In a recent column, I wondered why people werent expressing more outrage at what I viewed as the promotion of criminal activity in the course offerings of The Fifth HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) convention held this past July in New York.

Well, I neednt have worried, because there was plenty of outragenot from the general public, but from some self-described “hackers” who were less than pleased with my description of their activities.

One such person castigated me for my “ignorance,” calling the column “absolutely ludicrous.” And his was one of the more polite e-mails I received.

Someone who identified himself as a high school student from Nova Scotia said I lacked integrity and objectivity, as well as “the energy it would take to attempt to contact the victims of your blatantly stupid biases.” I wondered why a Canadian high schooler was reading a U.S. insurance technology magazine, but thats not important.

One responder declared that I had produced “the most ignorant, sensationalistic piece on computer hackers that Ive read in about a decade.” Another decried my “bonehead” statements, summing up by noting that I was “just another frustrated college-boy yuppie with a one-sided mind. Go take your bleeding heart and your gripes and write to Barney & Friends, maybe they will care.” Yes, I admit I went to college, but I dont have the financial resources to be a yuppie. And I havent watched Barney in years. Really!

On the international front, one responder, who described himself as a hacker from the Netherlands, stated: “It is with utmost sincerity that we over here in Europe have to conclude that you are by far the least competent technology editor we have seen publish nonsense.” Sure, Ive managed to irk and irritate some individuals and groups over the yearsbut to have offended an entire continent is, well, historic!

In addition, my entire column was read on air on a New York City radio program, followed by the hosts criticizing me for “fear-mongering.” Did I mention that the show was sponsored by the same organization that sponsored the HOPE conference? A minor point, I know.

Nonetheless, these responders did cause me to re-examine my position. Several said that I obviously had not attended the conference in question. They were quite right. My remarks were based solely on the published conference materials, which are inflammatory enough on their ownand that was my point. I do hope (no pun intended) to attend this event next year, should the conference sponsors feel inclined to welcome me.

Two responders said I had mischaracterized hackers, referring me to the online works of author Eric S. Raymond, who describes himself as “a long-time hacker, active in the Internet culture since the 1970s.” Raymond is also known as a historian/anthropologist of the hacker culture and a leading figure in the open source movement. (Open source refers to software from a development community, rather than a company, the source code of which is available without charge.)

In his online essay, “How to Become a Hacker,” which I quote here with the authors permission, Raymond defines hackers as “a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers.” Hackers, he notes, “built the Internet” and “made the Unix operating system what it is today.”

Raymond adds, however, that there is another group of people who call themselves hackers but are not. “These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people crackers and want nothing to do with themThe basic difference is this: Hackers build things, crackers break them.”

He also points out that real hackers are “proud of what they do and want it associated with their real names.” Interestingly, none of my e-mail detractors was willing to be quoted by name (where a name was given) in this space.

Herein lies the problemone term applied to two divergent groups. Even Websters defines hackers both as experts at programming and as people who illegally gain access to, and sometimes tamper with, computer systems. Its not just a PR problem for the good guys; were talking about perceptions ingrained in our language and culture.

So, to those hackers who truly are computer wizards without malicious intent, I apologize for lumping you in with the crackers. For those crackers who are carrying out nefarious activities, I will henceforth attach the correct titlecriminals.

Its truly unfortunate that not everyone who calls himself “hacker” can be trusted. As an individual named DiGiT says in the hacker magazine Phrack, “People that say they release bugs/exploits for the good of the world or something like that are full of ****.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, January 20, 2005. Copyright 2005 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.