The media spinwheel on the word Hacker. My rant of the day.

Hacker Disables More Than 100 Cars Remotely ( This story circulated a lot on different websites and on Twitter today and is the reason for this rant.

Normally I have high regards for for the articles they write, including the series they did on hackerspaces. But with this article, they really disappointed me. I'm used that the main media makes this mistake but not Wired.

How would you define an ex-employee, guessing or stealing a former co-worker's password to access the system and screwing with it out of revenge? A cybercriminal? A hacker?

Wrong and wrong. It's an insider threat! He really must had mad 1337 skills to pull this one off!

I know that the word hacker is a confusing term meaning a lot of different things to different people, including the media's insistent wish to use it to describe cybercriminals. (Hint: use a dictionary).
But this all leads to so many misunderstanding. Hardware hacker, blackhat hackers, whitehat hackers, greyhat hackers, software hackers, kernel hackers, lifehackers, script kiddies, etc etc.... there are so many different dimensions to the word hacker that it leaves the average outsider confused.

But I have to be honest, I sometimes catch even myself using the word hacker in the context of 'cybercriminal'. Even if I know better, it's a bad habit. I often try to correct myself and others but it's an uphill battle. Let's use more specific terms!

But a lot of the above variations have a common element: taking things apart and learning how they work and improve on them. It's this sharing and curiosity of how things work that is at the core of the original meaning of 'hacking' and involve non-computer related domains as well.

I'm a big supporter of the rise of the current flood of hackerspaces around the world and also in Belgium. As these spaces embody the original meaning of hacking and enables users to learn and share knowledge. Sometimes compared to Do-it-yourself labs or workplaces (

Frank Rieger, part of the Chaos Computer Club couldn't have said it better in this BBC article today:

For CCC member Frank Rieger, the word hacking - the process of reconfiguring or reprogramming a system to do things that its inventor never intended - needs to be reclaimed, and stripped of negative connotations.


"We are trying to show people the beauty of technology, and how exciting it can be to find out new stuff and then do good things with that," he says. (Source: BBC news)

Emphasis added by me. So is it time to educate the media and others to reclaim the word hacker for what it really means? It might be!

I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious -- Albert Einstein

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Space Rogue said...

Just refuse to use the word at all. Despite the name of my site being "The Hacker News Network" I almost never use the word 'hacker' during the broadcast. It just creates to much confusion. There are enough other words that convey the correct meaning that I don't have to resort to using a sensationalist word to grab page views.

- Space Rogue

Lidstrom said...

I do worry that continued misuse (and resulting fear) of the term will cause "hackerspaces" to become something that the mainstream will fear and eventually target with their over-regulating ways.

Anonymous said...

A Hacker is a Researcher and Developer.
Often the same person will also execute attacks against things that violate the law. At that point they are acting in a criminal manner so we call them criminal in that act.

They may be researching during the criminal act as well. But we don't call researchers robbing backs researchers. We call them bank robbers, regardless of the means. Extortion to get money from a bank manager is extortion that leads to an inside bank robbery.
Calling an attacker a hacker is just laziness or sensationalism to sell headlines. Hacker is just a moniker we will have to avoid in the future.

abby, the hacker chick blog said...

Love your descriptions and quotes about the true meaning of hacker.

I know I use the word all over the place too - but it's when I read things like that, they make me smile so - I know that I grok the true meaning and if others don't get it, well... too bad for them.

DeathBoy said...

I've been misunderstood when using the term in its positive sense, but people rapidly understand from context that I'm talking about creating, not destroying or invading.

I've always used/preferred the definitions in the Jargon :)

Security4all said...

Another pointview sent to me from 'Yves':

"Someone who does something illegal is a criminal (whether you feel it should be a crime or not is not important in that regard). So, the rogue insider in this case is a criminal. Since it had to do with computers, cybercriminal seems correct (that makes no judgement on how much skill was needed to commit the crime). So, if you can consider the guy a cybercriminal and people often use the term hacker to mean a cybercriminal then I don't see the problem here. Unless for you, hacker (in it's second meaning of course) means a cybercriminal with a specific skill set (i.e. a script kiddie is not a hacker to you). But then you should define it as such, especially in a post where you are discussing the vagueness of terms. I vote for using the term hacker to denote a cybercriminal, everyone else does. The people who keep using the term hacker to mean someone who tinkers with tech, _like_ the fact that it has the other meaning for the rest of society because hacking is seen as something cool, while a geek is not. If they didn't, they'd have long given up the term instead of feeble attempts to gain back it's original meaning. If one likes this association, then one shouldn't complain about the word having multiple meanings, including cybercriminal (dictionaries define this as one of the meanings, there is no way you can reclaim the word now anyway). If one doesn't, one should use a different term. Of course, tech/tinker/geek spaces don't sound nearly as cool as hackerspaces because there isn't the mystic air of cybercrime involved. To me a hacker can be either a cybercriminal with a minimal skill set (of course that's still vague since my definition of the minimal skill set changes depending on how my skill set evolves, but then again I am trying to communicate, and not trying to define a formal proof) or an expert in computer security with a decent knowledge of attack techniques (unless there's a qualifier like hardware in front of it of course, then the meaning changes to an expert in that qualifier).

Security4all said...

Some good comments but nevertheless, even if the name 'hacker' is commonly seen as 'cybercriminal', does the remote car incident warrants the term Hacker? My point was that media yet again is hyping this word out of context.