from journalists to novelists. The word is a shortened version of hackney, a breed of horse used by carriages-for-hire. Though it’s not quite parallel with the history of ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’, us journos are aware of what it’s like to be smeared with a hijacked word.

For the wider population, hacking has become synonymous with nefarious activities because – for the vast majority of people who experience it – it’s in a criminal context

Regular Register readers can differentiate between criminal hackers who break the law and ruin people’s lives, and hardware and software hackers who ingeniously lash together systems and perform miracles to get things running. But for the wider population, hacking has become synonymous with nefarious activities because – for the vast majority of people who experience it – it’s in a criminal context.

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.

The words ‘hack’ and ‘hacker’ are today linked to wrongdoing in advertising, government and corporate messaging, cinema, writing, theater, songs… it’s usually cringeworthy from a technical standpoint but the trope is out there.

Sad to say, someone developing a particularly elegant hack, in the ethical sense, often won’t get the widespread respect they deserve. But criminal coders, and the tools they create, can definitely impact millions of people in a way that guarantees an unsavory reputation and hours and pages of coverage. And, let’s face it, criminal scumbags they may be but there are a tiny percentage of genuinely elegant criminal pieces of code out there.

Tablet, cloud, catfish, tag, sandbox, text, furniture. All these words and more have changed meaning over time and use. Any living language evolves. It’s possible for hack, hacker, and hacking to sustain multiple meanings.

If the last dozen years covering IT security in the US have confirmed anything to me, it’s that the vast majority of hackers in the original sense of the word, in the context of computing, are ethical, decent folks who love finding interesting ways to make code better, stronger, and much more useful. But for the non-technical audience, hackers remains a term loaded with suspicion.

Having said that, I’ve lost count of the number of people in the industry who were inspired to get into infosec by what they saw in books, TV, and movies. People have embraced the term regardless of its connotations: plenty of conferences still describe themselves as hacker events, referring to cyber-security or hardware fiddling, and that’s the goal ahead – reclaiming the term.

We’ll do what we can to clarify in our coverage that a hacker breaking the law is a criminal, and a hacker with a brilliant algorithm is law-abiding and admirable, but trying to override today’s language in the short term is impossible: it’s something for the long haul. ®

Cast your vote below. We’ll close the poll on Monday night and publish the final result on Tuesday. You can track the debate’s progress here.

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Iain Thomson is The Register’s US news editor based in San Francisco and has spent the last 25 years covering technology online and in print.

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